Telescope Reviews

Page 8 By Ed Ting Updated 7/15/00

Click on a scope below:
  • Meade 152ED APO Refractor
  • Orion Premium Deep Space Explorer 12.5" Dobsonian
  • Nikon 10 cm (4 inch) f/12 ED Apochromat
  • Celestron 8" Starhopper Dobsonian
  • Astro-Physics AP90 Stowaway APO refractor
    1) Meade 152 ED APO Refractor (4/27/99) (6" doublet ED apochromatic refractor, mount, drives, 2" diagonal, 8X50 finder, $4995, $5790 as tested) (Note: see also reviews of the 4" 102ED and the 7" 178ED models in this series) We tested this telescope alongside its big brother, the 7" 178ED. The neighbors must have wondered what was happening, as there were now two huge cannons in the yard pointing into the sky.
    152ED and 178ED Meade's Big Guns -- the 152 ED (left) and the 178ED (right)
    This is the third of Meade's ED refractor series that I've evaluated so far, and I'm pleased to report that this 6" unit had none of the mech- anical or optical problems found in previous samples of the 4" and 7" scopes. The 6" Meade APO showed some very minor undercorrection (about 1/4 wave or so) and exhibited almost no false color. The optics were sharp and the views were impressively constrasty. Along with the 178ED, we also had a Celestron 102ED and my FS102 nearby. In this august company, the 6" Meade kept up very nicely, and some thought that it was even a little sharper than the 178ED. We picked out some detail in the Alpine Valley near Plato and split several close doubles in the area, including the 1.3 arc-second Xi Ursa Major (the atmosphere wouldn't support anything much closer.) Mars was at opposition, although the red planet wasn't showing many features this evening. If Meade could build all of their ED refractors this well (and consistently) they should be considered major bargains in the premium-refractor world. For those looking to make a "statement" in a refractor, the 152ED is a good alternative to the 178ED -- it gathers almost as much light, but it's easier to haul around. Also, the slightly smaller lenses should be easier to manufacture to precise tolerances. Finally, the smaller tube is a lighter load for the LXD750 mount.
    LXD750 Mount Detail The LXD750 Mount
    At $5000+, the scope isn't exactly cheap, but consider that the AP155 sells for $4995 for the OTA alone. The Takahashi FS152 lists for $10,895! In this context, it's understandable that some might be tempted to give up that last bit of performance to get a fully-equipped, mounted, and computer- ized scope like this 152ED, and spend less money in the process. As with any product this sophisticated, and given our previous experiences with these Meade APOs, be sure and work with a reputable dealer should something go wrong or not be to your liking. A very nice telescope. Update, 7/00: I've now seen another one of these 152EDs, and the news on the second sample is generally good as well. The optics are sharp, with only a trace of false color. 2) Orion Premium Deep Space Explorer 12.5" (5/20/99) (12.5" f/4.8 Dob, 26 mm Plossl, $899-$1069 depending on vintage and options) The Orion DSE Premium scopes look like the conventional cheap Sonotube Dobs from Meade, Celestron, and Orion's own (black-tubed) DSE scopes, but a closer look reveals that they're a cut above their less expensive brothers. Indeed, they are almost in a class by themselves as "Semi- Premium" Dobsonians.
    Orion 12.5 DSE Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, Dob... The Orion 12.5" DSE, with the 10" and 6" Starfinders
    For instance, the DSE Premium scopes have real Ebony Star Formica on teflon for the azimuth bearings. Also, the primary is made of pyrex and has enhanced (94%) coatings. There are convenient handles for transporting the tube (these will, however, impale you in the leg during your first few observing sessions, until you become more aware of them.) Finally, the feet are longer than usual, making the scope less sensitive to uneven terrain. You would think that a 12.5" f/4.8 Dob wouldn't be that much larger than a 10" f/4.5 Starfinder, but that isn't the case. While the Meade is still portable, the Orion is a Really Big Telescope (see photo.) The scope has nearly perfect spherical correction, and gives fine images. What's more, the smooth bearings and fine optics allow easy tracking at powers well over 200X, rare for a Sonotube Dob. M82 takes on a wispy cruller-like appearance, and I can start to see some real detail in gal- axies that were mere smudges in all of my other scopes. All four members of the NGC3190 group are visible, and the Siamese Twins are easily split. I'm impressed. Drawbacks? I don't like the helical focuser, well-made as it is. No finder is included in the price. Also, the three collimation screws stick out of the back of the tube, preventing you from setting the huge 61 lb tube on its back while you move the rocker box. And the 37 lb rocker box itself doesn't have any handles. It's almost as if Orion doesn't want you moving this telescope. Finally, you'll have to wait for one. Delivery runs several months for these scopes. There seem to be older and newer "versions" of this scope. They are all the same, however, except for updated graphics and logos. Logo changes appear to correlate with price increases from Orion. The last thing I needed was another telescope, but after seeing the fine mechanical and optical performance of this unit, and discovering that it was for sale, I couldn't help myself. It's now sitting in my garage. 3) Nikon 10 cm (4 inch) f/12 ED Apochromat (5/26/99) (100 mm f/12 ED doublet APO refractor, 7X50 illuminated finder, many accessories, case, "about $4100" NLA) Apochromatic refractors from Pentax and Nikon are available in many parts of the world, but not, apparently, in the US. Thus, there has been a great deal of hearsay and speculation here about these instruments. According to the (Japanese-only) brochure, Nikon made a 65 mm APO and a 65 mm Achromat in this same series, as well as a sharp-looking equatorial mount and more accessories than I could care to count. There is even a line of Nikon eyepieces. As is the custom in Japan, .965" barrels are standard. These scopes were discontinued by Nikon around 1991; as of now, the only Nikon astronomical products available are the eyepieces, some accessories, and 6", 8", and 10" refractors for professional use.
