From camera mounts like the extremely popular and capable iOptron SkyGuider Pro, to the impressively stable CEM60, the iOptron company has become a household name to amateur astronomers and astrophotographers. But unlike some of the big players in the astronomy and astrophotography world, iOptron is a relatively new company.
Over the years, I have used a number of iOptron products, mainly their camera trackers and telescope mounts. In their relatively short existence, this company has become known for innovative telescope mounts like the Az Mount Pro and CEM series, and admirable customer support. I do not have any affiliation with iOptron whatsoever, but I have become very interested in the timeline of their products, and what their most successful launches were over the years.
In this article, I’ll provide a brief history of the company, along with some of the products that took them to the next level.
iOptron’s manufacturing facilities are located China, with its headquarters in Massachusetts, USA. Like all astronomy and telescope companies, returns and repairs are needed from time to time. To me, the most important aspect in these scenarios is customer service, and in that department, I have only heard good things. I have personally reached out to
The quality control at iOptron has been discussed in detail in the past, but I believe this much better controlled as of late. I cannot personally relate to any issues (using 5 of their products), but I know that others have had to take advantage of their warranty for equipment repairs.
The Early Years
iOptron began its journey into the astronomy gear realm in 2007, with the release of the innovative SmartStar GoTo mount. The SmartStar Cube was an affordable, compact, alt-az telescope mount with computerized pointing and tracking capabilities. The iOptron Cube was a practical choice for small refractor telescope owners that wanted computerized control of their mount, without the headaches of a large (expensive), computerized equatorial mount.
iOptron is a regular attendee at NEAF, the Northeast Astronomy Forum. Here is the oldest video I could find of iOptron at NEAF, an interview by Dennis DiCicco from SKy and Telescope from way back in 2009:
As you may have heard in the video, at this time the iOptron MiniTower was a popular product. The MiniTower and MiniTower Pro could handle a much heavier payload than the Cube, yet was still impressively compact and lightweight. The MiniTower Pro was able to mount dual scope setups, and had a listed payload capacity of 33 pounds.
Some of the most popular camera and telescope mounts from iOptron.
The iOptron Cube
The iOptron Cube was very lightweight, with a small profile. The amateur astronomy community embraced this innovative and practical design with open arms. The SmartStar Cube was a Sky and Telescope “Hot Product” in 2008, and labeled as “one of the most functional and flexible units on the market”. The iOptron Cube features both axis motors built into a single unit, and was compatible with telescopes that included a Vixen dovetail.
When it was released in 2007, the “Cube” was the first stand-alone Alt-Az telescope mount with GoTo functionality on the market. Advanced variations of this mount followed, until the more robust MiniTower was introduced in 2008.
With a successful launch of the iOptron Cube telescope mount, the iOptron corporation was off to a fantastic start. They would continue to produce innovative commercial products in the coming years, and has become one of the world’s leading manufacturers of telescope mounts.
The Original iOptron Cube Telescope mount (SmartStar Alt-Az “Cube” Press Release from 2007)
The original iOptron SmartStar Cube came in four “eye-catching” colors: Astro Blue (shown above), Terra Green, Cosmic Orange, and Pulsar Purple.
iOptron later released the SmartStar CubePro mount that includes a GoToNova hand controller. The GoTO Nova system aimed to be more user friendly and intuitive than similar products on the market. It included an astonishing 130K object database, and an internal GPS system. The iOptron SmartStar Cube Alt-Azimuth mount is still a very popular mount for small telescope owners around the world.
The following quote is from an article in Sky and Telescope magazine from 2007:
With the overwhelming popularity of GO TO telescopes, it is surprising that a product like the Cube (introductory price $199) from iOptron hasn’t come along before now. Thanks to its powerful Go To functions and Vixen-style dovetail connector, observers can now add computerized pointing and tracking to small telescopes for an extremely attractive price. Powered by eight internally housed AA batteries or an optional AC power supply, the Cube stands 8 inch (20cm) tall and comes with a stainless-steel tripod. The mount, which works in altazimuth mode, is rated for loads up to 7 pounds (3 kg) and available in several eye-catching colors. Options include a GPS module for automatic initialization and several advanced hand controllers with more features and larger databases than the standard 5,000-object list.
iOptrons first GEM: The iEQ45
The iEQ45 launched in 2011 (and since replaced by the iEQ45 Pro) was iOptron’s first venture into the extremely competitive market of German equatorial telescope mounts. Although some of the early models had reported issues and some users had to send them for warranty repairs, it sounds like they ironed out all of the kinks before rolling out the pro version.
