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Making sense of scope reviews

Posted by Mark Rieck   10/16/2004 18:40:PM

It's freely admitted...I am a telescope junkie. One of my observing buddies has been using the same scope for years. When we decide to get together, one question always comes up. "So Mark, what scope do you have this month?" Many of us within the hobby have changed scopes frequently. It's not hard to understand why. There are so many choices! Aperture, design, observing habits, mount requirements, location, budget, and optical quality are often what drives our decisions. To confuse the matter even more, there are other considerations that come into play as well.

With the advent of the internet, accessing information is now as easy as clicking a few buttons. The info we seek to ease the apprehension about which telescope to choose often comes in the form of reviews provided by fellow amateur astronomers. This is where the road begins to twist. A majority of these reviews are glowing. One popular site uses a 1-10 rating system. The 10's runneth over. Given the incredible range of size, quality, and price; it's certain this rating system is not comparing one scope to another. If we're trying to gain some insight on how scope A will work for us compared to scope B, we haven't made any headway in our decision. One might assume we can at least pick up a bit regarding customer satisfaction. That may be true to some extent, but consider this. If a reviewer has posted his opinions regarding his first telescope, which benchmarks are being used for comparison? The focuser might be considered "excellent" to one, but downright unacceptable to another with different benchmarks to draw from.

Another popular method to gain this information is asking fellow astronomers on forums like those found here and other websites. While the intentions of those offering advice is sincere and heartfelt, a complication inevitably arises. Another person with the same intentions will state something to the contrary. Can they both be right? Well, yes and no. Let's use an example. The scope being considered is of a design that requires ample time to cool down to ambient temperature to perform at it's best. All scopes do, but some need more than others. The one who is certain that, "There's nothing better" might live in a place with relatively stable temps. That scope probably does perform wonderfully...there. The one who stated, "I couldn't get the scope to perform well" might live in an area subject to severe cold or large drops in temperature throughout the night. Even where a scope is stored plays a role.

Brand loyalty is an issue to consider. Claiming that nothing is better than Brand X would be something we all might feel had we just sunk thousands of dollars into a similar Brand X rig. Brand X might very well be great, but there's a good chance your needs and priorities list does not match theirs.

Make your own priority list. Actually write down the things that are important to you. What do you observe(or image)most? How often do you observe? How much time do you normally spend? How will set-up and teardown time affect your overall time? How much do you feel comfortable carrying each time? Have you used scopes of different sizes/designs and know what to expect from them? How will your climate affect the scope's ability to perform at it's best? How will you store the scope?

When you have made the list, prioritize each item. This will vary from person to person. It will also help you narrow down your choices. From there, consider if the scope will require a mount. That ties in with what might the biggest priority of all for most. Set a budget. There are choices that can fit most of your criteria at any budget level.

Now you'll be better armed to decide which reviews offer the information YOU need to make your decision.