Here’s how to avoid buying an expensive doorstop.

Hobby Killer Illustration
Leah Tiscione S&T

Every January my astronomy club hosts a telescope workshop in which we help people learn how to use the telescopes they got for the holidays or tune up scopes that have been gathering dust in closets. And every year we face the same problem: how to gently tell some of them that what they’ve got is better suited for a boat anchor than for astronomy.

It may be hard to believe, but some telescopes are worse than having no scope at all. When you want to enjoy a night out under the stars, you’re better off with a pair of binoculars or just with your naked eyes than with a telescope that can’t be aimed easily and doesn’t show a pleasing view of whatever you do manage to point it at. I’ve watched people spend all night trying to find something, anything, to look at, often spending their entire time fiddling with the scope rather than observing the sky. It only takes a couple of nights like that for a person to decide that astronomy isn’t any fun — thus the term “hobby killer.”

As with so many other things in life, education can help you avoid making frustrating mistakes. If you’re a beginner, a few minutes reading this article before you buy a telescope can save you a lot of disappointment later. Making an informed choice can get you a scope that will provide you with many years of enjoyment.

So what makes a hobby killer? Many factors add together to make a lousy overall package. Chief among them are aperture, eyepieces, and the mount.

Hobby Killer
Even a great scope can be a hobby killer if it's too difficult to carry.
Jerry Oltion

Aperture

A telescope’s primary job is to gather light and squeeze that light down into a small beam that it directs into your eye. It stands to reason that the more light you gather, the more you can see. So in general, the bigger the aperture (the diameter of the objective lens or primary mirror) the more useful the scope. That’s true up to a point, but if you buy a scope that’s too big and unwieldy, it could become a hobby killer simply because it’s too difficult to take outside and set up. What you want is the right-size scope for your interest level and ability.

While this scope may look pretty good, its equatorial mount, lousy finder, 60-mm aperture, 0.965-inch eyepiece, and 3× Barlow make it a hobby killer.
Jerry Oltion

Anything below about 3 inches (76 mm) in aperture is likely to be too small to provide a pleasing view of anything more than the Moon and a few bright star clusters. Small scopes tend to be low-quality, too, with uncorrected objective lenses that display color fringing around bright objects and often won’t even come to sharp focus. So as a general rule, stay above three inches in aperture. There are, of course, some very high-end small scopes, mostly optimized for astrophotography. The price tag will tell you which is which.

Most small hobby killers tend to be refractors (with an objective lens in front) rather than reflectors (with a mirror at the bottom). Mirrors are easier to make than lenses, so within any particular price range reflectors tend to be larger. So a typical low-end reflector will be 4″ or so in diameter. A very common size is 4.5″, and 4.5″ is plenty of aperture for a first scope. You can see hundreds of objects with a good 4.5″ scope.

Hobby Killers
A 60-mm aperture is too small to provide a good view of much more than the Moon and bright open clusters like M45, the Pleiades.

The key word is “good.” There are rotten reflectors as well as rotten refractors. What makes a reflector good? Most important: is the primary mirror parabolic or spherical? A spherical primary is cheaper to make but provides a less pleasing view. You can get away with a spherical mirror if the focal ratio is “slow” enough, say f/8 or more (i.e., the focal length of the scope is 8 times the diameter of the mirror), but even then a parabolic mirror will work better. If a manufacturer of a low-end telescope goes to the trouble to parabolize the primary mirror, then odds are it’s a reasonably good telescope.

There’s one design you should avoid at all costs: the “Bird-Jones” reflector. The Bird-Jones design uses a spherical primary, and a fast one at that, in an attempt to keep the tube shorter than average. Manufacturers of this design correct for spherical aberration and increase the focal length by placing a corrector lens at the inner end of the focuser. The corrector lens is supposed to make everything all right again, but it never does. The view through every Bird-Jones scope I’ve ever looked through has been uniformly awful. There might be a decent Bird-Jones telescope somewhere out there, but if there is, I’ve never seen nor even heard of it.

Eyepieces

In the early days of telescopes, eyepieces were single pieces of glass that essentially acted as magnifying lenses that let you examine the image created at the focal plane by the objective lens or primary mirror. Modern eyepieces do the same job, but they use many more lens elements to correct for color fringing and other optical aberrations.

