With hundreds to choose from it can be hard to work out the best telescope to buy.
For any beginner, we recommend the Celestron Nexstar 4SE telescope as a perfect choice
If you’re looking for something more advanced, check out the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 9.25″
See below for some great alternatives for beginners, and intermediate to advanced users.
1. Best 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 three telescopes for beginners that fit these criteria.
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 of the telescopes 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 kind of ticks all the boxes 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 aperture 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.
Accessories include a finderscope and 25mm eyepiece.
- Telescope type: Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
- Aperture: 102 mm
- 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.
- Telescope type: Reflector
- Aperture: 114 mm
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth (Dobsonian)
For the reasons listed below, refractors make for great telescopes 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.
- Telescope type: Refractor
- Aperture: 80 mm
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth
2. Best intermediate telescopes
More serious or ambitious telescope users will want either a model that offers greater viewing possibilities while remaining reasonable in terms of cost, or the very best equipment for higher budgets.
For those who consider themselves in this bracket, reflectors and catadioptric telescopes make good options.
You can get more powerful viewing possibilities with these telescopes. Manual reflectors may take a bit more time and effort to learn and master but they can be perfect for the amateur enthusiast.
Alternatively, those with higher budgets may want to explore the very best options, namely GoTo catadioptric telescopes with large apertures.
Below we recommend the best 3 serious telescopes based on this logic.
This telescope offers great viewing capabilities combined with the GoTo ease-of-use that many will be looking for. It is of a good, manageable size and not too heavy.
It has a whopping 9.25-inch aperture. This will open up many more viewing opportunities and provide brighter, clearer viewing of galaxies, nebulae, and far-off deep sky objects.
This is a computerized telescope that can be operated via software that comes with it. There is always some work required it getting this set up right, but this is about as easy as it gets.
Overall, the main pros are the combination of portability, ease-of-use and the viewing opportunities it provides.
The main cons are the higher budget necessary and that extras are needed for certain things (for instance, an adapter if you want to attach a camera for astrophotography).
Accessories included are two eyepieces (40mm & 13mm) and a red dot finderscope.
- Telescope type: Catadioptric (Schmidt-Cassegrain)
- Aperture: 235mm
- Mount: GoTo (Computerized) Alt-Azimuth
This telescope makes for a fantastically powerful piece of equipment for the enthusiastic amateur astronomer.
With 8-inch (200mm) aperture it provides serious viewing capabilities. It is on a Dobsonian mount which makes operation relatively easy (in comparison to an equatorial or traditional alt-az mount).
This model has a collapsible tube which reduces the size and weight and makes it easier to pack up, store and transport.
Skywatcher also offers the same telescope with computerized Go-To technology in-built, so you can choose whether you prefer manual or GoTo. Explore the options via the links provided.
- Telescope type: Reflector
- Aperture: 200 mm
- Mount: Manual Alt-Azimuth (Dobsonian)
The Meade LX200 is aimed at intermediate and advanced users who will be able to make the most of the serious astronomy viewing capacity that it provides.
The computerized telescope database can locate over 145,000 with great reliability. Alignment is taken care of via a GPS receiver.
It’s relatively small and light for in comparison to similar telescopes in this bracket.
The 14-inch version is possibly the best telescope in the world for an amateur astronomer (at least before you start venturing into specialist, custom-built models).
- Telescope type: Catadioptric (Advanced Coma-Free)
- Aperture: 250 mm
- Mount: GoTo (Computerized) Equatorial
3. 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 telescope brands as well as different telescope types with all sorts of different specifications.
What the best telescope is for you will be the one that you end up using the most.
Someone might recommend you the most powerful telescope 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 when buying a telescope.
Covered below are four areas:
- Three different telescope types – reflectors, refractors, and compounds
- What the different telescope specifications mean
- What the best telescope brands are and what you need to know about how they operate
- What different telescope accessories are and what you might need
After this, we tell you how to put it all together to choose the right telescope for you and provide our recommendations.
4. Telescope types
There are three main types of telescope, refractors, reflectors, and catadioptrics.
The main things you need 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 telescopes are small and portable but are the most expensive
See more in our in-depth dive into reflector vs refractor telescopes.
Keep reading below for more information on how to choose the right telescope for you to buy and for recommended models.
