5 Best Telescopes Under $100 (That Are Not Junk)


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Is it possible to buy a telescope under $100?

They must be kid’s toys or plastic reproductions of the real thing. . . right?

Yes, there are kid’s toys and plastic telescopes that are nothing more than junk. Then, there are some solid performers that have just the basics but they’re good performers.

Don’t waste your time or money by trying to buy a cheap telescope without knowing anything about what you’re buying. That’s some good shopping advice for any product right there.

To help you make the most of your budget, a basic buying guide is provided below after some good telescopes in this price range have been reviewed.

You’ll feel empowered by knowing what to look for and how to avoid buying a lemon.

Best Telescopes Under $100 In 2020

Best Telescope Under 100

If you’re buying a cheap telescope, you must be considering it for a child or for yourself as a kick-around scope for causal peeks at the sky when the mood strikes.

There’s nothing wrong with this way of thinking, but you should remember you get what you pay for.

What are you paying for?

With $100 in the bank, there is quite the variety of telescopes and brands in the market. Most, if not all, will be complete beginner or starter packs with included accessories and they’re ready to go out of the box.

Don’t be surprised to find a lot of plastic parts – it’s a compromise for the cost savings. You’ll see it around the mount and tripod, but you don’t want to see it in the optics. No plastic objective lenses allowed.

Many of the accessories may be plastic as well, but if you can secure good optical quality with real glass and mirrors, you’ll be okay – accessories can be replaced later.

There is a lot of junk in this price range, so buyer beware. It might be easier to shop for a telescope by being able to first identify what you should be looking for.

So, here’s the lineup of some decent, budget telescopes that can help you get your stargazing fix for cheap.

Best Telescopes Under $100 Reviews

1. Zhumell Z100

This is a favorite budget brand for many astronomers of various skill levels. It’s incredibly affordable, has a huge aperture for its price point, and it’s a solid performer.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 4” aperture

✔️ Parabolic primary mirror

✔️ Tabletop

✔️ Portable

✔️ Lightweight

❌ No primary collimation

The Zhumell is a reflecting telescope on a Dobsonian-style mount, well, a Dobsonian-style tabletop mount. What this means is that it’s a very good option for astronomical use and you won’t have to deal with a flimsy tripod.

The OTA (Optical Tube Assembly) consists of a 4” parabolic primary mirror. This is a notable feature because it’s incredibly difficult to find this curved shape in a primary mirror in this price range. The norm is to find a spherical mirror. You’ll appreciate this if you want clear and crisp seeing.

Speaking of seeing, this is a fast telescope that is good for wide fields of view and seeking out DSOs. It’s still only 4”, so you’re just scratching the surface, but it’s still a heck of a lot bigger than what a refractor can offer for the same price.

Unfortunately, the primary mirror cannot be collimated. This is expected for this price point and you must live with it. It’s collimated at the factory and then glued in place. Because the mirror is small for a Newtonian, it should hold collimation well over the years.

As a tabletop, you swivel left and right for azimuth movement and you move the tube up and down for altitude movement. Simple. Easy. Done. As you can guess, the entire telescope setup is super lightweight – under 10 lbs.

This scope is a favorite, and if there’s one you’re going to buy for under 100 bucks, it should be this Zhumell.

2. Orion SkyScanner 100

Small tabletop Newtonians are a great type of telescope to consider when you’re spending as little as possible. One such example is the Orion SkyScanner 100 Tabletop Dobsonian.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 4” aperture

✔️ Parabolic primary mirror

✔️ Tabletop

✔️ Tripod compatible

✔️ Good accessories

❌ No primary collimation

The SkyScanner 100 should be one of the more serious considerations on your list. It’s a Newtonian with an f/4 focal ratio meaning it has wide fields of views and a good grasp on bright DSOs thanks to its 4” aperture.

Any seeing you will achieve through this scope should be clear, bright, and have good sharpness and contrast. Much of this is due to its parabolic primary mirror. The fact that it doesn’t have a spherical mirror with its fast optical speed speaks volumes about its expected performance – top notch for the price!

