Q: I want to buy a telescope, what should I do first?
A: First of all, you should learn the constellations . Go to the local libarary and read up on Astronomy. Pay a visit to your local astronomy club. Ask to look through their telescopes, they'll be nice, I promise. Ask lots of questions. Astronomy geeks love to show off their knowledge of astornomy.
Consider buying a good pair of binoculars instead. They don't invert your field of view (what you see in the eyepiece), they're easier to clean and transport, and if it turns out astronomy isn't your thing, you can still use them for football games and such.
Q: Ok, I'm sure I want a telescope. What should I look out for?
Great, there's not that much to worry about but, what you have to remember are real doozies.
Cardnal Rule of Telescope Buying:
Never Buy a Telescope Based on Magnification.
Q: Wait, I thought you wanted magnification.
A: Magnification is great, but certainly not the most important factor. It is not magnification that makes great views. It's aperature (the size of the primary mirror in a reflector, or the size of the primary lens in a refractor). Aperature is simply the size of the light gathering surface. The more light a telescope can gather, the brighter and, usually, crisper the image. The unbelivably high magnifications that are advertised by low quality telescopes cause the image to be so wiggly from atmospheric turbulence, and dim that it is impossible to see anything. Back to the original question.
Don't even consider buying from a HSN, QVC, department stores or the like. Those telescopes are nothing less than the scum of the optical world. Shaky mountings, badly polished mirrors, the list goes on. Avoid Tasco telescopes as well. I have no idea how that company became so popular. They are the very definition of "department store telescope", which is a very bad thing indeed.
Try to avoid shopping at camera and hobby shops, the knowledge of astronomy tends to be limited in those places. Try to buy from your local astronomy shop (look under "Telescope" in the yellow pages), shipping is expensive.
Q: Great, I've found a good telescope shop. What should I buy?
It all depends. Don't be shy, the telescope store guy can help a lot more that I can. I'll get you started though. If you are shopping for yourself I would recomend a 6 inch reflector, 8 or 10 inches if you're really serious. For a child a small refractor is great. But please not a tasco. Remember to take weight into account. There's nothing quite like lugging 80 pounds of precision optics through thick undergrowth in sub-zero weather. Mountings: mountings are important. Consider carefully. Dobsonian mounts: inexpensive, lets you buy more aperature, can't take astro-photos, installing a tracking motor is difficult and expensive. Equatorial and altazmuth mounts: buttery smooth movement, just looks more "telescopey", tracking is easy with or without a motor, astrophotos, expensive. Mounts often double the weight of the actual telescope, think of your back.
Q: I've picked out a 'scope. What accesories should I buy?
A: Very good, you've picked up astronomy geek speak. Oh, yeah, get 1 or 2 eyepieces (size depends on what you bought, ask astronomy store guy), a good book of star charts (Astronomy club and telescope store guy to the rescue!), a subscription to Astronomy Magazine or Sky and Telescope is good too. Don't forget the posters of the horse head nebula and the Mars Pathfinder calenders! Don't be the last one on your block to get one! Join the aforementioned astronomy club as well.
That just about covers the basics, happy stargazing.!
I swear if you buy a tasco I will kill you. You should know better.