The iOptron iEQ45 sits in a competitive class of premium deep sky astrophotography telescope mounts that demand smooth tracking and features such as an autoguider port for long exposure imaging. The iEQ45 is a GoTo equatorial mount with a 45-lb payload (some labelled this as “optimistic”), sturdy 2” steel tripod legs and a built-in illuminated polar finderscope and an overall weight of 25 lbs.
The original iEQ45 evolved to the “Pro” version, and has since been discontinued.
iOptron later released a smaller version of this mount, the iEQ30. This was essentially the same mount mechanically, with a few modifications (such as the single-lever locking mechanisms in RA and DEC). It was also much lighter at just 15 pounds, with a payload capacity of 30 lbs. Reviews of the iEQ30 by Sky and Telescope magazine were positive.
For an enlightening read about the iOptron iEQ45 (and Pro model), how it compares to similar models, and about iOptron’s customer service and reputation as company in general, have a look at this thread on Cloudy Nights. There are some powerful, unbiased testimonials from active iOptron mount users that validate many of the opinions I have about the company based on my personal experience.
The iOptron SmartEQ was designed with portability in mind, as the EQ mount head weighs just over 6 lbs, and can be powered using a set of 8 AA batteries for up to 20 hours of use in the field. The SmartEQ’s listed payload capacity is 11-lbs, making this a practical choice for astrophotography on the go with a small telescope.
When capturing wide-field astrophotography images using a camera lens (17-50mm), eyeballing the polar alignment with the aid of your mobile app is likely all you’ll need for sharp exposures of up to 3-minutes (or more). Based on my success with the SkyGuider Pro, I would be willing to bet that a 250mm refractor (such as the RedCat 51) would make an excellent companion to a mount like this.
The iOptron SmartEQ mount has gone through the familiar transformation of having a “Pro” model following the success of the original mount. Among other slight improvements, the SmartEQ Pro includes a 150K object database in the GoTo hand controller. If you are comfortable with the polar alignment process, something tells me that this EQ mount would make for an exquisite travel mount for astrophotography.
The SmartEQ Pro+ is the latest version in this series.
A Brief Timeline of Events
As dealers began to take notice of the innovative products being developed at iOptron, more and more people across the world had access to iOptron’s line of astronomy equipment. Currently, iOptron has 8 premier dealers, and over 75 dealers in total across the globe. Here is a brief timeline of events for the company I’ve pulled together from the timeline on their website, highlighting some of their most notable product launches to date:
|Jan. 2007||iOptron Company is Born|
|May. 2007||Headquarters established in Woburn, MA, USA|
|Nov. 2007||SmartStar GoTo Telescope mount named Sky and Telescope Hot Product for 2008|
|Apr. 2008||iOptron makes it's first appearance at NEAF|
|Jun. 2008||Introduce MiniTower Telescope Mount|
|Apr. 2011||Introduce iEQ45-GT Telescope Mount|
|Nov. 2013||Introduce SkyGuider Camera Mount|
|Nov. 2014||Introduce CEM60 Center-Balanced Equatorial Mount|
|Aug. 2016||Introduce SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount|
|Mar. 2017||Introduce SkyGuider Pro Camera Mount|
|Dec. 2017||Introduce CEM120 Center-Balanced Equatorial Mount|
Portable Camera Mounts (Star Trackers)
I don’t have the exact numbers to back it up, but I believe that the camera mount market is a massive part of iOptron’s business, and for good reason. Camera mounts (often called “star trackers”) are the entry-point into the hobby of astrophotography for many people. It appears to be an extremely competitive market, with attractive choices from Sky-Watcher (Star Adventurer) and Fornax Mounts (LighTrack II) gaining traction.