    Nikon 4 inch APO The Nikon APO aboard a G11
    This scope was sent to me by Dan Folz, a kind reader from Illinois, as a review sample. It arrived in a huge, heavy wooden case, a la Unitron. The scope arrived with an impressive array of extras, including .965", 1.25" and 2" visual backs, a Herschel Wedge, and a huge assortment of items which attach to the visual back that I did not bother to try out. The scope is beefy, heavy, and well-made. It has an impressively solid tube ring and finder bracket, and the focus knobs are huge and smooth. However, it does fall cosmetically short of the Takahashi and Astro- Physics products, both of which are practically works of art. The Nikon, in contrast, has a more workmanlike appearance. The finder is a conversation piece in itself. Excellent optics are only the beginning. The adjustable-brightness crosshairs are lighted in a pleasing, dim green, and don't extend all the way out to the field stop, for a nice change. The finder bracket attaches to the scope via four (count 'em, four!) bolts. You're not going to bump this finder out of alignment any time soon.
    Finder Closeup Nikon's attention to detail is apparent. Note the controls on the finder and the graduated drawtube.
    The tube ring arrived attached to a G11 plate, so we supplied our own G11. After hoisting the large scope on the mount (this may be the only 4" refractor I've ever seen that will overpower a GM8) we waited a while for the scope to cool down. Some telescopes flirt with your sensibilities, preventing you from reaching a concrete conclusion about them right away. The Nikon isn't one of them. Within a few seconds of looking at the moon, I knew I was in the presence of something special. The views, at almost any magnification, were stunning in their contrast and sharpness. On the limb of the moon, for example (an acid test for any refractor) the view snapped from solid, blinding white to pitch-pitch black, with nothing in between. Even my FS102 will show a tiny trace of light scatter off the limb at certain magnifications. In addition, there was no false color to be seen. "I've had reflectors with more color than this," joked one observer. The star test showed very little spherical aberration, perhaps 1/8 wave or so in undercorrection. Vega showed no false color at 300X. One hallmark of a good telescope is how quickly it takes me out of "reviewer mode." The Nikon surely qualifies, as I was anxious to get the testing over with, so I could start using the scope. Three craterlets were visible on the floor of Plato. I subjected the scope to a series of double stars, each closer than the next. Mizar and Epsilon Lyra were split wide open, of course. Izar (Ep- silon Bootes) easily showed black space between its components at 171X. 1.3 arc second Xi Ursa Major presented no difficulties, and Porrima, the "Shrinking Double" in Virgo, presented no challenge. What was most interesting, however, was looking at Zeta Bootes, which, at around .8 arc seconds, is way below Dawes Limit for a 4" telescope. At 250X-300X, I saw consistent elongation of the star in times of steady seeing (this was confirmed by another observer.) Very impressive. This telescope sparked a small debate amongst our group. How much of the telescope's performance is due to the quality of its optics, and how much is due to the f/12 focal ratio, unusually long for an APO? The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in between. The objective has a superb figure on its own, but the long f/ ratio doesn't hurt. This leads me to wonder how good the Traveler and the FS102 would be if their lenses were refigured to operate at f/12. Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of using many refractors, including the Traveler, FS102, AP130 and AP155, the TeleVue 101, and the Vixen fluorites, whose performance can be rightly categorized as "world-class." Add this Nikon to the list. Update, 8/02: Mike Palermiti measured this sample recently, and reports that its wavefront correction is even better than I estimated - somewhere around 1/12 wave. Furthermore, he states that he has measured about five of these Nikon tubes and they are all within the 1/10-1/12 wave range. Impressive. 4) Celestron 8" Starhopper Dobsonian (6/27/99) (8" f/6 reflector, 25 mm SMA, collimating eyepiece, about $500 street) I've looked through a number of these through the years, and believe that they represent sound value both for the beginning astronomer and the more advanced observer looking for a second knock-around scope.
