This time, Battle of the lightweight Full Go-To mount HANDSETS!
We find ourselves at such an EXCELLENT time in amateur astronomy from an equipment perspective. 10 Years ago, you would pay more for a Digital Setting Circle computer, bracket kit, and encoders than you will pay for a COMPLETE Go-to mount today. And back then, you didn’t even GET no STINKING MOTORS! LOL. Times have changed.
So today, if you are interested in a new or used full Go-to CG5 style mount, you actually have several options. Meade, Celestron, and Orion all sell Full Go-to mounts based on the venerable CG5 design, and all can be had new for around $700.
I though it would be a good time to share some of my experiences and provide information on my own pro-con list for these two system contrllers.
No frankly, I am NOT going to focus on the mounts themselves because well, they are actually far more similar than they are different. I mean the LOOK slightly different, but when you get past the cosmetics, these things are far more alike in general design than they are different. I think that the latest Celestron AS-GT might have heavier legs than the LXD75, and of course BOTH of these mounts have heavier legs than the older LXD55 and first generation AS-GT mounts, and stability differences are MOSTLY a matter of tripod because the heads themselves are mechanically almost identical in terms of overall dimensions, design, and geometry. Now keep in mind that the WEIGHT is also proportional to stiffness for these mounts. By comparison, my absolutely superb Vixen HAL 110 is the lightest tripod I have ever owned, but is probably as stiff as the tubular legs on the LXD75… But a set of HAL 110s sell NEW for $300. So, beware. How much stability do you need?
In fact, I can’t answer that question for your application, so I am not going to attempt to….
My PRIMARY focus of this review is to compare the AutoStar and NexStar handset. See, here is where I am going with this… The fact is that the actual components (Legs, head, and telescope) are all interchangeable, and you can build a Frankenscope like mine.. I use the Vixen HAL 110 legs (VERY light, VERY stiff , VERY compact, and VERY clean looking) with my Celestron AS-GT head, and mount either a Celestron C8 or Vixen 140NA on it.
So while you can change tripods and scopes, one thing you CAN’T change is the handsets. The AutoStar handset can only be used with Meade EQ heads (though Meade has made it possible to use the latest AutoStar software with a great number of their mounts) and the Celestron head can only be used with Celestron EQ heads (and POSSIBLY the new Orion Go-to Mounts). The situation to me then, is that the AutoStar vs NexStar handset MIGHT be a bigger factor in your mount selection than the actual mount itself. This is because these two handsets actually approach the task quite differently. Each has its pros and cons, and this review will share some of them with you so that you can hopefully make a more informed decision when you decide to purchase new or used….
First, the similarities…
At the initialization end, both have calibration and adjustment routines. Yawn… Hopefully, you only need to do this once… Both have good instructions that scroll across the screen to guide you though the process.
Both of these handsets offer huge catalogs of objects. 10,000 Objects is probably more than most amateur instruments will show visually. And when you select an object from the catalog, in addition to allowing you to do a “Go-to”, they will both allow you to scroll through basic information about the object, such as magnitude, size, type, Constellation, and remarks.
Both have adjustable lighted displays.
Both have the ability to store user objects, both astronomical and terrestrial.
Both have “Tour” functions.
Pointing…. My results say that this is mounting dependent. With good alignment, both of these systems are capable of putting an object into the field of view of a low power eyepiece EVERY time…. If your head or tripod is sloppy, or your alignment was poor your pointing misses won’t be the fault of either the AutoStar or NexStar handsets…
As for Setup, both offer various setup options… But HERE, we start to see some differences.
First, the latest Celestron NexStar handset does NOT have a 2 star alignment option. The Meade doesn’t LIST it by default, but it DOES have one…. For the Celestron though, you are forced to use one of two different 3 star alignment options, or basically just take your word that you have done an accurate polar alignment and model the sky based on that assumption. The reason Celsetron probably does this is to ENSURE that Cone Error is factored into the alignment. Now interestingly, my early CGE NexStar controller allowed a two star alignment, and you could choose to do a one-time only Cone Error calibration where it just saved the offset for future use… If you only mounted one scope on the mount, this seemed to work well.