Different designs of eyepiece give you different fields of view. Some, such as the Orthoscopic design, are like looking through a soda straw, while other exotic wide-field designs are like sticking your head into the bubble-shaped observing port on the International Space Station.

Guess which kind you get with a hobby killer? Most of them come with “Huygens” eyepieces, which were state of the art when Christiaan Huygens invented them . . . in the 1660s. We’ve advanced a bit since then. You want at least Kellners, or better yet, Plössls. Plössl eyepieces are probably the best value you can get in an inexpensive eyepiece.

Hobby Killers
Avoid scopes that use 0.965″ eyepieces. Left to right: 0.965″, 1¼″, and 2″ eyepieces.

Also beware of teeny-weeny eyepieces. Good eyepieces are either 1.25″ or 2″ format, meaning their barrels are meant to fit into 1.25″ or 2″ focusers. A lot of hobby killers use 0.965″ eyepieces, which are almost always garbage and are hard to replace with better-quality designs due to this size limitation.

Magnification

Hobby Killers
Saturn will look dim and blurry at 400x in a 70-mm refractor seen at the top of this composite. A more modest 200x in a better telescope will produce a much more pleasing image.

You’ll want more than one eyepiece, because eyepieces are how you control the magnification of your telescope. You calculate magnification by dividing the eyepiece focal length into the telescope’s focal length. For instance, a 900-mm telescope with a 25-mm eyepiece gives you 36× — (900/25 = 36).

You might think you want the highest magnification possible, but that’s not so. The higher the power, the smaller the field of view, which means you’ll only see a part of M45, the Pleiades star cluster, or M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Also, the higher the power, the fuzzier the view. A good telescope lets you reach about 50× per inch of aperture before the fuzziness gets out of hand, so a 3″ scope would let you use 150×, but beyond that you’re just magnifying the blur, a phenomenon known as empty magnification. That means a 3″ by 900-mm telescope can use a 6-mm eyepiece, at best — (900/6 = 150).

So there’s a clue when you go shopping. Does the ad on the website or on the box tout the telescope’s magnification? If it’s a 3″ aperture and they’re advertising that it will do “675×!!!” they’re blowing smoke. Move on.

Most hobby killers will come with a 4-mm eyepiece, which is nearly useless on its own, but it will also come with a Barlow lens, which increases the magnification of whatever eyepiece you put into it. Most Barlows multiply by 2×, so your 4-mm eyepiece plus Barlow on that 900-mm scope gives you a whopping 450×, or (900/4) ×2. Remembering our 50× per inch rule, you would need a 9″ diameter telescope to use 450× effectively.

What you want for your telescope is a good low-power eyepiece, probably a 32-mm or 25-mm Plössl, and a medium-power eyepiece, around a 10-mm Plössl. You can increase your collection as you gain experience.

The Mount

This is the real killer. A great scope with the best eyepieces in the world can still become a hobby killer when it’s put on a lousy mount.

Hobby Killers
An equatorially mounted telescope is a poor choice for a beginner.

I’ll make an absolute statement here: An equatorial mount is a poor mount for a beginner. Later on, when your hobby has flourished, say you concentrate on planetary observing or have taken up astrophotography, you might happily consider paying tens of thousands of dollars for the best equatorial mount on the planet. But to start out with, equatorial mounts are simply awful. They’re difficult to set up, difficult to use, and the cheap ones are shakier than a leaf in a breeze.

Equatorial mounts are not just difficult to use, they’re difficult to even comprehend at first. Simply trying to figure out how to orient the thing has killed the enthusiasm of many would-be astronomers.

So don’t get an equatorially mounted telescope until you’ve been in the hobby awhile. Or never: Most observers don’t require an equatorial tracking mount.

Altitude-Azimuth (alt-az) mounts are the way to go. For refractors, that means a solid mount on a steady tripod that lets you tilt the scope up and down and swivel it left and right. The scope should move smoothly, and it should stop when you stop pushing without bouncing back and without wiggling. If you tap the end of the telescope tube and it takes more than 3 or 4 seconds to settle down, you don’t want that mount.

For reflectors, the Dobsonian mount is the way to go (with one exception: the Orion StarBlast mentioned below). It’s basically a cannon mount, and it works like a dream. It’s stable, smooth, and intuitive. When John Dobson introduced this mount to the astronomical world back in the 1970s, he made this hobby truly accessible for the first time. See my column (S&T: December 2019, p. 72) on how to use Dobson's design to breathe new life into a poorly mounted hobby killer.

