Q: What do I really get for $895?
A:The Meade 203SC/LXD500 telescope's basic price is $895 (U.S.). For that price, you get an 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (the same optical tube assembly with the same optics used on more expensive Meade 8" SCT telescopes like the LX50 or LX200); the LXD500 German Equatorial Mount (GEM); a Meade aluminum adjustable tripod; a 26mm Meade Series 4000 Super Plossl eyepiece; a 1.25" SCT visual back; a 1.25" prism star diagonal; and a 6x30 finder scope.
Q: Is the basic telescope package a good deal?
A: Look at it this way: Meade sells their 8" SCT optical tube ONLY for $795 (U.S.). By purchasing the 203SC/LXD500 package, you get the equatorial mount, tripod, star diagonal, and eyepiece all for about $100 (U.S.). Now, don't go thinking that you're getting a Losmandy-quality equatorial mount for that price, and the tripod is basically useless as-is, but with a little work and/or tinkering, the mount is quite good, and the tripod can easily be replaced or even fixed...
Q: What's wrong with the tripod?
A: The tripod is the same one that Meade sells for the ETX models, and most people consider it too wobbly even for the smaller ETX! A short list of problems: The sliding/adjustable legs don't stay in their channels; the tripod legs are too thin to be sturdy, and they flex like crazy; the locking mechanisms on the adjustable legs sometimes don't (lock, that is); the spreader/brace is cheap, thin metal that bends easily and doesn't provide any support...there are things you can do to improve the stock tripod, or you can easily make your own replacement for under $10. See the Curing the Shakes section of this site for more information on the tripod!
Q: Is the LXD500 GEM really hefty enough for an 8" SCT telescope?
A: It is -- but just. Putting the 8" scope, an off-axis guider, a camera, and a CCD Autoguider all on this mount is pushing the limits of what it can support, but it CAN support it quite well. The GEM itself is made in China, and is similar to the G-5 mount that Celestron sells; the LXD500 is just a bit bigger and heftier than the G-5 (compared side-by-side in telescope shops). LXD500 quality out-of-the-box seems to vary a bit -- some users report that their mounts were smooth and solid as they came, while some have reported some wobble in the axes and other small problems. None of the problems are insurmountable (see the LXD500 Mount portion of this site for details), and a well-tuned LXD500 mount operates this telescope smoothly and solidly. You may have heard that the 203SC/LXD500 combo is "shaky" -- most of the vibration problems come from the tripod, NOT the GEM itself!
Q: Is the Optical Tube Assembly REALLY the same one Meade sells with more expensive LX-style telescopes?
A: As far as anyone has been able to tell, yes it is (except for the tube color!). There is only one physical difference between the 203SC and other Meade 8" SCTs -- the 203SC lacks a mirror lockdown screw on the back of the scope. This screw locks the mirror cell in place during shipping, and some LX users have made modified versions so they can lock the mirror in place after focusing for long-exposure astrophotographs. The 203SC does not have the screw or the hole in the back plate for it, but the internal mirror cell DOES have the lockdown screw threads in place. This does indeed suggest that internally they are the same tube assemblies, though I can't guarantee that Meade doesn't spend less time inspecting the 203SC or taking some other shortcut to keep the price down. Optically, all of the 203SC models I have seen have been quite good to excellent.
Q: How does the 203SC/LXD500 compare with the Celestron G8?
A: Well, the 203SC/LXD500 sells for $104.95 less...
The two setups are very similar. Both are 8" SCT telescopes. Both are on similar-sized GEM mounts. Both have somewhat shaky aluminum tripods (though the G-5 mount for the Celestron has a better spreader/accessory tray). From my own experience, optically it's a wash; mechanically, the LXD500 mount is a teeny bit beefier and sturdier; the tripods are about the same, with a slight nod to the Celestron; and the Meade comes with a better eyepiece (Super Plossl vs. the Celestron 25mm SMA). I won't get into the Meade vs. Celestron battle here...somebody ELSE will have to do an unofficial G8 page ;-)
Q: Can I use the 203SC/LXD500 for doing Astrophotography?
A: Yes...and no. First, see the Can I do Astrophotography page on this site for detailed information. The short answer is that you'll need to buy the #1702 dual-axis drive system; you'll need to get an off-axis guider (forget a guidescope, the mount can't handle it, and it's not the best solution for SCTs anyway) or piggy-back camera mount; you'll need to have the right kind of camera; and you WILL need to replace the standard tripod and work on the GEM mount a little bit. If you're willing to do all of that, and then spend the time and effort required to learn the often difficult techniques of astrophotography, then you can do it with this equipment. If you buy the basic package and expect to do photography right out of the box -- then no, you can't ;-)
Q: Why did you put all this stuff up on the Internet?
A: I wanted to do astrophotography, and I wanted an SCT. I've built several telescopes (see my Main Page), and I like to tinker with telescopes. I went looking for a reasonably-priced telescope that I could do photos with, and the 203SC was an attractive option. When I asked for advice from others, everyone told me how lousy this telescope was, and that it would never do for a photo platform. However, on doing my OWN research, I found the biggest problem to be the wobbly tripod that comes with the scope, so I decided to go ahead and buy one -- then fix it up! Since then, I've managed to do some nice work with this inexpensive telescope, and I wanted to share what I had learned. I also get extremely frustrated by "equipment snobs" who will tell you that unless you buy the absolute best, most expensive telescope and photo equipment that exists, you might as well not even bother trying to make astrophotos! Of COURSE you'll have a better system if you spend $10K or $20K on an astrophoto setup -- but it is possible to do good work on a cheaper system like the 203SC/LXD500, and the same learning curve for newbies applies no matter what equipment you have. These pages are my attempt to fight the elitist attitude that some amateur astronomers have, and help "the rest of us" learn and grow in astronomy without mortgaging our houses. ;=)
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