So, what is my problem with 3 star alignments??? Trees. I got freaking TREES EVERYWHERE… In fact, my western sky is almost obscured 20 degrees past zenith. Oh, and that BIG OLD FREAKING HOUSE… Yeah, MY house.. It limits my Eastern horizon, but I can get 50 degrees of eastern sky, So, the problem is that getting a good alignment star to the west is HARD for me…. Sometimes, almost impossible!!! Consequently, MOST of my observing is done overhead, or to the east. With my CGE, I always pick my 2 alignment stars to the east, and all is well. But the AS-GT, well it don’t like that. It wants to FORCE me to use a star in the west… If you were to you’re your rings so that you eliminated cone error (it is easy to do) then technically, I would NEVER need a two star alignment, but the Celestron wants you to do 3 stars..
And of course the tree (LOL) star alignment is just more steps.
Now the latest Meade hand controllers also want to do 3 star alignments, but if you press the MODE button when prompted for the alignment method, it will let you get to a 2 star alignment routine… Ah…. I like that… Advantage ---- MEADE… 1 to 0…. I just LIKE the way that Meade gave me the choice… Shimming a dovetail to eliminate cone error would be preferable to me to doing a 3 star alignment EVERY time I set up.
Now, there ARE ways around this with the Celestron. You can do the “Last Alignment” if you are good about doing accurate polar alignment (I am SOOO not), and you can also just do the Quick Align, and then do a “Re-Alignment” on two stars. And if fact, this is what I do…. But I am going to give the point here to Meade anyway… Because it is my review, and I can….
Ok, now I am aligned and ready to pick out my target. I get my map, and try to read it… But HEY, its DARK out here.. If you are using the Celstron, buy a $20 red LED flashlight. But the Meade… Ah… Built in red LED flashlight…. Another point for Giffendor…. Errr… Meade… 2 to 0… OMG. Celestron is taking a TROUNCING!
Fact is, I DID like the little LED light in the Meade handset. You can turn it on and off at the touch of a button, and the light is bright enough to read a chart held closely, and VERY handy for reading the fine print on the side of eyepieces (DARN, that 17mm T4 Nagler and 22mm T4 Nagler are SOOO hard to tell apart in the dark!).
Now THIS one is TOTALLY an INDIVIDUAL PREFERENCE… I LIKE that the cable on the Meade handset can be disconnected at EITHER end via a phone type RJ connector… The Celsetron cable cannot be disconnected from the outside of the hand controller. Why is this important??? Because if you want to REPLACE the cable, either because you broke it, or because you want to buy a LONGER cable, you can do this for the Meade…. GOOOOOOOALLLLLLLL! 3 to ZERO. Man, this is TOTALLY lopsided…
Spiral Search… MEADE……….. 4 to ZERO, ZIP, NADA!. Truth is, sometimes I get lazy and don’t do perfect alignments… Or worse than that, my size 10 going on 15 shoes sometimes bump a tripod leg and nock my alignment off a wee bit. Spiral search lets you start a rectangular outward search from your starting position… Press a button, and the scope moves in one axis at a time to trace a rectangle around the center of the field. Once it has completed a circuit, it will move out a tier. Sweet.
Now to be fair it could be (and this HAS happened to me) that the Meade DID center the target in the first try, and you JUST DIDN’T SEE IT! LOL. Happens to me all the time. The object is so faint, that I just don’t SEE it.. So you think you have a miss, and do a spiral search and NEVER find it… Hmmm MAYBE I was wrong to give the Meade a point for Spiral Search… No… No… Give Meade the point… Boy think spiral search GOOD… But…
Celestron has maybe a better answer… It is called “Precision Go-to”. With precision Go-to, the mount will first ask you for the object you want to locate (Usually it is the one that you just slewed to and is actually in the field but you can’t see it because it is too dim). Once you select the object from the catalog (it will be the default if you just slewed there and can’t see it like me…..) the scope will select a BRIGHT STAR that is fairly close to the object. You are then prompted to center the bright object. The mount will then calculate the number of encoder steps needed to get from that object to the target. Now I don’t know if your polar alignment has to be dead on or not, but this function seems to always work for me… My guess is that even if your polar alignment isn’t perfect, the alignment star is so close to the target, that just going off of the encoder steps will get the target into the field if you have done even a rough polar alignment. This function works, and works well. I use it all the time…. And guess what… MOST of the time, IT TAKES ME BACK TO WHERE I WAS!!!!! But maybe before the very dim object wasn’t PERFECTLY centered, and now, it usually is… And when I really STUDY the center of the field, usually I will find it… Not always, but there have been a GREAT number of objects that DID turn up this way, that I would probably have missed using Spiral Search…. So, a Point to Celestron… Spiral Search is EASY to use, But Precision Go-To is EXACT. And if you are a Deep Space observer, OR if you image, Precision Go-To is worth MORE than 1 point… It might allow you to perfectly center objects that you can’t even SEE visually so that you can image them… So if you image, I will let you assign points according to how valuable that is to you… Actually, I think that it is worth more than Spiral Search, but for the AVERAGE visual observer that doesn’t want of force out detail at the very edge of visual detection capabilities preferring to concentrate on brighter objects, Spiral Search may be considered more valuable.
