Review: Vivitar Refractor Telescope

The Vivitar Telescope’s awfullness is not an inevitability for its price tag and its overall specifications, it is a specifically a very bad implementation of a mediocre idea.
A complete failure in every way
0.5/5

Do not buy this Vivitar refractor telescope. Don’t buy it as a gift for a kid, don’t buy it for yourself just to get started, don’t buy it assuming you can work with its quirks, don’t buy it as a joke for the experienced astronomer in your life. Don’t buy it if it’s on sale for $5, don’t buy it for full price.

My general policy is that though I may point out the flaws in a telescope, if you have a telescope that I don’t like, and you like it, that’s fine. Keep doing what works for you. I am breaking this rule for this review. If you own this telescope and you think you like it, I am begging you to scrape together even the additional $40 for a cheap pair of 10×50 binoculars, you will be much happier. Even stargazing with the unaided eye will bring you more joy.

Us telescope enthusiasts have been waging a war against the “department store refractor” for about as long as you could go to a department store and buy a telescope. They’re typically small thin little refractors on wobbly undersized tripods with mediocre eyepieces and overly high magnifications. These are typically hobbykillers because they can have frustrating mounts which make it difficult to find anything, and they have tiny, distorted eyepieces. However traditionally, the department store refractor has at least had an acceptable objective lens, a coated or multicoated achromatic doublet, which was at least technically capable of forming good images, if all other concerns of mounting and eyepieces could be taken care of. Not here.

You know that classic science demonstration where you take two magnifying glasses of different focal lengths, and you put them in a cardboard tube and turn that into a telescope? Essentially, what Vivitar has done, is they’ve taken a small magnifying glass lens, put it in a plastic tube, and packaged it with some horrible eyepieces and a toy tripod.

Not long ago I used a similarly-priced toy refractor, which is sold under a number of names including the Discover with Dr. Cool Lunar Telescope. What a name. In theory, it should have all the same problems: It’s a small 40mm refractor with a cheap tripod and Huygens eyepieces. But I found that telescope to be actually quite usable and showed nice images of the Pleiades, the Moon, and Jupiter’s moons. The tripod was acceptable when used on a table, the images were passable, and the eyepieces were pretty good for their type. 

  • Absolutely, positively, nothing is redeemable about this telescope.
  • Horrible optics.
  • Horrible mount.
  • Horrible accessories.
  • Horrible value.

If you’re out of options, and you have no budget, absolutely nothing but this Vivitar TEL50600 telescope and no way to get anything else: I am so, so sorry. The good news is that you can use your eyes on your own to enjoy the night sky. You can learn the names of the constellations and the identities of the bright stars, you can keep track of the motion and phases of the Moon, watch the planets as they move through the sky, and in a dark sky, you can even see a few deep-sky-objects. Astronomy long pre-dates the telescope, after all.

For the same price as the Vivitar Telescope, you can get a pair of 7×50, 8×50, or 10×50 binoculars. You can choose which magnification you want based upon whether you want stable, wide-field views, or slightly shaky higher powers that give you the opportunity to examine features on the Moon. A photo tripod and a tripod adapter can allow you to choose 10x-20x magnifications as well. 50mm objectives are enough to gather plenty of light for deep sky objects (galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters), and can show nice wide star-fields, without being too heavy to hold. A pair of $30-50 binoculars are better than almost any telescope below $100, and they are vastly superior to the Vivitar Telescope.

But make no mistake, though there are many cheap refractors that are terrible, the Vivitar is one of the worst. Almost any department store refractor you buy is likely to have a passable achromatic doublet lens. A few I’ve seen are even multicoated. I do not recommend department store refractors, because many of them are bad for the same reasons the Vivitar Telescope is bad, it’s just that the Vivitar Telescope is a parody of the department store refractor.

There are no telescopes I would recommend for $40 or less, but for about $50 there is the Celestron FirstScope, which despite its soft optics has better resolution than the Vivitar, has a nice wide field of view for scanning the sky, has a large aperture to gather plenty of light, and has a very sturdy and easy to use tabletop dobsonian base. Though I would recommend going for the $60-70 Cometron FirstScope version rather than the default version, as the Cometron comes with much better eyepieces.

The TravelScope 70, which I have also reviewed, is a nice little telescope if (and only if) you can put it on a good sturdy photo tripod. They can even be found used for $40 or so.

Generally, you should buy a telescope from an actual astronomy supplier website. That won’t avoid all the hobbykillers, but it will avoid the very worst of them. Don’t buy from a department store, don’t buy from random ads you find on eBay or Amazon. The cheapest telescopes we can recommend wholeheartedly are about $100-$200–and none of them show up on Amazon’s first 6 pages of search results for “telescope.” The beginner telescope we most often recommend is a 4.5” or 5” Tabletop Dobsonian such as the StarBlast 4.5, Zhumell Z114, or Zhumell Z130. These are reflector telescopes with a big curved mirror to gather light, riding on a simple, sturdy, easy-to-use Dobsonian mount. The 4” Orion SkyScanner and Z100 are even more affordable, and just as easy to use.

If you’re shopping for a telescope for a kid, check out our guide Best Kid’s Telescopes, about how to choose the best telescope for a young beginner.

