Just like vinyl LPs and record players, HD antennas are making a comeback as more and more people make the move toward alternative television options. Since many of the major broadcast stations (ABC, FOX, CBS, NBC, PBS) continue to send out signals for free, the best TV antennas can pull in a multitude of over-the-air (OTA) network and local channels broadcast by local television towers. You can pair these channels with cable or satellite TV services, or with streaming media devices to round out your entertainment options. All you need is an HDTV with a digital tuner and the right TV antenna.
Though not for everyone, the best HD TV antennas offer several advantages beyond the cost savings. Many viewers feel the broadcast quality using a digital TV antenna is superior, since the signal is uncompressed, unlike cable and satellite signals. Plus, it's possible that the antenna will be able to pull in regional or classic TV channels in your area not carried by your cable or satellite provider. The same is true for any sub channels, extra channels that overlap the main signal, marked by decimal points (e.g. channel 3.1). Finally, with the best TV antennas, you're likely to have less interference during poor weather.
Choosing the Best HD TV Antenna Type
Don't be confused by the lingo. There is no difference between a traditional TV antenna and an HDTV or digital antenna. All HDTV/digital signals are still broadcast on the same frequencies used by the old analog broadcasting system, which you may remember was transitioned to digital in 2009. However, digital signals are much less forgiving of poor antenna placement than the old analog signals.
Generally, outdoor TV antennas mounted on the roof or in the attic are going to give you better reception. But if you live within a couple of miles of the transmitters in your area, indoor TV antennas should do the trick. You can also consider whether you'd be better served by a directional antenna — which works well in areas with hills, big trees or tall buildings because it focuses on signals coming from the direction it's facing — or a multi-directional antenna, which can pull in signals from more than one transmitter. Another option is an amplified antenna designed to increase the strength of weaker signals.
Other Digital Antenna Considerations
Perhaps you'd like more than one television in your home to benefit from your new digital antenna, so various family members can watch free TV at the same time, in different rooms. One way to do this is by connecting the televisions and antenna with coaxial cables and coaxial splitters. (Keep in mind, signal strength is diminished each time you incorporate a splitter.) If you have existing wiring installed for cable or satellite reception throughout your home, you may be able to leverage that system to bring your antenna reception to each of your TVs. Another way to go is to stream the OTA signals across your home to every connected device using your Wi-Fi router and a wireless over-the-air tuner. DVRs for OTA signals are also available if you're looking to time-manage your viewing.
The bottom line is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all TV antenna that will optimize OTA signals for each television in each location. Every situation presents different challenges to the signal strength, including distance and direction from the transmitter(s), and nearby terrain and signal-obstructing objects. In a nutshell, the TV antenna selection process starts with identifying the OTA channels available in your area, identifying where the transmitters for those channels are located, and then selecting an antenna that offers the range to optimally pull in those signals.
Digital TV Antenna Questions and Answers
Q: How Do I Find Out Which Channels I Can Get with an OTA Antenna?
A: A good resource for determining which channels are available in your area is the FCC.gov1 website. Start by typing in your address or ZIP code to view a list of available channels, along with the estimated signal strength for each, identified by: strong, moderate, weak or no signal.
Q: How Do I Find Out Where the Transmitters for Channels I Can Get Are Located?
A: Once you determine the OTA channels that are available in your area using the FCC.gov1 website, you can click on each station call sign to see how far it is from your location, plotted on an area map, and to get an indication of the signal strength.
Q: How Does Having the Channel Strength and Transmitter Location Help Me Select an Antenna?
A: When you combine the locations and signal strength for the transmitters for all the channels you're interested in receiving, you'll be able to determine the range capabilities you need in an antenna to receive signals for those channels. Due to the curve of the earth, the maximum effective range capability for a traditional antenna is approximately 75 miles.
Q: What Do I Need to Know About UHF and VHF Channels?
A: TV signals are broadcast in wavelengths, and each channel is assigned a frequency. VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) refer to signal frequency, with VHF channels on the low end, 1-13, and UHF channels 14 and above. The tricky part is that the actual channel frequencies in use in your area won't likely correspond to the channel number you would expect to tune in. Rather, you need to be aware of the RF channel number (once again identified on the FCC.gov1 website) to know whether the channel you're identifying is UHF or VHF. This information will only be pertinent if you're considering an antenna that only receives UHF or VHF channels, and not both.
Q: Should I Get a Directional Antenna or a Multi-Directional Antenna?
A: If you want to pull in signals from multiple transmitters in your area, you'll likely want a multi-directional antenna. If you want to receive signals from one transmitter — or if you want to hone in on a location because of possible interference caused by terrain, large trees, tall buildings or other obstructions — you'll likely get better results with a directional antenna. Either presents something of a trade-off. Directional antennas will not pull in signals from multiple transmitters and multiple directions. But multi-directional antennas do not focus on one transmitter, so signal strength tends to be weaker.
Q: Is Using an Amplified Antenna a No-Brainer?
A: An amplified antenna is great for strengthening weak signals especially in conjunction with long cable runs. But it's not automatically the best course of action. That's because, if you don't really need it, an amplified antenna can overwhelm your digital tuner by over-amplifying already strong signals, increasing noise and distortion, and rendering weaker channels unwatchable.