Before the user dives into the daunting task of choosing a telescope or dedicated astronomy camera, they can simply mount their existing photography camera and lens to a star tracker for impressive long exposure images. Once the user realizes the power of stacking images and signal-to-noise ratio, it doesn’t take long for the hobby to become an obsession, and new astrophotography gear often follows.
The original iOptron SkyTracker in white.
iOptron began their presence in the star tracker realm with the original SkyTracker, which was a huge success with amateur astrophotographers around the world. In fact, the original SkyTracker was the very first iOptron product I had ever seen in person, at the Cherry Springs Star Party in 2014.
I have used the successor to the SkyTracker, the SkyTracker Pro and the SkyGuider Pro extensively. These are the iOptron mounts I have used the most, and can attest to their reliability and performance. Talk about a great first impression!
iOptron SkyTracker Pro
The SkyTracker Pro continues to be one of the most well-used pieces of camera equipment of all time. This portable, lightweight camera tracker has traveled with me to dark skies, and remote locations. It’s a simple design, that allows you to quickly offset the rotation of the Earth for long exposure, wide field imaging.
The iOptron SkyTracker Pro was designed to be used with a DSLR camera and lens. The optional ball-head adapter allows you to orient your camera in all of the upward directions amateur astrophotographers are accustomed to. The internal lithium-ion battery means that you can set the SkyTracker up wherever you’d like, without worrying about connecting to a power supply.
The SkyTracker simply needs to be accurately polar aligned using the built-in illuminated reticle polar finder scope. Once this has been done, capturing long exposure images of the night sky upwards of 2-3-minutes is possible. The following photo was captured using the iOptron SkyTracker Pro with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II camera and 24-105mm F/4L lens.
The SkyTracker Pro is the successor to the original SkyTracker mount (non-pro version) that was widely enjoyed by amateur astrophotography enthusiasts. Both versions of SkyTrackers are largely used for wide-angle Milky Way photography, and make capturing detailed images (by stacking long-exposure images) possible.
At less than $300 USD, the iOptron SkyTracker is a true value, and the catalyst for many young astrophotographers to continue pushing their skills further. Once you learn how to properly polar align the mount, a camera tracker like this is capable of photographing incredible deep sky objects from emission nebulae to comets.
The iOptron SkyTracker Pro with a DSLR camera and lens attached.
iOptron SkyGuider Pro
I’ve personally been using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro since 2017 (you can read my review here). This camera tracker bridges the gap between a camera tracker, and a small telescope mount. In fact, the SkyGuider Pro is probably the most enjoyable telescope mount I own to use. With a small refractor such as the William Optics RedCat 51, incredible wide-field astrophotography images like the one below are possible.
The Carina Nebula captured on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.
As the name suggests, this small EQ mount allows you to harness the power of autoguiding through the use computer software like PHD2 guiding. Autoguiding is recommended when capturing exposures longer than 3-minutes with focal lengths of 100mm or more on the SkyGuider Pro. A precise polar alignment is also important, which can be done using the built-in polar finder, or with the aid of the iPolar electronic polarscope accessory.
The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is a tremendous hit with the astrophotography community thanks to its balance of size, performance, and affordability. There are several competitors in this category to contend with, and the SkyGuider continues to be the choice of many.
The iOptron SkyGuider Pro with iPolar accessory attached.
Az Mount Pro
The Az Mount Pro was designed for visual astronomers that don’t want the hassle and extra set up time of a polar alignment, and star alignment routine, yet want efficient GoTo capabilities. Remarkably, this mount understands “where it is” using an internal 32 channel GPS and angular detection sensors to calculate its global position. The iOptron Az Mount Pro just needs to be level to function properly, and this can be done quickly, thanks to the built-in precision level indicator.
Once the mount is level, and its position has been calculated, the mount will slew the telescope to an easily identifiable bright object in the night sky. Then, you simply center the bright object in the field of view, and the tracking and GoTo functionality is active. In my opinion, the best part about this system is the internal lithium ion battery, so your really can put this mount wherever you want to start observing.
