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SkyFi3 Wireless Telescope Controller Review

 

The SkyFi3 allows non-WiFi-equipped GoTo telescopes to be controlled by the SkySafari mobile app, handy for finding comets, as here, and for just seeing where on a star chart your scope is aimed. Credit: Alan Dyer

The SkyFi3 is the latest generation of a popular accessory for adding WiFi control to GoTo telescopes. It works great with older telescopes but generally isn’t needed on new ones that have that capability built-in.

GoTo telescopes dominate the market for telescopes over $750. But any buyers under 30 must look with puzzlement at the hand controllers that come with these scopes, with their crude two-line displays. They seem like something out of the 1990s. Because they are! 

Controlling a telescope with a mobile device (a phone or tablet) with a full-color display, detailed star map, rich information, narrated tours, and touch control seems more in keeping with 21st century expectations for a computerized telescope. Buyers already have the control device. And the apps needed are readily available, at low cost or even free. 

But how to connect the mobile device to the telescope so they communicate? For many years the solution was (and still is for many scopes) the SkyFi from Simulation Curriculum, who also produce the StarryNight desktop software and the mobile SkySafari apps. 

The SkyFi box allows these programs to connect to and control many brands of GoTo scopes, but the SkyFi works only with those Simulation Curriculum apps. For control with a mobile device, you need to use SkySafari, either the Plus edition ($20) or the Pro edition ($50), available from the Apple and Google app stores. I tested a SkyFi3 that I own using SkySafari Pro on my Apple iPad, both the older and soon to be discontinued v6 and the new v7. (The Android versions of the v7 SkySafari apps will be released later in 2022.)

SkyFi with Charger The SkyFi3 comes with a small AC-to-5-volt wall transformer for charging the internal lithium battery via a USB cable. Credit: Alan Dyer

The SkyFi3 has a rechargeable battery which I found lasts many hours, much better than the original SkyFi that used two AA batteries and had difficulty getting through the night!

The model 3 also has both RS-232 and USB ports, making it much easier to use with new telescopes that use USB to connect to computers. 

When powered up, the SkyFi3 creates an ad hoc WiFi network that you must first connect your device to (taking it off the internet). The connection was established quickly and remained quite stable even in the presence of other strong WiFi signals.

SkyFi with SkySafari Connect Options SkySafari comes with a bewildering array of choices for telescopes it will connect to via the SkyFi controller, with different protocols even within a brand. The SkyFi (right) offers both old-style 9-pin serial and newer USB-A connectors, but no cables are supplied with it. Credit: Alan Dyer

Connecting to the telescope is the tricky bit. That requires the right cable to go from the SkyFi3 to the telescope, usually into the hand controller. Many older GoTo scopes come with a serial cable intended for updating its firmware. It’s important to use these scopes’ original cable, as otherwise similar-looking cables might not work. I have a draw full of them, but only the one that came with each scope worked with the Celestron, Meade and Sky-Watcher scopes I tested the SkyFi on. 

Newer scopes with USB ports are much less fussy, but you’ll need to supply the cable to go from the SkyFi’s USB-A port to the USB port your scope uses (often USB-B).

 

On the left, the SkyFi is connected to a Meade AutoStar controller via the serial cable that came with the ETX telescope. On the right, the SkyFi is connected through a USB cable into a current v5 edition of a Sky-Watcher/Orion SynScan hand controller. Credit: Alan Dyer

 

The latest version 7 of SkySafari allows users to create preset combinations in the Settings, then call them up from the main screen (right), handy for users wishing to connect the SkyFi to different GoTo telescopes. Credit: Alan Dyer

To avoid connection errors, I found it best to first power up the scope, align it using its hand controller with a standard 2- or 3-star alignment, then power up and connect the SkyFi. It is also important to have the scope and the mobile device synced in time. Testing during the day with the scope’s hand controller set as if it was later that night invoked “Command Failure” errors.

The bane of high-tech telescopes — a dreaded error messages appear if you forget to connect to the scope’s WiFi or choose the wrong telescope or connection protocol. Or if your telescope refuses to respond to the control signals, for reasons hard to diagnose. Credit: Alan Dyer

Once connected, you can see where in the sky the scope is aimed and all the targets around it. Tapping on a target and then hitting “GoTo” on the app drives the scope over to the target. This is great for going to comets or any other targets not in a hand-controller’s database. 

SkySafari also has a wonderful voice control option where you can say “Go to M 13” (or many other targets, using a name or number) and away the scope goes — lots of fun for the family and at public observing nights!

Sky-Watcher’s SynScan Wi-Fi (also sold by Orion) and Celestron’s SkyPortal dongles can add WiFi connectivity to their brands (and only their brands) of GoTo telescopes and mounts, at far less cost than the SkyFi. Credit: Alan Dyer

The caveat on spending $250 on a SkyFi3 is that an increasing number of mounts and telescopes (such as Celestron’s Evolution and Orion’s StarSeeker series) now come with WiFi built-in. For those that do not, Sky-Watcher and Orion both offer low-cost ($70) SynScan WiFi dongles, as does Celestron with their SkyPortal dongle ($120). The latter allows a user to connect to a Celestron scope using Celestron’s SkyPortal app, a “lite” version of SkySafari. And the new v7 editions of SkySafari Plus and Pro now allow connecting directly to Celestron WiFi scopes.

Sky-Watcher and Orion GoTo scopes can also connect to SkySafari using the SynScan Link setting in SkySafari, which then connects through Sky-Watcher’s free SynScan Pro app. The combination is a bit kludgy but worked well on the iOS devices I used.

Old Telescope Connectors These were rescued from the author’s junk drawer of obsolete telescope-to-computer adapters: the AIRCable, the BlueStar, the original SkyFi, and the wired SkyWire cable. Credit: Alan Dyer

Either way, the more costly SkyFi3 box is not needed with most Celestron or Sky-Watcher GoTo scopes and mounts. However, a SkyFi will still be required for adding mobile app control to other brands and models of telescopes lacking a WiFi module. But those are becoming less common, as manufacturers replace the old-style hand controllers with integrated WiFi transmitters, combined with either their own apps or a customized version of Sky Safari. 

In short, while the SkyFi3 works very well, I suspect it will soon be relegated to my drawer of other obsolete telescope controllers. Such is progress! 

Plus: Provides WiFi and app control to a large number of GoTo scopes

Minus: Cost; Redundant with Celestron and Sky-Watcher/Orion scopes with WiFi 

MSRP: $250

Website: https://www.skysafariastronomy.com/skyfi-3-professional-astronomy-telescope-control.html 

 

About Alan Dyer

Alan Dyer is an astrophotographer and astronomy author based in Alberta, Canada. His website at www.amazingsky.com has galleries of his images, plus links to his product review blog posts, video tutorials, and ebooks on astrophotography.

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