5 Best Telescopes Under $500 (Popular & Quality)


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This could be your first telescope or your fifth.

Regardless of how many you own or if you’re just starting out, this is where you will find the best of the entry-level market.

This price range has filtered out a lot of the junk scopes that come with questionable spec and feature pairings, spherical mirrors on fast Newtonians, and single element lenses.

All that should have been left behind in the lower price ranges.

Here, you’ll learn what you should expect from a $500 telescope and if it will be good enough for your area of interest.

Best Telescope Under $500 In 2020

Best Telescope Under 500

Who is the price point good for?

This is a great price range for first-timers and beginners to find a quality, long-lasting telescope.

Advanced users may be looking for a decent aperture in a portable setup for taking on the road.

They may also consider buying a optical tube in this price range that can be inexpensively customized with upgrades to maximize performance.

What should you expect?

This is still somewhat beginner and entry-level quality. The difference in spending a little bit more allows you the opportunity to seek out additional features from your telescope optical system or mount.

How this price range sets itself apart is first and foremost with aperture. You’ll see some larger sizes which means more visibility. However, because aperture gets larger, you’ll need to pay more attention to the specs and overall optical quality.

One feature you should see that is introduced in this price range is GoTo. If you’re a new telescope buyer and you need help finding astronomical objects, GoTo should be a serious consideration.

Spending $500 gives you new features to consider, more available options to find the right scope for the job, and a lot of opportunity to finetune knowledge and skills.

Here is a variety of telescopes that might just do it for ya!

Best Telescopes Under $500 Reviews

1. Orion SkyQuest XT8 Dobsonian

It’s a must-have to list a Dobsonian in this lineup. The XT8 has a huge aperture, has simplicity at its core, and incredible value is the overall theme of Dobs.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 8” aperture

✔️ Dobsonian

✔️ Parabolic mirror

✔️ User-friendly

✔️ Portable

❌ Need to buy extra eyepieces

It’s funny – 8” is a heck of a lot of aperture for a beginner. But, in the Dobsonian world, 8” is just scratching the surface of discovering the wow-factor. They’re made for exceptional observational use and while 8” is still a lot, there are even larger 12”, 14”, and 16” Dobs available in the consumer market – of course, you’ll have to pay more to get more.

At this price point, 8” is fantastic. The XT8 covers all the basics from a parabolic mirror to included accessories while still being reasonable in weight to haul out to dark skies. It’s a fast telescope, so wide angle viewing is promised and is needed to see some of the larger clusters and galaxies lurking in deep space.

Since it’s a Dob, movement is easily made with its Lazy Susan-like swiveling base. It’s no pre-assembled and small tabletop Dob, so you will have to transport the XT8 in two pieces: tube and mount/base. Fortunately, the base has a carry handle to make it easier, and it all comes out to approximately 40 lbs total.

The full-size Dobsonian comes with included accessories but only one eyepiece. To make the most of your observation sessions, you’ll need to expand it with an extra eyepiece or two. You could even make them 2” eyepieces since the focuser is an all-metal 2” Crayford.

More bang for your buck is what the Dob is about, and the XT8 proves it true.

2. Celestron NexStar 4SE

Are you looking for a planetary telescope? Do you lack star hopping and mapping skills? The NexStar 4SE gets you up and personal with the planets and helps you get there with GoTo.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 4” aperture

✔️ Good for planets

✔️ GoTo

✔️ Limited astrophotography

✔️ Lightweight/portable

❌ GoTo needs updates

Any GoTo system may suffer with firmware or software issues at some point – it’s a downside of using technology. So, following the trend of other GoTos, the NexStar 4SE will likely need some firmware updates along the way.

Speaking of GoTo, yes, you have Celestron’s NexStar hand controller that allows you access to a 30,000+ object data base, multiple slew speeds, and various GoTo features. The mount itself moves in alt-azimuth motion, but it does have a built-in wedge so that you can polar align the scope for equatorial motion.

When it comes to taking photos, which you may very well want to experiment with, it is limited because of the mount’s payload capacity. It’s not an end-all, be-all, but there are some things you’ll want to educate yourself about with having a slow optical speed of f/13 and what that means for imaging.