However, it lacks primary mirror collimation which is a standard flaw for this price range. It’s glued in place, so it should be aligned even if it’s “roughly” set in place. Following suit, the entire setup comes preassembled, so there’s not a whole lot of anything you need to do to get observing.

What’s exceptional about its mount is that it’s a tabletop design. This adds to its portability and lightweight appeal, but you also have the option of mounting the base to a tripod. This type of flexibility may open new doors to where and how you spend your next observation sessions.

3. Celestron Travel Scope 70

Many refractors in this price range are marketed as travel scopes. It’s because they’re small, lightweight, and easy to travel with. Obvious, right? Well, here’s the not so obvious.

Pros & Cons

✔️ Aperture stop

✔️ Portable

✔️ Terrestrial use

✔️ Image-correct

✔️ For travel

❌ Plastic

The Travel Scope is a refracting telescope and comes with a 45-degree diagonal. You can get observing wildlife and birds immediately out of the box with correct image orientation. So, if your intentions include doing a bit of both astronomical and terrestrial observation, a refractor is for you.

The Celestron telescope comes with included accessories but they’re not the best as expected. One great feature is the lens cap doubles as an aperture stop that can be used to help with improving optical performance. Because it’s a cheap refractor, you will have some false color that is called chromatic aberration. On a scope this affordable, it’s something you must live with. Some filters can help to correct for it, but unless you’re spending significantly more, there’s not really anything you can do.

What’s with the plastic? From the eyepieces to the objective lens they’re all glass – that’s the good news. The bad news is the lens is housed within a plastic cell even though the OTA is aluminum. This does present some longevity concerns over time. But, by the time it becomes an issue, you may be ready for an upgrade anyway.

It should go without saying that this entire setup is unbelievably lightweight – must be all the plastic. If you plan on packing it up and hiking with it tucked into a backpack, it’s a good thing. Weighing under 5 lbs, there isn’t any place you can’t go with it.

4. Meade Infinity 70

Like other travel scopes or cheap refractors at this price point, the Meade Infinity is nothing different. However, there may be a spec that you will appreciate knowing about that may suit your area of interest.

Pros & Cons

✔️ Good for planets

✔️ Image-correct

✔️ Terrestrial use

✔️ Better weight

✔️ Portable

❌ Plastic

The Infinity 70 is super lightweight weighing in under 10 lbs, however you’ll notice it’s heavier than some of its refractor competitors in the same price range. This is a good thing because the added heft can provide some stability benefits when using the telescope.

When you do use the telescope, you’ll see that images are seen with correct image orientation. This is a major selling point about refractors – it has dual-purpose observation benefits. Its 70 mm size is absolutely within the expected aperture ranges of this price point, but it’s still small for seeing out to deep space. Fortunately, the focal ratio supports its strong suit with planetary observation.

The focal ratio of f/10 provides a narrow field of view that mightn’t be the best for terrestrial, but it’s excellent for seeing more on planets. There will be false color but for causal use it’s completely acceptable.

It has the same weak points as many alternatives – plastic. The Infinity has its fair share, but you can be assured that it has a real glass objective lens. The Amici prism may need an upgrade if the optical compromises inhibit maximum user satisfaction, but for the price, you can’t really complain.

The Meade telescope is one of the solid performers for this price. If you know exactly what you’re getting, you won’t be disappointed.

5. Emarth 70 Travel Scope

The Emarth is what I consider an introductory telescope like many of its alternatives in the market. However, this scope doesn’t claim to be anything more than it is – a budget performer made for recreational observations for kids.

Pros & Cons

✔️ For kids

✔️ Terrestrial use

✔️ Image-correct

✔️ Tripod compatible

✔️ Waterproof

❌ Poor instructions

The Emarth travel scope is a refractor that is considered a fast telescope, so wide angle viewing is promised. However, with the 70 mm aperture, you will be limited in what and how many DSOs you can observe in detail. It’s the nature of a scope of this quality and size.

