eVscope. Credit: Unistellar

Plus: Fast aperture; colorful images; autonomous star-field detection alignment; 9-hour battery; easy to use app

Minus: Heavy; 1.2 megapixel images; app sometimes stalls

Summary: The Unistellar eVscope is a great first-generation attempt at a smartscope, producing remarkably colorful live-stacked images — even under light-polluted skies. It’s more an all-in-one astrophotography rig than a telescope, but an electronic eyepiece means observing can still retain an immersive dimension.

Who Is It For? Beginner astrophotographers and urban dwellers looking for a shortcut to seeing and sharing images of the deep sky.

All hail the smartscope! What is a smartscope, you ask? It’s a small telescope with a built-in camera sensor that sends images to a smartphone or tablet. The Unistellar eVscope (MSRP: $2,699) – created in conjunction with the SETI Institute – isn’t actually the only smartscope around; the other, the Vaonis Stellina, came out last year and still holds the record for being the only telescope without an eyepiece. Not so for the Unistellar eVscope, which as well as allowing remote control, allowing the “observer”’ to stay indoors, does come with an eyepiece.

That side-mounted eyepiece is an electronic organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen, which means on this 4.5-inch reflector telescope the eyepiece can be positioned in the “wrong” place. Smartscopes are a new kind of telescope. Instead of receiving reflected light, the eyepiece is dumb, merely wired-up, and it’s only the Sony IMX224 image sensor – positioned at the top of the 25-inch long, 9-inch wide tube – that receives the focused light. 

Not only does the adjustable-focus eyepiece receive its images from that sensor, but so does a smartphone or tablet via the Unistellar app. Astronomy via an app? Astrophotography, more like. What the Unistellar eVscope is all about is taking images of celestial objects using tried-and-tested settings (ISO, exposure, etc.) and live-stacking them for extra clarity. This is called the Enhanced Vision (EV) mode by Unistellar. 

Naturally for a smartphone-operated telescope, the Unistellar eVscope is a GoTo model, with its app packed with guided observations for what’s “up” where you are. Setup is incredibly easy; you use a virtual joystick within the app to point the Unistellar eVscope at some stars. The telescope then cross-references the stars’ positions with its built-in planetarium database, and aligns. It’s not perfect, but an ongoing process; after claiming it was aligned, I requested the Unistellar eVscope slew to Jupiter, which it duly missed by a good few degrees. However, within seconds it had slewed to the giant planet, and thereafter proved perfectly aligned. 

The telescope’s EV images can be stunning. However, they’re certainly not what smartscopes of the future will produce. At just 1.2 megapixels, the images the telescope creates for sharing are rather basic in many ways (though some manual tweaks are available), but the detail and color can be transfixing. Tested under light-polluted skies, the Ring Nebula (M57) looked incredibly colorful, as did the Cigar Galaxy (M82) and the Great Hercules Globular Cluster (M13). However, using the Unistellar eVscope is not about instant astrophotography, and it’s certainly a big change from observational astronomy. For starters, the telescope often loses connection with a phone, and the app does stall. However, more of a problem is that the EV mode takes time, and often needs to be performed multiple times, particularly if the connection is interrupted. 

The upshot is that when using the Unistellar eVscope you have to spend a lot of time looking at your phone … and waiting. If you’re the kind of person that loves astronomy exactly because it gets you away from screens, phones and apps, avoid the eVscope at all costs! 

That said, it’s difficult not to be impressed with the Unistellar eVscope. Although you can point the telescope at planets and the Moon, it’s far better with exactly the object that those of us who live with light pollution struggle with—galaxies, nebulae, and other faint celestial objects. It even behaves well under strong moonlight. 

Astrophotographers who’ve spent thousands of dollars assembling their set-up are bound to scoff, and observational astronomers and stargazers ought to give it a wide berth, but the integrated concept behind the Unistellar eVscope is impressive. Expensive it may be, but it’s easy to imagine that within a decade all small backyard telescopes will be smartscopes like the Unistellar eVscope. All it needs is more megapixels, a sharper eyepiece, speedier software and a lower price, and the Unistellar eVscope could make non-smartscopes history. 

About Jamie Carter

A science, travel and technology journalist for over 20 years, UK-based Jamie Carter writes for Forbes Science, Sky and Telescope magazine, the BBC's Sky At Night, Travel+Leisure and the South China Morning Post. He edits WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com, leads tours to see eclipses, and regularly tweets about stargazing (@jamieacarter) and eclipses (@thenexteclipse).

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