Best Telescopes for the Money

A photon leaps off the sun and, about 500 seconds later, bounces off our Earth. Light has been dancing and rebounding from faraway and nearby celestial objects for more than 13 billion years. It's time you caught some of it for your very own.

That's what telescopes do; they gather light. But to collect that radiance, you'll need to pick the telescope that fits your needs and budget. Our editors have selected a few of the best options in five categories. Click on each to read a deep review of the telescopes in these groups: 

Toy store telescopes are mostly junk. We’ve selected several better-quality ones, which will be easy to use and fun for all family members. Here are some highlights: 

The Best Children's Telescope for Skywatching:

Celestron FirstScope
Average price: $49.95 + $19.95 Optional Accessory Kit
  • Dobsonian / AltAz / Tripod
  • Totally intuitive and simple 

The Celestron FirstScope’s tabletop spin-and-tilt design makes the device easy for kids to use. The optical tube is decorated with the names of noteworthy astronomers throughout history, inspiring kids even when it's sitting on their desk or on a shelf indoors. It comes with two eyepieces (20 millimeters and 4 mm) for wide and close-up views. FirstScope’s 3-inch (76 mm) aperture is small, but its fast focal ratio (3.95) lets kids see objects in the deep sky on dark (moonless) nights. An optional accessory kit adds a finder scope, anti-glare moon filter, two more eyepieces and a DVD-ROM of very useful astronomy software for the PC and Mac.   Remarkably fine optical quality at a very low price makes this surprising telescope a great choice for kids with an interest in the night sky. With patience and a dark location, planets, nebulae and even a few galaxies are in range of this telescope.

The Best Children's Telescope for Learning:

Levenhuk LabZZ MTB3 Combo
Average Price: $59.95
  • Telescope / Binoculars / Microscope + Slide Prep Kit
  • Lets kids engage the universe at all scales

You get kid-size versions of instruments to extend vision to the very big, the very faraway and the very small. A 2-inch aperture refractor telescope works at night for moon, planets and stars, and during the day for animals and sports. [Never point a telescope at the sun!] Note that 6x binoculars are made for little hands and faces. A three-objective microscope (150x, 450x and 900x) brings the subvisible to giant size.

After carefully looking at a variety of telescopes, we selected the ones that have enough horsepower to drive many years of satisfying observation, but that don't break the bank.

The Best Telescope for Hobbyists:

Celestron SkyProdigy 130
Average price: $589.99
  • Reflector / AltAz / Tripod / Go-To
  • Easiest setup; totally self-aligning on the sky

The Celestron SkyProdigy 130 is the first consumer telescope to offer fully automatic alignment. Once you set it up under the night sky, it takes about 3 minutes for the scope to find itself. Then you can use the wired remote keypad to drive this high-quality Newtonian reflector. The SkyProdigy comes with two 1.25-inch Kellner eyepieces (25 mm and 9 mm). The nicely machined focuser can also accept 2-inch eyepieces.

Alternate Editors' Choice for Hobbyists:

Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope
Average price: $659.99
  • Reflector / AltAz / Dobsonian
  • Most "Big Bang" for your buck; largest aperture

Orion's SkyQuest is an 8-inch (203 mm) Dobsonian telescope. It's a big light bucket with an excellent-quality primary mirror that's great for hauling in the old, tired photons of distant galaxies and nebulae. As long as you don't intend to take long-exposure astrophotos, the SkyQuest is a fabulous tool. Also, be aware that it's a bit of a kit: You must screw together the altitude-azimuth mount, fit up the tilting optical tube and do a few more bits of assembly. But it's fun to do, and the result is a wonderful scope that you can use for decades.

The Best Portable Telescope:

Celestron Regal M2 100ED – "Spotting Scope"
Average price: $849.95
  • Refractor (tripod sold separately)
  • Clearest and sharpest grab-and-go compact telescope

Loved for their rugged portability, spotting scopes are favored by daytime sports and outdoors enthusiasts. Now, Celestron brings you a spotting scope that is excellent for grab-and-go astronomy as well. The Regal M2 100ED can pull a lifetime of visual memories into its 19.25-inch (48.9 centimeters), 8.6-lb. (2.1 kilograms) frame. The M2’s body is cast of lightweight magnesium alloy. You'll need to buy a tripod separately, and possibly a 1.25-inch astronomy eyepiece or two for skywatching.

