Many serious photographers are fascinated by the night sky and given their existing investment it makes good sense to look for ways to re-use some of that. And IMO buying a good motorized EQ-mount, it is a good stepping stone -- and I am not a fan of these simple star-tracking devices. Read "So you want to be a Stargazer -- steps I would avoid & steps I suggest"


Now what would be a "good motorized EQ-mount" to start with

If you are sure you want to follow this hobby for more than just a few weeks, my suggestion is to start with a mount in the $700...$999 class and I explain to you why. If you haven't read it already, I recommend this article www.bythom.com/support.htm about tripods. And the same lessons apply here -- you save money in the long run because you skip some upgrade steps. Furthermore, with a GOTO-telescope mount, the added precision & (electronic) features makes it easier to learn, setup & use the mount and get your lens pointed at the intended target. This can cut the learning curve and save you time and frustration.

Here's a list of features, a good starter mount must have & some, it should have
  • for astrophotography, buy a motorized EQ-mount with "GOTO"
  • mount & legs must be sturdy and in the beginning 25lbs load capacity may look a lot but within a year or two, your upgrades may approach that limit.
  • be sure the mount includes a USB or RS232 interface & ASCOM-driver -- after a few months or a year, you will see the benefit of attaching a laptop to your mount & camera(s)
  • if available, pick a "dual"-saddle that supports (smaller) Vixen as well as (wider) Losmandy rails. That saves cost & weight and adds flexibility -- dual-saddle has nothing to do with attaching two individual saddles. That feature rarely is useful. example /stargazer95050/37608852
  • ST-4 guide-port is standard for most mounts
  • Look at the different mounts and their weight -- some innovations mean, even a lighter mount can perform as good as much heavier ones. When traveling, the size & weight can be an important factors.
  • a built-in & adjustable polar-scope with an illuminated reticle can be helpful
  • The number of objects in their database IMO is meaningless 5.000 or 50.000 isn't an important criteria -- if you need that amount of detail, you will use autoguiding with an attached PC and get bigger, more up-to-date databases for free,


There are some features & advantages that are harder to spot and you may have to dig into the (online) user's manual beforehand
  • built-in GPS can help with polar alignment by providing accurate time & location. Spending an extra $100...$150 on GPS is IMO too much. A built-in GPS at no extra cost is nice. Adding GPS to you PC cost < $20 and you phone may have GPS at no additional costs. Even with GPS, not all hand-controllers can set time, timezone & daylight saving time correctly -- I mean you, iOptron.
  • Some telescope hand-controllers show only few information (2 line text) other vendors have controllers with 4...8 line (graphic) display. I prefer the those.
  • "Balance Test" is a feature I have come to appreciate because it places both axis in a supposedly horizontal position. This is simplifying polar alignment as you can make adjustments before letting the mount slew back to its zero position. So far, only iOptron has that feature but you may be able to emulate that with a few tricks.


If you are certain, you don't want to use heavier lenses, there is a $400...$500 option. The SmartEQ has many features I recommend. Combining the polar scope (included with the PRO) with the GOTO-alignment procedure helps to finish that task more easily & faster. Hand-controller to slew to targets make navigation easier. The max capacity of 5kg limits the growth potential. IMO, it outperforms the various "tracker" devices while it costs less. Great for your dSLR + medium-tele -- if you have plans to buy a telescope, save the money and read on. Additional arguments against the star trackers: /blog/stargazer95050/657809


The iOptron ZEQ25 is IMO a very good match for an Astronomy-Enthusiast's first mount and with a max load of 27lbs (12kg) it is capable to hold a good-sized refractor, guide-scope, finder-scope plus camera. The weight of the mount is lower than many others -- a welcome feature if you travel.
Celestron has discontinued its popular CG-5(GT) and now offer the Celestron VX -- the head itself is heavier than the ZEQ25 (17 vs 11lbs), slightly larger load capacity (30 vs 27lbs) and a similar base price ($800 for both). The ZEQ25's odd shape means the gears to drive the axis are larger and potentially more accurate & more torque than those inside the VX. Maintenance is easier too.


