If you’re scouring the market for affordable telescopes, you’ll find there are plenty to choose from.
But, how do you know if it’s worth it when you can get what seems like a great deal on a less expensive model?
Is a $200 telescope good and will it last?
In the telescope world, $200 is really nothing – it could be the cost of a high-quality accessory, so to buy a complete telescope setup at this price point is rather inexpensive.
However, you do get what you pay for, so pay attention to what needs to be addressed here.
If you’re just starting out with your astronomy hobby and you’re closely watching your budget, you’ll need to put your money with a scope that can perform.
Let’s identify those telescopes and learn a thing or two about what to look for so you can make the right choice.
Best Telescopes Less Than $200
Let’s be real.
Telescopes under $200 are entry-level and usually synonymous with beginner quality. This is the price range of $100-$200 that would be recommended to a beginner astronomer.
Since scopes at this price point are considered inexpensive, they will not have additional features that you would see on more expensive telescopes. Try to stay away from pumped-up features that you would see on costly scopes. At this price point, it’s unlikely that it can deliver in the way that you would expect of a more expensive model.
Focus on the fundamentals. These affordable scopes must provide great performance in its most basic but essential functions. Clarity and sharpness, good control of aberration, although some aberrations are to be expected, and reliable build quality is what you’re after.
This is a good price point for beginners and older children who are just getting started in stargazing and who expect to upgrade within the next couple of years.
Since the market is flooded with many scopes in this price range, here’s a lineup of some of the better ones worth considering.
The Best Telescopes Under $200 In 2020 Reviews
1. Zhumell Z114
Zhumell telescopes have gained a lot of attention for their value, quality, and performance. The model up for review is the Z114 or the 4.5” tabletop Dobsonian.
Pros & Cons
✔️ Parabolic mirror
❌ Not for terrestrial use
The Zhumell telescope is a 4.5” tabletop Dobsonian. It’s priced just right for its size and functionality as an inexpensive Newtonian with a good aperture for a beginner. While 4.5” might seem like a large size for the price if you’re comparing it to a refractor, it’s still on the baby end of the aperture spectrum when it comes to Newtonians. But, with its size comes portability benefits and optical quality is present.
It provides great seeing quality since it’s a Newtonian, so there shouldn’t be any chromatic aberration especially if you can use quality accessories. Since this is a fast telescope with a focal ratio of f/4, the parabolic mirror which helps with clarity and sharpness is an excellent feature to see at its price point. It’s also excellent to see that the primary mirror is collimatable which will help with longevity.
As a tabletop, it’s designed to be lightweight and easily portable, but portability benefits will be further determined by the platform you will use to put it on. With an alt-azimuth mount, moving the scope will be easily done especially with its Teflon bearings.
One consideration about choosing a Newtonian is that it’s not the right kind of scope you want to use for land-based viewing. It’s the nature of the beast, so if you’re only intending on searching the skies, the Zhumell is well-worth considering.
2. Carson RP-300 Red Planet
The RP-300 Red Planet telescope from Carson is a good, beginner option for the amateur who wants to learn how to use an equatorial mount. Although EQ mounts are not usually recommended for beginners, we all must start somewhere.
Pros & Cons
✔️ 4.5” aperture
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ Limited astrophotography
❌ Spherical mirror
The Red Planet telescope is a Newtonian on an EQ mount. It has a 4.5” aperture that is good for entry-level, and it’s medium-speed focal ratio allows good performance for both lunar and planetary and bright DSO observation.
The OTA has a collimatable primary mirror which will prove valuable to those who intend on using the telescope indefinitely. However, it’s not clear whether the primary mirror has a spherical or parabolic surface. Regardless, the longer f/8 (approx.) ratio may help to reduce the effects of spherical aberration.
The Red Planet OTA is dovetailed to an equatorial mount. This type of mount is like an alt-azimuth with a tilt that allows for tracking stars at the same angle as the earth rotates. This allows some tracking and astrophotography benefits but will be limited since this provides only manual movement.