The Best Inexpensive Portable Telescope:

Levenhuk Blaze 90 Spotting Scope
Average price: $214.95
  • Refractor / Small Tripod
  • Most cost-effective grab-and-go compact telescope

Levenhuk’s Blaze 90 Spotting Scope lets you pack 3.5 inches (9 cm) of starlight-snagging aperture into your go-anywhere bag. For about one-fifth the cost of Celestron’s M2 100ED, you can get about three-quarters the thrill if you buy the Levenhuk. Try pairing it with Orion's heavy-duty model tripod and head for no-wiggle skywatching. The Blaze 90 comes in a highly functional field pouch that's built of tough ballistic nylon.

The Best Computer-Driven Telescope for Beginners:

Celestron AstroFi 102 Mak-Cas Wi-Fi
Average price: $419.95
  • Maksutov-Cassegrain / AltAz Tripod / Go-To
  • Most innovative, future proof and "digital"

Also comes as a refractor at the same price:
Celestron AstroFi 90 Refractor Wi-Fi
Average price: $419.95
  • Refractor / AltAz Tripod / Go-To

The Celestron AstroFi telescopes take their observing orders from your Apple or Android smartphone or tablet via the free SkyPortal app [App Store or Google Play]. You won't need access to a network; your new AstroFi scope is itself a network. It will even work where your cellular networks don’t. The 3.5-inch (90 mm) refractor is our choice for planet watching. The 4-inch (102 mm) Maksutov-Cassegrain hybrid wonderfully resolves tiny point-source stars. And there’s a slightly more expensive AstroFi 5-inch (130 mm) Newtonian reflector, as well. Just be a little careful not to bend the lightweight aluminum tripod.

The Best Manual Telescope for Beginners:

Orion StarBlast 6 or StarBlast 6i "IntelliScope"
Average price: $339.99 (or $499.99 for IntelliScope model)
  • Reflector/ AltAz Rocket Box
  • Simplest to use; gobbles big gulps of photons 

If you want to escape your phone and concentrate on the sky, Orion's StarBlast 6 Dobsonian reflector might be your ticket out. The 6-inch (15 cm) mirror is broad enough to gobble light waves from millions of years ago, or from just a few seconds past. Unlike many Dobsonians, the StarBlast pops out of its shipping box ready to work, which makes it a nice gift buy.

The Best Inexpensive Telescope:

Astronomers Without Borders OneSky 130
Average price: $199.99
  • Reflector / AltAz "Rock and Roll" Turntable
  • Best gift under $200 and helps developing nations

Give this OneSky telescope as a gift (even to yourself!) and you automatically make a donation to the nonprofit Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). Young science students a world away will benefit from enhanced education programs as you enjoy your astronomy hobby. We are all under one sky.

And you'll be getting an extraordinarily good telescope: 5.1 inches (130 mm) of aperture, good-quality glass, two Plossl eyepieces and an innovative compact-expanding design. It's a truss tube Newtonian reflector on a simple-to-work altitude-azimuth mount, with a built-in handle. We truly love this telescope.

Another Great Inexpensive Telescope:

Levenhuk Strike 80
Average price: $139.95
  • Refractor / AltAz Tripod
  • A classic "spyglass" plus a colorful learner's kit

A durable optical tube, strong mount and stainless-steel tripod with accessory tray, along with two eyepieces and a Barlow lens, add up to excellent value. Levenhuk offers this 3-inch (80 mm) aperture refractor — not very different from old Galileo’s — on an altitude-
azimuth yoke. It's a simple and solid instrument.

The long view of astronomy

Here's the deep truth of telescopes: It does not matter what price you pay to get into amateur astronomy. Telescopes gather light. And, yes, more light — or purer light — is better.
But once you tune in to the reality that the universe is coming directly to you — to meet you wherever you are, as long as you look up — you will never be the same. Once you start observing with a telescope, you will likely never stop. 

May the photons be with you.



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