As I quickly discovered, the beginning astronomer is presented with an enormous array of equipment to choose from and information to sort through. I wanted to jot down some of the resources I found useful, as well as some of the lessons I learned, to perhaps save others a little effort and expense.
For information, there are innumerable sources on the web. For essential reading, I found the telescope buying FAQ to be useful, and Jay Freeman's "unnofical FAQ" is packed with helpful information. The Orion Telescope catalog has quite a lot of useful info in it as well. There is a large review of eyepieces in Sky and Telescope (April 1998 or 1996, I think), and the Sky and Telescope website has lots of useful info -- I also find "Sky and Telescope" to be the superior magazine, and really enjoy reading it. Finally, I found it very worthwhile to read several books on astronomy -- my favorite book is called "How To Use An Astronomical Telescope", by James Muirden. I found that other books are either too advanced or (more often) assume you knew absolutely nothing about science or astronomy. This book, however, describes telescopes and astronomical concepts, ways to observe the moon and planets, ways to observe deep sky objects, and includes a list and description of a lot of deep sky objects.
My goal here is not to duplicate the efforts of the above people, but rather to summarize what I feel to be the important points, and to add some info that is lacking in the above references.
First and foremost, try and find an experienced observer to show you some objects in the sky. This might be a friend, or an astronomy club. Not only did I get a good feel for whether or not this was a passing fancy or a genuine interest, but I got to learn a bunch of objects that I can now find on my own, and point out to others. Why re-invent the wheel?
Next, and most importantly: DO YOUR HOMEWORK! You're about to spend a lot of time and money on something, so you owe it to yourself to do a little research and try to understand the issues. It's amazing just how many questions people ask that are _easily_ answerable with just the _tiniest_ amount of research -- reading the FAQ, for example. If *I* can find the info, then *anyone* can.
Now, something you'll quickly notice about astronomy is that if you want to spend money, you can do it with ease. What's not so obvious is that you *don't* have to spend money, if you don't want to. There's an awful lot of stuff you can easily build at home, yourself, for very cheap. You'll probably need to buy optics, but everything else is doable from scratch, and until recently usually was.
Another question that comes up is: is the expensive stuff really worth it? Will a $300 eyepiece outperform this $40 eyepiece? I don't really know the answer, but my suspicion is that a beginner won't really notice the difference. That is, you should avoid the *really* cheap stuff, like department-store scopes and junky eyepieces, but beyond that I just don't think the differences are that severe. My feeling is that you can get a really *good* setup for quite a lot less than you'd pay for an *outstanding* setup, and that that *good* setup will give many years of wonderful observing. Remember -- the universe is a *really* big place -- you won't run out of stuff to look at anytime soon!
Finally, I'll echo a suggestion that everyone else gives: start with a pair of binoculars. You can do a huge amount of astronomy with a set of decent binos. The viewing is comfortable, and is much less frustrating than a telescope can be -- for example, locating the Andromeda galaxy is cake in binoculars -- due to the wide field of view. A number of objects look better in binoculars, too -- star clusters which fill the binocular view can easily get too large in a telescope. The point here is that binoculars are great, you won't stop using them if you later get a big scope, and you'll find out whether you really enjoy this stuff or not. The binocular FAQ is a fine source of info.
So, after a month or so of research, here is what I bought, and what my reasoning was: for myself, I bought a set of binoculars (Orion Explorers). I bought the cheapest set that looked decent (multicoated optics, BAK4 prisms, 7x50). Had I realized that I could have held a bigger pair (say, 8x63) steady, I probably would have gone with it instead, but the Explorers are easy to hold, have good eye relief (I can use them with glasses on, which turns out to be very important because I cannot focus them with my glasses off -- my eyes are too bad!), they work just great, and I don't worry about denting them up or anything (so I can take them hiking and such). I also knew that I would have a telescope to use on objects that the binos couldn't handle -- but even with the scope, the binos get *lots* of use.
For the telescope, I bought a Celestron Starhopper 8 inch. Of the Big Three (Orion, Meade, Celestron), I chose it because I got the best deal; otherwise I would have gone with the Orion. The Meade has a pretty serious problem with the mirror not cooling down. I went with an 8 inch scope because although planets are pretty cool, I like deep sky stuff. The 8 inch is good at doing both. Since I'm viewing from dark mountain skies without light pollution, it makes more sense to have more light gathering power. I could have gotten a 10 inch or higher, but these are significantly more expensive, start to get pretty heavy and difficult to transport, and I felt that at the larger sizes it made more sense to get the more premium optics. In sum, I felt that an 8 inch scope with a set of eyepieces would work well for my viewing site, last for many years, and let me see just about everything I want to see. I may get a bigger scope down the road (this *is* my dad's scope, you know :), but I don't expect to outgrow this one. So far, it has been just great. You can read more about the scope and the modifications we have performed on it here.