How much do you spend on a first-time telescope?
Should you be concerned about type and specs on a cheap telescope?
Knowing how to frame your budget, especially if it’s a first-time purchase, can prove to be a strategic move in avoiding buyer’s remorse.
Here, you’ll learn the basics of putting together a budget and understanding what to expect from a telescope at a specific price point.
Best Affordable Telescopes In 2020
You may become confused to find the telescopes in this lineup vary between $100-$400 – this was done intentionally.
What does “affordable” mean? Inexpensive; reasonably priced.
However, this does not mean “cheap” in the sense of “junk.” Junk would be a department store telescope that’s nothing more than a toy and brags of outrageous claims to lure a buyer into inevitable disappointment.
Many looking for an affordable telescope are doing so to save money or stay within a tight budget for multiple reasons. Regardless, the question of, “Are there any good telescopes that I can afford?” comes to mind. The answer is yes.
What is your budget?
What are your needs?
Pulling the trigger on a budget telescope today does not mean you’re tied to it for life. As you advance with telescope use, you will come to find that it no longer meets or is suited to your developing astronomy goals. Don’t be surprised to find yourself owning more than one telescope over your lifetime. In fact, it’s inevitable.
Since we all must start somewhere and with a budget, let’s get into which telescopes would make great starters for the money.
Best Affordable Budget Telescope Reviews
1. Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro
The StarBlast 4.5 Astro is the perfect example of how you can get more aperture for your buck versus a refractor. With an extra inch or two on this reflector, you can set your sights on those elusive DSOs.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4.5” aperture
✔️ Parabolic mirror
❌ Poor accessories
The StarBlast has a 4.5” aperture with a fast focal ratio of f/4. Immediately, this is a telescope that is good for wide fields of view with excellent low to medium power performance. Great for DSOs and examining the moon.
What the extra hundred bucks get you in this tabletop Newtonian is optical quality. Due to its fast specs, it must have a parabolic mirror and a parabolic primary mirror it has – this is essential for clarity and sharpness. Since it’s an inexpensive option, it would be nice to have a collimatable primary mirror and a collimatable primary mirror it has.
It comes with an alt-azimuth mount with a wood base. Usually, these setups are heavy, but since it’s a tabletop design with a small-ish aperture for a Newtonian, it’s very lightweight and an extremely portable telescope. One downside is that the base cannot be mounted to a tripod, so it must be placed atop a flat and solid surface like a table.
What decreases value slightly are the included eyepieces. They’re not well-suited for this setup. You will need to put aside some of the budget to get quality replacements. But, if you’re all about quality in the tube and mount, the Orion telescope delivers.
2. Meade Infinity 102 AZ
This Infinity AZ telescope has a large 102 mm aperture. That’s pretty large for a refractor and is reasonably suited to its price point. So, what’s the deal with the Infinity? Let’s find out.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Achromatic refractor
✔️ 102 mm aperture
✔️ Slow-motion controls
❌ Light-duty mount
This telescope is an achromatic refractor – it has two elements that make up the objective lens. This is a good thing to see since one of those elements should help with chromatic aberration (CA) correction. But, don’t get your expectations too high as there is still some color fringing and mediocre accessories will exaggerate the effect.
The 102 mm/4” aperture is plenty big enough to start earning some experience in DSO observation. With a fast focal ratio of f/6, you’ll be able to achieve a good field of view to catch some of the larger deep space objects.
What’s the deal with the mount? The good: it’s a simple AZ mount with slow-motion controls for fine adjustments to the telescope’s aim on an object. The bad: it’s too light-duty to do anything serious with it. However, for visual use, it’ll work fine for casual observations.
You can get into instant terrestrial observation since Meade includes an erect image diagonal. To dispel any disillusions about portability, it weighs a light 12 lbs (approx.) but has a long tube of 34”. Not bad, but if you plan on flying the skies the length will be something to think about.
All in all, the Infinity 102 is a good starter scope at a decent price considering the extra perks versus the drawbacks.
3. Orion SkyQuest XT4.5
The SkyQuest is a 4.5” Dobsonian. It’s small enough to be placed on a table if you want, but it’s also large enough to be placed directly on the ground. The entire setup weighs less than 20 lbs, so it’s not a bad setup for travel. What about the optics? Let’s zoom in.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4.5” aperture
✔️ Mechanical upgrades
✔️ Good eyepieces
✔️ Collimation cap included
❌ Spherical mirror
As a Newtonian on a Dobsonian-style base, it’s easy to move about. With the larger size, the mechanical upgrades will be appreciated. A carry handle for easy, one-handed transportation has been put into the design, and Orion’s CorrecTension Friction Optimization System improves secure attachment of the tube to the rest of the assembly. No need to disassemble for travel.
