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My CEM120EC2 21 Months In

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#1 rgsalinger

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Posted 18 January 2020 - 12:34 PM

I bought a CEM120EC2 21 months ago to see if it matched up to the AP1100 and the SB MX+ which, all in, run an extra 3 to 4K dollars in the USA without encoders, with slightly less rated capacity and not as much through the mount cabling. (Overseas, I suspect that the difference in price would be even greater.) I had the luxury of a permanent pier at the time and I realized that my old AZ/EQ6 was not a good choice for remote imaging. The older I get, the less interested I am in driving 100 miles in two directions to image. So, that was really the idea- set it up on the pier and log in from home and see if the price was really right. I had my MX+ to fall back on if it didn't work out. Over the 21 months, it's been an interesting road, but I really think that the mount does in fact compare well to other more expensive mounts with the same capacity for most use cases. 

 

My software suite for the mount consists of MaximDL and CCD AutoPilot. These are well proven solutions for fully automated remote imaging and have no bugs that bother me at this point. On the Paramount, I use the SKYX instead to get the benefit of Protrack. I'd use the SKYX on the CEM but the telescope focusing software from Planewave only supports MaximDL. I find it to be the best focusing software out there. Both systems are run using small cheap Win10Pro computers with modest i5 chips and 4GB of memory with SSD's.

 

The first night that I had the mount, I had to set it up on my pier and connect everything to it. I then found out that I had to download and install all new software to get it working on my Windows computer. Overall, I wasn't really ready to do anything with it until around 4 hours later. I then polar aligned the mount, focused the telescope (5" refractor) and calibrated the guider. By 1AM I was able to guide very very well. At that point I went home quite happy. I was really happy with the fact that all of my cabling was through the mount. The mount has 4 USB 2 ports and 1 USB 3 Port. The mount squeaked a bit when slewing which was worrisome but that didn't seem to have any effect beyond making me nervous.

 

The next clear night I ran into all sorts of problems. First, the pointing model no longer worked. The scope was over 1 degree away from any target. I had to build a new pointing model. That continued for about 5 months until iOptron fixed the driver. Second, the mount would not park at it's zero point - looking at Polaris. This was also a driver problem. When I tried to park, I came within an inch of a pier collision before I could stop it! I then parked elsewhere for a while. They fixed this at some point in the driver software, probably about 6 months after I got the mount. Once I got by this, my first slew was off by 1 degree every time. I finally came up with a workflow of re-establishing the zero point each night and then parking the scope. (Note that there is a built in GPS so the mount knows precisely where it is and what time it is.) 

 

Overall, the software that comes with the mount is simply poorly designed and has stayed that way for two years. Everything essential works, but it's obvious that no one at iOptron understands the basics of GUI design. First of all, you need to have two panels up - one just connects the mount and another has most but not all of the mount parameters. Another panel has (yup) some other parameters that might interest you. Yet the entirety of all this could easily be in one panel for ease of use. On top of that there are quite a few "settings" that still, after almost 2 years do nothing. There is, for example, no pointing model software (but you can store some calibration results). If you have a problem you can't turn on/off the encoders or the guiding in DEC (but you can in RA). 

 

Leaving the software aside, the mount is also missing a couple of features that I would really like to have. You cannot use it to track comets or asteroids because you cannot dynamically vary the DEC and RA tracking rates the way that you can with an AP or Paramount. I have no idea why this is the case. Any mount aspiring to be used in an observatory should be able to do this relatively simple task. The mount simply will not run well enough to take long exposure unguided images. Period. I can go maybe 2 minutes and that's that. 

 

Support has been spotty. I had a problem with the system one night - oblong stars - the first time I put my PW 12.5 on the mount. I figured it was a mount problem and I wanted iOptron to take the mount back and fix it. It took me at least 3 weeks to get an RMA. By the time I got it they had released a new driver which they said cured the problem. It didn't. Eventually, (my bad) I worked out that the fan in my camera was vibrating. The camera is now fixed and the stars are perfect. What I have found is that the best way to deal with iOptron is via email, calling them is pointless and the forum is poorly monitored. I've gotten responses late at night but it's pretty clear that any tough question needs to be answered back in China. 