    8 inch Starhopper
    Mine is the older version, with the single-stalk secondary and the larger, black rocker box. Newer (white rocker box) versions are more desirable since they tend to hold their altitude position a little better. Those artfully-angled pieces on my rocker box may look cool, but they don't hold the aluminum side bearings as snugly as they could. I had problems getting the scope to hold still until I replaced the cheesy friction pads with plastic furniture glides. These Starhoppers come with an innovative weight transfer system. You slide the tube forward and backward on dovetails cut into the altitude bearings. Even with an 8X50 Orion finder aboard, there's still room left to move the scope forward. This is the first Dob I've owned in which I did not have to rig up a complicated counter- weight system. The scope's optics are very good. I've spent many enjoyable nights looking at the summer Messier objects. Going through areas like the Virgo Cluster is much easier with an 8" telescope as opposed to a 6". On the used market, look for white rocker box versions. The silly paper decals on the side panels peel off almost immediately in damp weather, so don't worry if they're missing. Also, the availability of these Starhoppers, and their kissing-cousins, the Orion DSE units, is in question right now, as Discovery Telescope ventures out on their own. Discovery made/makes both the Orion and Celestron Dobs. So as of this writing (June 1999) there is a big mess to sort out as to what's available and what isn't. Check before ordering. Recommended. Sidebar: Should you buy a Meade or Celestron Dob? I am often asked this question by readers looking for Dobs in the 6"-8" range. In short, both offer excellent value and have very good optics, but there are a few differences. The Meades come with better eyepieces (the 26 mm Series 4000 Plossl) are lighter and more compact, and look better, at least to my eyes. They also cost less. On the downside, the Meade units have cheap particle board mirror cells, and come with questionable focusers like the cheap all-plastic 2" #77 unit. In contrast to the Meade Dob, which is a compact, svelte little damsel, the Celestrons take the opposite approach. This is a big girl. The azimuth ground board is huge -- 21" in diameter, the same size as the one on my 12.5" Orion DSE. Subjectively, the 8" Starhopper has almost the same apparent bulk as my (recently departed) Meade 10" f/4.5 Starfinder Dob. However, the increased size and weight translate into better stability. Celestron's focuser is plastic, like Meade's, but seems to be a lot sturdier. And the sliding dovetail assembly is a neat feature. Also, the open metal mirror cell is far superior to the particle-board unit on the Meades (the Celestron mirror itself is thinner at the edges than in the center, giving it a "petri dish" look.) If these things matter to you, consider spending the extra money to get the Starhopper. If they don't, and you want maximum portability, get the Meade. 5) Astro-Physics AP90 Stowaway (7/9/99) (92.5 mm f/5 oil-spaced triplet apochromat, OTA only, case, sliding bar, $2400) These limited-production scopes were sold by invitation-only in June and July of 1999. As with any Astro-Physics product, details about its avail- ability are sketchy at best. Estimates of the total number of these units range from 40 to "just under one hundred." If there are only 40 of these out there, they are truly collector's items!
    AP90 Stowaway Revenge of the Cute-Scope! The Stowaway
    The Stowaway has a short-short 450 mm focal length, and uses a brand new 2" focuser with fine and coarse adjustment knobs. The "fine" knob sits concentrically inside the right-hand focusing knob and is geared down 10:1. I found this very handy, and wish more scope manufacturers would copy it. The drawtube has a very generous amount of in travel in order to accomodate a Zeiss binoviewer without a barlow. Indeed, the scope is so short to begin with that the focuser and visual back take up more than half the length of the entire scope! It's hard to put into words how small this telescope is. It is literally the size of a fat Pronto, and even has a similar textured pebble finish like the TeleVue scopes. The Traveler (already a very small telescope) dwarfs the Stowaway. If the Traveler is cute, the Stowaway is downright adorable. If I were its grandmother, I'd want to pinch its cheek.
    Focuser Close-Up Detail of the right side of the scope. The brass knob is the fine focus
    We went observing on a couple of hot, humid July evenings, engaging in an activity we New Englanders refer to as "feeding our pet mosquitoes." The 6.5 lb OTA worked well on a TeleVue Gibraltar. However, there is no provision for a finder. The star test showed virtually perfect optics and no false color, remarkable for an f/5 refractor. I spent some time hunting down the summer Messier objects, as well as a number of galaxies in Ursa Major. The views are sharp and contrasty and the images "snap" into focus impressively. What's more, the views are crisp and sharp right out to the edge - again, an impressive achieve- ment for a refractor operating a f/5. All four components of Epsilon Lyra were easily split at 90X. We had a great deal of fun with a 22 mm Panoptic (20X). You can see Beta and Gamma Lyrae and the Ring Nebula all at once. M81 and M82 look like tiny whiskers or eyebrows within a vast sea of stars. With an OIII filter, you can see all of the Veil, including Pickering's Wedge. I wish that Jupiter and/or Saturn were up to test the scope's planetary performance, but that will have to wait a few months. Watch this space. However, keep in mind that deep sky performace is compromised somewhat -- the Stowaway gives away 30% in light-gathering ability vs the Traveler. However, it does have a larger aperture than the Ranger/Pronto, the Takahashi FC76/FS78, and the TeleVue 85.
    Traveler & Stowaway Tiny Astro-Physics Traveler, left, towers over tinier Astro-Physics Stowaway, right
    The AP90 would make a luxurious addition to larger telescope collections. In a pinch, it can even serve as an all-purpose scope, although its small aperture will hinder deep sky fanatics. The Stowaway will literally go anywhere with you (around the world, if necessary) and the tiny case will have no problems qualifying as carry-on luggage. I hope you were lucky enough to get one of these. End Telescope Reviews, Page 8
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