Other factors to help you decide which mount you want to buy
  • are there active groups on Yahoo, CloudyNights, Flickr, your astronomy club ==> they can give you first-hand advice
  • read the online User's Manual and study the options how to perform polar alignment ==> that is a step you need to do often and the easier it is for you to follow these steps, the better.
  • when you google for "hyper-tuning ZEQ25" "hyper-tuning Celestron VX", what do you see ? ==> Like car enthusiasts, owners often aren't satisfied with the stock delivery and tweak it. This kind of search will show if problems are big and if there are solutions. Some of those are DIY and can be done with very few tools. Others are major heart-surgery operations
  • availability & price of accessories (add S&H) -- with all mounts, I inevitable needed at least one extra counter weight. shaft extension, semi-pier ==> You may not need any of those but it gives you an impression which mount is popular with enthusiasts.
  • dual-saddle to attach VIXEN & LOSMANDY-style rails is a very welcome option -- upgrades or adapters can be expensive ( $150 or more). the ZEQ25 only supports Vixen.

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If you want to start with a more powerful mount, you can do that too -- the principles are the same whether it is a $20.000 or a $1.000 mount. The 20k mount usually is a lot heavier and hopefully precision is better. Given recent technological improvements and increase in supply, you may not need to spend $20.000. There are capable mounts in the $2.000....$5.000 range. But just like with sports cars, a BMW M may not be as attractive as a Lamborghini. OTOH, a sporty Toyota is the most suitable option for most -- same with telescope mounts.
To make the most out of these expensive & high precision mounts, you also need a rock-solid, stable setup and better have performed a high precision polar alignment.
Unless you have a backyard with a stable shed and good seeing condition, spending tons of money on a telescope mount is not helping much -- to make the best of such a mount you need time to set it up PRECISELY and that effort only pays off if you don't have to repeat it every night.
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The following list is sorted by price from top to bottom -- I've skipped the very expensive options but if you want, Astro-Physics will sell you an off-the-shelf portable mount head, (54lbs weight, 110lbs capacity) for $16.000. No legs or pier. The $5000 EQ-8 includes a nice pier and also claims 110lbs capacity. Over-kill for a "portable" setup.

Skywatcher EQ8 (Orion HDX110) : www.flickr.com/photos/gharbob/9546630247
It is a monster and you better have an observatory or at least a shed for it -- not something to take on a roadtrip. Pieces still are portable : watch?v=hznsz5qyz4A & watch?v=RCD0XUT5m50 & watch?v=syp9HUWzGNE
This "monster" has one rare feature and that are fixed incremental encoders on each axis -- Orion calls the "Closed-loop GoTo electronics". Other "pro" mounts with a $10k price tag charge an extra $2000...$5000 just for that option -- Orion sells this mount incl pier for $5000 -- IMO a good deal -- if you have an observatory and dark skies.

The iOptron CEM60 & CEM60-EC ($2500, the EC with fixed, on-axis incremental encoders is $3900, neither one includes a pier or tripod) also are heavy lifters. 60lbs is a lot (the EQ-8 is rated 110lbs). The head of the CEM60 weighs a moderate 12kg/27lbs, still noticeably less than the CGEM (40lbs) and a lot less than the EQ-8 (not listed, approx 50...60lbs)
The CEM60's firmware IMO isn't yet ready for primetime -- www.flickr.com/photos/astronewb2011 has posted, that only recently did he receive the update to support auto-guiding [JUNE 2014].

The Orion Atlas Pro AZ/EQ-6 also offers (fixed on-axis incremental) encoders (titled "closed-loop electronics"). If it weren't for those, the $2000 (incl 2" tripod) would appear expensive given the 44lbs capacity rating. This mount also has another nifty feature -- you can tilt it to use it as a Alt/Az mount without much disassembly. For visual or terrestrial observation, this can come in handy but you pay for this, with some extra weight. This mount, like the Celestrons, put the gears & electronics on the inside of the metal case ==> well protected but the radius of the gear is smaller decreasing accuracy.
iOptron and many other manufacturers place the gear on the outside, even increase the diameter to get more teeth and thus improve accuracy. Maintenance also becomes easier with motor & gears on the outside.

