Choosing a New Telescope – GoTo or not GoTo

I am often asked by people “I’m a beginner, so what telescope should I buy?” Or more often, what GoTo telescope would I recommend for someone starting out in astronomy?

When venturing out and buying your first telescope, there are a number of factors to consider, but because of glossy advertising and our current digital age, the first telescope that people think of is a GoTo.

Do you really need a GoTo or would a manual telescope suffice? In order to make a good decision on what telescope to buy, you need to decide on what you want to use the telescope for — observing, photography, or both and does it need to be portable or not? This will help you make the best decision for the mount of your telescope.

GoTo telescopes are usually advertised as being fully automatic and once they have set themselves up, or are set up by the user, they can access and track and many thousands of stars or objects with just a simple touch of a button. These features have made GoTo scopes are very desirable with many astrophotographers.

Manual telescopes are not automatic or driven by motors as GoTo scopes are. They are predominantly used for observing (using your eyes instead of a camera) and the scope is moved by hand or by levers by the user to find different objects in the eyepiece. Manual telescopes usually have a finder scope, red dot finder or laser finder to aid in finding objects in the eyepiece. They are unable to track objects, which can make them unsuitable for photography.

GoTo Vs Manual
Compared to GoTo telescopes, manual telescopes are much more economical as you are basically buying a very simple mount and an optical tube assembly (the telescope tube, or OTA). With GoTo you are adding electronics and control mechanisms to drive the scope, which can add heavily to the cost. A small GoTo telescope could cost the same as a lot larger manual Dobsonian telescope.

Good GoTo telescopes make astrophotography very accessible and enjoyable, especially with the addition of cameras and other kits. As opposed to manual scopes, GoTos can be used for long exposure astrophotography. Be aware though, that much astrophotography is done with very expensive imaging equipment, but good results can be achieved with web cams and DSLR cameras.

Manual telescopes are brilliant at helping you discover and learn the sky as you have to actually hunt or star hop for different objects. I once met a person who had been using a GoTo telescope heavily for a year, and at a star party I asked her to show some kids where a well known star was with my laser pointer, she didn’t know because she was used to her GoTo scope taking her to objects.

So which one should you buy?
I would recommend for pure visual observing a manual telescope such as a large Dobsonian or Newtonian telescope. The human eye needs as much light to enter it as possible to see things in the dark, so a big aperture or mirror means greater light gathering and more light entering your eye, so you can see more. What you saved by not having GoTo, you can spend on increasing the size of your telescope.

If you want to add photography or imaging capabilities then I would definitely recommend a good quality GoTo scope or mount. You will get a smaller aperture compared to the manual scope for the same money, but the scope will track for astro-imaging and can also be used for visual observing. Be prepared to spend a lot more money, though.

Consider how you want to use your telescope and the size of your budget. Avoid buying low end, cheap, budget, or what is known as “department store” telescopes to avoid disappointment. Save up a little longer and get a good telescope. Visit your local astronomy store or telescope distributor and before you buy ask an astronomer, they will be glad to help.

I hope you enjoy your new telescope for many years to come 🙂

Dobsonian Telescope

20 Replies to “Choosing a New Telescope – GoTo or not GoTo”

  1. I would caution readers that not all goto telescopes are suitable for astrophotography. Although their mounts may be adequte to hold the telescope, many of them cannot take the added weight of a large camera such as a DSLR (although many of them will do just fine with small webcam type imagers).

    You also need to remember you cannot do long exposure astrophotography unless you have an equitorial mount or wedge. Alt-az mounts, which are common on low end goto telescopes, introduce field rotation that can be a problem even in exposures just a couple of minutes long.

    Also, not having a goto scope does not preclude tracking. My trusty old 1979 orange tube C8 is not a goto scope, but does have a drive motor to track objects when the scope has a good polar alignment.

  2. I’ve bought three manual telescopes, and find it frustrating to try and find planets like Saturn and Jupiter. I’m saving up for a GoTo telescope. I think it would be a better investment because I can have friends and family use it – and find objects in the sky much easier as well.