The Red Planet is an attractive buy for those who do not want a Dobsonian-style setup and prefer to learn how an EQ mount works. Newtonians do require more maintenance than a refractor, but they offer good viewing quality without chromatic aberration and a good aperture size for the money.
3. Orion StarMax 90mm TableTop
The StarMax is a 90 mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope with a tabletop design. What is a Mak-Cass? What benefits does it provide? Your questions are answered here.
Pros & Cons
❌ Not for DSO observation
Right off the bat, you can tell the StarMax isn’t going to be your deep-sky seeking performer. Its narrow field of view and small aperture will limit what you can see, but you can seek out the brightest DSOs. It’s mainly designed for excellent resolution of the moon and planets.
A Mak-Cass telescope is a type of catadioptric design that incorporates both lenses and mirrors. The tube is short while its focal length is much longer. You have a lightweight and portable setup out of the box. Its optical design also allows for good control of aberrations from chromatic to spherical. Since it’s a closed tube, the optics are protected and there’s little user maintenance required.
With the correct diagonal, you can use the StarMax in place of a spotting scope for observing land-based targets. With its alt-azimuth mount, it’s well-suited to following terrestrial targets like animals. Its tabletop design is also easy to use and transport to various locations like dark hilltops, the shooting range, or even from the house to the backyard porch.
The StarMax could be the telescope you’re looking for if you want planetary resolution, an easy-to-use telescope setup, and a larger aperture than a refractor for the price.
4. Celestron PowerSeeker 80EQ
The PowerSeeker combines a refractor telescope with an equatorial mount. You can track stars, take some amateur photos, and haul everything to your dark location with ease.
Pros & Cons
✔️ EQ mount
✔️ Limited astrophotography
❌ Narrow field of view
The PowerSeeker is an 80 mm refractor – so it’s good for cooling down quickly, is easy to take care of, and it has closed optics to protect it from the elements. It’s a great choice for a beginner or a user that is looking for little fuss. However, what may add to the fuss is the EQ mount.
As a manual model, there will be a learning curve to figure out how to keep objects aligned within the eyepiece to track an object. With that learning curve, you’ll see how you can take some unguided, short exposure photographs of the moon and perhaps some planets although the detail won’t be great on planets.
Since it is a slow telescope with a speed of f/11 combined with a small aperture of 80 mm, so the field of view will be narrow, and it won’t be a DSO observing champ since larger clusters won’t fit within the field of view. There may be some coma present, but it’s expected of a telescope of this quality at this price point.
The entire PowerSeeker 80EQ setup weighs less than 20 lbs, so it’s a no-brainer option for travel. The tripod will require some reconsideration, but there’s nothing stopping you from replacing it with a more reliable one you might already own.
5. Meade StarPro AZ 80
The StarPro AZ 80 from Meade is one of the better entry-level telescopes in the market that is usually bought for older kids or as a setup that will be shared by everyone in the family. As a scope that’s often marketed for kids, is it any good for an adult beginner?
Pros & Cons
✔️ Slow-motion control
❌ Narrow field of view
The Meade telescope is a great setup for the entire family from the adult to the young child. It’s a refractor telescope, so you won’t have to deal with collimation or maintenance since the optical tube is closed. Easy to care for? Check.
Its focal specs are on the longer side, so it’s field of view is going to be narrower than a faster alternative. However, what you gain is better optical performance at higher power for viewing local bodies like the moon and planets.
With an alt-azimuth mount, it’s super simple to use, and with slow-motion controls, you’ll have the ability to make fine adjustments. This feature helps to keep an object within the field of view for things like observing craters on the moon or when looking for details in the cloud bands of Jupiter.
When the kids want to set their sights on our planet, it’s easily done. The StarPro comes with a 90-degree erect image diagonal that allows correct image orientation for viewing land-based targets. As such, the Meade telescope is a dual-purpose optical instrument that can go from the skies to land in an instant. Getting more bang for your buck is guaranteed with the StarPro.