 

One other thing. My mount can be provoked into unstable behavior in the DEC axis. Any guiding cadence below about .5 seconds will cause the mount to oscillate for about 2 minutes about 2 arc seconds in DEC. RA remains perfectly stable. I have no idea why this happens and since I guide at between 2 and 7 seconds, I only noticed it when someone asked me to run a test. SDE has also been mooted and may be there, but if it is, it does not seem to affect the performance of the mount. I have about 70 pounds of weight on it and I image at 2.5 meters of focal length these days. The one other CEM120EC2 that I've worked on works just as well. As always, I'm sure that there's a bad one lurking out there. 

 

I'd love to hear from other owners about their experiences. I also thought it was time for a report now that the mount is almost 2 years old and is still going strong. 

 

At this point, I have a stable, easy to use, environment - my driver is 6 months old and the mount is on a permanent pier in an observatory. I've even been running it remotely from home for the past month from home and it works just as well as the MX+ sitting about 10 feet away from it. I would recommend it to anyone who's price sensitive and doesn't mind a slightly awkward workflow, will accept average support and has pretty standard pretty picture aspirations. With the Paramount, I just turn it on, home it and it's ready to go. With the iOptron, I have this little routine that I have to do which takes about 5 minutes each night. There has been little or no performance difference between the two mounts. 


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#2 psandelle

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Posted 18 January 2020 - 01:42 PM

Excellent report! These are the sort of reviews I like to read because it shows the strengths and weaknesses of the mount without bias. Someone may want to spend more to fiddle the first five minutes less (or get better support), but the bottom line: you're getting similar tracking from the iOptron and the Paramount, once everything's zeroed in and going, which is something to commend it to people who wish to find a cost-conscious alternative to things. It becomes a very deliberate choice then, which is a great way to make decisions. Nicely done!

 

Paul



#3 GrandadCast

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Posted 18 January 2020 - 02:48 PM

May I ask what is the routine?  With my old iEQ45 that was powered down in the Park position, I just turn it on the next imaging session and let SGPro take over. 

“With the iOptron, I have this little routine that I have to do which takes about 5 minutes each night.”

Jess



#4 aneeg

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Posted 18 January 2020 - 02:58 PM

A meaningfull report, pros & cons in a balanced way.

Thank you, Ross!

 

Arne
 



#5 rgsalinger

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 03:00 AM

So, I park the mount parallel to the ground and power it off when I'm done imaging of a night. For some reason you can't park the mount below zero altitude which is what I'd really like to do to keep dust out of the tube. If I power it on and then do a slew from park it's way off for some reason even though the GPS says "OK". Since I use Pinpoint to plate solve the object needs to be in the FOV or it the local solve fails which is annoying. 

 

So, I tell it to Find Zero first when I power it on. It does that and stops when it's finished. Then I park it and it parks back to where it started. NOW the slew at 2.5 meters is almost perfect. I think that this means that the park routine is not terribly accurate. This wouldn't matter to someone who's setting up each night but my mount is 90 miles away and I can't move it by hand.

 

I also check that the location and time are correct and that the PC has the same time as the mount. All in all this takes about 5 minutes and I can do it before it gets dark. My Paramount just needs to find home when it's powered on which is does by itself and then it's ready to go.

 

Rgrds-Ross


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#6 Chris Ryan

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 06:23 AM

I have to agree with Ross on his observations (I've got a CEM120EC2, which I got in April 2019).  Essentially, if you work through the issues and deal with the idiosyncrasies, this mount is pretty good - certainly FAR better than the Losmandy G11 I had before it.  I just wish QA/support was better overall, and we had an idea if the missing features are being worked on.  While I agree with Ross that things like the UI could be better, in my experience with astro gear, there's rarely anything that's well done in that area anyway.

 

For the mount itself, I have not had enough clear nights or have properly settled my setup to be able to say for certain that it is truly good enough.  It works well at 700mm, but I have not yet done enough testing at 2000mm (mostly because of other gear issues).  Assuming I get the logistics right of my setup, I should be running around 40 kg of gear with 45 kg of counterweight.  So far, it doesn't seem to sweat that at all.