You may still need to collimate it and it’s great to see that you can. Orion even includes a collimation cap to make it fast and easy to get it done. For beginners, you’ll learn how to perform this essential procedure.
The OTA houses a 4.5” spherical primary mirror with a medium f/8 focal speed. While a spherical mirror would normally ruin a fast Newtonian’s viewing quality, the SkyQuest has a slightly longer and thus more forgiving focal ratio. Spherical aberration should not be concerning.
The SkyQuest offers a few good accessories out of the box, and this may help to make up for any doubts. With a good, all-round optical speed, you can seek out DSOs, home in on the moon, and spot planets.
How to sum up the Orion 4.5” Dobsonian? Entry-level price, upgraded quality, and great optical performance.
4. Celestron AstroMaster 70 AZ
As a very affordable telescope on the budget end of the spectrum, you should know a thing or two about it before you buy. Here’s the sweet and sour about the AstroMaster 70 AZ telescope.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Slow telescope
✔️ Good accessories
❌ Limited mount
The AstroMaster 70 optical tube is priced as low as you want to go before you risk further compromise on quality. As you can guess, the real quality comes from the optical tube and less with the mount, and this may be a major compromise.
The OTA has a closed tube since it’s a refractor and this is a great selling point for beginners. It’s a slow telescope and we can tell this by its f/13 focal ratio. Unfortunately, resolving power at high magnification will be difficult to achieve since it has a small aperture of 70 mm. So, the best planetary views will be achieved with low-medium power instead of high magnification.
The mount has some odd design twerks that limits its usefulness. It’s a functioning mount and tripod for visual use, but you’ll be out of luck when asking for more versatility and performance above its basic functions.
The Celestron telescope comes with all the accessories. They’re not the best out there, but they do work well with the setup. This is a noteworthy feature as most included accessories are useless.
This scope isn’t perfect, but it functions and provides good performance for its price point. When you’re looking to spend as little as possible, there will be compromises, but there are good options out there like the AstroMaster.
5. Carson RP-300 Red Planet
The RP-300 Red Planet telescope is Newtonian on an EQ mount. So, there you have it – you can buy telescopes with EQ mounts at an inexpensive price point. What should you expect with the Carson telescope? A whole lot of good seeing!
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4.5” aperture
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ Good tripod
✔️ Medium optical speed
❌ May need new accessories
The RP-300 has exposed optics because it’s a Newtonian, and collimation will be required when you use it, so get comfortable with the procedure. You have an entry-level 4.5” size for a Newtonian which allows you to get scanning deep space for galaxies and nebulae.
It has an f/8 (approx.) focal ratio, so it’s right within the realm of providing good, all-purpose viewing. There are faster Newtonians for a wider field of view, but the slightly longer focal length may be a blessing in disguise. I highly suspect it has a spherical primary mirror, so this should be minimized thanks to the medium speed.
The EQ mount allows you to keep objects within your field of view and requires a learning process, but it’s worth it if you want to track stars. It’s a light-duty mount with a good tripod, but it won’t hold heavy loads without compromising the setup. It’s sort of a moot point since it’s not really an astrophotography scope and it takes lighter-weight 1.25” accessories anyway.
Eyepieces may need an upgrade if you want planetary views, but it’s not really setup to be a planetary telescope from the start. With that in mind, you may very well find the included accessories satisfactory.
As an entry-level telescope with EQ movement to do a little more tracking in the sky, the Carson Red Planet scope is a welcome addition to the market.
What to Look for in an Affordable Telescope
How can you tell the difference between a good, affordable scope and a bad, junky one? There are far too many telescopes available by multiple manufacturers to list individually, and many scopes come and go while many stay on the market for several years.
The skill in being able to identify the good ones comes with knowledge. Knowing the basics will give you an advantage throughout the buying process. Know what it is you want to see, how much you want to spend, and how that translates with your telescope of choice.
What should you expect with various price ranges?
As you spend a lot more, you can expect a lot more in quality and aperture. Here is a quick and general rundown of expectations by price.
