1) Orion XT8 (2nd Review) 8/14/14
(8" f/6 Dobsonian Newtonian, many different configurations from Orion starting around $349, check current prices as they vary)
Ever have this happen to you? Your rig is up and running, and it's really humming. The views are just snapping for you. In your enthusiasm, you call your friends over for a look.
"Just isn't very sharp, is it?" says the guy with the high-priced apochromat.
"A bit dim, eh?" says the big Dobsonian owner.
Then the third guy, with the giant "Q" plastered on the front of his T-shirt, refuses to even look through your telescope because "it isn't a Questar."
What's going on here? The guy with the apo won't tolerate anything less than perfect, razor-sharp images. The grass-chewing hillbilly with the big Dob isn't used to looking through anything less than a giant light bucket, so everything looks dim to him. And the guy with the Questar? He doesn't think reality looks as good as the views through his beloved Maksutov.
Is there one telescope that will do it all? Of course not. But if there's one model that might earn begrudged acceptance from all three of those guys above, that telescope might be the old, reliable 8" f/6 Dobsonian. Over the past fifteen-plus years, I have recommended this telescope, along with its smaller brother, the Orion XT6, more than any other model, by far. If you glance through this web site, you'll also see these are some of the cheapest telescopes on the market. Orion has sold about a bazillion of them, and if you're a bargain hunter, you can sometimes find used samples for next to nothing.
Earlier this spring, I found myself laid up for weeks due to major reconstructive surgery on my jaw, which had caused me much discomfort over the years. My jaw was wired shut for weeks and I could only communicate by writing on a notepad. Although I was otherwise physically fine, I hated going out. For one thing, when your jaw is wired shut, everyone speaks louder to you (I was not deaf.) Others assumed I had a mental handicap, and more than once, after conducting a perfectly coherent conversation with a store clerk (with my part written instead of oral) I was told that I "spoke very good English."
Being cooped up in the house isn't so bad when you have one of these for company
So I stayed inside. This can be dangerous too, since I had nothing to do but cruise Astromart and the "Clearance" section of Orion's web site. I ordered stuff. A lot of stuff. I am embarrassed to tell you how many telescopes I had in the house. It's months later, and the only one still left from that period is the XT8. I've said this so many times, but it's still true - an XT8 is simple, cheap, and will show you a lot. What more could you ask for?
Another side effect of my enforced isolation - I found myself evaluating some unrealized goals. Some of these were simple. For one, despite having looked at them countless times, I've never bothered to get my Astronomical League Messier observing certificate. Half a dozen observing nights later, I submitted my list, and the certificate came through a couple of months later. The scope I used? I have a house full of scopes, and I chose the Orion XT8. Why? It's got enough aperture to burn through those dim galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, it's simple, it's portable, and the optics are really good. Towards the end of the list I got impatient for the sky to roll around, so on a couple of nights I set my alarm for 2 AM and hit the early fall objects. When you're up at 2 AM, the last thing you want to do is fiddle with wires, initialize (and sometimes troubleshoot) a computer, or lug around a $4000 apochromat.
How does my sample perform? This one's really good. Whoever's doing these mirrors for Orion has been doing a really good job lately. I haven't seen a bad one in a long time. It's sharp enough to give more expensive scopes a run for their money on Jupiter and Saturn. I have an 8" Portaball with a Zambuto mirror, and having these scopes side by side, yes, the Portaball wins. It's easier to pan around, lighter (32 lbs vs 41 lbs) the mirror has impressive contrast, and it star tests better. When I'm in a finicky mood, I'll use the Portaball. But the XT8 is shockingly good, especially considering its price. The XT8 costs about 1/10th what the Portaball costs.
My Messier certificate, earned mostly with the Orion XT8
People often ask me whether they should get the bare-bones XT8, or the tricked-out version with the Intelliscope. It's a personal choice, but I prefer the simple model. I work with computers all day, and the last thing I want to do is use one at night. There's something about the purity of a manual Dobsonian that appeals to me. It's just me, a tube, a rocker box, and the sky. Another common question is whether beginners should get the XT8 or the XT6. Again, you won't go wrong with either, but I've been leaning towards the XT8 recently. They've been slowly cheapening the XT6 over the years, deleting the eyepiece tray, navigation knob, and substituting the ubiquitous cheap plastic 1.25" focuser. I don't mind losing the tray and the knob, but that plastic focuser bothers me. The XT8 has a nice metal 2" Crayford-style focuser, and just based on that alone, I think the equation tilts towards the XT8.
The Orion XT8 is the Toyota Camry of telescopes. This is good and it's bad. It's not sexy. But it's been doing a good job for so long, you tend not to notice it. It's been fifteen-plus years, and my opinion has not changed. If you're a beginner, this is the scope to get. Even if you're not a beginner, these are incredibly useful to have around.
A crowd pleaser wherever it goes - the XT8