 

So far, I've used Voyager and PHD2.  For PHD2 I do have to be careful with calibrating.  I think it's rare that anything less than about 3 sec exposure will give a good calibration or guiding.  But once calibrated properly, it guides very well.

 

So, would I recommend this mount right now?  Not exactly, but that's mostly because of the QA/Support.  Assuming you can get past that, you're going to have a great mount that's probably half the price of any feature comparison mount. 


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#7 RaulTheRat

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 08:43 AM

I can't comment on the 120EC2 but I have also observed strange behaviour on my CEM60 after parking and at startup.

With the mount in the zero position, pointing at the NCP, I can check in the iOptron commander software that it does indeed think it's at AZ 0 and ALT of my latitude so knows precisely where it's pointing, I can confirm that it has the correct GPS location and time, and I can then plate solve at the NCP, and it will solve on the first plate tried, so far so good.

I'll then try making an initial slew to plate solve again, then inexplicably sometimes (intermittently) I will scratch my head as the mount slews to point somewhere at the ground next to the pier!!!

I have also found that using the search zero position function will fix this, and after that it will then slew appropriately.

I have no idea why it does this, like I've said I've checked location, time and the coordinates that the mount software thinks it's pointing at whilst parked at the zero position and everything looks to be in order.

I'm generally very happy with my 60, I had a 60EC and had the same problems as many other people have had when trying to guide it, so I had to return it for a standard non encoder version which has impressed me - tracking and guiding is excellent for the money, and the ergonomics are very good indeed, the mount head is very light for the capacity.

The issues I had guiding a 60EC would probably put me off a 120EC2, but I agree that these iOptron mounts seem to offer an extraordinary value for money. I have seen many of your posts and it's almost tempting to consider a 120EC2 in future for an observatory mount but I think the experience I had with the 60EC would put me off.

I think in the 120 weight category, a Mesu makes more sense to be honest if iOptron aren't going to use the encoders for modelling and if you have to guide either of them, but I can also definitely see the appeal of some of the design elements of the 120.

If iOptron actually start using the encoders for modelling and these become capable of unguided imaging I'd think again, but time keeps going by and they don't, so I am not sure if that's a longer term plan or if it won't happen.

Edited by RaulTheRat, 19 January 2020 - 08:44 AM.

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#8 jdk

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 09:55 AM

This is a refreshingly honest review, and generally tracks with my short experience with a non-ec 120. It's exciting that otherwise "non-premium" manufacturers are dipping a toe into the world of encoders and modeling. 


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#9 BobT

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 10:38 AM

NOTE:  In all of 2019 I have probably had fewer than 14 nights worthy of good imaging so my report should be considered a very small sample and may not be representative of the product as a whole.

 

I received my CEM120-EC (RA encoders only) in late November, 2018.  The shipping container and internal foam were well designed and did their job well considering the weight of the mount. The fit and finish of the mount is, in my opinion, excellent.  The through-the-mount cable management has permitted me to move the controlling CPU from the top of the OTA to the base of the pier, reducing the weight (and moment arm) of the instrument load.  I had no difficulties during the initial setup and running of the mount.  The internal GPS worked as it should as did the Ethernet connection to my network.

 

The first problem I ran into was that the mount and dome would not sync.  I did some troubleshooting that pointed to the mount being the culprit.  I emailed iOptron USA support, got an immediate reply and a fix within 48 hours (the problem had been previously reported and the firmware fix was in the release cycle). 

 

I was not totally satisfied with my initial imaging results, there was more elongation in the stars than I had hoped for, but chalked it up to the need for more experience and better mount alignment.  Of course, the weather went downhill about this time so my imaging sessions were few and far between.  However, in one session I noticed that the stars were almost perfectly round and, the next night on the same target, not so round.  It finally dawned on me, that on the night the stars were round, I had failed to apply power to the fans on my RC scope.  Like Ross, I had a defective fan that was vibrating and causing the defect. 

 

There have been several CEM120 firmware upgrades released by iOptron during 2019.  I have installed all of them and really saw no noticeable difference (either positive or negative) in mount operation.  I am currently running 190820 (mount) and 190312 (hand controller).  One of the latest releases was to correct problems with heavily loaded mounts but, with my load being < 50 pounds, I saw no difference.  I have not experienced any "quality control escapes" as others have, no shorted wires, no grinding gears, no loose fasteners.