Computerized Mounts

More and more lately you’ll find hobby killers that have been computerized. The computer itself doesn’t necessarily make it a hobby killer, although it can if the mount is a piece of junk, which most of the truly low-end ones are. It’s just that putting a lousy little scope on a computerized mount doesn’t make the scope perform any better.

Hobby Killers
Ads can be deceptive. Don't be fooled by outrageous marketing claims!

“No knowledge necessary!” the ads will say. Aside from the fact that most of us get into astronomy to learn stuff, that’s seldom true anyway. With a low-end Go To scope (which is what the computerized ones are called), you’re likely to learn quite a bit of computer debugging and maybe even mechanical repair skills before you even get your first look through one. Seriously, I have seen people spend their entire night fiddling with the electronics, trying in vain to get the computer to work properly, and never once getting to look at anything in the sky.

On the other hand, a good computerized mount can be an amazing experience. Several manufacturers now build systems that recognize the star field when you power them on and reliably know where to go when you tell them what you want to look at. It’s just that these good systems cost a fair amount of money, and you’re unlikely to get a good one at a beginner’s-scope price.

 

Hobby Killers
The Orion StarBlast 4.5 tabletop reflector is an excellent starter scope.

Recommendations

There are too many awful scopes out there to name them all. But I can happily name some good ones. Over the years, I’ve narrowed it down to three I can endorse without reservation:

Hobby Killers
A 6- or 8-inch Dobsonian reflector is a great step up from the 4½-inch StarBlast.

Since you get more bang for your buck with mirrors, I recommend that your first scope be a reflector. The Orion 4.5 StarBlast Astro Reflector Telescope is a good place to start. It’s easy to carry, easy to set up, and easy to use. The Astronomical League and many individual astronomy clubs give these to libraries to loan out to patrons, and the scopes provide great views and survive a lot of use.

If you have a little more money and don’t mind a bigger package, go for a 6″ or 8″ Dobsonian. I like the SkyQuest or SkyLine lines, also from Orion, but other manufacturers make good Dobs, too — Meade’s LightBridge series telescopes are worth checking out. I recommend a 6″ as a good grab-and-go scope that you won’t outgrow right away. If you’ve got enough muscle to carry something a bit larger, get the 8″ and it’ll last you a lifetime. With the Dobs, get a 10-mm Plössl eyepiece to go with the 25-mm that often comes with it.

There are undoubtedly other good beginners’ scopes out there. But there’s a lot of dreck, too. Pay attention, and try to avoid buying something you’ll never use. If you want to get into astronomy, make sure you get a hobby starter, not a hobby killer.


Contributing Editor Jerry Oltion started with a hobby killer, but his astronomy club helped nurse his interest back to health. This article first appeared in print in the December 2019 issue of Sky & Telescope.

 

Comments


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paul-livio

November 26, 2019 at 1:50 pm

Jerry:
Thanks for your informative article! Over the years frustrated beginners have brought me telescopes to repair. Your excellent advice will help parents choosing Christmas gifts. I noticed you left out the emoji for "bad" telescopes that was included in the December issue. I always thought the crossed eyes emoji meant "drunk astronomer".
Paul

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Gary85

November 26, 2019 at 3:19 pm

I couldn't disagree more as somebody who got an equatorial mount (eq5) as a first telescope mount! It is not very difficult at all as long as you are willing to learn. As for cheap ones being wobbly; so are cheap alt az mounts.

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dblighwv

November 29, 2019 at 4:37 pm

I couldn't possibly agree with you more, Gary. I used my Newtonian for astrophotography. I can't imagine how to guide an alt-azimuth for extended exposures. Perhaps computer control could compensate. After all, the big boys do it; but at what cost?

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Neville

November 30, 2019 at 5:50 am

I like most of this article but disagree COMPLETELY about equatorial mounts. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Never mind astrophotography - rough and ready polar alignment is all you need to keep an object in the field of view - simply tweak the RA knob to follow the object Easy! This is ideal for letting newbies have a look - all you need to show them is how to turn the RA knob for a nice long relaxed look without having to hear them say - "Its gone". Buy a rubbish equatorial mount - that's your problem. Buy a rubbish Alt-Az - same thing. Generally low-end Alt-Az's are worse rubbish than most low-end Alt-Az's. I always advise newbies to start with an equatorial.

