Getting the right start in astronomy is, as with most hobbies, important for success. It can make the difference between lifelong observing obsession or only fleeting interest with space.
Some telescopes will get you off to a faster and more rewarding start than others. Our review tells you everything you need to know about choosing the best telescope for beginners and reviews our top five beginner telescopes for all budgets.
Quick Comparison: Top 5 Beginner Telescopes
Celestron NexStar 6SE
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Orion SkyQuest XT8
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Orion StarBlast II 4.5EQ
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Celestron AstroMaster 70AZ
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Below you will find our detailed reviews (click here to go straight to them), or click on the links in the table to see prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
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 the right equipment to pursue their hobby.
It becomes extremely difficult to make an informed choice. (And you might find that getting a pair of astronomy binoculars instead is the right first piece of equipment).
Below are a few factors to keep in mind to ensure you purchase a telescope that suits your needs and budget when you set out looking into the universe.
Aperture is the Most Important Specification
Aperture refers to the diameter of the main optical component. This can be either the mirror or lens depending on the model - refractor telescopes use a lens, while reflector telescopes use a mirror to gather and focus light from the stars.
The aperture of a telescope determines the resolving power as well as the 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.
To get into amateur astronomy, 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.
As the diameter of a telescope's 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! So, whilst your 3" might show you Andromeda Galaxy as a faint smudge, the 6" will show you some details in its structure, as well as making it look brighter.
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, whereas f/8 and above are more suited to viewing the planets and moon with their intrinsic brightness.
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 higher power. 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 anything overhead 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" (125mm) telescope shouldn't be used be used to magnify objects more than 200x (4" x 50) - 250x (125mm x 2).
Refractors vs. Reflectors vs. Catadioptrics
There are three different types of telescopes: refractors, reflectors and catadioptrics.
A refractor has a long gleaming optical tube that features an eyepiece in the rear and a large lens in front. It is often sought out by planetary and lunar observers who value high contrast images at high magnification.
The fact that it's not easy for the lens to come out of alignment makes the refractor more rugged than other scopes. Unfortunately, lenses are expensive to manufacture, which also makes them the cost more than a reflector per inch of aperture.
A 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 bottom 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.
Newtonians, on the other hand, usually come mounted on equatorial mounts which are harder to set up but make viewing objects much easier because equatorial mounts move in 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, so you can tell it what you want to see and the telescope will automatically find it for you. The motor will also automatically track any object you find, keeping it constantly centered in your eyepiece - which makes compound telescopes great for astrophotography.
The downside of this design is it's quite expensive compared to the others. If you choose one of these, and many people do, you'll light gathering power for computing power which takes away the hard work of finding objects.
The Importance of A Stable Mount
The mount is perhaps the second highest consideration for choosing your first telescope after its diameter.
The mount's most important role is stabilizing your telescope. The next most important function of the mount is allowing you to easily follow a star, planet or galaxy while viewing it.
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.
An equatorial mount, on the other hand, makes it easy to follow celestial body as the earth turns. They are set up so that once you have an object in the eyepiece, you only need to turn it in the left/right plane to keep it in view, the mount automatically handles the up/down plane.
While it is more expensive than its counterpart, we highly recommend it if you feel like backyard astronomy is a hobby you will get into deeply.
Why A Decent Finderscope is Important
A telescope only shows you a tiny bit of the sky when used at medium to high power.
This makes it almost impossible to find a specific target, often unimaginably small itself, by looking through the eyepiece and moving your scope in the right direction.
This is where your finderscope comes in. It helps with the search!
It is usually attached by a bracket and located near the eyepiece and often looks like a smaller version of a telescope. The finderscope has a low magnification, which gives a wider field of view, i.e. you can see more of the sky through it than you can through your telescope.
Your finderscope is aligned to your main telescope so that when you have an object in the finderscope's crosshairs, it will be centered in the main telescope view. In this way they make it much easier to get great experiences from your new telescope.
Size & Type
3 inch Refractor
Best Telescope for Beginners, The Reviews
With all of that advice given, there are still a lot of scopes out there that you could review one at a time.
However, we've pulled together the five which we think are the best options for a first telescope, ranging in price and type. Our detailed reviews for each follow.
The computerized system uses Celestron's 'SkyAlign' to make it easy to line up the planets and stars, as you can see in the demo video below and makes amateur astronomy much easier to pick up.
The 6" tube on this telescope is useful up to 300x, although remember that we can rarely use more than 200x. Six inches is a great aperture for your first scope and this one is on a very stable tripod mount.
With its 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.
Rather than rely on printed star charts, this telescope has a vast database of 40,000 objects. The Celestron NexStar computer is nice to use and the red backlit screen is ideal for nighttime escapades that don't ruin your night vision.
What's even better is that you can upgrade the computer system through the internet so it's always ready to use.
- Portable & easy to set up
- Huge database of objects
- Goto and tracking motor
- Pricey for a 6" 'scope
- Poor controller battery life (separate charger available)
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 best telescopes for beginners. It's primary mirror collects and focuses plenty of light for viewing all kinds of objects in the night sky.
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 by novices and intermediates as great telescopes 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.
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 for a drive to your viewing site.
- Simple set up and use
- Point & shoot tracking
- Huge optics for the price
- Big and heavy for moving
- Requires you to find and track objects in the night sky
This reflector telescope uses an equatorial mount. The advantage of this is you don't have to worry about keeping the target centered or tracked. Just the turn of one single dial will let you smoothly follow objects as they cross the sky.
The tripod mount also offers an option to add a motor for automated the stargazing in the future.
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.
There are larger telescopes in this list but 4.5 inches will give good views of the brighter DSOs, so it's not necessarily a deal breaker, but you should bear it in mind if you'll be doing urban astronomy under lots of street lighting.
This telescope has a magnifying limit of 250x, which is fine. You will find its high quality optics make it excel at brighter objects such as Saturn and Jupiter.
Additional features include Starry Night software bundle, accessory tray, tripod, counterweight and slow-motion cables.
- A lot of kit for the price
- Stable EQ mount makes following objects easy
- Reliable optical quality
- Reflex finderscope is not for everyone
- EQ mounts take some getting used to
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.
This Celestron uses a StarPointer scope, instead of a magnifying finderscope, which is permanently fixed near the eyepiece. It has a red dot that comes handy when lining up a 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, you won't be disappointed, but don't expect to see anything other than the brightest objects.
- Low price
- Very popular beginner model
- Light weight & easy to use
- Small lens, only good for brightest objects
- Mount prone to vibration
Gskyer is known for using German space technology to craft their products.
The AZ70400 is one of their best offerings that is best utilized by those who travel frequently. It is a refractor telescope that's equipped with a 70mm lens and 400mm focal length, which gives a high level of clarity. However, 70mm will severely restrict what you can see with it - limit your ambitions to planets and the bright moon.
One big benefit of this telescope is its size. It is just a fraction over two feet in length and comes with a mini tripod mount and handy travel bag. That makes it an ideal choice for you if you are on the road / away from home regularly and would like the flexibility to try astronomy on your travels.
For the low price, it does come with a loads of kit. For example, you get 10mm and 25mm eyepieces and a Barlow lens. They are not of amazing quality, but certainly enough for you to experiment with.
- A lot of kit for a low price
- Small and lightweight
- Handy travel case
- Small aperture, only good for brightest objects
- Mount prone to vibration
Best Telescopes for Beginners Summary
As an astronomy newbie, you'll find it much easier to choose the best telescope for you... if you know 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.