Contents Of This Review
simulation with vivitar refractor

Vivitar TEL50600 Refractor Telescope

Rating: 0.5/5

Optics of Vivitar TEL50600

I hesitate to call what the Vivitar Telescope has, “optics.” But it does, in fact, have something which can be described as a lens up front. Let’s take a little look at the history of optics to see what has gone wrong. The first telescope was patented in 1608 in the Netherlands, and Galileo Galilei was the first to turn a telescope up to the night sky and publish what he saw in 1609. These telescopes used a single lens objective (front-aperture) and a single lens eyepiece. The basic principle of using two lenses to magnify objects had actually been known prior to this, but all instruments anyone had tried were so bad that the image may have been larger, but it was not more detailed than just looking with your eye. It was full of false-color and all sorts of aberrations, and it was unusable for astronomy. The fix was to make a small lens with a very long focal length and stop it down so the actual aperture was tiny and the distortions from the edge of the lens didn’t damage the image formed by the center. Any single-lens-objective or “singlet” therefore must obey this principle in order to form usable images: it must have an extremely long focal length compared to its aperture.

Lens quality enhanced over time, and eventually, the achromatic telescope was introduced in 1758, allowing for correction of the false-color fringes by using two pieces of glass of different compositions, which brings two wavelengths of light to focus at the same point. This also allowed telescopes to shorten in length from a focal ratio of 25-100 to perhaps 5-15. Ever since the introduction of the Achromat (meaning no-false-color), virtually every affordable refractor telescope has used this principle, from high-quality planetary telescopes to department store refractors to binoculars to certain kinds of astrophotography telescopes. When you buy a cheap refractor telescope, even a very poor one, you can be fairly certain that you’ve got an achromatic doublet at the front.

The Vivitar Telescope has a singlet lens. It is a short focal length lens with an aperture of 40mm and a focal length of 500mm, for a ratio of f/11. In theory, this means it should be loaded with false color, and this is true in practice. In fact, the telescope has more false color fringing than what Galileo had to work with in his 1600s telescopes, because the lens is too wide and the focal length is too short.

We often say of cheap telescopes that even if it’s full of aberrations, it’s at least better than what you’d see with your unaided eye. After all, Galileo’s telescope was full of aberrations, and he revolutionized astronomy. Galileo’s telescope was probably sharper than this.

Here is a simulation of what the view looks like in the Vivitar Telescope (I could not take photos–not a chance I could hold anything steady if I tried to take photos, so I’m editing a photo taken a while ago using a reflector telescope which was stopped down to 50mm aperture.) 

simulation with vivitar refractor

Through the Vivitar Telescope, I could see that the Moon had craters. I couldn’t see any detail whatsoever in the craters, I could just tell that it was there. The telescope had not just chromatic aberration but spherical aberration, which meant the telescope wouldn’t come to focus no matter where the focuser position was. It sort of smeared from blurry to slightly less blurry back to blurry again, and there was no hope of finding what the best position was.

The Moon is dim and blurry and I can not overstate how much false color it has–I’m not even sure my simulation does it justice. It’s bad.

I didn’t bother to look at anything else. There is nothing left to try, when you can’t show a passable image of the Moon at 50x, you have unequivocally failed the optical test. It is impossible, given the views of the Moon, that any other object you could look for would be sharp enough to observe, even if you could find it. Stars are pointy blobs. There’s nothing else to say about this telescope’s optics, at least at the front end.

Accessories

Is it possible that there could be some shining beacon of life and hope? Could there be something redeeming about this telescope? Some accessories that could fix these optical problems? Not a chance.

The telescope comes with two eyepieces, a 10mm and a 5mm Huygens, providing 50x and 100x respectively. It also includes a 3x finderscope. Are these optics any good? Not a chance. 10mm is too zoomed in even for nice telescopes when it’s your only eyepiece, and 5mm is a joke. The 10mm is the only chance you have of finding anything because despite its soda-straw field of view it isn’t the 5mm. The 5mm blows up the already bad 10mm image and makes it much worse. If this were a better telescope, I’d complain about the lack of a low-power eyepiece. But it wouldn’t change anything–even a nice Plossl wouldn’t make a difference. It should come as no surprise that the eyepieces are made out of plastic and are loaded with internal reflections.

The finderscope? Worst I’ve ever used, even worse than the terrible plastic 5×25 finder sold on a lot of cheap telescopes. It can’t be focused, it has a silver inside so it’s loaded with internal reflections, I can’t even see the crosshairs. It’s worse than if it had been a peep-sight, at least then you could see the sky behind it.

The Tripod With the Scope

The first thing you notice when you try to use this telescope isn’t the optics, it’s the tripod. It’s so short that even sitting down it’s undersized. Maybe it’s the right size for a kid. The tripod wants to fall down if you even stare at it wrong. It has extendable legs (and to reach the eyepiece you have to extend the legs), but when the legs are extended it’s so much wobblier. The tripod head is a wobbly and pliable plastic and it flexes when you try to move it. Using this tripod I felt I was too harsh on the TravelScope 70. Combining this extremely finicky tripod with the tiny field of view of the 10mm eyepiece meant that I was only ever able to get perhaps 80% of the Moon in the field of view at one time, at best–getting it centered in the tiny field of view is hopeless. Putting your eye up to the eyepiece is enough to cause the view to shake horribly (perhaps my simulation should have had added motion blur).

Put it on a $1000 Equatorial mount and it wouldn’t fix the telescope.

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