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Best Telescopes for Beginners, 4 Starter Models Reviewed

Getting the right start in astronomy is important for building a long term love of it. Your choice of beginner telescope can mean the difference between a lifelong obsession or a fleeting interest in stargazing.

For us, a good beginner’s telescope doesn’t necessarily mean small or cheap, it means one that is easy to set up, you can begin using quickly and rewards you with views that you’ll want to see again tomorrow night.

We’ve chosen four great models for new astronomers. If you’re a stargazing rookie, one of these will meet your needs and budget. Click on the ‘Full Review’ links to see why recommend each of these models.

Our Recommended Beginner Telescopes

Best For...
Viewing Ease
Big Aperture
Budget
Cheapest
Celestron NexStar 6SE
Orion SkyQuest XT8
Orion StarBlast 4.5"
Celestron PowerSeeker 70AZ
Celestron - NexStar 6SE Telescope - Computerized...
Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit
Orion StarBlast II 4.5 Equatorial Reflector...
Celestron - PowerSeeker 70AZ Telescope - Manual...
Best For...
Viewing Ease
Celestron NexStar 6SE
Celestron - NexStar 6SE Telescope - Computerized...
Best For...
Big Aperture
Orion SkyQuest XT8
Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope Kit
Best For...
Budget
Orion StarBlast 4.5"
Orion StarBlast II 4.5 Equatorial Reflector...
Best For...
Cheapest
Celestron PowerSeeker 70AZ
Celestron - PowerSeeker 70AZ Telescope - Manual...

Click the ‘view on Amazon’ button for today’s price (opens new tab) or the ‘Full Review’ link to see what we think of this model.


The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Telescope

With such a vast array of telescopes to choose from, it is not surprising that novice astronomers get overwhelmed when shopping for their first one.

To make that choice easier, we advise you pay attention to only a few important factors that suit your needs and budget. They are:

  • Aperture, not magnification
  • Mounts
  • Telescope Types

Aperture is the Most Important Specification

Aperture refers to the diameter of the main optical component, which is either a mirror or lens – refractors have a lens, reflectors a mirror. They gather and focus light from the stars.

The aperture of a telescope determines its light capturing capabilities. As such, it plays a critical role when it comes to your ability to see into space. The easy rule is that the bigger your scope, the more detail and fainter objects you will see when observing.

As the diameter of a telescope optical tube (aperture) increases, the light it collects increase even more. For example, a 6″ mirror is twice the diameter of a 3″, but collects four times the light! Your 3″ scope might show you Andromeda Galaxy as a faint smudge but it will be brighter in the 6″ and you’ll see details in its structure.

If you want to concentrate on deep sky objects like galaxies, star clusters and nebulae, then push for those bigger mirrors that collect more light. You’ll also be better with a lower focal ratio scope, which is the focal length divided by the diameter of your objective. They are written as f/[number].

Lower focal ratios of f/7 and below give a wider field of view but lower magnification – making them ideal for deep sky work. F/8 and above are more suited to viewing the planets and moon with their intrinsic brightness.

We generally recommend going with the biggest optical tube your budget will afford, but there are other factors you need to consider – which we’ll cover below.

Ignore Your Intuition: Magnification is Not Important 

Contrary to what you might believe or have been told, your telescope’s aperture doesn’t determine its magnification. Instead, it is set by the eyepiece you use.

The reality of stargazing is that we rarely use high power when looking at the night sky because objects are rarely bright enough to make good use of it. You can use higher powers when looking at the moon or a bright planet, but your image will break down when using it on a galaxy in deep space because there is not enough light being collected by your scope.

The other factor to keep in mind is our atmosphere. The very air we rely on for breathing is actually a think and turbulent soup. In reality we can rarely use more than 200x on any object because the moving air makes it feel like we’re observing through water.

The stargazing rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t push a telescope more than twice its aperture in millimeters, or 50 times if measured in inches. As an example, a 4″ (100mm) telescope shouldn’t be used be used to magnify objects more than 200x (i.e. 4″ x 50, or 100mm x 2).

The Importance of A Stable Mount

The quality of the mount is the second highest consideration for choosing your first telescope after its diameter. It’s important role is stabilizing your telescope, allowing you to easily follow a star, planet or galaxy with minimal vibration.

Mounts come in two main variations: altazimuth and equatorial.

Altazimuth mounts are a tripod design that only swing up and down (altitude) and left and right (azimuth). You will have to move it in both of those planes to search for and follow the planets and stars as the earth turns. These mounts are often supplied with cheaper scopes and suffer from vibrations, but you can make alterations to dampen these at home.

An equatorial mount, on the other hand, makes it easy to follow celestial body. Once set up you only need to turn it in the left/right plane to keep any object in view, the mount automatically handles the up/down plane. They also tend to be of more solid and robust build, making viewing less prone to vibration and more pleasurable.

While equatorial mounts are more expensive than their altazimuth counterpart, we highly recommend them if they fit inside your budget.