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William-Moser

December 2, 2019 at 10:14 am

I also agree totally with you. In addition to the other comments, have you ever shown inexperienced observers a view through your telescope and had them gaze for minutes after you knew the object had drifted out of the field of view? Eventually, they say "Maybe I'm not seeing it any more." If you're using an alt-azimuth and the object is anything but the moon, you'll spend several minutes trying to find it again. With an even roughly polar aligned equatorial, moving the scope on one axis will return the object to the field; maybe not in the center, but at least you can continue without a delay. As well, if you get an equatorial and really want an alt-azimuth, just set it for the north pole. Presto! Your equatorial has become an alt-az.

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Pencil BFB

November 28, 2019 at 10:04 pm

We Filipinos barely sell binoculars or telescopes

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sl0j0n

November 29, 2019 at 10:42 pm

Hello, Mr. Oltion;
Thank you for this.
I'm sad to write it but in general, truer words were not written.
I'd mentioned to my wife that I'd like to have a telescope so she bought me a Tasco "Spacestation" 70 mm f/11.4 refractor.
Actually the objective is pretty decent but of course the rest is merely expensive junk.
I mounted it on a cheap EQ mount [doesn't even have the elevation set screw seen in your photo] w/ a decent wooden tripod--it'll do until I can afford to 'step up' to a homemade pipe mount on a modified surveying tripod, my 'dream' mount.
But my 2nd 'scope ain't too bad--an Orion StarBlast 6" w/ the 'push-to' option. I need to build a portable tripod base for it [see ].
Thanks again, & have a GREAT day, Neighbor!
Clear skys!
j

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Dobsonite

November 30, 2019 at 2:17 am

Nice to see articles like this regularly. So many get a trashy 60mm refractor with an equally trashy equatorial mount, and get turned off the whole hobby before they begin.

I'm sorry to say there's no way to instant gratification. The best way to go is to:
1. learn the night shy. Sit down on a good night with a modest sky atlas or constellation finder and a pair of binoculars.
2. When you feel comfortable with that, go for a small Dobsonian such as the Astroblast. (I only wish they could have put a Crayford focuser, but...)
3. How's your back? Don't "overgun" yourself. I know a lot of people with 14, 18 and 22" monsters who only get them out once a year.
4. Age and strength counts for something. "The best telescope is the one you use most often." True, with the exception of anything like what the author has laid out. I built my own 8" F/6 Dob 23 years ago, and the old bones are feeling that 30-lbs per section lift and carry; (plus chairs, eyepiece case, etc... it's in better shape than I am! ...hey, _I_ might wind up with a Starblast myself! (With a few mods....)

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Dobsonite

November 30, 2019 at 2:19 am

Sorry...That should have been "...the night SKY." Jeez, the old peepers are giving out too! 🙂

Wish this comment section had an "edit" button".

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GerryB2020

December 4, 2019 at 11:09 pm

This! People have always asked me that classic question, we all know it; "Whats the best telescope?" I cannot count how many times I have given this exact response! Right-on Dobsonite.

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richard szweda

November 30, 2019 at 11:31 am

Raw beginners, especially one in the age range of the gal in the photos, live in an instant "point and shoot" world. The more fuss and bother getting that telescope pointed and getting an eye to that eyepiece, regardless of optics quality, the more that beginner's interest will evaporate. And I'm measuring that "fuss and bother" time in seconds to 3 or 4 minutes. If there is an equatorial mount out there that can be aligned and a target seen at least in the spotter scope in that time frame by that raw beginner --- great ! Otherwise, it seems to me, some other mount would be the way to go.

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Night Owl

November 30, 2019 at 3:42 pm

Thanks for the article! I have an Apertura 8 in Dobsonian reflector. I enjoy using the telescope. It brings in good details and an enjoyable viewing experience. However I do have a smaller 4.5 in Star Blast reflector I use when I just want to grab and go. My AD8 scope is nice, but it is heavy. I purchased a four wheeled cart to transport the scope around. I also use 12 x 70 mm binoculars to observe the heavens with on a tripod. I also use 6 x 30 mm binoculars for scanning the sky. Works well for a wide view of the sky.
I learned how to use an equatorial mount on an earleir telescope without any problems. Do your research before you purchase a telsecope and mount. Clear Skies!