Telescopes Under $100
- Very basic quality with a lot of plastic
- Small apertures between 60 mm-80 mm
- Refractor telescopes marketed for “travel”
- Useful maximum magnification will be low power
- Can observe eclipses (with an ISO-12312-2 certified filter)
- Good for observing lunar disk and phases
- Apertures between 70 mm-130 mm
- Refractors and reflectors
- Tabletop Newtonians
- Budget and beginner quality
- Grab-and-go portability
- Includes complete accessory packages
- Included accessories are usually mediocre quality
- Can see the moon and planets
- Can see the brightest DSOs
- Good, entry-level quality
- Larger aperture of 4-8” on reflectors
- Refractors and reflectors
- Full-size Dobsonians available
- Basic GoTo (computerized mounts)
- Higher useful maximum magnification
- Larger image scale
- Improved resolution and optical seeing on objects
- Good for observing the moon and planets
- Can see bright to faint DSOs
Refractor VS Reflector
Knowing the differences between the two can help you determine which scope is right for you right off the bat. It does matter what telescope type you choose since it can determine what you can do with it. Here are the basics.
Refractor telescopes use lenses, and at these price points, they’re small in aperture from about 70 mm-90 mm. Even though they’re small, you can be assured that the optical system is using the entire aperture size to collect/gather light.
Having such a small aperture size, they’re convenient to travel with because they’re lightweight and easy to setup. They can also be used like a spotting scope for watching land-based targets, so they’re dual-purpose instruments by design. They have a closed optical tube which means they require very little maintenance and is why they’re recommended to beginners or first-time buyers.
However, refractors without correction elements produce optical aberrations that will not be acceptable for imaging and can be annoying for visual use.
Reflector, Newtonian, or Newtonian reflector telescopes use mirrors. They’re easier to make and cheaper to produce than lenses. At these price points, they’re small in aperture for the reflector family but are larger than refractors at the same price point. Expected apertures within the affordable range are between 2.5” to 6”.
The larger a reflecting telescope’s aperture is, the heavier the scope becomes, and this can be especially true of Dobsonians with their wood bases. They’re best suited for searching the skies versus land-based targets because of reversed and upside down image orientation.
Even though you have a larger aperture, they require more maintenance in the form of collimation. This may very well be a process you must perform each time you use the scope especially if you travel with it. Look for a collimatable primary mirror. If it’s fixed in place, smaller mirrors with quality bonding will hold their collimation fairly well.
Fast Newtonians with a speed of f/5 and faster require a parabolic primary mirror, so be on the lookout since many budget and fast Newtonians tend to have spherical primary mirrors.
Light-Duty AZ & EQ Mounts
Both alt-azimuth and equatorial mounts come equipped with telescopes in this price range. While alt-azimuth mounts are easier to use, equatorial provides additional tracking benefits. However, mounts in this price range are light-duty and hold very little weight. While this may be suitable for visual use, there may be some noticeable “shaking” of the image when you focus or change out accessories. While this is isn’t a major concern at this price point as it’s expected, the time it takes to wait out this flaw can prevent ultimate satisfaction with your observation experience.
However, when mounts can cost just as much or double the price of your entire telescope buy, you must be content with the compromises. Regardless, these mounts should provide decent, even if it’s somewhat course, adjustments and an appropriate height for observation.
Dobsonians are Newtonian optical tubes on an alt-azimuth mount with a wood base. The wood base is the heaviest component of the telescope system. Affordable Dobs will be 2.5” to 4” in aperture size and will usually come with a tabletop design. It’s convenient for travel, is lightweight, and the entire setup comes preassembled.
Larger aperture Dobs will require assembly and they’re designed as floor-length models. You get the bigger size, but you also get the heavier weight.
Not all tripods and mounts can be separated at this price point. This may be a big deal if you wish to switch out your telescope system with a sturdier tripod. Look to see if this will be an issue for you.
The tripod is obviously important as it will determine how you will use the telescope. Is it a tabletop tripod, adjustable in height, full-length for adults? At these price points, most will have plastic parts and components, so stability is somewhat universal across the board in budget tripods. Look for metal where you can find it and don’t over-torque screws during assembly.
GoTo Computerized Mounts
Having GoTo can enhance your observation and imaging sessions, and it is possible to find GoTo telescope systems for around $400. However, like the mounts in this price range, they’re typically light-duty and are not suitable for serious astrophotography.
Without real astrophotography benefits on your side, a legit drawback is, you are likely to get a larger aperture for the same price with a manual model. But, then you’ll have to find objects in the sky yourself. The trade-off? Smaller aperture with GoTo versus larger aperture with manual model. It’s something to think about.