What to Look for in a Telescope Under $200
Whether you are brand new to telescopes or have some experience, we’re all looking for the same thing in a $200 telescope – quality. Quality mustn’t be confused with extra features, so sorry to disappoint if you thought you were getting more “perks” if you upped your budget by 100 bucks.
What you want is quality in the foundational features of an entry-level scope. This means looking to glass quality and coatings on a refractor, the shape of a primary mirror in a Newtonian, and things of this nature. While they may seem like basic features, they’re essential to a quality setup.
What are Foundational Qualities?
Foundational qualities of a telescope lie in its basic but essential components and functions. They are what will make or break the telescope and will help you understand and predict its performance level. Here’s a quick word on the matter.
In a refracting telescope, we know it’s made from glass lenses. Optical quality will come from what the glass is made with, if there are any additional elements, and what type of coating quality it has. Look for fully multi-coated or multi-coated coatings on refractors as they cut down on glare with anti-reflective benefits and can increase light transmission.
The aperture is smaller with refractors versus reflectors, so a refractor with a 70mm-90mm aperture is not going to see as much detail on deep-sky objects like a larger aperture Newtonian can. However, refractors are easier to use since they don’t require the maintenance that reflector telescopes do.
Newtonians are made with mirrors. The shape of the primary mirror helps to determine how and where light rays will meet after bouncing off the curved surface.
A spherical shaped mirror in a Newtonian with a focal ratio of f/5 or less will produce an optical aberration called spherical aberration. This is the inability for light rays to meet at the same focal point after bouncing off the spherical surface. This results in blurry viewing quality regardless of how much focusing you do. In longer Newtonians with a slower ratio above f/5, this aberration is not as noticeable.
Parabolic primary mirrors allow light rays to meet at the same focal point, and this is especially needed in faster Newtonians with a focal ratio of f/5 or faster. While it helps in slower telescopes, it’s largely for show than performance in very slow Newtonians.
If the telescope in question has a fast focal ratio, look for a parabolic mirror. If it’s a slow telescope, a spherical mirror will suffice. Additionally, collimatable mirrors will help to achieve optimal focusing and viewing quality. Unfortunately, many Newtonians in this price range come with fixed mirrors. To ensure you will use the telescope for a long time with good seeing quality, a collimatable primary mirror is a must-have.
The mount can make or break the entire telescope setup. Sometimes there’s just no way to tell how good a mount is unless you get input from other users and reviews.
Regardless of what type of mount you choose, it should provide smooth and accurate motions, stay stable during focusing and when adding accessories, and should come to an appropriate height for comfortable viewing. If it can’t provide these essential and fundamental features, move on.
The aperture is the diameter of the primary mirror in a Newtonian or the objective lens in a refractor. The larger the size, the more light comes through the scope to see fainter objects with more clarity and brightness. However, aperture isn’t everything.
The larger the aperture, the more expensive and heavier the telescope becomes. This affects budget and portability. What is just as important as aperture is optical quality. You can have a large aperture but if it does not have key components to maximize optical quality, what you see through the scope will be disappointing. You can have a small aperture and if it has the right coatings, has precision manufacturing, and/or quality materials, it will provide excellent seeing quality.
Since we’re dealing with a budget of $200, you should think hard about what it is you want to see and how much you want to spend.
Focal Length, Magnification & Focal Ratio
The focal length tells us a few things. First off, it’s the distance expressed in millimeters that measures the optical light path to a focused point – the focal point. This is where the image is formed and can be seen through an eyepiece lens. The focal length can give you an idea of how long the actual telescope tube will be.
What about magnification?
If you divide the telescope focal length by the focal length of an eyepiece, you will be able to determine the magnification or power of any given eyepiece. For example, a telescope’s focal length of 1200 mm divided by an eyepiece’s 25 mm focal length will provide 48x magnification. A telescope’s short focal length of 600 mm divided by an eyepiece’s 25 mm focal length will only provide 24x magnification. So, a long focal length can provide higher power for increasing the size of an object as seen through the eyepiece.