It’s not the greatest for planets either as they will appear very small. But, as mentioned, it’s an introductory telescope intended for kids, so they will be able to get a little bit of seeing everything including land-based objects.

The tripod comes up to full height for older kids and can be retracted for youngin’s, but it won’t reach an adequate height for adults. Fortunately, you can switch out the tripod if you happen to have a full-length one around.

The telescope is said to be waterproof, but I wouldn’t test this out as it’s still a budget telescope at the end of the day. Assembling the telescope will take some prior knowledge or some research since the instructions are lacking in detail.

For kids aged 3-12, this could be a good, portable, and introductory telescope. Does it handle the abuse dished out by kids? The masses have said it does, but again, teach them to have respect for this scientific instrument as it’s a real telescope with real components just priced much lower for parents to afford.

What to Look for in a Telescope Under $100

Spending $100 bucks on a telescope is spending as minimal as possible. Truthfully, it’s the lowest amount that I’d recommend for an adult. But, if you must consider cheaper options, at least do it with a little know-how under your belt.

Beginner/Starter Kits

The nice thing about telescopes in this price range is that they come as a complete package. They usually include an eyepiece or two, diagonal, finder scope, and perhaps a few other bits and pieces. The only downside is the included accessories are mediocre quality at best.

You will want to buy at least a mid-range eyepiece to your kit to get better performance. Even an entry-level eyepiece like a Kellner could be better than what is included with some of the kits. Unfortunately, spending more on a telescope doesn’t guarantee that you would get better accessories. It’s customary to put aside a little extra for good eyepieces, unless you already have a collection, regardless of how much you spend on a telescope.

Telescope Type

Refractors and reflectors are the options at this price point. There are pros and cons to both, so know a little bit before you pull the trigger on any ol’ telescope that fits the budget.

Refracting Telescopes Under $100

Refractor telescopes use glass for the optics and can be used for observing astronomical and terrestrial objects. They’re likely to be mounted on a small, light-duty tripod with alt-azimuth movement.

Being realistic, these refractors are single element objective lens telescopes, so they will show false color on many bright objects. But, they’re very easy to use, get setup, and they don’t require the routine maintenance procedures that Newtonians do.

Reflecting Telescopes

Reflector telescopes, also commonly called Newtonians (even though it’s a reflective optical design), use mirrors for the optics. They are not good for terrestrial targets as they present an image that is not only upside down but is reversed – a mirror image. However, this is of no consequence for astronomical use.

At under $100, don’t expect to see collimation of the primary mirror as an option. The primary mirror will likely come fixed in place, but since the mirror sizes are smaller, they should hold their alignment very well. You may be lucky to find a parabolic primary mirror instead of a spherical one on a reflector with a fast focal ratio of f/5 or lower, so you know that would be the best buy in this price range.

Aperture

The aperture is the diameter of the primary mirror in a Newtonian or the objective lens in a refractor. It’s usually the primary feature we look for when we buy a telescope. While we tend to always think that bigger is better, small apertures serve their purposes too. The smallest apertures are the standard for this price range.

  • For refractors, they will be around 60 mm to 70 mm.
  • For reflectors, they will be up to 4” (100 mm)

How will aperture affect what you can see with a $100 telescope?

The larger the aperture, the more light-gathering power the telescope has. This means you can see fainter objects more clearly. With these small apertures, you will be able to do quite a bit, however, the questionable feature is resolution and clarity.

The reality is, you can find and locate many objects but how much you can resolve will be limited due to the overall quality of the scope. After all, optical quality entails a lot more than just aperture.

  • Observe solar eclipses (with a solar filter)
  • Observe the moon’s phases, disk, and surface details
  • Locate and identify planets
  • Planets will appear small
  • Observe planetary phases
  • Observe possible planetary features
  • Dozens of DSOs
  • See many of the Messier objects
  • Many galaxies may be located but will only appear as fuzzy patches

Mounts

In this price range, you’re very limited when it comes to mounts. The options are:

  • Alt-azimuth
  • Tabletop

Between these two types of mounts, they actually provide the same type of movement: altitude and azimuth. This means that the tube can be moved up/down (altitude) and left/right (azimuth) motions.

