Updated: Jun 4
The ZWO AM5 is a strain wave gear mount for amateur astrophotographers that is specifically designed to be compact and easy to carry. It can track in both alt-az and equatorial modes.
Small, lightweight, and can be operated without counterweights - we're impressed. In this ZWO AM5 review, we'll go over features that make this piece of equipment the ideal portable mount for small to medium size astrophotography setups.
As part of the review, we'll put this mount to the test and see how it performs on several deep-sky objects. Is it too good to be true? Can it really track well without counterweights? Let's find out! Be sure to watch our review video as well!
In 2022, ZWO released its first astrophotography mount, the AM5. Small, lightweight, and splashed with ZWO's signature red finish, the surprise announcement quickly had an effect on amateur astrophotographers around the world. With the promise of being able to work without counterweights, its ease of use, its portability, and the low price compared to the competition - it was no surprise that pre-orders were astronomical. Pun intended!
We've used the ZWO AM5 for some time now and feel like we got enough knowledge and experience with it to finally be able to write an unbiased review.
This was our first time trying out a strain wave gear mount, and all we can say is WOW! We are impressed. We'll talk about everything we loved in this review, but also mention what we disliked in our experience.
ZWO AM5 Review - What's in the Box?
We received the ZWO AM5 mount in two boxes, one for the mount itself and one for the carbon fiber tripod. We chose not to purchase the optional pier extension because we only plan to use our small refractor with this mount. If you don't need it, you don't need to buy additional items. However, if you plan on using a larger telescope, keep in mind that you may need the pier extension. Only purchase the attachments that you require.
The box with the AM5 mount includes:
The ZWO AM5 mount
Two Allen keys
The Hand Controller
The Carrying Case
A USB Cable
The Tripod that came with the ZWO AM5 mount is the ZWO T40 tripod. It can be purchased individually or in a bundle with the mount.
The tripod is very light at 5 pounds (2.3 kg) thanks to its carbon fiber material. It is 18.5 inches tall (47 cm) when the legs are retracted, and 31.5 inches tall (80 cm) when the legs are extended.
Despite being so lightweight, the T40 tripod has a surprising payload capacity of 110 pounds (50 kg)! The tripod feels nice in hand, with padding on each leg, and the knobs feel robust and well-built. It comes with a stone bag, which allows you to add heavy rocks or weights to secure the tripod and make it more stable. We haven't felt the need to use it with our small refractor telescope.
This tripod can hold mounts from other companies, like Celestron, iOptron, Rainbow Astro, and Sky-Watcher.
The Pier Extensions
Should you buy one of the pier extensions?
It depends. Again, we chose not to buy the pier extension available for the mount, but this might be an important addition for you if you plan on using a telescope with a long optical tube.
A pier extension is used to raise the OTA away from the mount head, allowing the telescope to have more room so it does not collide with the tripod. This occurs when it is pointed near the Meridian.
There are two pier extension pieces available:
Can be used individually or stacked with a second extension, but time-consuming to attach and remove from the mount head.
Easier to install and remove, one size.
We would have purchased the birdcage pier extension if we planned on using our 130mm refractor telescope or a reflector telescope frequently. However, we bought this mount specifically for a small portable setup.
Imaging with the ZWO AM5 Using a Laptop Computer
It is time to put the AM5 to the test!
The first time we used the mount, we decided to connect it to our laptop and used NINA to image. Connecting to the mount was easy. You can either use the USB port and connect it straight to your laptop, or you can connect wirelessly to the hand controller. We tried both and had no issues.
The guiding was between 0.7 and 0.8 which is not bad and fell within the expected error range given by ZWO.
We kept most of the frames and hardly discarded any because the stars looked perfectly round throughout the entire night. That's as great as it gets!
Below you can see the final image, you can click on it to see it in higher resolution.
The Wizard Nebula using the ZWO AM5
Want to process your images following our own workflow? Get our processing guide HERE!