Refractors vs. Reflectors vs. Catadioptrics

There are three different types of telescopes: refractors, reflectors and catadioptrics.

refractor has a long gleaming optical tube that features an eyepiece in the rear and a large glass lens in front. It is often sought out by planetary and lunar observers who value high contrast images at high magnification.

Unfortunately, lenses are expensive to manufacture than the mirrors used in reflectors, which also makes them the cost more than a reflector per inch of aperture.

reflector uses its primary mirror to gather and focus light. The two typical examples are the Newtonian reflector (so called because it was developed by Isaac Newton) and the Dobsonian telescope.

They each feature a concave mirror at the base and a smaller diagonal mirror near the top. They provide great images and you get plenty more light collected for your cash. The Dobsonian comes mounted on an easy to use base that is a ‘point and shoot’ style. Because of its simple construction, Dob’s come with bigger apertures per $100 than Newtonians.

Newtonian reflectors normally arrive mounted on equatorial mounts which eat into your budget. They are harder to set up than a Dob, but make viewing objects much easier because equatorial mounts follow the same line across the sky that the stars follow.

Catadioptric telescopes (also known as compound telescopes) combine the best qualities of a refractor and reflector. They were developed in the 1930s and use both a mirror and lens to form an image.

They almost always come with motorised mounts and computer databases, plug in what you want to see and the telescope will automatically find it for you. The motor then tracks any object you find, keeping it constantly centered in your eyepiece – which makes compound telescopes great for astrophotography. 

The downside of compounds is they are more expensive per inch of aperture because you trade light gathering power for computing power and motors.


Best Beginner Telescopes – Full Reviews

We’ve pulled together the five scopes which we think are the best options for an astronomy newcomer. They cover a range of prices and type and our detailed reviews for each follow.

Viewing Ease: Celestron NexStar 6SE Compound Telescope

Best catadioptric telescope under $1000
Aperture

6″ / 150mm

Focal Length

1500mm, f/10

Mount

Guided AltAz

Other Sizes

4″, 5″, 8″

Celestron has been making telescopes since 1964 and the NexStar 6SE is one of their most reliable telescopes, particularly for astronomers who are just starting out.

It is a compound telescope with a 6″ aperture, clever optical design and a highly optimized StarBright XLT lens.

It’s one of the best telescopes for anyone who just wants to enjoy viewing objects without the hassle of trying to find them to begin with. The motorized goto and tracking mount is easy to setup and, when it is, will quickly find and track any of the 42,000 objects stored in its database.

Having all those objects available at your fingertips is great, but keep in mind that a 6″ scope will not show you the faintest objects, especially if you use this scope under light-polluted skies. Although this size of scope theoretically provides up to 300x magnification, remember that we can rarely use more than 200x effectively.

See our detailed review of this telescope’s big brother, the NexStar 8SE.

However, six inches is a great aperture for your first scope and this one is on a very stable tripod mount and has great optics. You can expect to see many deep sky objects with good amounts of detail in a dark sky location, especially the brighter ones such as Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades.

The one notable downside of the NexStar range is they need a decent source of power, such as this one on Amazon, to sustain them; batteries alone won’t see you through a long night of stargazing.

Other than power, the 6SE provides everything that a new astronomer – especially one who only wants to spend time looking at objects, rather than finding them – needs: a decent sized aperture, sturdy mount, accomplished locating and tracking of over 40,000 night sky objects and all for a reasonable price.

That’s why this is a best selling beginner scope.

Pros

  • Easy to setup
  • Goto tracking of objects
  • Big database of celestial bodies

Cons

  • Expensive for a 6″ aperture
  • Extra power supply needed

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Big Aperture: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian

Aperture

8″ / 203mm

Focal Length

1200mm, f/5.9

Mount

Dobsonian

Other Sizes

4.5″, 6″, 10″

The Orion XT8 Dobsonian telescope is mounted on an extremely reliable and stable Dobsonian platform. 

It boasts a large 8″ aperture, making this the biggest of our beginner telescopes. Its primary mirror collects and focuses plenty of light for viewing all kinds of objects in the night sky. In fact, compared to a 6″ scope, this Dob will gather 73% more light for much improved viewing.

When you consider buying a larger telescope, you should be expecting to use it for great views of deep sky objects such as nebulae, galaxies and star clusters. However, unlike the NexStar 6SE, you will have to guide this telescope yourself.

That shouldn’t be a problem though, as Dobsonian scopes are often seen as one of the best telescopes for beginners because of their ease of use.

There is no complicated equatorial mount to set up here, you just simply point your huge reflector telescope to the sky and enjoy space’s interstellar lightshow through the eyepiece.

Orion’s XT8 comes complete with a 2x Barlow lens and a 25mm Plössl eyepiece. These may just about be enough to get you started but you will want to invest in more eyepieces as soon as you get started.

See our reviews of different eyepiece ranges, link opens new tab.

Likewise, you may want to upgrade the finderscope because the supplied red-dot finder is no better than okay. The cost of big apertures on a budget is that the rest of the accessories are no better than average.