Slew speeds are EASILY adjusted with the Meade. If you are at Slew speed 4 (excellent for making adjustments when doing high power work) and you want to change slew rate, with the Meade, you simply press the 5, or 6 or 8 button to access a faster slew rate… With the Celestron, you have to press the RATE button, then select a Rate… No doubt about it, you will press more buttons doing rate changes in the Celestron… Advantage…. CELESTRON!!!!! WHAT??? WHAT??? WHAT??? How can this BE!
Well the Celestron lets you go from whatever rate you are currently at to FULL HIGH SPEED SLEW VERY easily…. I leave my Celestron set at rate 5 on my CGE all the time. With the Celestron, to go to full speed slew, regardless of what the current setting is, as you press the slew button for the direction you wish to move, if you press the OPPISITE button on the control panel, the scope will change to high speed… Sometimes, just bumping this button will make the quick adjustment you need, then you can finish off with the normal “5” speed button. I do it all the time, and find that most of the time, it lets me get the movement I want with no difficulty. But the Meade DOES offer easier access to the speeds, so in fairness, I award both players 1 point…. The Meade for having easy access to rate selection, and the Celestron for having easy access to the FASTEST SPEED rate correction. 5 to 1 for Meade now….
Software integration… Meade has an AutoStar update that allows you to DOWNLOAD things like newly discovered comet orbit date into the handset… Or Satellite tracking data… Or whatever you want… This is a COOL feature… VERY cool in fact. I NEVER used it when I had my LXD55, but the Geek in me says that it is worth a point… This might get someone that never uses their telescope to actually get it out of the closet so they can be the only ones on their block to see Comet Eddgie when it makes its magnitude -1 appearance in two years (Only kidding… ) 6 to 1….
Sounds like the AutoStar is THE mount to have, doesn’t it?
Well, errrr, maybe… I mean these things ARE all good things.. And I think for a number of people these features ARE compelling… Especially that darned nice little light… Man, I liked that little light….
Screw the points… I just sold an LXD55 with updated handset. Why would I do that??? I mean the Meade has so many more POINTS!
I am a 25 year visual observer. When I go out to the telescope, I find myself PUSHING into an observed object list in the thousand object range… In an evening, I may locate as many as 20 to 30 objects with my CGE (which uses a version of the NexStar handset). In the end, what finally drove me from the Meade LXD55 (which is a LOT of mount for a VERY cheap price) was the REAL difference between the Meade and Celestron mounts…The basic approach to object entry. And HERE is where whatever points the Meade has earned have been to me, fully negated by the Celestron Hand controller.
Remember the Meades point it received for ease of rate selection when slewing or making fine adjustments???? Yes.. A VERY nice feature… And WORTHY of the point I awarded it… But that point came at a HUGE cost… At least to me…
See, Celestron preserved the buttons on the NexStar hand controller to function as CATALOG SHORTCUTS... On the Meade, if you want to go to an object, you have to use a bunch of key entries to navigate down a menu tree. And often, as you reach the menu level that you want to be at, you have to then scroll through a bunch of items on that menu level to find what you want.
