With hundreds to choose from it can be hard to work out what telescope to buy.
I got it all wrong with my first telescope – it was too bulky and heavy for my small apartment. It was powerful, but more than I needed as a beginner.
If I were to buy my first telescope today, I would get something smaller and easier to use. It then becomes much easier to grab-and-go and use in your backyard without too much planning.
So, learn from my mistakes and choose one of the five great telescopes for beginners below!
1. Five great telescopes for beginners
For a beginner, the telescope you are going to want to have a few characteristics. These are:
- Easy enough to use so that you won’t give up too soon
- Powerful enough to see some great sights
- Cheap enough to not break the bank on a new hobby
Below we recommend our top five models that fit these criteria.
See the at-a-glance table below:
Last update on 2020-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Please read the detailed reviews below for more information about each model:
If you have the budget, then you might want to consider a smaller compound telescope with GoTo functionality, such as the NexStar 4SE from Celestron.
This is the smallest on this list and probably the easiest to use. It comes apart easily to a few components so it is easy to store or transport.
It ticks all the boxes to be the best telescope for beginners but that also means it comes in a slightly higher price bracket than those offered above.
102mm aperture means that it’s powerful enough to see Saturn’s rings and features on the surface of the Moon from your backyard. You’ll need to take it out of town to an area with less light pollution to be able to see galaxies and deep space objects, but it has the power.
Note that the “4” in the “4SE” refers to the 4-inch (102mm) aperture, and there are near-identical models with larger apertures you can upgrade in power to the 5-inch (5SE), 6-inch (6SE) and 8-inch (8SE).
Each one offers steadily better astronomical viewing. If you want to be able to see deep sky objects from a light polluted area (a town or city) you’ll need to go for one of the higher models.
The in-built GoTo technology means that it will find whatever you want to see in the sky from a database of over 40,000 objects in space at the push of a few buttons on the keypad that comes with it. This is the only computerized telescope that we would recommend for beginners, as other models in this price range tend to be unreliable.
Accessories include a finderscope and 25mm eyepiece.
- Type: Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
- Aperture: 102 mm (4-inch)
- Mount: GoTo (Computerized) Alt-Azimuth
An alternative is to have a small tabletop (Dobsonian) reflector telescope, like this model from Meade.
It has a much larger aperture and therefore provides better imaging but is still relatively lightweight and small.
The tabletop design means exactly what it seems, you’ll need a table or similar flat surface to put if on and this can work well if you have a garden table or similar to use. It’s something to think about if you are planning to use out on trips though when a tripod may make more sense.
This is also a manual telescope, not GoTo. That may or may not be a disadvantage to you, but means it’ll be harder to locate and track objects.
Putting all this together makes it a great ‘grab and go’ telescope. There is also a lower spec 82mm option which will still be good for moon and planetary viewing, but might struggle with deep sky objects.
It comes with two eyepieces, a Barlow lens, and a red dot finder.
- Type: Reflector
- Aperture: 114 mm (4.5-inch)
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth (Dobsonian)
For the reasons listed below, refractors make for great models for beginners. Like this 80mm model from Celestron.
If you want something that you can pull out into their garden, or take on a trip and learn to get comfortable with over time, then this could be perfect for you.
A lightweight refractor allows you to grab-and-go and learn to master in your own time.
We love the compact size which makes it perfectly portable and storable. It comes with easily-operable (alt-az) mount.
Accessories included are two 1.25” eyepieces (20mm and 10mm) and a finderscope.
- Type: Refractor
- Aperture: 80 mm (3.1-inch)
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth
Similar to the Meade Lightbridge Mini above, this is a tabletop telescope. This might work for you if you think you’d prefer a “grab-and-go” option that you can use on a surface in your backyard, rather than a tripod-mounted telescope.
This model has enough power for serious viewing but not at a prohibitive cost.
It comes with two eyepieces and Orion’s astronomy software.
- Type: Reflector
- Aperture: 100 mm (3.9-inch)
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth (Dobsonian)
This is the perfect, lightweight, easy-to-use, point-and-look telescope for the beginner.
This is the lowest power model on this list. It also suits those with lower budgets looking for a first telescope though.
It comes with 2 eyepieces – one low and one high powered magnification.
- Type: Refractor
- Aperture: 60 mm (2.4-inch)
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth
2. Telescope buying guide
It can be hard to know what to look for when buying a telescope – especially if it’s your first or you are buying for someone else.
There are many different brands as well as different types with all sorts of different specifications.
What the right telescope is for you will be the one that you end up using the most.
Someone might recommend you the most powerful model in the world, but if it doesn’t suit you it might just end up being an expensive ornament.
In order to help you with this, this guide gives you the basics of all you need to consider.
Covered below are:
- Three different telescope types – reflectors, refractors, and compounds
- What the different specifications mean
After this, we tell you how to put it all together to choose the right telescope for you and provide our recommendations.