 

Am I satisfied?   With the hardware I can say:  "Yes".  The mount has disappeared into the background.  I turn it on, it works.  Nothing like the fiddling I did with the G-11 for years. 

 

I am very disappointed in iOptron's ability to write code.  As pointed out by others, their UI is amateurish at best. Their API (from a developer's point of view) is poorly implemented and some commands are "secret".  More importantly, they refuse to publish a theory of operation so we can better understand how the mount should respond. 

 

iOptron USA Support has been O.K..  For the most part I have received timely responses to my questions but, on a few occasions I have had to repeat my request after a few days.  iOptron Engineering, on the other hand, seems to suffer, from what we use to call in the aerospace business, "Design Arrogance", the attitude that "we know our product better than the customer so we don't need to listen to them".  (I worked for a large corporation that almost went down the tubes for that very reason (until a new CEO brutally slapped some sense into the management team)).

 

Here's hoping iOptron will get the message.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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#10 johnsoda

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 11:12 AM

Really appreciate the detailed and objective descriptions of real-world experiences.  One thing that worries me as a reasonably satisfied CEM60EC owner is with iOptron’s product proliferation, which is in many ways a good thing, how much time are their software engineers going to be able to devote to each product’s support?


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#11 rgsalinger

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 01:10 PM

A few follow on thoughts.

 

My guess about mounts slewing to the wrong place would be something that AP warns about. If you start your mount in certain positions it can be very hard for the mount to know if the CW's are east or west of the pier. If you couple that possibility with a very slight innacurate setup of a night - moving the mount with the power off (for example) ambiguity turns into a flat out Side of Pier error. So, then the mount goes off in a different direction. I was out last night with a friend who has an AP1100 and after he set it up it pointed to China. He fiddled with it for a while but in the end just used the HC to center Caph and then did a "sync" and was off and running. 

 

Good software starts with good functional analysis and GUI design. In the case of the CEM mounts, it appears that iOptron didn't think about having a mount family. They have been cobbling up the drivers and firmware as they go along. Contrast that with both Bisque and AP. With an AP mount you have the CP series of control boxes. You just tell the box which mount you have and you're done. Bisque mounts work exactly the same way - the MKS5000 is basically the same thing as the CP control box just built directly into the mount. You select your particular Paramount and you are done with mount setup. If you look at iOptron's website, the 120's have a different set of firmware from the other mounts and (if memory serves) even a different driver. 

 

Personally, my own view of support is that there remains a serious communication gap between all of the Chinese astronomy equipment companies and the US consumer. I think that it's more a question of bad communication than anything else that leads to support problems. The corollary to this is that the engineers at iOptron are clearly not imagers or "real" astronomers. AP and SB mounts are used in professional observatories all over the world and are designed not merely by good mechanical engineers but rather by enthusiasts who happen to be engineers. (I'm not dissing any other brand so don't start!) Of course, support quality might well be an economic issue as well - how many support people can you have given the profits you make on the products.I just feel that the key support issue is more communication difficulty than anything else and the time zone situation doesn't help one bit.


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#12 gotak

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 01:23 PM

It's great some folks have no problems, and generic problems they can solve. However, the caveat is that when you have something outside their normal understanding it seems to take a long time to address. And in the end there are a few of us who just gave up on the process because it gotten to the point it's taken so long and they eventually start to respond less and less, that you just decides there are more important thing sin life to spend your time on.

I don't think I the issues are all due to lost in translation. There is an entire feeling of (as some has said) using their customers as testers. Some of the firwmare released seems to lack the basic testing before being sent out. In many ways it's similar to some of the low cost cooled CMOS manufacturers as well.

So yes if it works you have a good value proposition but if it doesn't there could be no resolution.

For what's it's worth I think overall there is less risk in their non-EC copies as there is less complexity for their software to get wrong.

Edited by gotak, 19 January 2020 - 01:32 PM.