Let me walk you though a typical Scenario.. Let’s say your last alignment star was Vega, and you wanted to go to M57… With the Meade, you will have to scroll to the “Objects” option from the root menu first… Then you will have to hit the Enter key. Next, you will have to scroll though the menus at the OBJECTS level to find “Deep Sky” objects, then hit Enter…. Now you have to scroll through the Deep Sky menu selections until you find “Messier” objects and press Enter… At this screen, you enter “57” and press Enter.. The Handset will now tell you that M57 is also called the Ring Nebula, and that it is loca……… Press Go-to … I already KNEW that it was the Ring Nebula and don’t need the Bla Bla Bla,, so as soon as you know that the entry was selected, just hit Go-to, and the scope will go to it… LOTS of key strokes….
Celestron… Press the “M” or “1” key… The display then changes to “000”. Key in “057” and hit Enter.. The scope moves to M57. Duh.
Now to be fair to Meade, Celestron DOES have some menu driven selections too, but for Messier, NGC (oh and there are THOUSANDS of NCG object), Caldwell objects, SAO Stars, and Planets (and Pluto, which we all know is NOT a stinking planet, and the moon too)… all of these objects can be entered entered with just a few touches of the keypad without going up and down and sideways through menu trees. Think about this when you are outside at night in 30 degree temperatures with your little golvies on… Yes, the NexStar DOES have menus, but it just easier to get to what you WANT with the Celestron.
Even when you DO have to go to menus, the NexStar lets you access them simply by pressing the “List” button and scrolling from a long list of objects. The lists seem more intuitive than the multiple layer menu system in the AutoStar.
The “Constellation” function of the NexStar is also superior to the Constellation function in the AutoStar… It SEEMS to me that in the Meade, maybe only the Tour items are listed in the Constellation function. I MIGHT be wrong about this, but when I used to use the Meade Constellation function, it seems to just present a short catalog of “Showcase” objects…
Accessing the Constellation function in the Celestron is an altogether more useful endevour.. When you Press the “List” button on the keyboard, then scroll to Constellations, and select your constellation, the Handset prompts you for the KIND of calalog you want in that Constellation.. It give you the choice of Messiar, Names Star, Double Star, Variable Star, CCD Objects, IC objects, and Abell Objects. Once you pick one of these entries, you can scroll though a list of ALL of the objects of that type within that constellation. Where the Autostar would only show a few showcase objects (excellent for a small refractor or such), the NexStar will show dozens and dozens of different objects, many which can be reached with a C8 or similar aperture scope.
Now I dislike carrying computers outside to observe, and because of those DARNED TREES, and that DANGED HOUSE, I am often limited to a small area of sky.. I LIKE the NesStar Constellation function because it lets me do an EXAUSTIVE search of the constellation without ever having to refer to a chart. Now the Old Sky Commander and the Losmanday DSC computers BOTH had a feature similar to this, and having used it with my Losmandy GM8 5 years ago, I became TOTALLY convinced that this was the BEST function a computer controlled telescope could have. I slammed the earlier NesStar computers (See my NexStar 11 review) for not having the feature.. My first generation CGE hand controller has it, but the catalogs are really bad. The newly acquired AS-GT came with a new NexStar controller that had a really complete Constellations function and I am THRILLED to have this again…
Going DIRECTLY to an object is also much easier with the NexStar than with the AutoStar. With the NexStar, you can use the “Menu” button to go to a “Go-to R.A. /DEC” screen… I use this all the time… In my excellent Night Sky Observer’s Guide books, there are tables of double stars at the beginning of each constellation section. I actually don’t really consider myself to be a double star observer, but at the same time, on nights of good seeing, I DO often look for challenging doubles (>.5” if I can find them). Well sadly the Night Sky Observer’s guide uses the Struve number for Double Stars, and neither the NexStar OR the AutoStar catalogs index by Struve number.. But the books DO give R.A. and Declination, and with the Celsetron, getting to the Go-to RA/DEC input is easy.. I know you can DO it in the Meade, but it is buried in some non-intuitive place like “Custom Objects” or “User Defined Objects?” or something like that. This is what I DO know… I know that I never USED the function in the AutoStar because I could never FIND it!
In defense of the Meade, from a novice's standpoint, it DOES do a very nice job of providing access to objects in a more general "Class" like way. For example searching through the object menu, you can find that there is an entry for "Star Clusters." So if you don't really like catalog numbers as a way to locate objects, the Autostar COULD be QUITE favorable because it shorts more in general catagories, while the NexStar is orginized more by formal catalogs.
