A Tale of Three Mounts: Tele Vueís TelePod, Panoramic and Gibraltar
I remember the first time I saw a Tele Vue Panoramic mount. It was back in the late Nineties when Goto was really getting going. I had started looking for information on Televue telescopes, imagining another computer-filled techno wonder.
When I first saw a photo of a Panoramic, I was surprised. Pictured with a Pronto, I loved the elegant simplicity and the courage of Televue in marketing premium scopes and mounts with no electronics at all. I personally hadnít owned an altaz mount since I was about 12, so the idea was a bit of a shock, but when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. For a grab-and-go scope what you want is something you can just use quickly and intuitively, almost the way you do binoculars. And being made of just aluminium and wood and brass, if I looked after it this thing would last the rest of my life (and maybe beyond); I found that attractive too. So I bought a Panoramic, which now holds the distinction of being the piece of astro gear I have owned longest (well apart from a 70ís Erfle 20mm eyepiece). I have since owned all the other versions of this mount, so Iím reviewing them as a group.
The head on the Panoramic is the same head you also find on the TelePod and the Gibraltar; only the tripods and labels differ. So this review is for all those mounts. The Gibraltar 5, made expressly for the NP127, is a bit different and I have added a section about it at the end.
Design and Build
The Telepod works like a large spotting-scope head, there are no slow motion controls; itís about as simple as it could be. To use it, you just push the scope around in altitude and azimuth, either using the handle provided or with the OTA itself. The difference is the way it works. Instead of sitting on the mount, the scope rests in the Telepod head, in a swinging cradle. This lowers the centre of gravity and reduces (but not eliminates) that horrible tendency in spotting scope heads to suddenly let go and bang the scope on the tripod. Properly balanced, even when loose, the TelePod cradle just sits in place.
The cradle pivots in a pair of smooth brass altitude bearings set in a shallow fork that rotates on another bearing. All the bearings have tension adjustment by knurled knobs; on the altitude bearings these are made of solid brass. The fork and cradle are fabricated from finely cut and machined aluminium plate finished in black anodising. The parts are held together by recessed allen bolts. Itís an elegant piece of engineering.
All the TeleVue mounts have two holes in the side of the fork on each side to accept TeleVueís eyepiece brackets. These brackets are an accessory, but highly recommended as they hold three 1.25Ē EPs and two 2Ē eyepieces on the mount, allowing you to securely combine mount, scope and eyepieces into a grab-and-go portable observatory.
I should point out that TeleVue provide digital setting circle sensors and computer for the TelePod head in a package called ďSky TourĒ that isnít a goto (you still have to push), but tells you where to go (in the sky!). It attaches to the eyepiece brackets described. I havenít tried it.
The base of the fork is threaded to fit any photo tripod, with both 3/8 and ľ-20 threads built in. Two holes in the cradle are provided that match all TeleVue clamshells and ring plates and some other small scopes too (Stellarvue clamshells, for example). Other scopes will need adapter plates.
TeleVue donít advertise the fact, but the TelePod head is the same whichever tripod you buy it on and the Panoramic and Gibraltar tripods just screw on with different adapters. Only the labels on the altitude bearings differ between the mounts. So you could buy just one head and attach it to one of several different tripods, depending on your scope and application. The main difference, then, between the three different mounts is the tripod.† Weíll look at each in turn.
TV76 and Panoramic Ė pretty and functional.
The Panoramic has a light weight wooden tripod made either of ash or walnut, the latter with brass fittings.† The tripod has a centre tray and attaches to the head with a push-fitting (which you can buy separately to adapt a generic TelePod head, if you buy them separately).The Panoramic is very light and easily portable and extends to a good height, allowing standing viewing even for a 6 footer. The Panoramic is designed for TeleVueís smaller OTAs (Pronto, TV76, TV85), but works OK with the NP101 at medium powers, just as TeleVue promise.
TelePod with TV60 Ė the best grab-n-go setup Iíve tried.
The TelePod tripod is made of tubular aluminium insulated from knocks by foam and the whole thing is finished in satin black. It is very light weight. The legs are in just two sections and adjust with twist collars that are much easier to use than the clamps usually found on photo tripods. Like a photo tripod, it has an extending centre pillar with a 3/8 inch bolt on the top.† The legs are tensioned to fold in on their own when you lift it up and for this reason there is no eyepiece tray. I thought these things were design flaws at first, but that was my misunderstanding; Iíll explain why in due course. The TelePod is exclusively meant for smaller scopes and works superbly with the TV60.
Grab... and go!
The Telepod tripod isnít nearly as nice to look at as the furniture-quality Panoramic and Gibraltar, but has a couple of tricks that the wooden tripods canít match. For one thing, the legs are much easier to adjust for length, but you donít need to do that as much anyway, due to the extending centre post. The centre post is incredibly handy for ensuring that the eyepiece always remains at the perfect height: it works very well for the TV60 with the post extended, but doesnít feel quite as safe with the TV76; you wouldnít want to use the centre post with a heavier OTA. The final clever feature of the Telepod tripod is those self-folding legs. True they can trap you fingers, but the big advantage is that you donít have to manoeuvre a tripod out of the door. Just hold by one leg with scope tucked under the arm, let the other legs fold in, open the door with your free hand and walk out! Again, itís the TV60 that works best in this mode and makes for the most portable setup I have tried.