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#13 rgsalinger

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 02:21 PM

My situation is probably different from many others in that I am scrupulous about returning immediately things that don't work. I also live 3 miles from OPT. So I just go over, ring the bell and dump the stuff on them. I don't even have to go to the post office. Last night my imaging partner asked me why I buy from OPT (new QHY stuff) rather than directly. About 3 hours later my brand new filter wheel began making horrible sounds and simply stopped working. It goes back tomorrow or Tuesday. He then said "Ah I see the point now". 

 

When I first got the mount, even the niggling problems reported above annoyed me. I contacted my vendor and arranged a return within the 30 day window. Then I set about seeing if I might be able to work around them now that I knew that I had a backstop. Eventually I decided to just put in place a little workflow because the .2 / .3 arc second guiding was too good to pass up. 

 

I give that same advice out over and over again - if it doesn't work the first couple of times out then return it and get something else. The one time I violated this advice (with a Meade OTA) it cost me over 2K to get out of the mess. I had an expensive OTA that was defective, couldn't be returned and could not be sold without a warning. I unloaded it under those terms and took a bath. It's one reason why I emptied the bank account (and got a really good buy) on the PlaneWave - no more SCT's.

 

I have not had a single firmware release that seemed to me to be untested. I haven't taken every release that they put out because my mount works and why would I mess with it? I also would not lump the 60EC with the 120EC since they have different firmware and (at least at one point) a different driver. I have no view on whether the EC one's are more likely to have trouble than the non EC ones but the firmware must be more complicated. 

 

Rgrds-Ross


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#14 RaulTheRat

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 02:31 PM

The comment about the mount being confused about which side of the pier it's on is a good observation, thanks for that - it may well be the cause of my strange slews. I think I might try searching zero position at every start up to see if I don't see the problem again, as when I have seen it before that seems to fix it, whereas manually putting the scope back in the zero position and ensuring that the pointing model is cleared doesn't seem to resolve it.

I am not sure practically though how to use the "side of pier" advice in a setup that isn't left mounted. In an observatory I could just parked for example with the tube level and pointing North for example which would be unambiguous, however if the scope has to be taken on and off with the mount inevitably being grossly out of balance during the process, the only safe position that naturally suggests itself to park at is counterweight bar vertical and declination +90

#15 rgsalinger

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Posted 19 January 2020 - 09:22 PM

Honestly I don't know enough about exactly how iOptron figures out how to do the first slew. There was a bug in the firmware (driver?) which I think I mentioned when using exactly that park position in my observatory. The scope almost hit the pier maybe the second or third time I used it. Their advice was to park a bit east or west which I did and never saw the problem again. That plus the AP advice made me wonder how mounts that don't have homing sensors or absolute encoders figure out which way to go to an object when they start up. I saw this same behavior with my old Mach 1 one night when it was pointing that way.  



#16 Der_Pit

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Posted 20 January 2020 - 08:20 AM

Not sure if it's the same issue, but at least the 60s have the problem that AZ=0, EL=Latitude is a singular point in Ra/Dec (any RA will do this at DEC=90).  The HC therefore stores a value several arcsec off that position which makes the value unique, but some software had issues with it...

 

I'm not parking my CEM60, I always only go to zero position and leave it there.



#17 OldManSky

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Posted 20 January 2020 - 10:07 PM

I actually think iOptron has done a decent job thinking of their mount "family."  The one "main" version of their Commander, for example, drives every one of their equatorial mounts (GEM or CEM) *except* the 120.  That includes the ZEQ25, CEM25, iEQ30, iEQ45, CEM40, GEM45, and CEM60.  Some of those have different ASCOM/native drivers, some share them.  Their command protocol is consistent across the line.  

On-mount firmware is a different beast, of course -- since it has to "talk" to specific chips on the boards...



#18 rgsalinger

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Posted 20 January 2020 - 11:19 PM

I'm not sure that I can follow this but here goes. First, I can accept that the 120 is an outlier. No problem at all, I've never checked. However, having different ASCOM drivers (Commander is just a GUI to access some settings) seems to be the same symptom. There is ONE MKS5000 driver for every Paramount. There is one AP driver for every AP mount (that I have used). Seems better to me but I can see that it's not as bad as I might have thought.

