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Telescopes have been around for more than 400 years, and they’ve undergone significant technological improvements over the centuries. And yet, many consumer-level telescopes bear a striking resemblance, in shape and design, to those that existed in the early days.
Even as the world changes and technology advances, using a telescope remains an almost magical experience. To view the stars, moon, and planets with your own eyes is something that just can’t be replicated on a computer screen (although NASA’s Hubble Telescope images are amazingly cool).
Now, the best telescopes in our matrix can’t match Hubble’s power. But they would make for a fun evening in the country with family or friends, searching for planets and seeing the moon up close.
Because we at BestReviews don’t accept free manufacturer samples, you can feel confident that our product reviews are unbiased. In addition to the matrix above, we’ve also compiled a host of information below.
We spent plenty of time in the research process, seeking out the best features and options in modern telescopes. Just read through our best telescopes shopping guide, and you’ll be able to find a great telescope that suits your needs.
A telescope collects light from a scene and focuses the light, which in turn makes faraway objects appear closer. Light from the object at which you’re aiming the telescope travels through the telescope’s lens and into the tube. The aperture of the lens determines how much light travels through the lens; a larger aperture allows more light to enter.
The optics inside the telescope then focus that light onto a point, allowing you to see the object. Using a ring or dial on the telescope, you can adjust the focus and sharpen your view. Parts inside the eyepiece magnify the focal point, causing objects to appear closer than they really are. You can think of the eyepiece like a magnifying glass, as it works on similar principles.
To enhance enjoyment of your new telescope, spend some time learning about the constellations first. If you know what you’re looking for, you’re more likely to enjoy what you see.
For amateur astronomers, three types of telescope designs exist: compound, reflector, and refractor. Each has a similar look, but they all work a little differently.
Keep in mind that the huge, fixed telescopes professional astronomers use differ in design from the options in our matrix.
The eyepiece in a compound telescope is in the back. This design has two mirrors inside the telescope: one near the eyepiece and one at the front. The mirror in the front is combined with a lens.
This telescope design sets itself apart with an eyepiece that extends vertically out of the tube, usually near the front. A mirror at the front of the tube gathers light. It then reflects that light to another mirror, which reflects the light toward the eyepiece.
The Orion SpaceProbe in our product matrix is a reflector telescope.
Because portable telescopes lack the optics of a huge telescope, objects won’t look quite as impressive as what you’d see at an observatory.
This is the most common design found on consumer-grade telescopes. A large lens at the front passes light through the tube toward a mirror in the eyepiece in the back of the tube. That light then travels into the eyepiece at the back of the tube.
Those new to telescope use will probably want to opt for the refractor design. It’s easy to use and requires little maintenance.
When shopping for a telescope, you must first ask yourself how you want to use the device and which characteristics matter most to you.
Are you planning to lug your telescope out of the city on starry countryside nights? If so, you’d probably appreciate a lightweight telescope that’s easy to carry.
Are you looking for a way for your family to observe the heavens on a tight budget? If so, you may be interested in a cheaper telescope option.
The answers to such questions help determine whether you should get a compound, reflector, or refractor telescope.
Take a flashlight with you so you can see the telescope’s controls. The flashlight can also help you maintain sure footing as you move your telescope around in the dark.
If clarity and sharpness sit high on your priority list, we recommend a refractor telescope.
Granted, refractor telescopes sometimes suffer from chromatic aberration. This usually manifests itself as a purple or green fringe around the objects. But this is a minor problem.
As long as you have a refractor design telescope with a large aperture (and minimal light pollution), it can create some great image quality.
If you live in the city and must transport your telescope to locations where you can see the stars, the unit’s size matters. A reflector telescope is the lightest design available. A refractor telescope is the heaviest option; we recommend this type for people who don’t plan to move their telescope very much.
Compound telescopes are typically the bulkiest of the three designs. Keep this in mind if you plan to transport your telescope frequently.
Never, never, never look at the sun through a telescope!
If you want to view “earth objects” (birds, wild animals) rather than the sky, a reflector telescope won’t work. We advise you to stick with a refractor or compound telescope design to view earth objects.
If you want to view faint stars and planets, the reflector and compound designs work equally well. Refractor telescopes do a poor job with faint objects.
In general, reflector telescopes tend to cost less than the other types. However, there are exceptions to that rule, and our product matrix illustrates this.
The least expensive units on our list are refractor units (as mentioned previously, they’re also the best type of telescope for beginners). And the priciest unit on our list, the Orion SpaceProbe, is a reflector model. It also happens to be our pick for the Best of the Best.
Purchasing a telescope that a computer can control greatly simplifies the process of locating particular objects in the night sky.
