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CN Report: Protoduction Optics

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Protoduction Optics:
Why I’ll never be a reseller

Tom Trusock

Ah prototypes....

There’s a huge influx in inexpensive asian optics today, and you might think that anyone with the right contacts can simply go out and start a business for themselves as a telescope reseller.

Well, I know that’s what I thought.

Turns out I wasn’t giving some of these guys near enough due.

I was recently sent 4 production prototypes for evaluation.  These are models that various factories are currently producing, and are (supposedly) currently ready to be shipped in volume.  They all have various options that can be changed or added as well.  The company that purchased these for evaluation simply obtained them over the web because they thought the scope in question was “interesting” for one reason or another.  Some of these scopes (or at least the optics) are already available in the US under different brand names.  Although I'm aware of specific vendors marketing them, I'm not going to disclose who'se doing what - so please don't ask me.  It's already hard enough on these guys as it is without giving folks ammunition to delve into their business practices.  But on the other hand - the savy consumer should keep their eyes (and mind) open - it's not all that hard to pick these things out, and you have a right to know what's out there.

This isn’t the first time I’ve looked at prototypes, various vendors have sought my opinion for a couple of years. This, however, was one of the most eye opening – especially considering these were protoduction units – and therefore the factory considered them ready for resale.

These were all sent to me in the exact condition the importer received them.  If something was broken, it was broken when they got it.  They did no QC inspections, fixed nothing, hid nothing.

What I saw made me scratch my head.

You’d think that if I were a manufacturer looking to open a new market, then my production samples would be flawless – the absolute best I could offer.  Seems like the logical thing to do, eh?  Get em hooked with the prototype and then send em some less than perfect samples after you’d signed a contract for a few grand.

Well, honestly – with one exception – these samples were somewhat less than perfect to begin with.  One of them has the dubious distinction of being the single poorest mechanical sample of a telescope I have ever seen in my life.  (And I’ve seen some BAD scopes over the years.) I simply cannot understand why anyone would let some of these things out the door to a single customer, let alone a customer who might potentially be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With that little bit of thought floating around in the back of your heads, lets take a brief look at the specific samples offered for inspection.

Protoduction Unit #1

Intane Optics offered up what easily turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  The mechanics on this scope are so bad, it’s pitiful.   For reasons that will be come apparent, we quickly nicknamed it the “Pirate Scope”. Just looking at this telescope, you have to wonder if the designers have ever actually been near a working refractor. 
Where to begin?  Well, the design was – um – interesting.  Ever had a pirate scope as a kid?  You know, the kind that “telescopes” out?  Well, here’s your chance to have it in an 80mm apochromatic version.  The tube literally collapses for storage.  It’s supposed to lock with a simple twist when extended.  There were two flaws in this – one, there is a noticeable (multiple degree) droop in the tube when extended, you can note the extensive deflection in the photos.  That's not the fault of the camera lens.  (Maintain collimation?  HAH!) Second, the extension simply did not lock into place.  The crayford focuser on this model does it’s job, but as it's integral to the sliding tube, the chances of upgrading it are nil.  The non-retractable dew shield was another point of idiocy.  Yes, you read that right, the tube retracts, but the dew shield doesn't.   But, in reality, the non-retraction portion wasn't a big loss.  At 1” or so in depth, it isn't long enough to do anything except maybe look like something that might be found on a real telescope.

The case was  included with the scope, and appears to be a laptop case with some hastily cut foam covered in yellow silk or nylon.  While some may find it attractive, I found it garish.  I'd like to note that they did include a handy cosmetic brush.  I suspect it was intended for cleaning optics, but in years of doing this, I've never seen anything quite like that included with a telescope.

The tube ring didn't tighten enough on the tube, and as a result when mounted (another interesting experience as there was only one mount hole) the thing wanted to slide all over the place.

