Meade ETX80 Review

 

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An ETX-80 in its natural habitat – a child’s bedroom

 

I have never been a fan of small GOTO telescopes, but last Christmas I found myself ordering one. Why? Well the problem was my daughter. She was ten at the time and I had been trying to interest her in the night sky for many years. I phrase it like that, because she is interested in astronomy, knows all the planets and lots of stuff about black holes and so on. The trouble is she has never been very keen on actually going out and doing astronomy. She has had a few kid-scopes over the years and none of them have found favour. In many cases that’s not surprising. The “Edu-Toys” refractor  I bought her first was indeed a toy and otherwise useless. The little chubby blue plastic Newtonian I bought was hopelessly out of collimation and so also useless. Finally there was a Vixen ALF70 70mm achromat on a Porta. She did use that a few times, but the problem was a hopeless finder that couldn’t easily be replaced allied to a long focal length that meant she could never find things. Try again Dad, one last go.

 

If you are going to have GOTO on a small scope, it needs to be a short focal length refractor with an inherently wide field of view. Not only will the wide field make it much easier to align the computer, but it will often provide more satisfactory views of the things the computer can find.

 

No one should need to spend fifteen minutes aligning their goto mount in order to find the Moon and Venus; after all, you need some astronomical knowledge to align the thing in the first place! So, for me Meade’s ETX refractors make much more sense as goto scopes than the Maksutovs (ETX-90, ETX-105 etc). Goto is all about finding DSOs and wide field refractors give nice views of them, APO not required.

 

So I thought I’d try to spark her interest with an ETX, hoping that learning about the computer (she loves computers like all kids these days) might lead her into learning her way around the sky. Besides, her best friend at the time was getting one as well, so I hoped they’d share the learning experience. Ever the optimist, I bought one.

 

Design and Build

 

OTA and Optics

 

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A rather dusty ETX 80 objective (there’s no dew shield to keep the dust off in-use).

 

The best thing about the ETX is the Carton it comes in. I’m not being facetious, I mean really it’s a work of marketing art and is enormous: all covered with glossy photos of the scope and things you might see in it, if only it was a ninety-inch Ritchey Chretien attached to a billion dollar camera and you were living in orbit. Trouble is, that sets expectations, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The ETX family of small refractors started off as a sixty, which was too small, went on to a very handy seventy and is now a somewhat bloated eighty. All of them are short focal length achromats on a typical Meade fork mount, complete with a pared-down Autostar handset and probably the white plastic gears familiar to frustrated owners of Meade SCTs. The tubes are blue, but you probably knew that already too.

 

The inspiration for the design of all ETXs appears to be the Questar. Where the Questar is all polished alloy, the ETXs are black plastic, but basic build quality looks decent. Like the Questar, any model of ETX sits in an alt-az fork with setting circles on each axis, but unlike a Questar, the Meades have a computer-controlled goto and tracking system.

 

So if the electronics in the ETXs are closely related to those in the bigger Meades, the optics are basically the familiar old Short Tube 80 in a different package; nothing wrong with that. So optically the ETX-80 is a Chinese-made 80mm F5 (400m F.L.) achromatic refractor.

 

The objective lens is well coated and of good quality, but if you want a dew shield, it’s an optional extra. A mirror diagonal is built-in to the OTA at the back.

 

You might think that the increase in aperture from the ETX-70 to the ETX-80 would be a good thing, but as I said earlier, the eighty is surprisingly larger than the 70, both in the tube and the length of the forks, so that it is now much larger than its Questar progenitor. What’s more, the bigger aperture also means a longer focal length and so a smaller field of view, on which more later.

 

Control Box and Focuser

 

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Whilst the old ST80 is just a simple OTA with a basic rack and pinion focuser, the ETX has been given a sort of budget-Questar control box. This means that the back of the tube is enclosed in a plastic structure from which several small silver knobs protrude.

 

One knob flips the diagonal mirror aside so you can use a port in the back for photography; another knob engages a barlow lens to increase magnification without changing eyepieces; the third knob is the focuser...

 

The focuser itself works by moving the whole front section of tube containing the lens, so your eyepiece stays in one position. Clever? Well not really, because the focuser ends up being painfully stiff and slow. For example, slipping the barlow into the optical path of the supplied 26mm Plossl is easy with the control box, great! It then takes 20 full turns of the knob to re-focus, yes really, I did mean 20 – I counted them.