    When the time is right, I’ll definitely research the heck out of the telescopes.

    1. CW – find out who puts on ‘star partys’ in your area. Go on the internet or check local J.C.’s, colleges or other schools and go to them! Usually you will meet people eager to show you around the night sky and more than willing to offer advice on how to do that!

      Personally, I like star party’s with a ‘pot luck’ or BBQ included! THEN go out and do some viewing! ~@; )

  3. I’m an amateur w/ a fairly good budget ($2000-ish.. can’t dh mountain bike anymore; wrist injuries–need a new hobby) can someone help me to decide on a nice scope? I have a pair of 20×80 astronomy binoculars and I find hunting down planets w/ them to be great fun and exciting. will I have the same experience with a hi-quality manual telescope or will i just end up frustrated? any help is appreciated.

    1. I say, start smallish… maybe in the 4-6″ range? A small fork mounted Schmidt Cassegrain or Makskutov fits in a neat case and is easily transported in a car or airplane. They are also easy to set up and use. That is KEY! The easier a telescope is to use, the more often it will be!

      I think the argument over whether a computer controlled telescope is better than a manual one is like arguing whether using a calculator helps one learn math? Either way, as long as you get out there and take a look you’ll be doing yourself a favor, because looking at the night sky is like looking at the body of God!

    2. I went for a 12″ Meade Lightbridge and haven’t looked back – Nice optics and decent build for the price. Needs a few minor mods to get the best out of it, but works great out of the box. My opinion is that small scopes simply aren’t worth the bother if you’re even slightly interested in deep sky, but they do well enough on planets. Big scopes can be a pain to lug out to the car and whatnot, but the 12″ LB is fine for me.

      Having said all of this, I’ll be getting a GoTo scope as soon as I can. They are just SOoooooo much better for deep sky – I want to spend my time observing, not star-hopping which I find abjectly boring. The ArgoNavis digital push-to computer is my interim upgrade, and works a treat.

  4. If you are going to do visual astronomy then larger optics are more important than GoTo but only if you have the time and patience to locate objects manually using a star chart. Also be aware that the darker the skies, the easier it is to find an object (deep sky) manually, so GoTo is somewhat more important in bright urban skies.

    I agree with the post that states that more than just GoTo is needed for any kind of imaging. A good, stable, smoothly tracking polar mount is WAY more important than GoTo for taking images. Just because a mount is GoTo does not mean it is adequate for imaging! There are many cheap GoTo mounts that will be fine for visual but stink for imaging. If you want GoTo AND stable, be prepared to pay pretty big bucks for names like AstroPhysics, Paramount, and the like. I speak as someone with over 15 years astrophoto experience and many published images.

  5. Personally, if you’re really interested in making a hobby of astronomy, I’d get a manual telescope. My first was a reflector on an equatorial mount. After a summer of learning my way around the sky and my scope I found myself miles ahead of others in my astronomy group who had only ever used goto’s. The knowledge and experience you’ll gain from cutting your teeth on a non-guided telescope will pay off in the long run and be much more rewarding. I’ve since added a small, inexpensive 3rd party drive motor and find it quite suitable for outreach events and shorter (30 seconds – 1 minute) photography.

  6. Most folk coming to astronomy have a very limited budget – and even less knowledge. A manual scope will provide better engineering for a given sum of money when compared to an entry level GoTo scope.

    So spend cash on mirrors and lenses rather than bells and whistles.

    Roseland Observatory.

  7. GOTO scopes need to be small and lightweight, as their drive machanisms are designed to handle OTAs that provide small inertia. Larger OTAs have more inertia, which require much more drive power and cause faster wearing down with time. I know of some amateur GOTO telescopes with larger apertures that went into severe tracing problems due to wear-off of their worm gear within less than two years.

  8. ” I know of some amateur GOTO telescopes with larger apertures that went into severe tracing problems due to wear-off of their worm gear within less than two years.”