5. Telescope specifications: aperture, focal length and GoTo – 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
Aperture 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 by the telescope and the sharper, brighter and more detailed the image will be. You, therefore, want a higher aperture in any telescope you buy.
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 a telescope at astronomical objects that you choose from a database. GoTo telescopes are also known as “computerized telescopes”.
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 telescopes are that:
- They are more expensive. So for the same money, you could get a more powerful manual telescope. To illustrate you can see the Sky-Watcher 8″ Dobsonian telescopes offered both with and without GoTO in the intermediate telescopes section below.
- 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.
Other telescope specifications: Focal length, focal ratio, and magnification
The focal length is another measurement that is included with telescopes and it can be confusing as to what this means, especially versus aperture.
The focal length 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, the focal length 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 focal length is based on how far the light travels inside the tube via the mirror system and to the eyepiece. This is why the focal length 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 (including astrophotography both with and without a telescope).
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 in a telescope?
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, 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.
6. Best telescope brands
The four major brands known for producing reliable, quality telescopes are:
This is not to say that every telescope made by these manufacturers will be great. Or that a telescope made by other brands will be poor, but these are the most popular brands and have been around for some time.
As such they are experienced in producing reliable equipment for different budgets and have reputations to protect. Therefore all offer useful after-purchase customer service through their websites.
Other telescope brands
Other notable telescope manufacturers include:
There are also a number of specialty and premium brands, many of whom offer customization on large telescopes for the buyer. We won’t delve into these telescopes here, but companies include:
Telescope manufacturers and what it means for buying by brand
One thing that is worthy of note is that many popular telescopes are manufactured by the same few companies in China and Taiwan and then rebranded and sold under different brands.
For example, both Celestron and Sky-Watcher are owned by the Synta Technology Corporation of Taiwan (source), who also manufacture telescopes for Orion (although Orion remains independent and US-owned (source).
Another is the Chinese manufacturer Guan Sheng Optical (GSO), who produce telescopes to be sold under their own brand as well as through companies like Orion, Zhumell and Apertura, amongst others.
This can then lead to situations were very similar telescopes are produced by these manufactured and tweaked and rebranded by the leading brands.
There is nothing wrong with this but if you do your research and decide what telescope you want, you may be able to find it sold under different brands for different prices. However, there are reasons why it might still be a good option to favor Celestron, Orion, Meade or Sky-Watcher etc, and that is that they are US-based companies that will provide good customer service.
Some other telescope companies are now just brands carried on by the overseas manufacturers for marketing purposes. For example, Gskyer was previously a German manufacturer of telescopes but they went out of business as a company some years ago (source). The brand name lives on as it is being used by another Chinese manufacturer.
This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the telescopes sold under this brand but it might mean that you won’t get much after-service if needed. To illustrate, there is no official Gskyer website or contact details for the company anymore. This may be an issue should you need support. They may be also unlikely to cover any warranty, although the seller (for example, Amazon) will probably provide one.
7. How to choose the best telescope for you
Let’s bring all this together then – telescope type, specifications, brand – to work out how to decide on what the best telescope to buy is.
What the best telescope to buy for you 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 like aperture, focal length, and magnification 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 when buying a telescope – 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 reflector with a big aperture. 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 telescopes and we will recommend some of these above.
8. Telescope accessories
When using a telescope you will need to understand a little about how the key accessories work as they will impact what you see (eyepieces and barlow lenses) and how easy it is to operate (mounts and tripods).
Below we outline the basics that you need to know about:
- Barlow lenses
Telescope eyepieces attach to your telescope and are what you look through. The differences between different eyepieces determine the magnification and field of view of a telescope.
The magnification of a telescope is determined by dividing the focal length of the telescope by the focal length of the eyepiece.
The field of view is the amount of sky visible through the eyepiece. Using higher magnification eyepieces results in a smaller piece of the sky, and therefore a smaller field of view.
Different eyepieces are used for viewing different objects. For example, some objects, such as nebulae and star clusters, appear quite large and are best viewed at low magnifications (which give a wider field of view), whereas planets appear very small and are normally viewed with high-magnification eyepieces.
A common misconception is that magnification is the most important aspect of a telescope but actually the diameter (aperture) of a telescope determines its power and different eyepieces are used to get the best view of a given object with often the best view at a low magnification.