 

Eyepieces and Accessories

 

What the ETX could really do with borrowing from the Questar, is it’s clever built-in finder, but of course that’s the one feature they didn’t copy. So the ETX has no finder at all, which can be frustrating when it comes to alignment, on which more anon.

 

The ETX comes with various accessories, including Meade Series 4000 Plossl eyepieces of 26mm and 9.7mm focal length, that are quite good and give magnifications of 15x and 41x respectively. Also included is a little compass to help you find North for alignment. But what’s the point? If you can’t find the pole star what hope do you have of finding the alignment stars it chooses?

 

 

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An ETX-70 with accessories

 

 

The base of the forks can be placed on a tabletop and rubber pads are thoughtfully stuck on so as not to mar the family dining table. Alternatively, a very light (and flimsy) tripod is included. The base attaches to the tripod by two bolts, but unfortunately a central ¼-20 thread for a photo tripod is not provided, so you can’t easily substitute your own. The tripod includes a tray for the eyepieces and the Autostar handset. Meade even throw in a carry bag for the tripod (some earlier version gave you a backpack).

 

Autostar

 

How Does Autostar Work?

 

Well I never knew til I owned one (and I never owned one before), so I thought I’d take a brief diversion to explain. If you know this stuff, skip it!

 

The ETX sits in a fork mount, consisting of two plastic arms attached to the base, that is controlled electronically by a computer system that Meade call “Autostar”. The computer moves the tube in both altitude and azimuth (up and down) to follow the movement of objects across the sky as the Earth turns. In order to do this, it has to know where it is: this is done by “aligning” the mount, which means pointing it at a couple of known stars.

 

How to Align Autostar

 

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The Autostar handset plugs into the fork legs next to the “on” switch. The handset is the computer and has a little two-line display and some buttons... When you click the switch, the scope beeps and the handset displays the following useful message. It takes about a minute for this to scroll across the display, but it feels much, much longer.

 

“WARNING: Looking at or near the sun will cause irreversible damage to your eye. Do not point this telescope at or near the Sun. Do not look through the telescope as it is moving. To indicate that you have read and understood this message, press the speed key.”

 

As far as I can tell, you have to get past this message every time you start up.

 

Then it tells you you’re getting started and if it’s the first time you’ll have to enter the time and your latitude and longitude etc. Then you select an alignment mode. The default is “Easy”.

 

Now you get a new minute-long scrolling message that basically tells you to put the tube flat and point it north. When you’ve done that, Autostar thinks for a bit and then things start to happen. The mount screeches and whirs into life and starts moving around. The handset displays the name of a bright star (Capella when I tried this just now) and when it’s done slewing it sits and mutters like two aliens having a breakfast chat. This is because it is tracking what it thinks is Capella. Hopefully, it is at least pointing in the direction of Auriga, the constellation of which Capella is the brightest star.

 

Your job now is to loosen the axis clamps and set the scope onto Capella manually. This is not so easy as you might think, because there is no finder, but you can press the arrow keys to help you get it in the centre with the drives (there are various speed options too). Having done that (possibly alarming your child with much cursing meantime), you press “enter”.

 

Now Autostar searches for a second alignment star (Vega for me). More screeching and slewing ensues.  If you’re not used to robots, this can seem either spooky or remarkable. When you have manually centred the new star, you press “enter” again and it hopefully says “align successful”.

 

At this point you discover if you did your stuff right. Quite a big “if” this one, but if you did, you can start selecting objects from a menu and the scope will find them for you, which is very cool and very good fun. What’s more, once found, the object stays in view as the scope moves the altitude and azimuth axes continuously to track it, as I said at the start. Autostar also provides lots of useful info on objects (setting times, magnitudes etc) and has a tour mode. The latter starts with easy objects and gradually moves to fainter ones.

 

In Use

 

Having opened that lovely big colourful box, my daughter spent Christmas day playing with the Autostar handset. Before the Turkey was on the table she was telling me where the next eclipse would be, which meteor showers to look for that night and what time the Moon would rise. All good stuff; I was encouraged.

 

Getting Aligned

 

Out under a (staggeringly cold) winter sky, though, the scope was harder to setup than it had been on my original try-out, with lots of frustrating attempts at alignment. My experience with the Autostar is that sometimes all goes well and you’re up and running quickly; other times it all goes wrong and you end up switching off and starting again... and again.

 

Really, the ETX is all about alignment – get it right and it’s great, get it wrong and... AAArggggghhh!