Refractor telescopes feature an easy-to-use design with a well-placed eyepiece. The Barska Starwatcher and Meade Infinity units in our matrix are both refractor designs that would suit beginners. A refractor telescope’s tube is fully sealed, which means it requires little to no maintenance.
Compound telescopes are also relatively easy to use, and they require little maintenance. And because you can easily connect a computer to a compound unit for aiming the telescope, you’ll enjoy immediate success in finding stars and planets.
Because reflector telescopes have an open tube on one end, they collect dust and require regular cleaning. The optics can be bumped out of alignment easier than the other designs, requiring more maintenance.
You’ll have the best success using your telescope for stars and planets on nights when the moon is not visible.
Aperture: In a telescope, the term aperture refers to the same thing as it does in a camera lens. The aperture is the opening in the lens through which light travels. A large aperture allows more light to enter the lens, meaning you can better see faint objects in the night sky.
Astrophotography: Astrophotography is a hobby that combines telescope use with a digital camera. You mount your camera to the telescope, allowing the camera to “see” through the eyepiece. The camera then photographs objects in the night sky. This is an expensive hobby that requires particular pieces of equipment that are compatible.
Earth objects: When telescope makers say their models are good for viewing earth objects, they’re talking about birds or other far-off animals on earth.
Eyepiece: The eyepiece is the portion of the telescope you peer through to see objects. You often can swap out eyepieces on a telescope to obtain a greater or lesser level of magnification.
Faint objects: Faint objects in the night sky are objects that are difficult to see, even with a telescope. Such objects are either extremely far away or they emit very little light.
Even amateur-grade telescopes can clearly show you items like Jupiter’s red spot or Mars’ ice caps.
Focal length: Focal length is another term that telescopes share with camera lenses. Objects viewed through a large focal length telescope look bigger than objects viewed through a small focal length.
Light pollution: This term refers to any artificial lighting in your area at night. Artificial lighting makes using a telescope difficult, as the light can wash out faint stars.
Magnification: If a telescope’s eyepiece has a large magnification measurement, objects will appear larger. The eyepiece and focal length together determine how much magnification you see when using the telescope.
Optical tube: This is the body of the telescope that holds the lenses and mirrors inside of it.
Software: Many telescopes, even beginner models, ship with software to help aim the telescope. If you seek more features, you could also purchase software separate from what accompanies the telescope.
Tripod: A tripod is a three-legged support device for the telescope. It supports the telescope’s weight while also allowing you to rotate its position. The tripods that ship with telescopes are often flimsy models. You may wish to upgrade to a tripod with a sturdier support base.
The best type of telescope design for astrophotography is the compound design. Just make sure your camera is compatible with your telescope model.
How much should you spend on a telescope?
For someone with no stargazing experience, it’s probably best to start with an inexpensive telescope that rests under the $100 mark. The Best Bang for the Buck selection in our matrix, the Celestron PowerSeeker, costs $48 and fits well in this “beginner” price point. Another good starter unit in our matrix is the iOptron iExplore refractor model at a cost of $21.
After a while, if you find that you really enjoy astronomy, you can always upgrade to a mid-range unit for a few hundred dollars. The Orion SpaceProbe Equatorial Reflector is the priciest telescope in our matrix at a cost of $309. But it’s certainly not the most expensive amateur telescope out there.
Some high-end telescopes for amateur astronomers cost a few thousand dollars.
Q: How do I pick a great spot to use my telescope?
A: When viewing objects at night, you’ll want to move away from light pollution areas (like the city). Find an open field that’s free of trees, cell towers, and telephone poles.
You’ll also want to stay away from objects that radiate heat at night. For example, a cement parking lot absorbs heat from the sun all day and releases it at night. This could interfere with your viewing capabilities.
Q: How can I find objects to see?
A: The night sky is huge, making it tough to find particular objects without some help. Smartphone apps are available that can help you pinpoint common objects in the night sky, including planets.
Some telescope models can also be connected to a computer. For example, the Orion SpaceProbe — our Best of the Best winner — has excellent software available to use with it. You’ll use a software package to properly align the telescope, finding the exact object you want.
Q: I don’t see details in my telescope like the kind you see in space photos. Is my telescope broken?
A: Almost certainly not. Portable telescopes aimed at amateur astronomers simply cannot match the tremendous quality you’ll find with huge, fixed-location telescopes. Using your own telescope can be a lot of fun, but you do have to temper your expectations a bit. Colors will be duller in the telescope than they are in NASA photographs, and the magnification will be much lower.
Q: What’s the best way to get started with a telescope?
A: If you prefer the trial-and-error method of learning a new hobby, pick a telescope and get started! If you’d rather have a bit of guidance, seek out a local amateur astronomy club. Members there would probably be willing to share their experiences and advice on purchasing a telescope with you. Or, if you have an observatory in the area (like a local university) you might find some great informational programs there for amateur astronomers.