The Celestron CGEM series (incl DX & CGE Pro) have some catching up to do. Significantly heavier & more expensive and -- at a similar price -- lacking technological improvements, like the on-axis encoders.
The CGE Pro list price is $5000 but IMO it is a generation behind in terms of accuracy & features when compared to the $5000 EQ-8 mount. Weight is similar or more.

The iOptron iEQ45 is at the bottom of this list, because it is the cheapest ($1800) and only the old CGEM models cost less ($1500). Rated to carry a 45lbs load puts it on par with more expensive mounts. The Atlas Pro also is rated 44lbs and priced $2000 (no GPS) -- a bit more expensive and at 50lbs, nearly twice as heavy.


There are some advantages the iEQ45 has over the CGEM and the Atlas (Pro) :
  • CGEM & Atlas Pro require you to loosen the central screw which also is responsible for spreading the tripod legs.
    With the iEQ45, I can setup, level & tighten the tripod legs with no need to attach the mount's head. Furthermore, during polar alignment, there's no need to tamper with the tripod legs & screws -- the CGEM & Atlas require you to loosen that screw and to do so, you also need to unscrew the leg spreader's screw.
  • The display of the handcontroller of the iEQ45 is much more informative -- shows Alt/Az plus RA/DEC and more. The 8x20 graphic display is a big improvement over the 2x20 characters. It can show a graphic of the expected position of Polaris in the polar scope ==> small difference but over time, you really appreciate it
  • the polar scope in the iEQ45 includes an accessory to illuminate the reticle - the CGEM doesn't have this option, not even as an $$ upgrade. Eye relief distance is very small for both scopes.
  • power & RS232 connect to a fixed point on the iEQ45 -- the CGEM's power plug moves as the mount moves. The CGEM's RS232 cable attaches to the hand-controller, not the mount ==> trip hazard.
  • It may seem trivial but small detail have a big impact. To better level the base of the tripod : /stargazer95050/29051567 -- the feet of the CGEM don't have such threads :-(

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Coming back to the original question -- STARTER MOUNTS for an enthusiast.

Even if you "only" want to eliminate startrails, you may not recognize a full-featured EQ-mount can do all you want and more - and still cost less than many startrail gadgets and tracker devices. For example, the Skytracker costs $399 (no tripod, no polar scope, no computerized goto, <8lbs payload, 2nd tripod head required). The AstroTracker cost >$600 and requires more $$$ accessory.
Compare that to the SmartEQ Pro mount priced $499. That includes a tripod, has GOTO, has a polar scope, can carry 11lbs, has improved gears, additional tripod head optional / recommended.
While photographers want to re-use their investments, often they fail to recognize lower-cost alternatives and are lured into buying over-priced accessories. More on "tracker" vs EQ-mounts : /stargazer95050/657809

The ZEQ25 mount isn't very heavy and, according to spec & user reviews, can move a decent setup. It features a build-in GPS at no extra costs and the handcontroller has a more informative 4-line display -- better than the Celestron & Orion (they charge $150 to add GPS) and a step below the more expensive iEQ45 (8-line graphic LCD, GPS built-in). And by now, it appears the early issues have been flushed out.

If you want start astrophotography and plan to upgrade soon to a bigger / heavier lens, the ZEQ25 may be too weak, to carry that OTA plus the auto-guiding scope. The iEQ45 is the mount, I currently use and weighing only 20lbs, it is a very portable mount. Compared to the Atlas-EQ6, the iEQ45 weighs much less, is cheaper (GPS included) and has a few more extras (better HC & polar scope). The Atlas-EQ6 on-axis encoders and the ability to tilt it to Alt/Az are useful and make this a tough choice.

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