Ash Gibraltar with an NP101
The Gibraltar is the heaviest of the mounts and designed for the 4Ē TeleVue scopes, the NP101 and NP102. It attaches the TelePod head by a long 3/8Ē stud through top of the tripod. The tripod itself is of chunky ash or walnut (but without brass accents this time) and looks the best of the three. Itís still just about light enough to pick up and walk outside with, including the telescope and a couple of eyepieces. The same tripod is also used for the heavy-duty Gibraltar 5 mount described below.
Your final option is to buy the TelePod head separately and attach it to any sturdy photo tripod via the ľ-20 or 3/8 threaded holes in the base. I once had one attached to a big Manfrotto and this made for a very flexible and portable mount due to the sturdiness and infinite adjustability of the tripod, which was designed for heavy cameras.
Gibraltar 5 with NP127
This is a completely different head that attaches to the standard Gibraltar tripod and is designed for use with bigger OTAs (specifically the NP127). The design is basically the same as the TelePod, but everything is bigger, even the gauge of aluminium used. The azimuth bearing is much larger and quite stiff to turn on its own, but with the NP127 installed it feels just right. The altitude bearings are bigger too. Attachment of an OTA is via the familiar pair of bolt holes, just like the TelePod and the head goes on the tripod using a long 3/8 stud, just like the smaller TelePod does. Interestingly, TeleVue have retained the ability to remove the stud and screw the Gib 5 onto a photo tripod (but it would have to be a big one).
Gibraltar 5: Designed for the NP127, but the SkyWatcher ED120 bolts straight on and looks gorgeous
The TelePod head, attached to whichever tripod, makes a very good way to sweep for clusters and DSOs at low powers and itís my opinion that this was really what it was designed for. Itís also an excellent support for terrestrial viewing. At medium powers, it is generally fine too Ė smooth and easy. However, at high powers it can be another story. A lot depends on the OTA youíre using. Surprisingly, very short OTAs like the TV76 donít have enough leverage to overcome ďstictionĒ in the bearings. When you nudge the mount to compensate for Earthís rotation, you end up nudging too far and losing the object. Longer OTAs can be easier to control at high powers.† Wide-field eyepiece designs, like Naglers and Ethos, work well for high powers on TelePod mounted scopes simply because you donít have to nudge as often.
The other problem with short telescopes is that they are very sensitive to balance point and if you are not careful with the tension on the bearings, the head can tip forward or back when you swap eyepieces. This can lead to a most unpleasant ďdonkĒ as the front of the scope hits the cover for the azimuth axis, but at least that cover is made of delrin, so it doesnít mark the tube. The TV60 doesnít suffer so much from these problems, it seems well balanced and canít take the heaviest eyepieces anyway.
The Panoramic and Gibraltar work very similarly, with the beefier Gibraltar legs absorbing vibrations better for high powers, as claimed. One slight criticism is that the varnish seems a bit thin on both tripods: the ash-wood can get marked with dew and water drops after a while. A regular dose of furniture wax helps to prevent this.
The Gibraltar 5 does a good job of coping with bigger OTAs and is commendably smooth when nudging to track. In fact it works better than the TelePod in most situations, perhaps due to the extra leverage and momentum of the heavier tube.† However, there was an initial problem with large amplitude, low frequency oscillations that took ages to settle. I was able to all but cure this by adjusting the three dome-headed allen screws that the mount rests on, so they all contacted the base. However, the Gibraltar 5/NP127 still vibes more than is ideal and again it works best for lower to medium powers, sweeping for clusters and DSOs with intuitive ease.
A grab-n-go 5Ē refractor take your fancy? With the NP127/Gibraltar 5 itís possible (just)!
I still like TeleVueís altaz mounts for their elegance and simplicity. My favourite of the mounts reviewed here is the TelePod, despite it being by far the least prepossessing of the three alternatives to behold. Combine it with the TV60 and a couple of eyepieces, say a 13mm Nagler T6 and a Nagler 3-6mm zoom, and you have the most functional grab and go outfit I know of this side of binoculars.
The Gibraltar 5, once properly setup (see note above), is stable for bigger OTAs at moderate powers and recommended. If you like sweeping star fields at low powers, itís highly recommended.
All the mounts are less than ideal for use at high powers, in my opinion. Itís all too easy for a bit of stiction in the bearings to make you overshoot and have to start over with a lower power. Counter-intuitively, longer OTAs seem less prone to this problem. Mounts with slow motion controls, like the Vixen Porta, are easier to use in this respect, but less intuitive in others and certainly Ė and this matters, though youíll deny it Ė less classy looking in your living room or study!