1. Telescope types
There are three main types of telescope: refractors, reflectors, and catadioptrics.
The main things you need to know about them are:
- Refractor telescopes are the easiest to use but can be awkward for astronomy.
- Reflector telescopes provide good imaging and the best bang-for-buck in terms of power, but are big, heavy and harder to use.
- Catadioptric (compound) telescopes are small and portable, but are the most expensive.
In summary, catadioptrics are best (in my opinion) for beginners. Followed by refractors, then reflectors.
You can read more about this in our in-depth dive into reflectors vs refractors.
We also ran a poll asking this question and the results (as of February 2020) agree that compound telescopes are best:
You can have your say on this by voting at the bottom of this article.
2. Telescope specifications – what does it all mean?
Once you’ve got your head around the three telescope types you’ll also be faced with a range of other specifications that you’ll need to understand to some degree.
In particular, there are two main things you will want to be able to interpret at least on a basic level. These are:
- GoTo functionality
This is the most important specification that you should pay attention to when buying a telescope.
The aperture of a telescope is the diameter of its main lens or mirror. Essentially, the bigger the aperture, the more light can be gathered and the sharper, brighter and more detailed the image will be.
The tradeoff is that higher aperture telescopes cost more.
A telescope with “GoTo” capabilities means that it comes with a motorized mount that is operated by a computer and can automatically point at astronomical objects that you choose from a database. GoTo telescopes are also known as computerized.
They are operated either directly by a keypad or similar interface on the telescope, or via a remotely operated interface, such as an app your phone, tablet or computer.
You can then command the mount to point the telescope to objects in space from a pre-programmed database, or celestial coordinates inputted manually by you.
Should I get a GoTo telescope?
It’s definitely a question worth thinking about when you are buying a telescope as to whether you want one with GoTo capabilities or a manually operated one.
Having the telescope be able to find objects you want to see in space without you having to understand locating astronomical objects via coordinates can be a huge positive.
This is really the one and only advantage. But it’s a pretty big one, especially for a beginner or for someone who is taking to astronomy casually and might only pull out their telescope a few times a year.
The disadvantages of GoTo are that:
- They are more expensive. So for the same money, you could get a more powerful manual telescope. Some models are offered both with and without GoTO at different prices.
- They can get in the way of learning astronomy. By allowing you to bypass understanding how it all works and skipping the educational aspects (this may or may not be a disadvantage in your eyes).
Our advice – especially for beginners or for casual users – is to go for a GoTo telescope if your budget can stretch to it. It’ll make it easier to get results and so less likely that you might give up out of frustration or the sheer amount that you have to learn.
In contrast, if you are already an experienced astronomer then you may prefer to get more telescope for your money by going for one without GoTo.
This is another measurement that is included with telescopes and it can be confusing as to what this means, especially versus aperture.
It is the distance between the objective (the lens or primary mirror of the telescope), to the point where it focuses the light (the eyepiece).
With a refractor telescope, it will be a linear measurement from the lens to the eyepiece, and so it is essentially the length of the telescope tube.
With a reflector or catadioptric telescope, it is based on how far the light travels inside the tube via the mirror system and to the eyepiece. This is why the measurement is longer than the tube length in these types of telescope and why they can be smaller but have similar magnification to refractors with the same focal length.
Focal ratio and f-number
The focal ratio of a telescope is the focal length divided by aperture. The resulting figure is known as the f-number and is written as f/10, f/15, etc.
Higher focal ratio means more magnification but the downside is that it also means a narrower field of view.
- A telescope with 100mm aperture and 1000mm focal length will have a focal ratio of f/10.
- A telescope with a 114mm aperture and a 450mm focal length will have a focal ratio of f/3.95.
The f-number can give you an indication of the size and portability of a telescope as smaller f/ratios equal shorter telescope tubes.
The f/number is the same as the f/number you would see on a camera lens and so is significant if you plan on taking photos through your telescope. Essentially, the smaller the ratio, the “faster” the telescope is. This means it gathers more light in a shorter period of time. This reduces exposure times and makes it easier to photograph the moving objects that you are tracking for your image.
Read our ultimate beginners guide to astrophotography to learn more about this.
Lastly, the magnification of a telescope is the number of times bigger an object appears when compared to viewing it with the naked eye.
A magnification of 10x means what you are looking at will look ten times larger than when viewed unmagnified.
Magnification is calculated by the focal length of the telescope divided by the focal length of the eyepiece you are using. So this can be altered by using different eyepieces.
For example, if you use a 25mm eyepiece with a 1500mm focal length telescope you get a magnification of 60x. Use a 10mm eyepiece with the same telescope and you get a 150x magnification.
As you can see, the longer the telescope focal length and the shorter the eyepiece focal length, the higher the magnification achieved.
One thing to note though is that higher magnification is not always what is best. For instance, with higher magnification, your telescope is much more sensitive to vibrations that can come from the wind or other factors and this impacts the images.
Should I prioritize aperture or focal length?