Without the wedge and autoguiding, you can still take pictures of planets. Speaking of planets, the focal specs are actually well-suited for planetary observation with its narrower field of view. It’s a Mak-Cass (Maksutov-Cassegrain) telescope, so its focal length is actually much longer than the tube’s physical length. It’s why it has portability and lightweight benefits on its side.

There’s much to love about the NexStar 4SE. So, if you must have GoTo, and planets are your area of interest, this is a no-brainer buy.

3. Orion StarBlast 6i Intelliscope

The StarBlast 6i Intelliscope is an interesting telescope setup that offers good balance between user friendliness and digital tech to get the most out of your observations.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 6” aperture

✔️ PushTo

✔️ Tabletop mount

✔️ Lightweight/portable

✔️ Good accessory packages

❌ Not upgrade compatible

The tube houses a huge 6” parabolic primary mirror that can be collimated with the included collimation cap in the package. The parabolic shape is absolutely necessary since this is a fast Newtonian with an f/5 focal ratio. Seeing faint objects with good contrast and clarity is guaranteed.

You may be intrigued by its PushTo technology. It’s not a GoTo since it doesn’t have a motor drive that slews the tube into position. Instead, the Intelliscope uses a hand-controller of sorts that provides the information you need with directional arrows to slew the tube to the correct position yourself.

To get you there, the tube is attached to a single fork-arm mount with a tabletop design. We learn two things here: tabletop height means lightweight and portability benefits and you have alt-azimuth movement.

With its sort of half-way-between-worlds mount capabilities, you may wonder if you can upgrade it with a motor drive down the road. Unfortunately, the Orion scope wasn’t made to be upgradable. Its value lies in its simplicity with some digi tech to help beginners get it done with ultimate user satisfaction.

What’s the takeaway? You have a huge aperture, a ready-for-the-road telescope setup, and you’re not left in the dark trying to find objects.  But, neither is all the hard work eliminated from the equation since you’re slewing the scope yourself. It’s a win-win between bringing in technology and developing basic but essentials skills.

4. SkyWatcher 6 Traditional Dobsonian

You might not yet know, but the 6” Dob is one of the cheapest telescopes in this lineup. This will help you to recognize its value with its large 6” aperture.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 6” aperture

✔️ Dobsonian

✔️ Medium-speed telescope

✔️ Lightweight/portable

✔️ Tension control handle

❌ User error

The 6” Dobsonian is a classic example of getting more for your buck. You have a large 6” parabolic mirror that can be collimated and sometimes this is all you may care to know. However, another good spec to point out is its f/8-ish focal ratio.

It’s a medium-speed telescope that allows you to dabble in both DSO and planetary observation. A Barlow lens will change things up, and this might prove helpful if you’ll be doing a little a bit of imaging.

As a Dobsonian, you have simplicity in mount use and tube movement. To keep the tube secure in its position, there is a patented tension control handle that essentially replaces a knob in this context. It can be rotated to tighten or loosen the tension between the tube and the sideboard.

It’s still incredibly lightweight and portable for hauling across town to a dark location. The base comes with a built-in carry handle for easy transport and the entire assembly weighs less than 40 lbs.

Uniquely, the focuser can take both 2” and 1.25” attachments. The trick in making it easy is to ensure you’re using the right size adapter with the right size accessory. If you stack adapters, you’re going to introduce focusing issues into the mix. A little common sense will go a long way here.

Dobsonians are a favorite of many, and it’s easy to see why. Great price points, large apertures, and they’re easy to use.

5. Celestron Astro Fi 130

The Astro Fi 130 is a 5” Newtonian on a very basic GoTo mount. If you’re wanting to learn the night sky with GoTo and your idea of astrophotography is with a smartphone, the Astro Fi is good contender that should land on your shortlist.

Pros & Cons

✔️ 5” aperture

✔️ Parabolic mirror

✔️ GoTo

✔️ Built-in smartphone adapter

✔️ Smartphone app control

❌ No manual slewing

The Celestron telescope has a good size aperture for seeing all those bright objects in the sky and discovering hundreds of DSOs with the faintest objects appearing as fuzzy patches. There’s a good amount of seeing to keep a beginner interested and busy for a long time to come.

The Astro Fi is a fast telescope, so wide fields of view and low to medium power will be sufficient to get a good look at any object. It does have a parabolic mirror which is a must-have, and while it can be collimated, you’ll need to DIY or own collimation cap or purchase tools to get it done.

The GoTo consists of a motor drive that moves the tube in alt-azimuth motion. So, right off the bat, limited astrophotography it is. It doesn’t come with a hand controller because it’s designed to sync with a smartphone or device with the SkyPortal app to provide hands-free tracking. There is no option to manually slew without motorized control, so make sure you have a battery pack as a back-up if your main power supply fails.

Celestron allows for amateurs to still get their imaging fix via the built-in smartphone adapter in the lens cap. Needless to say, this isn’t going to be your professional route to deep-sky imaging, but you will learn more of the night sky and where to find objects.

What to Look for in a Telescope for Under $500

If you’re considering spending this much on a telescope, it’s assumed that you already know a thing or two about them.

Since you’re spending a little more here, we’ll go over the differences of what to expect in a $500 telescope and how to know if it’s a good buy.

Quality Optics

This price range is considered the high-end of the entry-level market. You can expect a little more of everything from quality parts and components to better visibility on objects. You’ll also see new features being introduced in this price range like GoTo and some astrophotography capabilities or built-in features. So, let’s break it down.

In this price range, you can expect:

  • Refractors – Excellent coating quality with multi-coated or fully multi-coated layers. You may find that many scopes are achromat doublets that do a reasonable job of handling chromatic aberration (CA) good enough for visual use. You may find ED (extra-low dispersion) glass and semi-APO refractors in this price range. These will be standalone buys, meaning, they’re only available as a tube-only purchase. Mount and accessories must be purchased separately.
  • Reflectors – With larger apertures available in this price range, you want to expect more from the optics. Mirror coatings should be long-lasting and high-quality. If you have a fast reflector, you must expect a parabolic primary mirror that is collimatable. For the price, there is no compromising on this.

Aperture

Since we should already know that the aperture is what governs light-gathering and resolution, it should be assumed that when you spend more, you can afford a little bigger size in aperture. It’s true.

For around $500, you will start seeing refractor apertures come in larger sizes of 90 mm, 114 mm, 127 mm, and other similar variations. You will still see smaller sizes like 70 mm but just as important as aperture is optical quality. Is it worth the 127 mm size if it lacks high-transmission coatings that a 70 mm might have? Some research into the optics may be necessary to determine the value.

For reflectors, you will see larger sizes available like 6” and 8” apertures. These larger mirrors allow for a lot more light that can potentially be used to achieve stellar visibility. Again, just like looking for a refractor, optical quality matters. Spherical or parabolic mirror? Can it be collimated? Will the mirror coatings tarnish over time?

Another note on reflectors is to consider secondary mirror obstruction. This obstruction determines how much contrast and light-loss will be affected and what its true aperture performance will be like. For visual use, don’t be overly concerned with it as all Newtonians suffer from this type of obstruction. Look for well-baffled tubes, parabolic mirrors, and collimatable primary mirrors.

Getting Specific About Specs

As you spend more money, you want to be more specific about the specifications of your telescope. You may want to know these details to determine if it’s a good scope for your area of interest or if it can handle the weights needed for astrophotography or for other reasons.

Here are a few spec tips on what to look for by area of interest.

Astrophotography – This type of hobby is usually aimed to those who want to take photos of DSOs, namely, nebulae and galaxies. While aperture is a great consideration, you can get by with a smaller aperture as the optical speed (related to focal ratio) of the telescope is a primary concern. It determines how fast you can capture an image and it also determines the image scale. The focal length will also determine if you can achieve focus with a camera. If it’s too short, you may need a Barlow lens or if it’s too long, you may need a reducer. For more info on this, check out what we have to say about astrophotography telescopes.

Planets – Long focal lengths and high focal ratios make for good planetary telescopes. High focal ratios are usually identified as “slow” telescopes with an f/number of f/11 and higher. The field of view is narrower, but it allows for better visibility of planetary details.

