Choosing your a telescope can be difficult as there are so many choices out there. There's lots of advice out there but much of it is written for people who understand what their looking for, and it can be hard for a beginner to understand all the different choices!
To help we'll start by explaining the two main types of telescope and the three main choices of mount available. Then we'll move on to what you want your telescope to do. Finally we'll recommend some specific telescopes for beginners. We recommend reading all of the guide so you understand the choices, but if you want to skip to our recommended beginners telescopes click here.
It's important to choose your first telescope carefully, as choosing the wrong telescope can put you off astronomy for life.
The easiest, and arguably most important way, to compare telescopes is by their aperture. Magnification and length are relatively meaningless measures of a telescope. Think about it - stars and all the other things you want to look at are billions of miles away, so making them a few hundred times closer is not going to make any difference!
What is important in an astronomical telescope is how much light it can collect. The more light that can be collected by a telescope the more things you can see and the brighter they will be. When considering the aperture consider that adding 1" to the aperture will add a huge amount of light gathering capability to the telescope
Maybe surprisingly the next most important thing to consider is the mount. We have a full page on that here. Why is the mount so important? Because if your beautiful new scope is wobbling and shaking all over the place as you try and use it it won't matter how large the aperture or how good the optics. A better mount will be easier to use and more stable. Top of the range mounts can cost a huge amount, but we'll show you some beginner telescopes that come with mounts that will work. It might mean turning down a larger telescope to have a quality mount, but the decision is worth it.
Next up is the size of the telescope. You need to think about storage and ease of use, as a large telescope you never use is no good. Larger telescopes let you see more, but you won't see anything if it stays inside!
Later on you may want to consider things such as the focal length of a telescope. We won't discuss them in this guide though as we want to keep things simple.
Reflector telescopes (or reflecting telescopes) use mirrors to collect and focus light. The most common type is the newtonian reflector, which uses two mirrors. A large primary mirror focuses the light onto a smaller secondary mirror. This reflects the light into an eyepiece. Mirrors are cheaper than lenses, which means that reflecting telescopes tend to have a larger aperture for the same price. Mirrors are also heavier, so reflecting telescopes tend to be larger, heavier and more cumbersmme than refracting telecopes.
Newtonian telescopes on dobsonian mounts are often called dobsonian telescopes and they are one of the most common types of beginner scopes. They are simply a newtonian telescope on a very simple mount.
Newtonian telescopes have their eyepiece at the top of the telescope, but this means the eyepiece moves around a lot depending where you are aiming. Due to their design they also show their image upside down, which can be confusing!
Reflecting telescopes larger size often makes them slightly harder to use when trying to follow fast moving objects such as planets, but they are still able to do so perfectly well. Their larger aperture for a certain budget makes them the most cost-effective choice for star and deep sky object (DSO - for example, nebulae and galaxies) viewing.
If reflecting telescopes are sounding a good choice for a beginners telescope, then they are! There are a few disadvantages though. They need a bit of maintainance, specifically adjusting the mirrors (called collimation). This sounds complicated, but isn't really that hard. They also can exhibit some optical patterns due to the secondary mirror being in the middle of the field of view.
You can read more about reflector telescopes here.
Refractor telescopes (or refracting telescopes) use lenses rather than mirrors to focus light. They look more like the telescopes you see in stories. As lenses cost more than mirrors you tend to get a smaller aperture than with a reflecting telescope. However, lenses let more light through than mirrors reflect so they tend to perform better for a given aperture size. Lenses are also more difficult to make than the mirrors in reflecting telescopes, so they are more reliant on the quality of their manufacture.
A good refracting telescope will outperform a reflecting telescope with a larger aperture. The problem is that this is likely to mean an expensive refracting telescope versus a much cheaper reflector relescope. This means that most of the refracting telescopes we recommend will be smaller than the reflecting telescopes.
Refracting telescopes are usually seen as better for observing planets and the moon as opposed to deep sky objects such as nebulae, star clusters and galaxies (often called DSO's). They are often lighter and easier to handle so they can follow the faster moving planets, and as the planets and moon are so much brighter they don't need to be as big in order to see them clearly. Normally you look through the back of a refracting telescope and they tend to be quite long, so you need to consider how easily you or whoever is observing will be able to get their eye to the eyepiece, especially for objects high in the sky.
Refracting telescopes can also exhibit some strange color effects, especially with cheaper telescopes.
If you are planning on spending most of your time looking at planets a refracting telescope is worth considering, but the increased price will be taken into account when we recommend specific models.
You can read more about refractor telescopes here.
There are a number of other types of telescope. Most of these are either above the normal beginners budget or are variations of the other types. Catadioptric telescopes combine both mirrors and lenses, common types being Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain. These both have advantages (mainly size and weight) and disadvantages (mainly cost) compared to the other types of scope we have mentioned, but due to their significantly higher price are not going to be considered for our beginners guide.
You can read more about catadioptric telescopes here.
Now you've read our guide, have a look at our recommended telescopes to decide which telescope is right for you.