The focal length can also tell us about optical speed. Optical speed is given by the focal ratio and is calculated by dividing the focal length by the aperture. For example, a 1200 mm telescope with an aperture of 152 mm will have a focal ratio of f/7.89. The focal ratio can tell astrophotographers how fast or how long it will take to photograph an object. A higher f/number is slower and a lower f/number is faster. It can also tell a user what to expect when it comes to field of view.
The field of view is the measured distance of what you can see through an eyepiece. A slower focal ratio has a narrower field of view, but it works well with high power viewing, lunar and planetary observation, and high-power photography. A faster focal ratio works well for low power viewing, wide fields of view, and deep-sky astrophotography.
Knowing what the focal length and focal ratio is and their relationships with magnification and aperture can help you narrow down the right type of telescope needed for your type of astronomy goals. If it’s excellent planetary observation, you may want a telescope with higher power capability and a large aperture to see faint features more clearly and brightly.
If you want to search the nether of the deep skies for galaxies and nebulae, you may want a large aperture and low focal ratio to achieve the widest fields of view.
Alt-Azimuth VS Equatorial VS Dobsonian Mounts
Alt-azimuth and equatorial mounts are not inherently better than each other, they just provide different benefits. To sum it up, alt-az mounts are easier to use for beginners with their simple up/down and left/right motions, and eq mounts allow a little more versatility when tracking astronomical objects or taking astro photos because they’re mounted on a tilt.
Dobsonian-style mounts are full-sized and intended to be placed directly onto the ground. Tabletop Dobsonians are designed to be placed atop a solid and stable platform like a table. Dobsonian telescopes is the term for Newtonian reflectors on an alt-azimuth mount on top a wood base.
Both alt-az and eq mounts come with tripods. Tripods have their part as they can determine how much you can load up with the mount, OTA, and accessories. They usually come with center support rods, leg brackets, and accessory trays that have their role in providing a solid and stable platform.
Steel legs with 1.75” to 2” legs are the standard. Light-duty tripods work fine for smaller OTAs and provide ultimate portability benefits and are good for visual use. Heavy-duty tripods are best for larger OTAs and for those who will be loading up with quality mounts and additional accessory loads best suited for imaging. While they’re stronger and more reliable, they tend to be heavy.
Can I View Planets with a $200 Telescope?
While almost all telescopes can spot planets, most astronomers want to see details. Planets are bright objects, but many have faint features. For example, Venus can be seen but making out details is difficult because it’s covered with a very thick atmosphere. Jupiter is bright and large, however its features are faint with low-contrast because it’s basically made of gas.
In order to see as much as you can, a large aperture will help greatly with collecting more light. A slow focal ratio will reduce the field of view, but it enlarges the image scale so you can achieve a close-up look. The trick here is balancing optical quality with higher magnification.
A refractor with a slower focal ratio will help to reduce chromatic aberration, and even better if it has optical components that improve resolution and contrast. A reflector may need stacked Barlow lenses, but it can degrade the quality of the view. However, they provide a larger aperture for more light gathering at a cheaper price point. A good consideration would be a catadioptric telescope that may only need one Barlow lens to achieve a good scale image for planetary imaging with great visual benefits.
What Brands Make Telescopes in This Price Range?
There are many telescope brands that manufacture telescopes in this price range of $100-$200. There are generic brands from Gsyker and Emarth to Zhumell. Then, there are the most well-known brands, such as Barska, Celestron, Orion, and Meade. Other brands to keep an eye on from time to time for good deals are SkyWatcher and Explore Scientific.
Spending $200 on a telescope is far better than choosing a telescope under $100.
You may not gain much in the way of additional perks and features, but you do gain quality in the fundamental features. Quality in the basic but essential features is what really counts when you’re looking for a decent telescope on a budget. Since the market has so many telescopes in this affordable price range, it’s important to look to the specs to identify the telescope you need.
If you pick willy-nilly or the cheapest one you can find for a steal, you may end up disappointed since it’s not suited to your astronomy goals. You can still shop for a good scope with 200 bucks.
Research, educate yourself, and you’ll be equipped to shop smartly and well-informed.