As I mentioned at the onset, this mount is for visual observations, not astrophotography. The topic of using the iOptron Az Mount Pro for astrophotography has been discussed in forums, but I am yet to see an example image taken using a camera on the Az Mount Pro. If a successful tracked image was taken on this mount, it would have to be a short exposure due to the mounts Alt-Az design.
The iOptron Az Mount Pro in a dual telescope configuration.
This unique and highly-portable mount boasts an impressive 33-lb payload capacity on one side, and 10-lbs on the other. They offer a version that includes 2″ diameter steel tripod legs, or the ultra stable tri-pier.
If the center balanced equatorial mount design design looks a little strange to you, it should. A traditionally German equatorial mount has the counterweight shaft on the declination axis, but the CEM design shifts the center of gravity to create more stability.
The iOptron CEM25 was designed to be lightweight, quiet, and use power efficiently. Owners of telescope mounts in this category finally had a more portable option when traveling to a dark sky site. Several reviewers of this mount also mentioned the improved polar alignment experience using the CEM25 over competing mounts (such as the Sky-Watcher HEQ5) thanks to a soft and precise altitude adjustment knob.
The CEM25 is the updated version of the ZEQ25 from iOptron, which is essentially the same mount mechanically, but with updated electronics and stepper motors (in place of servo motors). The reviews of the CEM25 (and CEM25P) were very positive in the astrophotography community.
The CEM25P was said to deliver impressive results in terms of PE (periodic error), with a listed PE of +/-10 arcsec per worm period. The mount weighs only 10 pounds, with a payload capacity of 27 lbs.
The CEM40 was introduced at NEAF in 2019, and the latest version of their popular center-balanced equatorial mount design. The CEM40 offers and exceptional weight capacity to mount weight ratio, with the CEM40 weighing only 15.8 lbs, and able to carry 40 lbs. First impressions of this mount have been positive, and I am sure more are to follow.
The CEM40 includes the new iPolar electronic polarscope built-in, and an innovative internal cable management system. This all metal, CNC machined mount includes PPEC (permanent periodic error correction), and built-in GPS to name just a few options that come standard.
At the end of the day, it takes everything users loved about the latest CEM60 and telescope mount, are build it into a more portable and practical size. With the optional hard case, you’d be hard pressed to find a more travel-friendly serious deep sky imaging rig for a wide range of astrophotography configurations.
The iOptron CEM60
The iOptron CEM60 was lent to me from Ontario Telescope in the fall of 2017, and I used it for several months in the backyard. I controlled the mount through the iOptron Commander and ASCOM driver, and could point the telescope using a planetarium software like Cartes du Ciel. I returned the mount in 2018, and was sad to see it go!
The center-balanced design and magnetic gear system was a completely new experience for me, and an impressive one at that. This telescope mount offers an impressive 60-lb payload capacity, which makes it an attractive choice for deep sky astrophotography.
The CEM60 with a 6″ iOptron Photron RC attached.
I also enjoyed using the Go2Nova hand controller for star alignment and locating objects. The Go2Nova system offered a different user experience than the the NexStar or SynScan systems I had used in the past. The iOptron CEM60 is responsible for many of my personal best astrophotography images
My time with the iOptron CEM60 included mounting several refractor telescopes to the saddle plate. From the iOptron Photron RC6 Ritchey-Chrétien Telescope, to the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO, the CEM60 was an astrophotography workhorse that delivered exceptional results night in and night out.
The tracking performance of the the CEM60 was as good as any mount I’ve ever used, or better. I used this mount with an autoguiding system exclusively, and deep exposures of 5-minutes or more were not uncommon. It was certainly a heavy mount, but that is to be expected with such a massive payload capacity.
The iOptron CEM60 (non-EC) with a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100ED attached.
Most Popular iOptron Products
- iOptron SkyGuider Pro Mount with iPolar Electronic Polar Scope
- iOptron CEM25-EC Center-Balanced Equatorial Mount
- iOptron Cube Pro Alt-Az Telescope Mount
- iOptron CEM60 Center-Balanced Equatorial Mount
- iOptron SmartEQ Pro Telescope Mount
- iOptron Solar 60 Telescope