Optical Evaluation?  Well, honestly, I had to work up the courage just to look through this beast.  Seriously, I was a little scared to put in a diagonal and decent eyepiece – there was no thumbscrew to tighten the compression ring, and I had to scavange the one off the tension adjustment for the Crayford.    But I did, finally screw up the courage to peek.  (What I do for the astronomy community...)

The results?  Well, first off, the “telescope” didn't even come to focus with a two inch diagonal and an eyepiece.  So – I did the logical thing.  I slid the expando in an inch.  It focused.  First target – Luna!

I'll give it this much – there wasn't a ton of false color on the moon.  But as per the rest?  Remember how we say that there are more important things than color correction when considering an apochromatic lens?  This scope is the poster child for that statement.  And it didn't stop there.   First off, the coma due to miscollimation was so horrid it was hard to even make out best focus.   It looked like the scope suffered from severe astigmatism.  I tried to get a look at the diffraction patterns to look for LSA, but I couldn't do it.  Between the floppy ota, and the mount attachment which constantly wanted to loosen itself I just couldn't aim the thing with any degree of precision at low powers, let alone at the magnifications required for star testing .


But Pirate Scope fans - despair not!  We’re going to be giving this puppy away, so the uber curious can see for themselves!  Seriously.  CN will be taking submissions for your “worst ever astronomical observing experience”.  Entries must be humoru… humou… humm…. funny for consideration.  We’re not looking to give folks an excuse to bash your favorite manufacturer, simply a chance to share the worst thing that has ever happened to you in the field.  First prize?  The infamous Pirate Scope!  Hey don’t look at me like that.  It does not cost you a penny to enter, and while the OTA is in need of a serious redesign, we're still guessing (somewhat) about those optics.  How much better might they be if they are in something that resembles a functional tube?  Ya never know – this thing might be the optical equal to an AP. Keep an eye out for the official announcement shortly.

Yes, I'm serious.  Quit laughing.

Ok, so - Back to the Intane.

Frankly, this unit was so bad, and the problems so blindingly obvious, I simply had to ask the company why they ordered this sample.  They responded they were not aware of it’s unique nature at the time the sample was ordered, and further the photos on the web led them to believe they were getting something – well, something more traditional.

Good points?  Well, I liked the blue color.

To the best of my knowledge, no one is offering this scope for sale in the US. 

Protoduction Unit #2

Next up, we’ve got an FK51 based 80mm f7 ED doublet, probably targeted to sell around the $400-600 range and manufactured by Kunming United Optics Corporation.  (I have no idea what the mate is, and recall that the overall color correction will depend on both glasses chosen. That said, there are certainly better - from an optics standpoint - but more costly glasses that could have been used.)  On the whole tho, it's not that objectionable for the visual observer - and may be fairly unnoticable to some. 

This scope is worlds better than the previous, and the fit and finish is quite decent.   The standard two speed crayford focuser needs some serious work tho in terms of smoothness, and frankly, I probably wouldn’t sell it with the default focuser – unless I could be assured that this was an incidental, and not a reoccurring problem.  But that's easy enough to fix.   The other “wierd” item was that, like the Intane, the rings didn't “quite” fit, and the tube slid around when mounted.

Optically, this sample seemed decent.  While it certainly isn't up to the level of the premium telescopes, in terms of “bang for your buck” this is a pretty good value.  With  some minor changes and attention to detail in terms of fit and finish (and possibly a focuser change), this would be a decent optic to import for resale.   Marketed right, I suspect it would appeal to newcomers looking for their first “apochromatic” refractor.  (Please note I use the term extremely loosly as I suspect it does not meet the definition of an apochromatic refractor, but that it would probably be marketed that way in the current atmosphere.)