Telescope: Radian 75
Mount: ZWO AM5
Guiding: ZWO ASI 290MM Mini
Accessories: Pegasus Astro Pocket Powerbox
Power: Jackery Lithium Battery
Total Exposure Time: 15 hours
Exposure Time per frame: 10 minutes
Filters: Optolong L-Ultimate
ZWO AM5 Specs & Price
What is a Harmonic Drive Mount?
The ZWO AM5 uses a strain wave gear instead of worm gears - which you normally find in most German Equatorial mounts. The biggest advantages that strain wave gears offer over worm gears are that:
It has no backlash
Balancing the rig is not required... to an extent
It is much smaller and lighter and so can fit in a much smaller mount head
They will work great in the long term without needing to maintain them
If you're interested in knowing what strain wave gear looks like, below is an example photo that ZWO uses in the AM5 below:
The ZWO AM5, like several other strain wave gear mounts, makes setting up your astrophotography equipment significantly less frustrating. Thanks to its size and weight, you can easily transport the entire mount in a backpack. Who wouldn't want to travel with their mount? If you hike for your best skies - this mount is just the right size.
Best of all, without the nuisance of added extra pounds due to counterweights - because again, it doesn't need any - you can take the AM5 virtually anywhere! If you image from home often, it's even simpler because you can leave all of your equipment attached to your tripod and carry the whole rig in and out of the backyard very easily.
Mount Modes: Equatorial + Altazimuth
Periodic Error: <+/-20"
Weight: 11 lb (5 kg)
Payload Capacity (Without Counterweight): 28.6 lb (13 kg)
Payload Capacity (With Counterweight): 44 lb (20 kg)
Dovetail: Losmandy + Vixen
Max Slew Speed: 6°S
Latitude Adjustment Range: 0°-90°
The ZWO AM5's design is well done in our opinion. It is mostly red like most of ZWO's products, with non-accented parts in black. If you are an exclusive ZWO user, it's nice to see all of your gear matches. We enjoy the little things. Plus, we are keen on the red/black combo.
The AM5 mount accepts both Vixen and Losmandy style dovetails, and the tension knobs are located on the right. On the same side you'll also see a finder shoe and a DC 12V output. On the left side is their logo as well as the power switch.
On the back, you will find the typical altitude and azimuth adjustment knobs, as well as two bubble levels. Each side of the base has an angular scale and tension grips.
The main ports are located on the front side, just under the mount's community logo. From left to right is the USB port, a guider port (which we never use), the hand controller port, and the main power port. On the left is a LED light that glows red in EQ mode and glows green in Alt-Az mode.
An important thing to note is that the mount cannot be slewed manually, as it does not have knobs for each axis. This can be a little frustrating for people who are used to German Equatorial mounts, but it is simply not possible due to the strain wave gear design. When you are done with your imaging session, be sure to put the mount in the "home" or "park" position through the laptop or ASIAir before turning everything off!
⚠️ Be very careful with the altitude adjustment grip. Depending on the angle it stays in after your polar alignment, cables might be prone to get stuck behind it when slewing the mount around!
You can find more information on the specs of the mount on the full product page.
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ZWO AM5 Pricing
Strain wave gear mounts have many benefits over German Equatorial mounts, however, the downside usually boils down to their cost. Strain wave gear mounts are more expensive than their EQ-G counterparts when comparing the max payload capacity. In this case, though, ZWO chose to keep the price fairly reasonable unlike some of its competition.
*These prices are accurate at the time this review was written, be sure to check the links in case the cost went down since then!
The ZWO AM5 price is as follows:
The ZWO AM5 (mount only)
The AM5 mount head only is available HERE and costs $1,999.
The ZWO AM5 (mount + tripod Bundle)
This bundle which includes both the mount head and the TC40 tripod is available HERE and costs $2,298.
The mount head and tripod are what you need to start imaging, and is what we used. If you need to, you can also add the following accessories:
A Pier Extension
A Counterweight Bar
The counterweight bar is recommended if you plan on using a heavy telescope on the mount. When deciding whether or not you need to use a counterweight, just calculate the weight of your telescope and its accessories (camera, EAF, etc.) and if it is close to or over 28.6 pounds (13 kg). In our opinion, if your rig is over 25 pounds, a counterweight is needed.
