I'm going to go a bit different route here and focus on education and expectation management. The Meade or Celestron are probably the two best on your list, just based on their volumes. Mass production allows for slightly higher quality for a given cost. There're all very similar budget optics, so stressing about which is "best" isn't super useful. Unless you're familiar with optics, it's unlikely you'll notice any practical difference between a slew of 70mm variants. Considering if you should buy a different style or altering your budget based on your expectations, is worth discussing.
One of the best things you can do is refine your requirements and exceptions before buying a scope. Typically, you could do this by going out with a club or star party, but COVID. I used a 85mm spotting scope for several years before buying my first "real" telescope, an 8" SCT. You can see a lot of interesting things with just a reasonable pair of binoculars. If you have anything to view the stars with, I recommend you grab what you have (maybe buy a cheap star chart to guide you) and just go to get an understanding and manage expectations.
I personally found the book "Turn Left at Orion" to be very useful for setting expectations on deep sky objects. There are illustrations of what you're likely to see, at a dark site, in a small refractor and a 10" Dobsonian. This not only helps you determine if a small refractor is going to be enough for your first scope on deep sky objects, but also teaches you what to look for. Visual observing is a skill.
I used my 85mm spotting scope at 20-60x magnification to observe mostly solar system objects (sun, moon, and planets) with good results. Picking up Saturns Cassini division is relatively easy, same with the Jupiters moons, bands, and red spot. However, that was a rather nice Zeiss optic; for its size, it performs extremely well on solar, but marginal on deep sky simply because of all my light pollution. I really needed a larger scope and proper light pollution filters to visually appreciate the deep sky objects...or drive 4+ hours to a true dark site. Light pollution is a problem and the filters really can't do much against the wide-band LEDs, but can work wonders on other narrow band emissions. Spend some time understanding your particular observing site challenges (unless you have a very dark sky).
As others have alluded too, there are some generalized rules to help guide you. Expectation management is critical IMHO. My thoughts:
- Solar system objects will typically look better, more color contrast, in a refractor (lens design) than a reflector (mirror design) due to the central obstruction in a reflector (secondary mirror).
- Deep sky objects will look better per dollar in most reflectors since you can get a much larger scope. Aperture is extremely important for deep sky; faint fuzzies. Light gathering power goes up by area. i.e. scales as a square of the radius. Thus, a 8-10" reflector scope is gathering significantly more light than a 3" refractor, but there are trades to be made. Deep sky objects won't have color because your eye is just not sensitive enough.
- Refractors are mostly setup and go systems. Reflectors can require more maintenance such as collimation. Be honest in how much you want to tune/fiddle with your system. A badly collimated reflector will look terrible no matter how much light its gathering! Refractors are usually recommended for beginners for exactly this reason, but YMMV depending on your technical background. However, per dollar, you can see much better faint fuzzies with a reflector, but there are tradeoffs.
- The atmosphere will practically limit your magnification to ~200x visually. The devils in the details here, but it's not a bad first order approximation. Typically, this means an 8-10" has all the resolving power you can typically use visually. Now obviously, larger telescopes exist for a reason and there are exceptions to the rule, but those details really aren't important for you right now, except for edification if you desire.
- Related to the previous bullet, you don't really need more than a few eyepieces. Three or four is typically plenty. You'll typically choose the highest magnification that fits (FOV) the object of interest. I found the Televue guides useful (don't have to buy their equipment as it's rather pricy, just use the info). E.g. for an 8" SCT, they recommended a 31mm, 17mm, and 10mm. I have those plus a 6mm for those rare times the atmosphere allow more magnification.
- Consider your environmental conditions and observing sites (check out dark sky maps). Here on the East coast USA, it's so humid typically I simply cannot observe for more than an hour without dew heaters on the 8" SCT. First time I used that scope, there was dew dripping off it after 45mins! The smaller refractor was manageable without dew heaters as long as I managed it. Please consider the support equipment you'll need, since it can add up quick. Also, things can get complicated fast. For example, I needed an OTA and eyepiece dew heaters, a controller and now a large battery to power it all. Lots more cables and longer setup.
- Consider the overhead in transporting the system to an observing site, whether that's your backyard or by car to somewhere else. Be realistic in how much time it will take to prepare, pack, travel, unpack, observe and return.
- Consider GoTo automation; it's a blessing and curse. Personally, I went with a Celestron StarSense setup because I really just wanted the computers to do their thing and let me drive by object. This is extremely different cost/experience than manual approaches. Both have pros/cons.
- Unless you really think you might take an interest in a photography, just get an Az/El mount if you go computerized. Setup is far easier not bothering with polar alignment.
So, at these class of optics, I wouldn't expect to see much but the brightest deep sky objects, but you can see the solar system objects reasonably well. However, as noted, the planets are not great at the moment and will quickly be gone until next year depending on your location. Plus, it's getting cold. If this is your budget, just realize the limitations and decide if it's worth the money or not. If you really want to see deep sky objects, you'll need to go someplace rather dark and/or get a larger scope. All of which will cost more money. With this class of optics you won't see anything like the pictures on the box.
Edited by LuxTerra, 27 November 2020 - 01:03 PM.