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Star Ware Fourth Edition

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The Fourth Edition of
STAR WARE by Philip S. Harrington

Reviewed by Thomas Watson

Contents of the book:
Preface to the Fourth Edition
1 Parlez-Vouz "Telescope?"
2 In the Beginning
3 So You Want to Buy a Telescope?
4 Two Eyes Are Better Than One
5 Attention Shoppers!
6 The "Eyes" Have It
7 The Right Stuff
8 The Homemade Astronomer
9 Till Death Do You Part
10 A Few Tricks of the Trade

A. Specs at a Glance
B. Eyepiece Marketplace
C. The Astronomical Yellow Pages
D. An Astronomer's Survival Guide
E. Astronomical Resources
F. English/Metric Conversion

Star Ware Reader Survey

When I rejoined the world of amateur astronomy in 2003 I found myself three decades behind the times. I needed to get myself up to speed before buying a better telescope than the old refractor I'd held onto all those years. I did not want to find myself with a nasty case of buyer's remorse, and I did not want to take a year to figure it all out and make an informed choice. At the time I had not yet discovered the world of online forums and discussion groups, so quite naturally I did the old-fashioned thing and looked for a book. The book I found was the third edition of Philip S. Harrington's Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories. That edition was all of a year old at the time, so it seemed plenty up to date for my needs. And it was. Reading Star Ware made it easier for me to sort out my options and, incidentally, gave me enough information to make my early participation in the Cloudy Nights forum fruitful.

Amateur astronomy had changed a great deal while I was away, and it has continued to change at a steady rate. Although the third edition of Star Ware was hardly obsolete after five years, the author and his publisher clearly saw a need for an update (beyond the ongoing process provided by Philip Harrington's website.) And so earlier this year the fourth edition of Star Ware appeared on bookstore shelves.
In addition to the usual review questions regarding the content and usefulness of the book, a new edition of an old favorite requires a different matter to be addressed: do you need the new edition? To review the new addition properly and to answer that question requires a comparison between the two.

First Impressions

At first glance it would seem little other than the cover has changed from one edition to the next. The table of contents in the fourth edition is the same as that of the third. The text of the first three chapters is nearly unchanged, with only a few revisions that you would not notice at all if you were not comparing the book page by page. And this is just fine, as these chapters cover the basic information you would need in order to understand the review material that follows. How many different ways can you tell the same story? Having told it so well in edition three, the author does well to preserve this material more or less intact. By chapter three, however, even a casual comparison should reveal some important differences between editions. For one thing, the new edition is more visually appealing. It is printed on a brighter grade of paper, making the text much easier to read. The line art illustrations are, in many cases, just a bit larger, and the stippling and dots used to fill in outlines has been replaced by soft grey shading, rendering the artwork cleaner, crisper, and gentler on the eye. The overall look of the book, which was anything but poor in the third edition, is greatly improved through these changes.

Also in the third chapter, you encounter the first of the Consumer Caveats scattered through the book. These shaded boxes contain points to which the author wishes to draw specific attention, and breaking these points out from the main text is an effective technique for insuring that the material receives the desired emphasis. The boxes for these comments are placed in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the text as you read. Although the content of some Consumer Caveats represents material from the previous edition, extracted from otherwise unchanged text, some of them are new comments added for the fourth edition.
Chapter three ends with the same telescope selection "test" as found in the earlier edition. The test is an attempt to do something like what Orion Telescopes and Binoculars tries to do with the Product Selection Wizard on their website. I found neither of these features especially useful three years ago when trying to select a telescope for myself. However, Harrington's version puts the information that precedes it into a useful context and certainly will make you think of telescope buying in terms other than merely the price. But if you are a beginner still in the telescope selection process, I would not recommend taking the results of the test too literally.

Covering the Field

In my review of the third edition, I called the range of products and manufacturers covered by chapters four through seven both exhaustive and exhausting. I meant this in an entirely complimentary way, of course, and still do. (I also hold to my earlier recommendation that you not try to read the book straight through. Take your time. The book contains a lot of information.) There's a lot out there to chose from, and no single volume could hope to cover all of it (a point the author makes repeatedly throughout the book, directing the reader to his website, where updates are an on-going process). Star Ware certainly rises to the challenge of covering most of the major players. Some of the manufacturers covered in edition three have carried over, while others have fallen away to be replaced by new brands. If you do much lurking on astronomy forums and discussion groups, many of the names will seem familiar.