The ZWO counterweight bar costs $42. Note that you will need to purchase a basic counterweight with it as ZWO does not sell them.
Imaging with the ZWO AM5 Using the ASIAir
After trying the mount with a laptop for a few days, we decided to switch to the ASIAir instead which made things even easier for us. The AM5 and the ASIAir work together perfectly. We use the ASIAir Plus and, at the moment, it is our preferred method of controlling our rig. Being the same brand, it's no surprise how easy it is for these pieces of equipment to communicate with each other. If you've shelved your ASIAir because it didn't work with your mount - you can absolutely dust it off and use it for the AM5.
Using a ZWO camera, guide cam, and electronic focuser, we connected all of our equipment to the ASIAir including the mount. All of this was completed easily and we could also polar align the AM5 using the ASIAir in minutes.
For our target, we imaged the Pacman Nebula, this time using the Askar 6nm filter. The result was great and, once again, the guiding was accurate and we didn't have to trash any frames which is what matters most!
The Pacman Nebula from home using the ZWO AM5
Camera: ZWO ASI2600MC
Telescope: Radian 75
Mount: ZWO AM5
Guiding: ZWO ASI 290MM Mini
Power: Jackery Lithium Battery
Total Exposure Time: 15 hours
Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes
Filters: Askar 6nm filter
ZWO AM5 Review - Final Thoughts
What do we think about the ZWO AM5 mount for astrophotography?
The mount is so simple to set up, and very easy to use with both a laptop or the ASIAir. The ASIAir Plus is our preferred method of controlling the mount and these pieces of equipment have perfect communication. If you want to ease of use, the AM5 and ASIAir work flawlessly together.
It is significantly more portable than a regular German equatorial mount, mostly due to its smaller size, weight, and no counterweights. Sometimes counterweights can be a burden but we understand why they're needed. To have a mount that doesn't need them is a dream and for its price, we were skeptical but excited nonetheless! After trying it out, it's well worth the purchase.
We also believe that this mount will dramatically reduce the barrier to astrophotography for all. A mount like this can only make it that much easier for people who cannot lift heavy objects. There are a lot of reasons for that, but no matter the reason - the AM5 is the solution. In our experience, mounts are often the heaviest and most important piece of equipment in this hobby. This step of the astrophotography journey can be a hard one to take, and if the price wasn't enough - the heft can be a deterrent too. All in all, everyone deserves a chance to get into this hobby! Between our EQ6-R and the ZWO AM5, our choice is a no-brainer: We'll be using the AM5 from now on.
Key points about the ZWO AM5 mount:
It easily fits in a small padded case and weighs just over 12 pounds (5.5 kg)
It has a payload capacity of 28.6 lb (13 kg) without a counterweight and 44 lb (20 kg) with a counterweight.
The mount comes with two Allen keys, the Hand Controller, the Manual, the Carrying Case, and a USB Cable.
Our guiding error so far has been between 0.7 and 0.8 on most nights.
You can attach both Vixen style and Losmandy style dovetails on the ZWO AM5.
The mount cannot be slewed manually, there are no knobs to unlock the RA and Dec axis, so be sure to park the mount before turning it off at the end of each session.
The price is $1,999 for the mount head, and $2,298 for the Mount + Tripod bundle which we recommend.
The ZWO AM5 is truly our new favorite mount. We love spending hours and hours shooting the same object each night without a problem and then easily carry the mount into the house. The back and forth helps reduce the time we spend on setting up each night. We'll be using the AM5 as our primary mount from now on, and likely for years to come!
If you would like to purchase this mount, you can do so at Agena Astro.
Do you already have this mount? Do you have anything good or bad to say about it? Let us know in the comments!
Videos more your style? Watch our full ZWO AM5 review video:
Antoine & Dalia