    These had to be either cheap drives or poorly adjusted or overloaded. I have used AP mounts and Paramounts for as much as 8 years per mount and have never seen any such degradation even when tracking at image scales of 1/2 arcsec/pixel for as much as 45 minutes (guided). In fact, some imagers believe that the tracking often gets better with time as the gears become “worn in” or “lapped”.

    GoTo scopes do NOT need to be small and lightweight (except where they need to be portable). All big professional scopes are GoTo, after all. They just need to be of appropriate quality and size for the OTA they are going to carry. I would agree that many of the cheap GoTo mounts out there (like Meade and Celestron) are not up to serious imaging, but that is more a matter of basic quality and precision, not wear with time. Having said that, these cheaper mounts are always fine for visual and sometimes OK for shorter focal length and shorter exposure imaging

  9. This is my first post on UT.

    Go-To certainly has its place for amateur astronomers, and I find it can be a valuable tool in finding faint objects. But many people can’t even find Saturn or Jupiter unless they align and press buttons. Time spent in learning the night sky as to where things are will pay big dividends later.

    A middle course is also newly available. Orion has introduced a line of go-to Dobs that may be used completely manually or with a go-to including a huge database of objects. Though considerably more expensive than their basic Dob, it might be a good choce for many observers.

    Cheap go-to’s often have set up and alignment problems, and for the same money, a basic no-frills Dob would be less likely to cause frustration, and would force you to actually learn how to use a telescope. Anyone can push a button. But not everyone who picks up a wrench is a mechanic.

  10. In defense of GOTO Telescopes.

    Being someone who has had both types of scopes and mounts I can honestly say I have learned more with the GOTO setup than I have ever learned with the manual set up.

    Previous to my current setup which is a SkyWatcher 200p (8” Mirror) and a EQ5 with SynScan GOTO added I have either manual mounts or mounts with a RA tracking motor for photography.

    Both Refractors and Reflectors and I certainly prefer reflectors unless you have a very large wallet.

    Now unless you use your telescope for large bright objects and have loads of free time then I would certainly choose the GOTO every time.

    If you like me and have a work schedule and family like to slot in around you hobby (should that be the other way around?) You will find a manual telescope very frustrating on anything other that the brightest object in out solar system.

    I may only have a couple of hours to go out with the scope and I have spent many frustrating hours searching for DSO’s (Deep Space Objects) and getting nowhere, arriving back home without seeing the objects I was searching for. What did I learn from this experience? Space is very big!

    Now since having the GOTO option I have learned, a lot about Polar alignment, how to set up and telescope correctly, how to align a telescope to 3 bright stars, to get correct alignment. Just learning the bright visible stars is an achievement and if you go at different times of the night and months throughout the year you get to learn all about the local bright stars that you need to know for correct alignment.

    When I go out these days it what used to take me 10 minutes to set up (Manual) now takes me 30-40 minutes to get everything, balanced, polar aligned, and GOTO 3 star alignment set up, but once set up correctly that is it for the observing session.

    A full catalogue of objects and planets are at my finger tips, full visual tracking of objects, anyone who has manually found DSO objects in the eyepiece only for a few seconds later is gone? Things move fast out there! The bigger your scope and the higher power eyepiece you use the smaller your field of view and you are constantly adjusting your scope, where as with the GOTO option once correctly set up objects remain the the FOV for very much longer in fact nearly all night if required.

    I can spend most of my evenings observing session actually viewing the objects I wanted to view from my observing lists, and yes I’m learning more about the night sky than ever before simply because GOTO made it a less frustrating experience and allowed me to spend my time with the telescope doing what I like to do, which is view our vast expanding universe.