So, in the end, in spite of all of the early points that the Autostar scored, my OWN preference was for the quicker-to-access shortcuts, the Precision Go-to, the ABSOLUTLY SENSATIONAL Constellation function, and the excellent “Go-to R.A/DEC” access provided in the latest generation of NexStar controllers.
Let me summarize this. I think that and EXPERIENCED amateur astronomer using a larger scope will not value many of the novice, convenience, and Geek functions that the AutoStar provides, shunning them in favor of having easier and quicker access to the glories of the night sky… Someone using a small scope like an 80mm refractor might PREFER that the Meade seems biased to makeing it sort objects into bins like "Galaxies" or "Star Clusters" though, and I CAN'T dismiss and don't want to diminish the value that could bring to a beginning astronomer...
After using the Meade and Celestron hand controllers for a couple of years on different kinds of mounts, I just came to feel that the NexStar was programmed by an eperienced amateur astronomer, and the Autostar was programmed by a Windows programmer that was told to make it easy for a new telescope owner to find something big and bright to look at… Know what I mean Vern???
The LAST word… EITHER of these mounting Systems is way ahead of anything available even 10 years ago.. EITHER of them will take you BILLIONS of LIGHT YEARS in any direction you choose to go. These mounts offer an INCREDIBLE amount of value for the money, and my “preference” is simply that… It is MY preference based on my own observing conditions and habits. My review is not intended as a negative review of the AutoStar in any way.. It DOES have excellent functionality… remember, in the end, its function is to find the object you want to see, and it will do JUST as good a job as the NexStar based mounts will, so my review is intended only as a way for someone considering these two systems to understand the pros and cons of the software as I MYSELF see it... Hopefully, this will help someone with their decision…
My regards, and Catch the light brothers and sisters…
ADDENDUM - 10/31/2006
Just a quick followup.. Since writing this review, I have learned that the last version of AutoStar software from Meade did indeed add a "High Precision" function that is basicallly the same as the Precision Go-to function in the Celestron NexStar handset. I went to Meade's web site and the latest copy of the LXD75 manual confirms this. My apologies for the error.
As I indicated in the review, I knew that AutoStar allowed you to put in coordinates, but simply couldn't remember where you did this...
Paraphrased from the manual.
From the Object Menu, select "Solar System".
From "Solar System:Object" scroll to "User Object"
From the "User Object", scroll one step to "Add".
When prompted, enter a name for the user defined object.
Once the name has been entered, you can then enter the coordinates for the object you want to view.
See, I KNEW it could be done....
Again, my aplolgies for the ommission regarding the "High Precision" function.
Also, on the Celestron, I mentioned that you were forced to use either 3 star alignment, or you could go with the "Last Alignment." I SHOULD have included another option that does exist.. Within the menu system, there is a way to turn off the East/West filtering. If you take the option to turn this to "Off", the alignment star list will include stars from horizon to horizon. This means that you could pick 3 stars all on the same side of the mount. Again, a 2 star alignment would be better here, because the star alignment is there for cone error, and if you don't CARE about no stinking cone error, then a 2 star alignment is sufficient. I might also add that another reason I don't like 3 star alignment is because, with my limited sky, there are actually times when I can't see three alignment stars.
Now, this is me, and this is my particular situation, so for many, it simply isn't an issue. But if you ARE like me, and you DO have an obstructed Eastern or Western Sky, then you will come to apprecaiate why I felt that a 2 star alignment option was a very good option to have...
I recently received an updated controller from Celestron for both my CGE and for my AS-GT.
I am VERY happy to report that the problem with the three star alignment has been totally resolved in a most excellent way. Now, when you perform alignment, the default is for the mount to do a two-star alignment on the WEST. But you can easily over-ride this, and choose to do two stars on the EAST by simply pressing the "Undue" botton to toggle between the two. EXCELLENT. And now, the third star (Calibration star for Cone error) is an OPTION.
These changes address my most serious concern about the ASGT controller, and along with some other more minor changes, makes this controller even more desirable to me.
I would also say that to be fair to Celestron, that the mount I reviews was not purchased new, and I do not know how long the new version contrllers have been being shipped. It is probable that they were already being shipped when I wrote the review, which made it old already, except for those in the used equimpment market.
Apologies for any mis-guidance that this may have resulted in.
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