Chapter four, regarding binoculars, begins with the usually ignored advice that the best "telescope" for the complete beginner is actually a pair of binoculars. (It's a good idea, but unfortunately one that most people abandon as soon as they get their first look through the eyepiece of a light bucket.) This edition's coverage of binoculars uses the same number of pages as the previous book, but covers fewer brands. The major players covered in the third edition are here, while a number of others have been dropped. Fewer brands and an equal page count means that those brands that are covered are covered at somewhat greater length.

Chapter five covers telescopes and mounts, and represents the largest single category of information in the book. Remember to pause and rest your eyes now and then! The chapter is subdivided according to telescope types, leading off with achromatic refractors. This portion of chapter five, like the binocular reviews previously discussed, covers fewer brands and models than seen in the third edition. From there, however, the coverage of other telescope types (Newtonians, SCTs, etc.) takes about the same amount of space. Only the exact list of players is different, which is to be expected. New to chapter five for this edition are short sections covering "Exotic Refractors" and "Exotic Catadioptrics," meaning the hydrogen alpha equipment that has gained so much popularity in recent years (with a special emphasis on the enormously popular PST) and Meade's RCX400 line, respectively.

Because mounting systems are so intimately associated with the telescopes reviewed in chapter five, it comes as no surprise that the bulk of the mount reviews are included here as well. In fact, various telescopes are frequently discussed in terms of the suitability of the mounts commonly sold with them. (The chart that provides details on mounts at a glance is much easier to use in this edition, and covers more ground into the bargain.) There is also increased coverage of EQ platforms for Dobsonian mounted reflectors.

Removed from this edition is the material on evaluating and purchasing used telescopes. Considering how robust the used telescope market has been, and remains, this is a puzzling change. Many new amateur astronomers acquire their first telescope from a previous owner, after all.

Chapter six covers the reviews of eyepieces and starts out with considerable detail on the various types and what sets them apart. As time passed, and after I purchased an eight inch Newtonian, this became the most often referred-to chapter in my copy of the third edition. The explanatory material is not completely comprehensive (that would take a book of its own) but clearly and concisely provides the background necessary for using the reviews to follow. As is the case with previous review sections, the list of brands has deletions and additions relative to the previous edition. The section on "super" eyepieces has been improved through some better organization and a few sub-headings that make finding specific brands easier. Also new as a separate section is "Eyepiece Accessories," covering Barlow lenses, focal reducers, coma correctors, reticle eyepieces, and binoviewers. These items were covered in edition three, but not under a heading of their own.

The last of the chapters dealing entirely with product reviews covers the almost bewildering array of accessories available to the amateur astronomer. The author makes no bones about a comprehensive listing, and instead covers the most popular and (it could be argued) useful of the readily available items. The portion of chapter seven dealing with astrophotography, reflecting as it does the dramatic changes in that field, shows the greatest degree of alteration. Most of this material deals with digital realities; very little is left to do with film photography.

Curiously, one omission from the chapter on accessories is the material on light baffles from the third edition. No mention is made at all of tube extensions for telescopes or commercially available light blocking panels, and this in the age of rampant light pollution.

Enough with Choosing, On With Using

Star Ware is, of course, more than just a shopping guide, and at least a third of it is devoted to getting the most out of the gear you acquire as an amateur astronomer. The combination of exhaustive coverage of available gear with so much basic how-to information is one of the strengths of this book, whichever edition you own. Nothing has been lost in this regard, from one edition to the next.

Chapter eight is the do-it-yourself chapter, with an entirely new set of projects in this edition. This makes sense, of course, although it seems a shame for the previous material to be lost to future readers. On the other hand, the material the author has gathered together for the new edition is both interesting and eclectic enough to motivate the reader to try at least one of the projects. For me, this is likely to be the making of the vibration suppression pads detailed in this part of the book. As was the case with the third edition, the new edition includes projects that are easy enough for the truly thumb-fingered among us, and tasks only a handyman with a full shop available
would take on - something for everyone, in other words.