 

The serious issue here is that despite the fact that this is a beginner’s scope, you need a fair bit of skill and knowledge to align it. If you don’t know your way around the sky, are you likely to know which star is Capella? Then again, you have to be used to telescopes to get Capella in the field of view at all (and not some other star by mistake).

 

The problem is that with the supplied eyepieces, the maximum field you can get is about 3°. Compared with your average pair of binos at about 7°, that’s not much and so finding those alignment stars is a challenge for the novice. I wonder how many novices try this once, can’t do it, get fed up and never use the thing again.

Since there is no finder, or obvious way to attach one, I’d recommend upgrading to the widest-possible field eyepiece to give you a chance of aligning, which in this case will be a 32mm Plossl, giving closer to 4° field.

 

Once you’ve aligned and focused, don’t bother swapping eyepieces too much. This scope is about low powers and wide fields and once you’ve lost focus you may never get it back:

 

“How many times have I turned it?” Twiddle, twiddle...

“18, Dad... two more to go...”

“Oh, OK, thanks...” Twiddle, twiddle, twiddle...

 

Did I mention that the focuser knob, is small, stiff and very frustrating to use?

 

Exploring with Autostar

 

Assuming you’ve got it aligned and focused, the ETX is great fun, really. It whirrs around, slewing from object to object swiftly and accurately. You can choose objects from menus, but the best way to get going is with the tour mode that shows you the highlights of what’s up tonight.

 

The tour mode will start off taking you to obvious things first (yeah, think I can find the Moon on my own, thanks). But pretty soon, new things are coming up that maybe you didn’t think of. What’s even better is that once you’ve found something, the scope keeps it centred by continually (and noisily) nudging the scope to keep it aligned.

 

The tour mode on the ETX is actually a lot more fun than the one on my AP1200 mount! The AP1200 selects objects seemingly at random, so you can get something obvious like The Pleiades, followed by some minute faint galaxy plucked from the NGC catalogue. In comparison, the Autostar’s approach of starting with obvious stuff, then moving fainter and more obscure, is much better.

 

Optically, the ETX80 is really quite good, as was the ETX70 I tried previously. Wide, flat and bright, it’s just great for open clusters, and bright nebulae and galaxies. Push the magnification and you are reminded that this is an achromat, but views of the Moon were good, with some nice detail at moderate powers.

 

Of course, after those Hubble pictures on the box, even a £250,000 Takahashi observatory scope is going to be a let down. And that’s part of the problem – the slick marketing sets kids expectations up for a guaranteed fall. You may know and accept that a TV dinner never turns out the way it looks on the box, but children don’t! I would prefer to see Meade use photos actually taken with the telescope, or representative of the views the telescope can give.

 

In the end, though, whether my daughter and I really enjoy an observing sessions with the ETX, or absolutely hate it, depends entirely on how quickly we get the thing aligned. Depending on its mood, the GOTO is either a really clever feature or an absolute curse. Maybe we’ll get better with practice.

 

Summary

 

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It’s not a Questar, but the ETX-80 costs 1/10th as much and has a computer.

 

A couple of hundred quid for a nice 80mm achromat on a feature-packed computer controlled mount with tripod and eyepieces is astonishingly good value.

 

When it works and you get it aligned, the little ETX is lots of fun. Even a cynic like me starts to get involved, watching it whirr around the sky and seeing what it can find. The tour mode is great and the scope optics perfectly well up to introducing a youngster to the night sky.

 

There are a lot of frustrating niggles though, that focuser for one, the difficulty in aligning another.

 

The Autostar is slow to get going with its interminable scrolling messages, then add a couple of inexplicably failed or inaccurate attempts at alignment and the overwhelming temptation is just to switch it off and fetch the binos. That frustration factor is manageable for adults, but for children it’s a real turn-off and after all the anticipation from reading about the computer (and those Hubble pics on the box), it’s a let-down too.

 

If you buy one of these for your son or daughter, I’d recommend learning to align it in secret first, so it doesn’t put them off. Otherwise this isn’t such a good kids’ scope after all: you fiddle with the handset and curse, their eyes glaze over and they start to fidget. You know they’d rather be in watching the telly.

 

The ETX 70 or 80 are actually highly recommended for children (and novice adults too), despite the frustrations, BUT ONLY if you can help them align it first.

 

You can buy the ETX 80 as either a complete package with a tripod, or as a table-top version: