Buying a Telescope for Christmas

My kid (and/or I) want a telescope for Christmas.   What telescope should I buy?

First of all, there are PLENTY of websites out there that are willing to give you a LOT of details about what to buy, especially if you are SERIOUSLY thinking about taking up astronomy.  But I’m going to appeal to the masses that are going to want a telescope that is very simple to use, has minimal set up time, won’t break your bank, and is still of considerable quality to get you started thinking about what you will want in the telescope that you’ll buy next once you know you can devote significant time to the night sky (it’s tough for a lot of people to dedicate time to stargazing when we’re all stressed and busy and just want to sleep when it’s dark out.)

DO NOT BUY A TELESCOPE FROM WAL-MART OR A DEPARTMENT STORE!!!  They are most likely junk telescopes with very poor optics, poor mounts (lightweight plastic tripods that shake even when you breathe on them), and they grossly overadvertise their abilities.  There are a few decent ones on, but unless you’re experienced you won’t know which are good and which are bad.  Sites like Orion Telescopes or Opt Corp offer only GOOD telescopes, and no junkers, since they cater to the amateur astronomer.

So what makes a good beginner scope?  I’d say the easiest ones to use are the ones where you just point and look, don’t have to set up a tripod, and are small enough to carry around in one bag, but still have good optics.  Here are some suggestions between $50 and $250.

Celestron FirstScope Telescope - $50 - a good reflector from Celestron with a simple mount, small, and is also just point-and-look.  Both of these scopes are the cheapest, but still quality, telescopes that are a good investment for the novice who knows next to nothing about astronomy.

Orion SkyScanner 100mm TableTop Reflector - $100 -  A step up from the FirstScope, given it’s bigger aperture and better overall construction.  Same principle of point-and-look.

Orion GoScope 80mm TableTop Refractor Telescope - $130 – Same principles as the previous telescopes (simple point-and-look, tabletop), but this is a refractor instead of a reflector. 

Orion StarMax 90mm TableTop Mak-Cass Telescope - $200 – This is the next step up because a) it’s a slightly better construction of mount, and most importantly b) it’s a Maksutov-Cassegrain optical tube, which means it’s a much better scope.  If you’re fairly confident you’ll be spending more time in astronomy later, this might be a good bet, since when you upgrade later, you’ll only have to buy a better (tracking, equatorial, etc.) mount, instead of the mount AND scope.

Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope - $220 – another step up since it’s a much bigger scope on a much bigger mount.  This one definitely requires more work to get started on, since it requires you to understand polar alignment, right ascension, and declination, among other things.  However, if you have the time to devote, this might be a good starter scope.

Astroscan Plus from Edmund Scientific - $289 – This is the most expensive one here, but it is also one of my favorites at star parties for the public.  That’s because of its shape – there’s no complicated mount at all and if it gets bumped, it’s incredibly easy to realign.  The red dot finder is a key component on this one, but the deluxe package includes a tripod, which is also a great accessory.  This one is much harder to break or damage by normal use, although I can’t speak for carelessness and dropping it.


All the Orion scopes come with Starry Night Software, which is a great bonus – it shows what the sky looks like any day of the year any time of night from any location on Earth.  You can also get a “cheap as free” version of that at  I’d shy away from refractors until you know what you are doing and are willing to invest a decent amount of money into one.  I find these to be time intensive and frustrating to set up, leaving you with a greater hurdle to jump over when trying to get out and look at the stars.  The mounts tend to be confusing to the novice.  None are kid-proof, but that leaves you with a teachable moment about responsibility and all that parenting type stuff.  The Astroscan is a great beginning telescope because there is no complicated mount.  I could keep going on and on, but I’ll stop there for now.  If you have any more questions about this or anything else with Christmas shopping for nerds, please leave a note on and I’ll be sure to respond.