This is the final part of my three part review of the Meade ETX-LS. Part one focused on my initial impressions, which included my opinion on the physical characteristics and the initial GOTO capabilities of the ETX-LS. Part two focused on the optical performance of the ETX-LS. For this final part, I'll give you my summary of the overall experience of using the GOTO mount with its unique alignment and multimedia capabilities. Finally I'll wrap up with my final thoughts on the ETX-LS itself.
Automatic alignment, how did it work?
Meade really came out with an innovative approach to alignment of an astronomical telescope. We all remember the original LX200 and of course the revolutionary ETX-90, the scope that arguably changed the face of amateur astronomy. So what makes the Meade ETX-LS so unique? The fact that it can align itself, without the need for the end-user to search for alignment stars, center and continue the step a second time until a successful alignment is achieved. It accomplishes this with 2 key features; GPS and the Eclipse CCD. Now GPS is nothing new to telescopes, its been around for a few years at least. But what sets the ETX-LS apart is the incorporation of the innovative Eclipse CCD camera to the bottom of the OTA and using this in conjunction with the GPS. Let me review how the scope performs its typical alignment process so you can understand how they all work together.
Once the scope is turned on, your greeted by the "Astronomer Inside". The "Astronomy Inside" gives you a brief introduction to the ETX-LS, and almost literally informs you each step of the way during the alignment process. First up is raising the OTA horizontal, and acquiring the GPS, so that the telescope has its location and time. From its acquisition of position and time, it can then find level, find north, and then it proceeds to do the two star alignment, all by its lonesome self. It performs this alignment by literally pointing the telescope in the general vicinity of the first alignment star, and takes an exposure of the sky with the Eclipse CCD I mentioned earlier. Using software and image processing, it can then determine how far off the alignment star is by comparing the image to where the telescope is actually pointing. It then makes the necessary physical corrections, and repeats imaging until the alignment star is completely centered. Once the first star is aligned, it repeats those steps on the second alignment star. Once it has acquired and processed the images of this second alignment star, the scope is ready for use. It is really something to watch, and a thrill when you walk up to the eyepiece to view your first object, without ever touching the telescope other than to turn it on and to tell it the first object you wish to view. Once aligned, I found that objects were consistently placed within the field of view of the included 26mm eyepiece, with the exception on a few occasions of Jupiter. When I chose Jupiter as my very first target a couple of evenings, it placed it just outside the field of view. I later found that choosing a deep-sky target first, and performing a sync function when its centered will improve the GOTO accuracy quite a bit. I recall an evening that I used the ETX-LS to observing double-stars, and each and every time, for about 15 targets, the ETX-LS placed them all almost dead center in the field of view of my 12.5mm PL eyepiece.
The time for the whole alignment process to complete varied somewhat during my observing sessions. On a few impressive occasions, I was viewing my first targets within 10 minutes from turning the telescope on. On most occasions, I was observing within 10-15 minutes. But then there were the occasions that the GPS signal was not received, and on those occasions, I was observing within 10-20 minutes, depending on how fast I manually entered my location and time. On all the locations that I experienced the GPS issue where it could not find a satellite, I simply entered my location, date, time and then allowed the normal automatic alignment process to proceed normally. Now most of you know that the GPS has been the main issue with the ETX-LS, and I have certainly had my share of experiencing this inconvenience. However, its vital that you understand that the GPS will NOT prevent you from using the ETX-LS, as I have read within other posts and even some other reviews. Yes, I know, the fully automatic alignment process is the main feature of the telescope, but like I said in part one of my review, at least you have the reassurance in the fact that you can enter location, date and time manually and still get to observing even with the GPS or the CCD not working. You can even accomplish this by performing a fully manual alignment process without any automatic alignment of the CCD imaging. I have used that feature 2 times for the purpose of testing and it worked fine. I would also suspect that there are going to be times when using the automatic alignment process is simply not applicable. I can foresee moments when there are significant light sources, such as during an outreach session near a shopping plaza or such, that will pose too much glare for the ETX-LS and the Eclipse CCD camera to overcome in order to get a successful exposure of the sky for it to pick up the alignment stars. It's those moments that the manual alignment is simply more practical. Now back to the GPS issues.
I experienced a 50% success rate on the GPS, so of my ten observing sessions, five had GPS and five did not. Of the five that did not get a successful GPS, two of those sites were completely unique sites, meaning I had never traveled to those sites before to observe. One was in Maryland, and the other local to my home in middle Tennessee. I wish that there was some way for you to know if you have a strong GPS signal or not when you initially turn the telescope on. Currently you get almost no indication of GPS satellite signal, in fact, all I have seen was "Acquiring satellites = 0". It simply disappears when you have a successful satellite link. Maybe this is a factor or not, but all of my observing sessions with the ETX-LS were in cold weather, so I'd be interested to know if during the spring and summer months the intermittent GPS issues still occur. I have to post updates during the warmer weather in the months ahead and let you know if anything changes with the GPS failure rates or not.