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GH Martin

November 30, 2019 at 9:22 pm

Having taught Jr. Hi science for 27 years and being a member of our local astronomical society for most of that time, I fielded many questions from parents about what telescope they should get their kid for Christmas, birthday, or whatever. My advice -- get TWO telescopes! Actually, a pair of binoculars, which are really two telescopes hinged together in the middle. At the time I was teaching, the best value in a pair of binoculars suitable for astronomy would be a pair of 7x35s, which would also be a good size (weight wise) for a 12 to 14 yr.old to handle. That, and a decent, easy-to-use but comprehensive star atlas along with a constellation finder star wheel.

My thinking was that for a kid to get interested in astronomy, he or she needs first to be able to find their way around the sky. The star atlas will show the beginner where to look to find clusters, nebulae, the Andromeda galaxy, etc., and the binocs will whet their interest enough to learn more and want to see them in more detail. THEN is when they'll be ready for a telescope. At any rate, he or she will still need the binoculars when they have a telescope, so the binocs are the perfect "starter". Of course, if they have the advantage of living where there is a good astronomy club or society with telescopes for the members to use, they won't have to buy a scope at all!

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marty0750

December 1, 2019 at 6:16 am

I agree with the "equatorial" posters. Now, I am aware this topic is about buying rather than building telescopes but I have a home made 8-inch f/8 with a smooth turn-on-thread pipe mount Newtonian. It only takes a few moments to show a newbie how to simply hand-push the tube naturally in one axis to follow the the diurnal motion of a target with ease. They intuitively take to it without further ado! In one instance I had to go off for a bit to do something and on returning I found they had on their own acquired the Moon without any further instruction and were happily tracking it in diurnal motion as before!

As for the Dobson alt-az mount in order to track an object successfully one is continuously making tedious step-wise adjustments that require a nudge on BOTH axes A caveat of the Dobsonian is the zenith dead spot. Alt-az tracking through or near zenith, where the objects are viewed at their best has one twisting and contorting the scope with frustration not only to find the object but to track it. I usually recommend users to tip the mount with a wedge under the base about 10 so degrees (not more for obvious reasons). This nudges the telescope axis away from the zenith improving acquisition and tracking.

The point about 0.96" eyepieces. Again, a good Kellner works very well. Sure, smaller field of view but just as sharp in the centre view as any of the Plossls I own. In fact my livery of eyepieces for my 8-inch ARE 0.96's Kellners and Orthoscopics. One is in fact a cannibalized binocular 20mm eyepiece that has a remarkable FoV 65-deg! and performs sharply to about 80% of the Field. Perhaps we need a manufacturer that can design a beginner scope with a sturdy equatorial mount.

Yes people-children get into astronomy to learn, and learning about how telescopes work is about as important as, for example those who wish to take up photography need to know how cameras work. Point and shoot photography is as point and shoot astronomy . It is entry by consumerism. As GH Martin posted above, not only do they need to know how to find their way around the sky they need to know too about how their telescope works.

Marty

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marty0750

December 1, 2019 at 6:25 am

Good heavens. A typo!. My home made is a 6-inch f8 (not 8-inch).

Marty

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33333_others

December 1, 2019 at 4:40 pm

Wow. It's so funny and also sad because many years ago I got a telescope with all the no no's you mention here. It was a Christmas gift from my siblings, I was kind of into astronomy when I was younger and I remember eyeing telescopes whenever I walked by a store, so I guess they noticed an wanted to do something nice, but honestly it was hell to use the telescope, I had to put it together every time I wanted to use it because I didn't have room to just leave it laying around somewhere and I could only see the moon because everything else looked too blurry and the equatorial mound wouldn't let me see stuff that wasn't on the sky, like mountains or, uhm, girls passing by (I was a teenager when I got it), even to this day my siblings still ask me where it is and I lie to them and tell them I used it a few weeks ago when in reality it's been in the attic for like 15 years now.

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lRaziel1

December 2, 2019 at 9:08 pm

Great article, but sounds a bit pessimistic IMO so i'm putting my grain here.

