A telescope is a popular gift idea for Christmas or birthdays, but buying a telescope as a gift can present real problems for prospective purchasers. They may be parents wanting an instrument for a bright young child, or a husband or wife wanting to surprise a partner who has expressed interest in the heavens.
Either way, it means the person buying the telescope as a gift is not an astronomer. So they are buying “in the dark” before the scope itself ever sees a night sky.
One major problem is that the telescope will almost certainly have a nice shiny finish to it but the appearance will give you little clue about the really important matter of its quality and how it performs. So here are some tips from Skymania to help a buyer through the purchasing minefield wherever they buy.
The first thing to say is that a telescope is a serious scientific tool and you should be suspicious of buying anything that looks too cheap to be true. Telescopes are certainly excellent value at the moment, with so many being imported from China, but don’t expect to pick one up for next to nothing.
Avoid the dirt cheap plasticky telescopes that appear for just a few notes in some catalogues and department stores, even if you are buying for a child. The impossibly cheap ones may even have plastic lenses, or poor quality optics that will give disappointing views of anything it is turned on.
They are usually little more than toys. If your child is serious about stargazing, a toy telescope that disappoints could put them off their new hobby completely and your gift will end up in its box under the bed or on a wardrobe.
The impossibly cheap telescope will almost certainly also have simple, unstable mounts or tripods that make the telescope wobble like a jelly when it is touched. The slightest tremble will be magnified greatly when the telescope is looked through, making it impossible to view anything properly. We have a special article on choosing a telescope for a child.
If you are unsure about your child’s level of interest and suspect it might be a passing fad, then why not choose a pair of binoculars. They are usually especially good value and can be bought reasonably cheaply due to the scale of manufacture. But if the child ultimately discovers that stargazing is not what rocks their boat, then they can use the binoculars for other pursuits such as bird-watching. Again, there is a good selection of binoculars in our Amazon stores. Celestron offer a SkyMaster 15×70 model that has received excellent reviews and would make a useful addition to the armoury of any astronomer!
If you are still set on buying a telescope as a gift, then it makes sense to go for a respected brand such as Celestron, Meade or Sky-Watcher, all of whom specialise in making telescopes which include those at the cheaper end of the market.
But with any instrument, check out any reviews of it. If you put the name and model number into Google, you may well find reports of its quality and value on astronomers’ personal websites or on dedicated review sites such as Cloudy Nights.
It may help if you have a friend who is an astronomer. They will probably be delighted to advise on the pitfalls and what to look for in a quality, useful instrument. If you don’t have such a friend, check out specialist astronomy stores that are dotted around our countries.
You will find them advertising in the main astronomy magazines and they generally have staff who are happy to help. They almost certainly will know a lot more about buying a telescope as a gift, or for yourself, than those who work in the big chains of camera shops.
The telescope pictured is the Celestron Firstscope Reflector 114, which is an example of a nice first instrument which has a motor to keep it pointed at the object being observed as the Earth rotates.