Last updated: 19 January 2001

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From:	rick@pinefields.com (Richard B. Emerson)

Thoughts on Why to Buy an ETX Telescope
By Richard B. Emerson

When I decided to buy an ETX scope, I did my homework by reading reviews
in Sky and Telescope magazine (S&T) and started browsing this web site
for owner comments.  While the S&T reviews were favorable, I quickly
found a surprising number of comments that were, frankly, rather
disparaging about ETX's and Meade.  It was almost as if S&T and the
other commentators were talking about two different telescopes. After
living with an ETX-90EC for two months, I want to attempt to resolve the
seeming contradiction and help prospective ETX buyers.

I would be dishonest to say there are no problems with the ETX.  The
finder shipped with the ETX-90's, for example, is difficult to use once
the telescope is elevated much past the horizontal.  Hand focusing the
scope will make images dance around just when they should be standing
still.  The gear trains for azimuth motion (think of that as shaking
your head left to right) and elevation (think of that as nodding your
head up and down) are noisy and have a lot of free play in them.  The
Autostar controller with its Go-To ability is not included in the base
price of the telescope.  Even a tripod is an extra item.  And finally,
most of the pictures on the boxes and in the advertising are not what
you'll see in the eyepiece.  So why would anyone buy one of these

Because this telescope works well and the optics are excellent.  I can
pick up my telescope and tripod, walk outdoors, and look at the sky in
five minutes.  Better still, with the Autostar controller, I don't have
to do any conversions of position information into aiming instructions. 
Once the telescope knows where it's pointed initially, I can point it
anywhere in the sky and be confident that I'll see my target in at least
the finder scope and usually in the main eyepiece.

If this telescope is so good, why the list of complaints?  First and
foremost, remember that all telescopes are sold in a limited market
space.  Compared to the number of VCR's or even personal computers sold,
only a handful of telescopes are sold in the same period. Optics are
unforgiving when it comes to cost cutting.  Either a mirror or lens is
ground properly or it's not.  Manufacturers can produce quality lenses
and mirrors efficiently but sooner or later basic optics and cost butt
heads.  There is no way to build quality telescope optics of a given
size for less than a certain amount of money.  Many of the complaints
about the ETX center around the issue of cost cutting.

Since telescopes are sold in a tight market and optics are basically a
fixed cost, the savings have to come from somewhere else in the
instrument.  While cast metal supports for the telescope would be nice,
plastic forks, properly designed, are as effective and cost far less to
manufacture.  The 8 x 25 right angle scope supplied with the ETX-125
will fit in the ETX-90 finder scope mount.  This finder is easier to
look into but it adds a small amount to the cost of the overall
telescope.  Nearly silent, metal gear trains between the motors that
move the telescope and the telescope are easy enough to design and
manufacture - at a price.  Once installed, a few hours of fiddling,
adjusting, and more fiddling will take out the slack and backlash in the
gears Meade uses in the ETX.  But the hand labor needed for removing the
last few percentage points of play in the system would raise the cost of
the telescope out of the target price range.  The ETX comes with noisy
gears that respond well to a bit of careful tinkering.

With the issues of cost versus final selling price somewhat clarified,
what about making the Autostar controller and tripod extras?  Which is
initially more attractive, a $595 telescope or one offered with
controller and tripod for $945?  Mentally, it's a big step from "under
six hundred bucks" to "almost a thousand bucks" and Meade decided to
break the cost up.  Will the telescope work without Autostar?  Yes. It
will track across the sky well enough for casual observing.  Can you do
it with the telescope just sitting on a table (the older, small legs
seen in some pictures are no longer sold with the ETX)?  Yes, but the
telescope will wobble more than is desirable.  The truth is, however,
buying an ETX means buying the tripod and Autostar controller.  If this
is too expensive, think about buying a good Dobsonian scope (check S&T's
web site http://www.skypub.com for some very helpful reviews) instead.

Having put marketing issues out of the way, there's still the issue of
"what you see in the pictures isn't what you see in the telescope." No
telescope will ever show the flaming colors of the Great Orion Nebula or
the Horsehead Nebula in an eyepiece.  Few terrestrial telescopes will
ever show Mars, Jupiter or Saturn in the detail seen in many recent
pictures including those on ETX shipping boxes.  There is a reason why
giant telescopes sit on top of mountains in Hawaii, the Andes, the
Canary Islands, and the Australian Outback.  There is a reason why the
Hubble Space Telescope is in Earth orbit and not on the ground.  Sadly,
much of the "eye candy" in print leads people to unreasonable
expectations from their telescopes.  The human eye looking through a
telescope simply can't deliver what's seen in exposures taken over many
minutes, if not hours, or even days.

Once again, it seems as if there's little reason to buy a telescope if
there's "nothing to be seen".  Peer through an ETX using the standard
eyepiece aimed at Saturn and there is no question that it's Saturn and
it has a ring system.  Jupiter's disk is marked by at least five major
cloud bands and the four Galilean moons (the moons that were first seen
by Galileo almost 400 years ago) are unmistakable.  Observe Jupiter for
a few minutes, look elsewhere for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, and
return to Jupiter; the moons will definitely have moved from where they
were before.  In the space of less than an hour, their motion about
Jupiter is unescapable.  You'll see exactly what Galileo saw and what
convinced him that the Earth was not the center of the Solar System. 
The Moon, with its craters and mountains, is a landscape to be explored
over and over.  Venus becomes not just a glowing point in the sky but a
disk showing phases just as the Moon does.  While the ETX can be guided
by hand to all of these sights, the Autostar controller makes the task
far easier.

What about the stars, nebulae, and galaxies?  Even from my suburban
frontyard, with a sky much too bright with street lights and store
signs, star clusters are indeed many stars often filling the eyepiece.
Stars that, without a telescope, look to be just one star turn out to be
binary stars.  The Great Orion Nebula shows in the eyepiece as a glowing
patch dotted with several stars.  While the Andromeda Galaxy (the one
closest to our home Milky Way Galaxy) doesn't look as impressive as the
photos, it's possible to spot the glow of the central portion of the
galaxy from my suburban front yard.

Spend a little time in reading the "what's in the sky" articles in S&T
and Astronomy magazines and even urban observers, to say nothing of
those lucky enough to have darker skies, will find more than enough to
see with an ETX telescope.  The ETX It's not intended to be a research
grade telescope and it's not intended to be a platform for
astrophotography.  It is intended to be a telescope for looking and
browsing through the sky.  And this task it does and does extremely
well.  I wouldn't own an ETX if I thought otherwise.

(c) Copyright, Richard B. Emerson, 2001, All rights reserved

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