When buying a telescope it is worth looking at the comments made by other users as to the quality of the eyepieces that come with it as it may be that you’ll need to upgrade these. Doing so can have a great impact on improving what you see and so can be well worth it for a relatively low cost.
The size of the eyepiece refers to the diameter of the tube – and whether or not it will fit on the barrel of your telescope’s focuser. Make sure to check when buying, but the most common one is the 1.25-inch eyepiece which has become industry standard.
Barlow lenses are optional accessories that sit between your telescope’s focuser and your eyepiece.
They usually double or triple the magnification of any eyepiece (depending on whether they are 2x or 3x etc.) and therefore provide some greater diversity to your viewing options when combined with different eyepieces.
The downside of using a Barlow lens is that they can result in a degradation of the view via a slight blurring and as such are usually not recommended for use with astrophotography.
When selecting a Barlow lens, make sure you choose one with the correct barrel size for the eyepieces you have. As mentioned above, most eyepieces are 1.25 inches these days, but be sure to check.
A finderscope is a small scope mounted on top of your telescope that helps you aim at what you want to view. They have a much wider field of view than a telescope, making finding objects much easier.
Alternatively, a telescope may use a red dot finder. This is also a tool for aiming but has no magnification and works by superimposing the image of a small red dot onto the night sky.
A mount is an instrument that fits between your tripod and telescope and allows you to adjust where the telescope is pointing.
There are two main types of telescope mounts:
Alt-Azimuth mounts are the most common and basic mount. They allow telescopes to be moved in altitude (up and down), or azimuth (side to side), as separate motions.
Equatorial mounts are more sophisticated and work to automatically adjust where your telescope points in tune with the Earth’s rotation. This means that your telescope can follow what it is pointed at even when the earth moves.
Mounts can be motorized which means you do not have to manually turn knobs for the mount to move and track objects. This increases precision and decreases the vibration that occurs when you touch your telescope.
This can also be combined with computer-controlled GoTo technology to automatically locate and track objects from large databases.
A telescope will generally sit on a tripod to enable you to use it when standing (or sitting).
Look at the length of the tripod that comes with your telescope. Some can be quite short and would require you to stoop quite low. This is especially a problem with refractor telescopes where the eyepiece is located at the lower end.
There are also differences in the sturdiness of quality tripods versus cheaper ones. A good tripod will be strong and will minimize any potential shake coming from the wind.
Some telescopes are tabletop models, which can be perfect for some situations like backyard viewing, but consider where you will be using it and whether you might need to add a tripod to be able to use it in different places.
Telescope tripods need to be heavy duty to be able to hold the weight. Usually, when you buy a telescope it will come with a mount and telescope as a package, but be sure to check.
Telescopes often come with accompanying software. These are usually one of two things:
- If it is a telescope with GoTo functionality, then it will be the database of objects that your telescope will be able to find for you (very useful)
- If your telescope does not have GoTo functionality, it is likely to be some educational resources which will probably not be essential to you although may be nice to have.
10. Telescope FAQs
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 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?
The best telescopes for viewing deep sky objects like galaxies will be ones with large apertures of at least 8 inches (200+ mm).
You will need a low power eyepiece to give you a wide field of view.
What’s the best telescope 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.
10. Conclusion: What’s the best telescope for you?
The first telescope I bought turned out to be the wrong one for me – it was a great model but it was heavy, bulky and didn’t pack up easily. This was a problem as I was living in a small apartment at the time. Also, I was a beginner with little spare time to learn and I found it too advanced for me.
There is quite a bit that any potential telescope buyer should know, but a beginner or first-time buyer should not be put off from this. There are plenty of telescopes designed to be easy-to-use and are great as a first step.
The right telescope for you will be the one you end up using the most, so consider our advice here about balancing your priorities in terms of power, ease of use, convenience, and your budget.
We’ve covered here nine of the best telescopes to buy and also suggested some alternatives, to hopefully give you all the information you need to make sure you find the right one for you.
You may have noticed that all of these telescopes are made by either Orion, Meade Instruments, Sky-Watcher or Celestron. This is because these are the most consistent and reliable astronomy equipment manufacturers and have all been around for some time. This means they have reputations to hold up and so offer guarantees and customer support.
Ultimately, you need to make a decision on what the best telescope to buy is based on all the four factors on which we have judged the above telescopes.
Please let us know your views in the comments section below – what do you think are the best telescopes to buy?