Rgrds-Ross



#19 Ballyhoo

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Posted 21 January 2020 - 02:11 AM

I'm not sure that I can follow this but here goes. First, I can accept that the 120 is an outlier. No problem at all, I've never checked. However, having different ASCOM drivers (Commander is just a GUI to access some settings) seems to be the same symptom. There is ONE MKS5000 driver for every Paramount. There is one AP driver for every AP mount (that I have used). Seems better to me but I can see that it's not as bad as I might have thought.

Rgrds-Ross

Is the upshot of this thread that if one purchases a CEM120 EC2, that it will take an exceptionally skilled consumer to bring his/her mount up to speed over the course of a few months, and then, said consumer will have  amount in par with SB?  Because that is how I read the OP, a lot of growing pains, and time is money too. Or, were you just part of a cycle that the mount was in at that time, with drivers and such, and things have cycled in for that mount so that now consumers can acquire a near premium model mount in the CEM120EC2?

 

I wonder how your experiences would have differed had you not purchased the EC model.  Presumably your mount is guiding. Or is this a fail-safe system for remote imaging.

 

Very informative post. I learned a lot. thank you



#20 Der_Pit

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Posted 21 January 2020 - 02:17 PM

I actually think iOptron has done a decent job thinking of their mount "family."  The one "main" version of their Commander, for example, drives every one of their equatorial mounts (GEM or CEM) *except* the 120.  That includes the ZEQ25, CEM25, iEQ30, iEQ45, CEM40, GEM45, and CEM60.  Some of those have different ASCOM/native drivers, some share them.  Their command protocol is consistent across the line.  

On-mount firmware is a different beast, of course -- since it has to "talk" to specific chips on the boards...

ACK there.  The 120 is the only one (so far) supporting the latest protocol version v3, all the others use v2.5.  The format of some commands has changed in 3.0, and some new commands were added.  That's why it needs some special care.

Would be nice if they would start migrating at least the larger ones like the CEM60 also to that version....



#21 rgsalinger

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Posted 22 January 2020 - 10:05 AM

"Is the upshot of this thread that if one purchases a CEM120 EC2, that it will take an exceptionally skilled consumer to bring his/her mount up to speed over the course of a few months, and then, said consumer will have  amount in par with SB?

 

I bought the mount with the intention of being a pioneer. So, I was not surprised at all that there were minor workflow issues with it. I was surprised and still am by how poorly designed the software is with it's myriad of panels and unsupported features still around after 2 years. Remember, I got excellent guiding and pointing the first night I used it. By the second or third night I was getting data. 

 

Here's an example of what I was getting during within a couple of months of getting the mount. 

 

Rgrds-Ross



#22 Ballyhoo

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Posted 22 January 2020 - 09:41 PM

"Is the upshot of this thread that if one purchases a CEM120 EC2, that it will take an exceptionally skilled consumer to bring his/her mount up to speed over the course of a few months, and then, said consumer will have  amount in par with SB?

 

I bought the mount with the intention of being a pioneer. So, I was not surprised at all that there were minor workflow issues with it. I was surprised and still am by how poorly designed the software is with it's myriad of panels and unsupported features still around after 2 years. Remember, I got excellent guiding and pointing the first night I used it. By the second or third night I was getting data. 

 

Here's an example of what I was getting during within a couple of months of getting the mount. 

 

Rgrds-Ross

could you just use 3rd party software?  



#23 DuncanM

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Posted 22 January 2020 - 10:57 PM

could you just use 3rd party software?  

Yes, via ASCOM.  You start Commander automatically when using the ASCOM driver but then you can minimize it and most basic functions can be supported via your ASCOM enabled imaging or charting software.

 

I will go for a whole evening without using Commander, but will use it occasionally for things like changing guide rates or to access the large database in the HC.



#24 rgsalinger

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Posted 23 January 2020 - 04:47 AM

Fair point. Other than my little start up procedure I never even look at the GUI.

Rgrds-Ross 



#25 OldManSky

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Posted 24 January 2020 - 09:08 AM

Fair point. Other than my little start up procedure I never even look at the GUI.

Rgrds-Ross 

Same here (CEM25P and CEM60).  I start Commander, minimize it, then never look at it again.  CDC and NINA control the mount. :)




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