Although this is a big telescope – you should keep in mind that it is almost four feet long and weighs over 40 pounds fully assembled –  it does break down into two pieces for easier portability. The tube and sturdy base each weigh about 20 pounds, and the tube should fit in your trunk if you need to drive to your viewing site.

If you are happy with finding your own objects and just want to begin your astronomy journey with great views, then the XT8 Dobsonian is the starter scope for you.

Pros

  • Simple setup and use
  • Smooth manual tracking
  • Huge optics for a low price

Cons

  • Bulky and heavy to move
  • Mediocre accessories will need upgrades

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Big Aperture: Orion StarBlast 4.5″ Reflector Telescope

Orion starblast 4.5"
Aperture

4.5″ / 114mm

Focal Length

450mm, f/4.0

Mount

Equatorial

Other Sizes

n/a

The StarBlast II 4.5EQ from Orion is a reflector telescope that offers particularly good lunar and planetary viewing. Highlights include its 4.5″ parabolic mirror, which is a great size for new astronomers, and a price which inexperienced stargazers are willing to pay (click the button below for Amazon’s price).

This reflector telescope uses an equatorial mount which will keep your target centered and tracked with the turn of a single dial when it is properly set up. This helps you smoothly follow objects as they cross the sky without having to make adjustments in two dimensions.

The mount is made of aluminium, which makes it less robust than tubular steel models, so you should expect a degree of vibration during use but, with home damping, this shouldn’t be too detrimental to your viewing.

The finderscope on this model is the EZ Finder II. This is what’s known as a reflex sight, which many astronomers swear by. Reflex sights don’t magnify the view, they just provide lit crosshairs and no inverted images, so they are super simple to use.

The downside of reflex sights, especially in light polluted areas, is that they don’t show you fainter stars which are often useful starting points to finding dimmer deep sky objects, so you may want to upgrade to something like this model (opens new tab) in the future.

Need a scope for your children? Check out our top scopes for kids recommendations.

Included with the scope are 25mm and 10mm Plössl eyepieces, giving 18x and 45x magnification, respectively. Used with the 2x Barlow lens also included, you can get 36x and 90x magnification. Additional features include Starry Night software bundle, accessory tray, tripod, counterweight and slow-motion cables.

Orion’s 4.5 inch StarBlast will show you good views of the moon, planets and brighter DSOs, and all for a very reasonable budget. However, you won’t see fainter galaxies and nebulae, especially if you’re viewing under lots of street lighting. If that’s your plan, look at the more generous aperture of the Dob above.

Pros

  • A lot of kit for a low price
  • Decent equatorial mount
  • Reliable optical quality

Cons

  • Reflex finderscopes are not for everyone
  • Equatorial mount setup takes some getting used to

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Cheapest: Celestron AstroMaster 70az

Celestron Astromaster 70AZ
Aperture

2.8″ / 70mm

Focal Length

900mm, f/13

Mount

Altazimuth

Other Sizes

102mm

The Celestron AstroMAster 70AZ is included in this list simply because it is such a popular starter telescope.

It’s too small for viewing deep sky objects, and is hard to think of as more than a ‘toy’ scope, but it’s an ok place to begin exploring the solar system. You will see the moon and bright planets in more detail than you’ve seen before.

The AstroMaster comes with a tripod altazimuth mount, which is much easier to use when compared to Newtonian and compound telescopes. It’s also lighter and more portable than Dobsonian models.  The mount features a large pan handle that offers plenty of targeting precision.

The downside of its lightness is that it also tends to suffer from vibrations, which is a real pain when you are looking at small objects. Thankfully, there are cheap and free ways to dampen telescope vibrations at home.

For AstroMaster alternatives, see our choice of the best budget telescopes.

Inside the box are two cheaper eyepieces, a 10mm and 20mm, which will provide 90x and 45x magnification, respectively – more than adequate for the 70mm aperture.

This Celestron uses a StarPointer red dot finderscope, which is permanently fixed near the eyepiece. This is cheap and not the best, but helpful enough when lining up a bright celestial body and is all you need for an aperture this small. 

As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for. Yes, this is a cheap telescope, but it is also small and has a low specification. If you treat it as a practically risk-free way of trying out astronomy and don’t expect to see anything other than the brightest objects, you won’t be disappointed.

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Summary

As an astronomy newbie, you’ll find it much easier to choose a great first scope if you’re clear about what to look for. 

Remember, the more detail you want to see, the bigger the aperture you need.

Generally you want to maximize the size of your first telescope within your budget. However, you need to also think about build quality, especially the mount, and how much you are likely to use it – there’s no point getting a huge scope if it’s only going to come outside a few times per year.

Our absolute favorite is the Celestron NexStar 6SE since it has a vast space database, a large aperture, optimized StarBright XLT lens, and a computerized system making alignment child’s play. More importantly, it is manufactured by a reputable company with more than 50 years experience in the optical field.

However, if you want pure brute force light-gathering power and are happy to spend the time learning your own way around the night sky, then the Orion XT8 Dobsonian is the obvious and best choice for you.

If you still haven’t found what you need, take a look at our other telescope reviews, we’ve probably covered one that’s just right for you.

Last update on 2020-02-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API