At this price point, it’s likely the alt-az mount will be fixed to the tripod. If not, you may have the option of switching out the tripod at some point, although, you may as well upgrade if you ever get to this point.

A tabletop mount has alt-azimuth movement too but uses a wood base instead of a tripod. The base allows for swiveling movement like a Lazy Susan you may have in your kitchen. This provides the azimuth movement.

To achieve altitude movement, a knob can be loosened to adjust the tension between the tube and the sideboard of the mount/base.  Tighten the knob to tighten the tension and secure the tube in its adjusted position.

You may happen to come across equatorial mounts every once and a while, but they’re not as commonplace as alt-az mounts at this price point. While they do allow for polar alignment so you can track stars (albeit manually), they will not be secure or steady enough for imaging with.

Portability

These budget scopes are incredibly portable telescopes. Because they’re so small, they’re well-suited to travel and will likely weigh less than 10 lbs total. Many are small enough or may come with compact tripods that can be packed up into a backpack and weigh less than 5 lbs.

Cheap refractors are great for camping, hiking, and stargazing while you’re out and about because they’re lightweight, easy to setup, and they need little to no user maintenance. Don’t forget that with the right diagonal, they can be used for terrestrial observation of wildlife, birdwatching, or even spotting groups at the shooting range.

Lightweight Newtonians on a tabletop mount are incredibly lightweight options. The short tube, preassembled setup, and light weight make it easy to transport. Some are so conveniently portable that your child can carry it from point A to point B and hold it in their lap on the way to a dark location.

FAQs

What Can You See with a Cheap Telescope?

With a cheap telescope for around $100, you will be able to see the moon with some surface details and view solar eclipses with a solar filter installed in the right position.

You will be able to see planets, and see the phases of Venus, Jupiter’s cloud bands, and Saturn’s rings. The planets will look very small through the eyepiece, especially so if it’s a “fast” telescope with a wide field of view. Getting more resolution and clarity on planetary features would require something bigger and better suited to planetary observation

While you can see dozens of types of deep-sky objects with a cheap telescope, only the brightest ones like in the Messier Catalog will be seen. Most will appear as fuzzy, featureless hazes in the night sky.  

Are Telescopes That Cost Less Than $100 any Good?

Cheap telescopes are really only good for recreational and casual use. You can see the moon and explore with some detail, spot the planets, and see the brightest shiners in the night sky.

The challenge is making sure the mount will hold up during use. You may have a good optical tube with decent optics, but there are usually many plastic parts holding the setup together. If the mount is too flimsy, the scope is rendered useless. If plastic parts break, the scope is rendered useless.

Yes, $100 telescopes can provide good performance if you know what to look for, what to avoid, and what you must compromise on.

What Brands Make Decent Cheap Telescopes?

The first brand that comes to mind is Zhumell. They manufacture excellent Newtonians that are priced for the entry-level market but are big performers for their price points.

Celestron and Orion are well-known brands with telescopes at every price point but have a huge inventory in the beginner and budget ranges.

Other brands that are seen across the board include Barska, Emarth, and Gskyer. The inventory with these brands come and go, but they tend to offer the lowest prices.

Conclusion

For the parent who is buying a telescope for a child or the completely brand-new adult looking for a telescope to start with, it can be difficult to make the right decision. Too often someone buys a telescope thinking they can see it all and are only left disappointed with what is now an expensive paper weight. This leaves a bad taste in our mouths that we all want to avoid.

Yes, it will take some research and educating yourself about telescopes. Yes, it might mean that you can justify increasing your budget for the right scope of your choosing. Yes, it will mean there are compromises you must live with.

Can you buy a good telescope for 100 bucks? The answer is yes. Be a Yes Man and put in a little effort to make the right decision on a cheap scope the first time around.

Further Reading

About Fern

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