Dobs are the way to go yes, but they are also much less common in the low end, that makes both avaliability and pricing, problems. Some people simply don't have the money to afford what most would call a decent telescope, "Save more money" is not really helping either.

In my country, i couldn't find any Dob, used or new that didn't cost four times my budget. Only high end dobs are sold here. In fact, recently there was this big star gazing and astronomy event around my city's unviersity, and out of 200+ telescopes, i only spotted 2 Dobsonians.

That said, you make it sound like anything below 200 USD is just garbage, which is argueable, but for the most part that's enough for a starter, then you recommend binoculars, In my city's case i completely disagree. Binoculars are next to usdeless here because of light pollution, you really do not see more than with the naked eye, here even a 50mm telescope as toyish as it is, will give you better views; and quality binoculars come to prices close to a good 70mm refractor so i wouldn't recommend them in my specific context.

That said, EQ1 mounts which are usually mounted on flimsy aluminum tripods are not really good not only because they are actually not really good, but because they cost more than their AZ mount counterparts. On the other hand, EQ2 mounts are surprisingly better than what they were 10-15 years ago and usually come mounted in steel pipe tripods which are both sturdier and better built. Not ideal but much better.

I also noticed you make a comparisson, while factual, really unfair and rather tricky, with your Saturn's image. You show what a 70mm at 400x shows, and what it looks on a better telescope. and a better eye piece. I mean, what si that supposed to mean lol? If i pay mroe i see more?

The thing is that a 70mm should never be used with anything that pushes magnification more than 150x (perhaps 170x) cause it will look like that. Overpowering a telescope no matter the price, will result in images like that, but you make it seem like it only looks bad because its a 70mm refractor.

In my 70mm refractor and a decent 9mm eye piece with a 2x barlow, i can see saturn with as much detail as the 2nd picture, now of course it looks considerably smaller in your FOV, but detail is crisp and present.

Now to my final point, AZ mounts and small scopes. For prices like $100-200 there are many 70mm refractors and short focal lenght 100mm reflectors, which would give a sort of similar image.
Usually mounted on low end tripods.

Are these good? Probably not if you are biased towards using high end equipment. Are they usable for a starter to learn the sky? Hell yes.

Some people are put down when they read these sort of things, how awful those tripods are and such, but a starter does not have the bias of how much better high end equipment is, thus cannot say in his mind "this is so bad and unusable", a newbie just goes and use it and tries to make the best out of it.

Conclusion, astronomy is an expensive hobby. But that doesn't mean you should wait 4 years to save your salary to buy something decent. In the meantime, get a 70mm or 80mm refractor on an AZ mount and use whatever tripod it has. Buy it from a brand with a name or expect low quality lenses and eyepieces. At this price viewfinders are crappy so get one with a red spot one and the one that has the better eyepieces. I'd recommend Celestron AstroMaster and Meade Infinity ones.
Reflectors usually are a little more tricky to use (optimal temps, collimation, weight, size, etc-) but if you prefer it get one with an aperture bigger than 100mm, or expect to see less than with a 70mm refractor.
You won't compete with the Hubble Telescope, but you'll have a blast staring at the stars, the moon, some planets, even the the birgthest nebula and clusters which are completely invisible in heavy light polluted cities, maybe comets if you get lucky... i've seen an equal amount of people where the "hobby killer" is either a cheap toy telescope, and not having money. Believing $50 scopes will do for a kid or teen only to frustrate him out of astronomy, or believeing that only $300+ scopes are worth it because while that may be spare change for some, thats half of someone's montly salary.

Don't be discouraged and get an AZ mounted quality 70mm refractor, cheap and will allow you to know the sky and see quite somethings while you save for something better.

Happy observing everyone!

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AB

December 4, 2019 at 11:10 pm

I agree about the EQ mount... my first telescope was a "toy" from a yard sale (that still cost $80) on an alt/az mount and I could barely find ANYTHING in the sky with it. And then, when you did, "it's gone". After reading articles like this some years ago, I did my homework and got a decent little 70mm EQ refractor, and am mostly happy with it. For a casual look at something from the back porch, I do a quick-&-dirty polar alignment over my roof and then enjoy being able to track things easily with just a little turn of the knob. An accessory I highly recommend is a red-dot finder. I was still having a bit of trouble finding things but no more... once it's aligned, that red-dot finder is da bomb.

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