Some professional planetary imagers will look for a telescope with a focal ratio of f/20 to f/30. Catadioptric scopes like an SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain) may prove to be a worthy option since they naturally have a long focal length and a slow focal ratio of around f/10 to f/15.

DSO – Deep-sky objects. Many of the Messier objects can be seen with a small aperture as the brightest DSOs are not out of reach of a 70 mm to 90 mm aperture. But, to see faint DSOs, dark nebulae, or to open your sights to thousands of visible globular clusters, you will need a larger size. Typically, 130 mm to 200 mm apertures will allow hundreds of star clusters, galaxies with some hint of spiral and color detail, and nebulae to be seen in considerable detail.

Apertures of 203 mm and larger will have access to thousands of DSOs with considerable detail on faint objects at low to medium power. In addition to aperture, a fast telescope offers wide fields of view with any given eyepiece. You may want to consider a telescope with a focal ratio of f/8 or faster (lower in f/number) for DSO observation.

Astronomy & Terrestrial – To achieve access to both types of targets, you’ll need a refracting telescope. The correct diagonal used with a refractor allows you to see terrestrial targets with correct image orientation.

The supplied finder scope will likely not provide correct image orientation, but the telescope will. Additional specs and eyepieces will determine the field of view, optical quality, and suitability for various types of terrestrial observation or imaging. However, a 60 mm to 90 mm with a fast focal speed to achieve wide fields of view will suffice for casual observation between both worlds.

GoTo Mounts

All sorts of mounts are available at this price point. You have alt-azimuth, equatorial, and even GoTo. You may already be familiar with manual mounts, and in this price range, you can expect slow motion controls, payload capacities of up to 20 lbs, and steady, strong tripod legs.

Both AZ and EQ GoTo systems in this price range will be of average quality and likely only good for visual observation. They will probably have a very light payload capacity which makes it unsuitable for serious astrophotography use.

Why have GoTo at all in this price range if it can’t provide the precision or weight limits needed for imaging?

Seeing as we’re still in somewhat of an entry-level quality price range, GoTo is introduced here as an option for beginners. It provides the conveniences of computerized movement to find objects faster and easier than if they were do it on their own manually.

Some astrophotography capability is possible such as lunar and some planetary imaging, but the precision needed for long exposures and deep-sky photography would require more accessories and a heavier duty EQ mount with extreme accuracy.

FAQs

What Can I See with a $300-$500 Telescope?

In this price range, you can buy a larger aperture which opens the door to more visibility on faint objects that would appear as smudges on smaller telescopes. If aperture determines resolution and light-gathering, then optical quality will determine how well you can view these targets.

Assuming you have good optical quality and an aperture size of 127 mm and larger, you’ll be able to see hundreds of DSOs that includes star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae all with considerable detail. Some may have faint color.

With planets, you can see details within Jupiter’s cloud bands, much more on Mars even when opposition isn’t ideal, and subtle cloud belts can be seen on Saturn along with ring separation and good planetary color. You may also be able to capture sight of bright asteroids and faint comets.

What is a Computerized Telescope?

A computerized telescope essentially means having GoTo. GoTo consists of having a dual-axis motor drive that allows the mount to fulfill commands from a hand controller or other synced device. This type of system is used to provide computerized and motorized slewing to an object that you may not otherwise know how to locate and find on your own with manual movement or without coordinates.

Basic and elementary alt-azimuth and equatorial GoTo telescopes are available in the $300-$500 price range. At this price point, they’re good for visual observation with some astrophotography benefits but not without limitations.

Conclusion

The primary differences in a $500 telescope compared to a $300 telescope is aperture, optical quality, and extra features. You can expect a little bit more in overall quality as you spend a little bit more.

The key difference in whether you’re making the most of your money is user knowledge. If you know what you want, you can narrow down the options to make the most appropriate buy. You owe it to yourself to do a little research and inner reflection on what your area of interest will be for the next couple of years before you’re ready to upgrade or spend a lot more.

Get a little picky, look for must-have features, and don’t compromise on some optical specs that are very well expected at this price point.

Further Reading

About Fern

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