It's also worthy to note that I updated the firmware to 1.2 as soon as the scope arrived, but the GPS issues still occurred. I did however notice that this firmware appeared to improve the speed of the GPS acquisition when it was successfully located. Meade has since introduced firmware 1.3, but I have not had the opportunity to test if this update would improve the GPS acquisition or not. It's also important to note that folks that have had the GPS issues and have had to engage Meade support have all commented extremely favorably on how Meade has resolved the problems, in some instances replacing the entire telescope. Meade seems very eager to resolve them quickly, as they should.
AutoStar and the AutoStar Suite
The AutoStar Suite is included with the ETX-LS, and includes a planetarium software, drivers to control the ETX-LS via a USB interface, and the AutoStar Update program, to facilitate updating the ETX-LS firmware. I know this is not really part of the ETX-LS, but worth mentioning I think. I would really love to see Meade update its AutoStar Suite software, it has a very early 90's feel to it. It's certainly usable, but its user interface is somewhat difficult to utilize and thus could use some improvements in my opinion. The AutoStar Suite also permits the telescope to be controlled by your computer via a USB cable. I tested this feature one night and it worked fine. I also tested controlling the ETX-LS with AstroPlanner and Cartes Du Ciel, and both worked as well. I was really excited to find a program that permits the interfacing of the ETX-LS or any other AutoStar telescope with Stellarium, but I had some issues with this and need to do further researching, after all it is an open-source program. The AutoStar Update program wasn't bad, I was able to update to v1.2 firmware from USB cable fairly easy. However, I still have not been able to load a custom observing tour, that's getting a bit frustrating since it seems like such a wonderful feature. I'll have to continue to research this issue, and get back to you.
Using the AutoStar controller on the ETX-LS is very straight forward. The display was bright and readable even in cold weather, although you do need to play around a bit with tilting the controller to get the optimum viewing angle. I wish you didn't have to go through so many keystrokes and menu's sometimes to select your objects, but it was at least an intuitive menu. I also wish it had a dedicated Double-Star list that you could view based on constellations. The closest feature that I found was the "Walk the Stars" feature in the Constellations sub-menu. This feature was a blast to use. Selecting a constellation of your choice, you can scroll through the stars of a particular constellation. They are not necessarily double-stars however, but basically stars of interest, such as the constellations brightest or best multiple and double-stars, so some additional scrolling is necessary. Using this feature, I chanced upon what is now one of my favorite multiple-stars, Sigma Orionis. As someone that is increasingly interested in double-stars, you can see how having the ability to upload a custom observing tour for double-stars would be a great feature, so hopefully I can get that working and report back to you.
The Astronomer Inside
One of the most exciting aspects of the ETX-LS is its multimedia capability. The "Astronomer Inside" feature was informative and downright fun and interesting to use. I can recall one evening during an outreach program that someone had asked how many satellites Jupiter had. I knew it was a lot, but I could not recall the exact number. I hit the media button on my AutoStar controller, and through the speaker the "Astronomer Inside" ran down a number of facts on our largest planet, and guess what, one of the first facts was the number of discovered satellites. I really think the folks that came up to view through the ETX-LS enjoyed the informative presentations, and so did I. It was then I wished I had the 3.5 inch display that Meade recently introduced, it would have added to the experience for those at the eyepiece. That was a memorable night, I talked with many people and they really got a kick out of the ETX-LS. The views were great, and the media descriptions it had available for almost all of the objects we viewed were very informative. I could talk to people in line and answer questions, help those at the eyepiece and at the same time have the ability to play a description of the object from the ETX-LS. I've been into astronomy since 1993, and even I found it useful and interesting to use.
If someone was to ask me to describe, in one word, my experience thus far with the ETX-LS, the word would be fun, even considering the intermittent GPS issues. The GPS issues have certainly tarnished the reputation a bit on the ETX-LS, but I can see over the last couple of months from forum posts that Meade seems to have made some significant changes that appear to resolve or at least diminish the GPS issues for the most part. I don't think the newer models will experience the same issues, Meade has too much riding on this feature. However, one must point out that this feature may not be considered needed or even desired by some avid or advanced stargazers, it really depends on your pocket book and some personal preferences on how you observe. For instance, it's not a telescope designed specifically for astrophotography (although it can do astrophography), so your money could be put towards an instrument more specialized for that purpose.
I'm very happy with its GOTO accuracy, and it's absolutely a thrill to watch the scope automatically align itself. I'm reassured by its versatility of being able to manually enter location and time or even do a fully manually alignment of the telescope if the situation calls for it. Optically, I'm very happy with the ETX-LS as well, and hope to do a future comparison of it to a competitors 6" model. The AutoStar has some nice capabilities, in particular the "Best of" tours and "Walking the Stars". The "Astronomer Inside" is not a gimmick, but a real fun element to the ETX-LS, and I hope to one day add the external display to get the full multimedia capability of this innovative feature. The AutoStar Suite is in need of changes, but it's still useful and its very cool to control the telescope from the computer, however other programs work much better. Meade needs to resolve the inability to upload custom tours to the ETX-LS via the AutoStar Updater program, this is a great feature that I would love to use in the future.
The ETX-LS is one fun telescope, yet it is still a serious instrument for amateurs as well. It has lots of potential and I'm looking forward to sharing many nights with this telescope, and even more so sharing its unique capabilities with others.