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Buying your first telescope can be a challenge, especially if you are not familiar with all of the different designs and features.  Telescopes are like cars.  Do you need something simple to get around in or maybe something a little sportier.  Perhaps you’re looking for a truck to go off road.  The goal of this guide is to point you in the right direction and make some recommendations based on years of experience working with those getting started.

In the end the best telescope for you is the one you’ll use the most.

Magnification: A Common Misconception

One of the biggest misconceptions about telescopes is magnification.  Magnification is actually a “by-product” of the optical system.  You can make any telescope magnify almost any amount based on the eyepiece you use.  The real question is how well it magnifies.  In some cases your goal is to use as little magnification as possible so you get a nice wide view of a galaxy, nebula or star cluster.  So, while magnification is a consideration, it should be secondary.

The Main Thing: Size!

Usually the most important quality in a telescope you’ll want to consider first is the size of primary light collecting mirror or lens.  The bigger the primary, the more light the telescope gathers, thus the more you can do with it.  More light gathered means brighter images or the ability to see dimmer objects.  It also means the image can handle magnification better.  However, keep in mind bigger means heavier, bulkier, less portable and usually more expensive.

The Two Designs: Refractors and Reflectors 

There are two basic telescope deigns, refractors (which use lenses) and reflectors (which use mirrors).  You’ve probably seen the little department store refractors, don’t buy one of those.  They are usually very limited in size and in the long run won’t produce pleasing results. Most telescopes produced today are reflectors or hybrids.  For just a bit more money you can get a good quality reflector that’ll bring years of joy.  

The F/Ratio: What’s it good at seeing!

The area of sky a telescope sees and the magnification are basically inverse of each other.  The less magnification, the wider field of view a telescope will have.  This is good for see some galaxies, nebula, star fields, a long comet tail and the entire moon.  Higher magnification zooms in tight on objects and is good for the planets, smaller galaxies, craters on the moon and so on.  A lower F/Ratio is a lower magnification for a given scope.  A higher F/Ratio means higher magnification.  While the details are slightly more complicated, the above is a good general rule of thumb.  If you’re looking for wide-field vistas go with an F/4 to F/5.  If you’re interested in the planets F/8 to F/10 may be the way to go.    Keep in mind this doesn’t mean an F/4 can’t look at planets.  It can, they’ll just be less magnified.

Telescope Recommendations
With those basics in mind we’ve recommended a series of telescopes on our Astronomy Store.  Like a car the more “gizmos” a telescope has the more it can help you, but these can also take longer to setup.  Some nights I just grab my basic $300 Dobsonian Telescope and set it on the drive to catch a quick glance at the moon or Saturn.  Other nights I setup my $1500 computer telescope for a long night of photography.  I generally recommend starting with one of the 6″ or 8″ telescopes, however if you’re ready to jump in with both feet, the Advanced telescopes we have listed are good quality instruments with a strong track record.

Still Not Sure

If you’re not sure which one to pick, I would recommend picking one of the Orion SkyQuest Classic Dobsonian telescopes.  These inexpensive telescopes will give you a good view of the sky, help you learn your way around the heavens, teach you about telescopes and help you to learn where your interest lies.  I know several people who started with one and were very happy with them.