Friday, July 07, 2006
She's Dead, Jim?
|The 10-inch RCX400|
When I heard the details on Meade's new Schmidt Cassegrain, I was pretty sure there'd be a trade-off. I figured the bargain was this: Meade would offer us these clearly ground-breaking SCTs (an improved and optimized SCT optical set, zero-shift focusing via a motor driven secondary, USB connectivity, a built in corrector heater, and more) BUT they'd ask a much more “realistic” price than they've charged for their SCTs over the last decade. Essentially, the RCXes would cost about twice what we’ve been accustomed to paying for Meade’s (and Celestron's) feature-heavy CATs.
One thing this would do, I thought, would be allow the blue boys to discontinue their all too frequent practice of having early-adopters “beta test” new scopes. Even more importantly, it would allow Meade to spend more time QAing the scopes that come off the factory floor. If you ordered an RCX, you would be pretty damned sure it would work out of the box.
What happened? Well, the RCXes did indeed turn out to be significantly more expensive than the LX200s, if not quite twice as pricey. That doesn't seem to have helped with quality, however. I hear all too many stories about problems. Problems with the motorized focusing/collimation system, especially. Everything from motors running away to “just didn’t work out of the box.” That’s not all, either. There appear to be software problems and drive problems as well. Yes, the optics are good, “impressive” in my book. However, what good is that if you can’t focus or collimate said optics reliably? It’s not just the big things, either. For the price of an LX200GPS, people are willing to put up with small annoyances and shortcomings--like rough castings and poor finishes. For the price of an RCX? The jury’s out on that one.
I do know this: many more upset and angry RCX owners (the customer base for these scopes ain’t huge to begin with), and Meade can pack it in. If the RCX comes to be perceived as a “problem scope” that comes with no more assurance of quality than a garden variety LX200 GPS, I’d guess sales will dry up. I mean, who’s going to pay nearly twice as much for the same old, “it can take pictures pretty well if you buy an SBIG AO-7 to go with it” and “the declination clutch wouldn’t hold/stripped out, so I had to buy an EZ Clutch kit from Petersen to fix it”?
More fatal? Say your RCX's computer drive goes out five years from now. Unlike a dead LX200, you cannot just remove the tube from the mount, put it on a German equatorial mount and keep on trucking. How are you going to focus and collimate it without the RCX's computer's control? You can't.
Is the RCX doomed, then? Will this brave experiment by Big Blue fail? It doesn’t have to. I was quite impressed by the RCX in my initial encounter with the scope (a 10-inch) at the Cherry Springs Star Party. The optics were very good, it worked as advertised, and I had a great time scanning sucker holes with it on my recent trip to Pennsylvania.
That said, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Most of all, the motors. As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, Meade’s motors don’t inspire confidence. It’s not just that they sound like weasels with tuberculosis. It’s that it’s not uncommon for anybody’s Autostar on everything from the ETX to the LX200 to display “motor unit fault.” I had assumed the RCX would be WAY above all that. But…while the focusing and slewing motors on the RCX I tried worked well enough, they sounded a lot like the motors on my ETX-125PE: stressed-out.
The way the motors sound is not a big deal if they work. But it’s a perception. I saw that in my initial encounter with the telescope (at a star party). People would walk up to the scope on the field and form an impression of it based on the way it sounded. I’m afraid the impression they formed as it moved itself across the sky was: “slot car motors, just like an ETX.” No, that wasn’t fair, but that’s what was happening.
If it had just been motor sounds, I wouldn’t have been quite as concerned, but that wasn’t all that troubled me. While the (carbon fiber) OTA looked great, the fork and drivebase displayed a little less in the way of fit and finish than I’d have expected at this price point. It wasn’t so much that the fork arms and base castings look pretty much like those on the LX200GPS, it was they don’t seem to be fitted together as well as they could be or finished as smoothly as I’d like ‘em to be. Yes, this is largely a matter of appearances only (not completely; some RCXes have apparently been mechanically unsound), but, again, buying a scope is like buying a car. A lot of the purchase decision is based on emotions and perceptions and has nothing to do with a telescope’s utility or capability.
What’s gonna happen to the RCX, then? I think it’s stumbled to the canvas and the count is approaching “five.” There’s still time for it to get up and score a knockout, though. This is a groundbreaking telescope—I really believe that—and it deserves success. Meade deserves success for taking a chance with it. None of the RCX problems need be fatal “if.” If Meade can ensure the telescopes work well and reliably out of the box. If, on the other hand, large numbers of RCXes start/continue flowing back to California not long after they’ve been delivered, look out Meade, look out….