There is one project in chapter eight, however, that I can guarantee I will never attempt. That would be "Tom's Chair." You see, I'm the aforementioned Tom. The year I acquired the three-legged Newt I found myself in need of an observing chair and, to make a long story short, I ended up with the finely crafted chair you see pictured in the "Tom's Chair" segment. It's a peculiar experience to see something I own showing up in print this way, and it carries on a weird star party tradition that has developed at the All Arizona star parties. Everyone wants to see "The Chair." I don't think most of them even know that I own a telescope! Well, now you can all see The Chair, somewhere between pages 282 and 285. From the looks of the instructions included, a few of you might even be sitting on one of these in the near future.

In chapter nine you find a significant change from the third to the fourth editions, with the inclusion of generalized set up and alignment instructions for various telescope types. (Instructions for finder alignment that were in chapter ten of the third edition are here in the chapter nine this time around.) Since there are so many similarities between brands and types of telescope and mounting systems, this material works in a generic sort of way. It's no replacement for specific instructions for a given telescope and mount, but it does give a sense of what awaits the prospective telescope buyer. The rest of chapter nine is pretty much the same as it ever was, covering the evaluation of optics, cleaning lenses and mirrors, and the basics of collimation.

In chapter ten ("A Few Tricks of the Trade") I came upon what I consider the only real flaw in this book. There are, of course, a few differences from one edition to the next. For instance, the star party listings that were included in the third edition are now found on his website (where they can be updated as needed). And there is coverage in this edition of "push to" systems that were not readily available five years ago. But these differences are of the sort found throughout the book, and are not a problem. After a lengthy discussion of how to align a telescope properly for the use of setting circles and computerized systems, the author then tells his readers that beginners should not use such systems, for fear of becoming dependent on the technology when they should be taking the time to learn the night sky for themselves.

I've heard this opinion expressed with varying degrees of vigor for four years now (and I must admit that Mr. Harrington's take on it is about as inoffensive a rendition as I've encountered). Someday I would like to see some evidence that the use of computerized object location systems actually prevents a beginner from learning the sky. So far, I have encountered none and, when I hear or read this warning, no such corroborating evidence is ever forthcoming. That may be why I tripped over this bit. Everything else in Star Ware is based on factual assessments of gear and techniques. The warning that the use of GoTo by beginners might slow their development is not a matter of proven fact, to the best of my knowledge, (although I will freely admit that I have not formally studied the matter). So even the mild-mannered expression of this view found in chapter ten strikes an oddly discordant note. I believe the book would be better off without it.


The book ends with a set of very useful appendices that include, among other things, a distillation of the buyer's guide material discussed in the text. Rather than try to retain the specifics, turn to the appendices for a quick look at the specifications and features of the telescopes and eyepieces included. The appendices are a most useful feature, indeed.

So, It All Comes Down To

Should you rush out and buy a copy of this book? The answer, I believe, depends on where you are in your evolution as an amateur astronomer. If you are a decades-long veteran who once made your own telescopes from scratch, Star Ware might not appeal. Much of it is very basic information of the sort that makes certain all readers are up to speed before the pages of gear reviews are turned. Intermediate astronomy hobbyists who are familiar with previous editions should go to a library or bookstore before placing an order. This is what I did (even though I knew The Chair was included). In the end I purchased a copy mostly because the updated information seemed useful to me, but also in part because the general improvement in the look and layout of the new edition promised to make this version a more pleasant reference to use ? and my copy of the third edition has seen steady use since it landed on my desk. Although I've become accustomed to obtaining much of my information from online sources, even the very best online forum cannot match the signal to noise ratio of a book. So a copy of the fourth edition is now a part of my library.

If you are new to all this, however, I cannot recommend the fourth edition of Star Ware highly enough. I do not know of any other book in which such a range of material regarding astronomical gear and its use is covered, much less in such detail. Whether or not you ever directly use a fraction of the stuff the author discusses, by reading this book you will be better able to guide yourself through the inevitable purchases that accompany the growth and development of any hobby. You will also find yourself less at a loss for words when meeting people at star parties. (And anyone who doubts the importance of this has never attended a star party!) The how-to information and the tips and tricks included will provide a healthy boost up the learning curve. You will also enjoy reading it. Phil Harrington's enthusiasm for the material he covers is as obvious as it is encouraging, and the writing style has an easy, conversation quality to it that makes the mountain of information more readily accessible. If you are on the hunt for your first telescope, or have your very first telescope set up and ready to go, a copy of Star Ware should be on your wish list.

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