Most of the telescopes in this price range will come as a package or beginner kit complete with accessories. Accessories may include eyepieces, finder scope, and a diagonal.
While it’s nice to get included accessories as it may increase value in the buy, they’re usually mediocre and will require replacement to improve viewing quality. You must budget for upgrades either at the time of purchase or soon after. Truth? With the budgets in question, don’t count the included accessories as part of value or you’ll be disappointed.
Astronomy Points of Interest
How do you pick an affordable telescope that’s right for the job? If you were hoping to coast by without concerning yourself with the specs, you’ll only set yourself up for disappointment. Here are a few tips on what to look for by way of interest.
If you’re setting your sights primarily on the moon, you can get by with any type of telescope with a simple, manual mount. The moon is a very bright object, so your scope will have no problem gathering enough light to observe it. How much you want to see of the moon will depend on how much quality you want out of your scope. Things to think about are aperture size for resolution and magnification.
Aperture size will affect resolution which means how much detail you can resolve. It will also affect maximum magnification. This can be calculated by following the rule of 50x the aperture in inches. So, if you have a 2.5” telescope, the highest useful magnification will be 125x before the image starts to degrade. Of course, seeing conditions can affect how much magnification you can actually use.
Planets can be seen with almost any telescope with a simple, manual mount, but resolving details requires you to get specific about telescope tech specs. Planets are bright objects and a large aperture will improve resolution and higher useful magnification. That magnification may very well be needed since the planets appear very small due to their distance from the earth.
A long focal length with a slow focal ratio is a must-have – think f/10 and slower. It does narrow the field of view, but when you want a close-up, the goal is to fill the image through the eyepiece with as much of the planet as you can get with good resolving power.
Deep-Sky Objects (DSO)
Star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. A Newtonian or a Dobsonian would provide good specs to observe DSOs. Imaging may require a very expensive APO refractor, and unfortunately, they’re not available as “affordable” scopes. Some are very bright while others are faint. Aperture should be a primary consideration as it can determine what type of DSOs can be observed and resolving power. The brightest ones can be seen through small telescopes, but faint objects will require larger apertures.
You may be tempted to max out your view with high power because they’re so far away, but the opposite is actually true. You want to look for a telescope with a medium to fast focal ratio because it widens the field of view. Since some DSOs are very large in structure like clusters and galaxies, you need as much “space” as you can achieve when looking through the eyepiece to fit the view of a DSO.
How Much does a Really Good Telescope Cost?
High-end telescopes can cost upwards of $800 and can cost as much as a brand-new car. Then, there are the telescopes that come as standalone buys that are OTA-only purchases. They can start around $400 and head into the $1500 range just for the tube.
For the majority of average budgets and amateur observers, a good telescope can be bought for around $200-$600. What makes it a really good scope is whether or not its suitable for your astronomy goals. If you can pick wisely, that couple hundred bucks will go a long way in user satisfaction.
Is Getting a Telescope Worth it?
You can see the sun, moon, planets, constellations, and some DSOs with the naked eye. To get a better image, high-powered binoculars could serve you very well. Imagine how much more spectacular that view could be looking through a telescope with greater capability of providing higher magnification with a larger aperture for even better resolution?
If you’re interested in astronomy and getting a sneak peak of what lies beyond our clouds and blue sky, a telescope would be worth the buy. Even an inexpensive telescope for causal observation can provide enjoyment.
What is the Best Telescope for the Money?
The best telescope for the money will be the one you find the most use for that fulfills your astronomy goals. There’s no point in buying a Newtonian if you want a telescope that can seek out sky objects and land-based targets. While a standalone telescope tube may have attractive optical qualities, if you don’t have the budget to afford quality accessories and an appropriate mount, it offers no value or use to you.
Generally speaking, inexpensive and small aperture refractors have value because they offer both celestial and terrestrial viewing, light weight and portability, and require little user maintenance. Newtonians offer larger aperture per inch for the money compared to refractors, but they require collimation. There’s a balancing technique you must learn before you can determine if it holds value to you.
Affordable is a subjective term, and so we’ve narrowed it down to a price range around $100-$400. There are very good telescopes at these price points that stand apart from the cheap crowd but knowing how to pick them out requires a little know-how.
With these tools of knowledge under your belt and understanding what you want out of a telescope, you can make the best decision on an inexpensive model and be happy with your buy.
Welcome to the field of a fulfilling hobby and the first telescope that will start your inevitable collection.