As mentioned above, the aperture is the key measurement of your telescope’s capabilities and this should be what you prioritize when making your choice.
However, the focal length will have an impact on what you will be able to see, essentially:
- For seeing the planets and the moon in the night sky, long focal length is best as you will benefit from the higher magnification to view details on these objects that are relatively close.
- For viewing galaxies and deep sky objects that are much further away, short focal length is better as it gives you a wider field of view and aperture is more important as it means more light is gathered to enable you to see these objects that would otherwise be very faint.
3. How to choose the right telescope for you
Let’s bring all this together then – type, specifications, brand – to work out how to decide on what the best for you is.
What is best for you to buy will depend on a number of factors that differ for each individual’s circumstances.
There are four things in particular to consider:
- What you will be able to see,
- How easy it will be to use,
- How practical it is for you, and
- How much you want to spend.
1. What you want to be able to see through it
Obviously, you are going to get a telescope that allows you to see as much in the night sky as possible, but this will need to be balanced with other factors.
The key thing you are going to want is as high aperture as possible. This means improved brightness and detail of what you can see.
Please review the section above if you want to understand what the specifications mean.
2. How easy it will be to use
Are you a beginner or experienced? How much time can you dedicate to learning? Is it for a young child, teenager or adult?
You will have to decide if you (or the person using the telescope) are going to be able to invest a lot of time learning to use it or if it is more of a fun thing to have around and use occasionally.
If it’s the second option then you are likely to favor a GoTo telescope which makes it much easier to find objects to view in space.
3.How practical it is for your circumstances
Some telescopes are small and pack up easily, but others can be more heavy and awkward to store.
Do you have space for a large telescope in your house or would you need to be able to pack it way? Also, do you want something you can pick up and take on trips?
This is an important thing that can be overlooked – size, weight, portability, and how easy it will be to store.
For my first telescope, I went a bit ambitious and bought a large reflector telescope which was heavy and awkward to store. It was a great telescope but wasn’t really ideal for living in an apartment in a city. If I’d made that decision now, I would have favored a smaller, more portable model and then looked to upgrade to a larger scope later when I had moved out to my more grown-up home.
It’s worth noting that the performance of a telescope depends on where you are located and whether or not you have dark skies.
Those living in big cities may need to consider higher performance (high aperture) in order to be able to spot objects in the sky due to light pollution.
4. What your budget is
The big one – how much you want to spend?
To an extent, the more you can afford the more you can expect from a telescope’s performance, but it’s best to work out what you are prepared to spend and then go for the one most suitable for you in your price range.
In our opinion, the perfect telescope (for an amateur user) will be:
- Small, light and portable,
- With a big aperture (so you can see well through it), and
- have GoTo functionality (so it is easier to use).
As you’ll see, those telescopes that put all this together will be more expensive. Typically, this is what you can expect in the higher range catadioptric telescopes covered in the intermediate models below.
Depending on your budget, you may want to work out what you are prepared to spend and then see what you are prepared to compromise on.
For instance, is size and portability an issue to you? If not, get a big reflector. If so, get a refractor or catadioptric telescope and sacrifice some aperture in exchange for a smaller size telescope.
Or if you want to learn how to locate stars yourself, then maybe skip the GoTo and save money that way.
There is no perfect answer, but there are plenty of great models and we recommend some of these above.
4. Frequently asked questions
What is the best telescope for viewing planets?
The best telescopes for viewing planets like Saturn and Jupiter will have a longer focal length – for good magnification and a narrow field of you – as well as higher aperture – which will improve brightness and the amount of detail you can see.
The narrowness is what you want with viewing the planets in our solar system because they are relatively much closer to the Earth than far off stars and much smaller than galaxies that need a wide field of view to observe.
You will also need a high power eyepiece for magnification.
What is the best telescope for viewing the moon?
The moon is the closest, and therefore easiest, object in the night sky to see through a telescope. You can, therefore, do this with lower-spec telescopes recommended for beginners above.
Higher focal length will allow higher magnification and higher aperture will improve brightness and details.
What is the best telescope for galaxies and deep sky viewing?
You can see some deep sky objects with the naked eye, and so a quality beginner telescope will be able to improve on that massively.
However, if you want serious power for clear viewing of deep sky objects you should consider a telescope with a large aperture of at 8 inches (200+ mm) and above. Good examples would be the SkyWatcher 8-inch Dobsonian or the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 9.25-inch.
You will need to use a low power eyepiece to give you a wide field of view.
What’s best for children?
See our guide to the best telescopes for kids.
Should I start with astronomy binoculars?
Astronomy binoculars can be great and have some advantages to telescopes, such as being smaller, easier to use and cheaper.
However, even if you get a great pair of binoculars, you’ll almost certainly want a telescope to go alongside them eventually, so they are not really a replacement.
If you want to know more, read our article on astronomy binoculars.
What accessories do I need (and what do they do)?
Please see our guide to telescope accessories.