Protoduction Unit #3

The third telescope is again out of the same manufacturer.  It's a 102mm f/6.95 FK51 doublet (a scaled up version of the previous design) and most likely aimed at the $900 - $1100 range.  Fit and finish is comparable to the 80 and it includes rings and a case.  It uses the same 2” dual speed crayford focuser found on the 80, and has similar problems – namely focus is a bit rough.    There other are little flaws here and there, but nothing major.  The biggest disappointment with this model is probably the case.  While it’s a free case, the one I was shipped was literally falling apart.  Additionally the focuser needed some work, but was quite acceptable afterwards.  Optically the performance was quite decent for the money, and it shows that we’re moving in a good direction quality wise.  If I wanted to bring these to market, like with the 80, I’d most likely replace the focuser and pay great attention to the fit and finish.  I rather suspect this one would sell fairly well.  Color correction was pretty decent overall, given the glass used and the short focal ratio, and while it's not a TSA102, I think many people would be quite pleased at the value for the dollar here.

Protoduction Unit #4

The fourth and last telescope I found quite interesting (like considered buying it myself interesting).   Again from Kunming United Optics Corporation, it’s a huge 6" f-6 achromat with heavy duty dual rings, 2" dual speed crayford focuser, 1.25" adapter, vixen style dovetail, case and red dot finderscope.  While it’s not a planetary telescope, it’s great for deep sky, and friends and I spent quite a bit of time using it on just that.   The focuser on this model was identical to that of the last two, and served to indicate the standard of deviation in quality control.  This focuser was essentially perfect.  While not a FeatherTouch, it was quite serviceable and did the job very well. 

This was really IMO, the gem of the samples.  It was something a bit unusual, but the fit and finish was pretty good overall, and if that was indicative of the product as a whole, then it’s immediately ready for resale.  The optics were quite good (apart from the severe CA that you’d expect) and I’m told they are hand polished.  Frankly, I’d be willing to believe that from what I saw.   Unfortunately, I suspect there won’t be a huge market for a 6” f6 achromat, at the around $1000 price range it would need to be offered at, but YNK – some importer may well decide to pick it up.  I hope so, this was a cool telescope, quite a bit shorter than the standard 6” f8’s, and surprisingly light.  I suspect some die hard refractor lovers would be pretty pleased with it.

Ok, so that's the lineup.

What did we learn from this? 

There are a number of very interesting products coming out of the far east.  Some deserve to see the light of day, others should be buried in a deep bunker, while their makers are forced to take optical and mechanical design (and maybe interior design as well).

The one thing that was obvious throughout the process was that anyone importing inexpensive optics really has to do their homework.  The mechanical variation in samples from the same company was somewhat surprising to me, and the quality of the “Pirate Scope” was simply astounding.    Moreover, it would probably be worth while to source the optics from one company, and the mechanics from another - indeed, I suspect many/most resellers/manufacturers do this.  Long Perng seems to be the dominant factory for OTA's these days - and with good reason, they do a nice job.

With that in mind, there’s a world of difference between a quality product from a company who designs their own telescopes and farms out the components to other sources, and those who simply buy off the shelf.   The resellers who do buy off the shelf material like this have to beware of poor factory QC (optically and mechanically), and do some heavy quality control of their own.  At least if they want to stay in business.

Now I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything coming out of China is junk – certainly not.   The last three samples had minor issues that needed attention, but overall showed quite a bit of promise - especially for the price. Like everywhere else, you get what you pay for.  You can get top notch gear.  There are a number of excellent optical shops who are very capable of doing mil-spec work.  But the key here is in the phrase "for the price".  Don’t expect to get a TeleVue 85, AP Stowaway, Sky90 or the like for $600.  It ain’t gonna happen.  The edge between good and good enough is a precarious place to walk, and companies that manage to implement effective quality control measures – and still turn an honest buck - have my respect.  

Most of all, even with the potential availability of quality product, over the years, I've learned it ain’t easy to get started in the telescope industry.   Kudos to those importers who manage to bring decent, low priced gear to the amateur market without tearing their hair out. 

Along those lines, I occasionally get asked when I'll be offering my own line of telescopes.

Hah!  Thanks, but I’ll just sit back and kibbitz. 

It’s safer.

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