    People who say to me you are not learning about the hobby is rubbish, I have learned more since I went GOTO than ever before, If you want to learn the sky manually that’s great get a star map book and a pair of binoculars and enjoy your hobby, but to say to me I know more about the sky than you, could be true? But ask your self this! What did you come into the hobby for? To sit there night after night learning star charts so you could point out to people oh there is M31 or M57? Or did you come into the hobby to view the wonders of the night sky and out planets? Just because I have a GOTO telescope does not mean I’m not learning, in fact I could point out a vast amount of objects and planets in out sky, simply because once GOTO has positioned the scope and cantered the object, that’s not the end! I step back from the eyepiece and look up “Oh that’s where it is” can I see it in binoculars? What’s the nearest constellation? Any bright known stars in the FOV. GOTO simply means you have options, how you use those options depends on the person. For me the whole galaxy is there, and other galaxies as well so don’t be an Astro Snob! GOTO is a fantastic achievement for the average astronomer and has released the hobby into the 21st centaury
    My telescope time is no longer a frustrating experience and is more a giant learning curve learning about DSO’s, nebula’s and galaxies and I’ve now moving on to astro-photography this again is another massive learning curve, but now I have the time to learn about the photography side knowing that I can at least find the DSO objects next step is photographing them

    Ray Gilchrist

  11. CW ; I mean no offense really, but Saturn and Jupiter should be very easy to find just by looking up.

    I have a 30 year-old Tasco with a rotating “zoom” ability, up ro 90x. It’s a GREAT scope to throw in the trunk, take to a field, and get going in no time. I took it to the Red River Gorge here in KY this summer, and got great views of M13, the Milky Way, Jupiter, ect…

    1. No offense taken. I can usually find Jupiter and Saturn, but I have a hard time focusing and keeping the telescope still. I’ve got the shakes. If I can have a telescope go to the object and all I have to do is focus, I won’t have to worry about shaking it.

  12. Some concrete suggestions:
    If you have $2k to spend, start by buying the Orion SkyQuest XT10i Computerized IntelliScope for $700+tax. The computer makes it easy to find stuff and a 10″ scope gives great views of many deep sky objects, as well as the moon and planets. if you decide you like the hobby, then spend the other $1300 (or $1200 after taxes) buying better eyepieces and maybe a good pair of binoculars. Also, join a club. Observing with other people is fun, helps you learn lots and lets you compare the views through your scope to other people’s equipment. By the time you’ve discovered the limits of the 10″ dob, you’ll have a pretty good idea what you want to replace it with. If you ever do.

    The kind of scope that will suit you best is the one that you’ll use often. That means size can be as much a factor as anything. If the 10″ dob is too heavy for you to carry by yourself, you might want something smaller.

    I bought my first scope about five years ago. I planned on getting a small goto, but the guy at the telescope store talked me into getting an 8″ dob instead because it was much cheaper and the larger aperture would let me see more. He was right: it was a great scope to help me decide whether I was going to stick with the hobby long enough that it was worthwhile investing more.

    I live in the city of Vancouver, where you never can see more than the brightest stars. That 8″ dob gave me good views of the stuff I could find, but finding objects took a long time and I found very few objects because I usually couldn’t see the stars shown in the star charts to orient myself. Still, I was enthralled by those I could see, especially the moon, Saturn and Jupiter.

    I soon moved up to a 10″ Orion Intelliscope dob, which has “digital setting circles” and a hand paddle computer that tells you how to find objects. That was a great leap forward. Aligning the scope took < 5min once I'd practiced a few times. Once the scope was aligned, I could use the hand paddle to tell me where to push the scope, and I could find most objects very quickly (probably faster than many goto scopes can slew to the objects). The larger aperture also let me see many objects that are invisible from the city in the 8" scope.

    The 10" scope is perfect for me for other reasons: I can leave it set up in my living room and it's the largest scope I can carry in and out of the house by myself. For me, it's a real "grab and go" scope. I do most of my observing from my front yard. Yes, it's light polluted, but it's convenient. I can be observing in a few minutes. That means I can get out for at least a short session whenever the skies are clear.

    I now also have an Obsession 15" ultra-compact dob. It produces beautiful views, but the longer setup time means it gets used less than half as often as the older 10".

    If I lived in a multi-story condo, I might prefer a refractor that packs down smaller. But those tripods and counterweights are awkward, too. It might be just as easy to get a smaller dob and/or put it on a cart to wheel it from the storage space to the elevator and outside.

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