How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTV


How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTVS

If you’re thinking about cutting the cable to save some money, you’ll need a good over-the-air antenna to watch some of your favorite shows. Here’s how to pick the best one for you (along with a few of our favorites).

About three or four years ago, I gave up on cable TV. That doesn’t mean I gave up on TV, though. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and my home theater PC were more than enough to get me anything I wanted to watch. Still, I missed local news, sports, prime time shows, PBS, and the luxury of just turning on the TV and watching whatever was on. Luckily, all I needed was a good over-the-air antenna to plug in to my TV. As soon as I got one, I got dozens of local channels, public broadcasting stations, and other channels—all for free, in crystal clear HD.

You can too. All you need is a good antenna, but there’s no one size fits all solution. You need to find the right antenna for your location, your living situation, and what channels you want. Before spend your money, here’s what you need to know.

Step One: Find Out What’s Available In Your Area

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTVS

The first thing you should do is find out what channels are available in your area. If you live in or near a metro area, you’ll probably have several to choose from, including major network affiliates (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, etc.) and PBS. Even if you don’t, you may luck out anyway. Search sites like TV Fool and AntennaWeb to find out what’s available. Both use your address to generate a list of channels near you, where in the city they broadcast from (which will be important later), and how strong those channels will come in.

TV Fool is the better search tool. It creates a polar graph and color-coded list of channels organized by callsign, signal strength, and distance. It even breaks out UHF and VHF channels. You can see an example in the image above. You’ll be able to tell quickly which channels will come in clearly, which will be noisy, and which ones won’t come in at all. AntennaWeb, on the other hand, does a better job of explaining the different types of OTA antennae and the language you’ll see when you go shopping.

Once you have an idea of the channels available to you, look up the callsigns to see what network they represent. That’ll give you an idea whether you’ll be able to catch your favorite shows or live sporting events. We’ve talked about some of the biggest cable cutting myths before, so don’t go into this assuming that you’ll get a TV experience that’s the same as cable. However, if your favorite programs are on channels like NBC, ABC, or PBS, you’re in for a treat. Similarly, you won’t be able to catch every sporting event, but you can find a few on over-the-air channels like CBS and FOX.

Step Two: Choose the Right Antenna Type for Your Channels and Geography

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTV

Once you know what’s available, it’s time to choose an antenna. You have two big decisions to make. First, you have to decide which type of antenna you need. Take a look at the geographic plot that TV Fool (or AntennaWeb) provided for you. The map is situated with “up” as true north. The lines closing in on your location show you which direction each network broadcasts from.

You’ll want an omnidirectional antenna if you have a lot of different networks coming in from all sides. This option means you’ll get the most channels from every direction, but you may sacrifice signal quality. Omnidirectional antennae are easier to place, and you don’t need to worry about beamwidth, or adjusting it every time you change the channel. The person in the map above would probably do well with an omnidirectioal model.

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTV

If all of the channels available to you (or at least the ones you want to see) all come from one direction—like the nearest major city—then a directional antenna could be the way to go. One bonus of directional antennae: they’re stronger and can reach farther, so channels you get will come in more clearly than with an omnidirectional antenna. The person in the image above would do best with a directional antenna. But which is best for you depends on your location relative to those channels.

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTV

Second, you have to decide whether your antenna should be capable of picking up UHF channels, VHF channels, or both. It’s easy to say “both!” but most models you’ll see on the market are good at one and not so much the other. The FCC explains the difference here. In brief, lower numbered channels (between 1 and 13) will likely be UHF, and higher-numbered ones VHF. Most popular antennae can pick up both, but are far better at receiving VHF than UHF. Directional antennae or ones with a signal loop (like the ones shown below) pick up VHF channels well. Luckily, many UHF channels are network affiliates and broadcast powerful signals, so even antennae that don’t specialize in them can pick them up well—assuming you’re close to the source. If you know the channels you want are the low-numbered ones, make sure you get an antenna that can pick them up clearly. If a company doesn’t say which type of channels it’s capable of receiving, assume it’s VHF.

A third, somewhat less significant thing to keep in mind is whether or not you need an amplified antenna. Many manufacturers sell these at a premium, and ideally an amplified model means you can pick up channels that are farther away, and closer channels come in more clearly. However, in our testing this wasn’t always the case, so we’d say save your money unless you need it. Better yet, before you buy anything, test the waters to decide what’s best for you.

Step Three: Buy Cheap or DIY, then Spend Money

Before you run out and spend money, consider building your own or buying a super-cheap one to see what you get in a real-world setup. We’ve shown you how to build some DIY models before, including the infamously ugly-but-effective Pietenna and this more attractive fractal antenna. This directional model can be made from aluminum foil and cardboard.The great thing about DIY is that you spend virtually nothing to see what channels you really get, and you can figure out optimal antenna placement in your home. Plus, if your DIY antenna works well, keep it and save your money!

If you don’t want to buy or do anything, we’ve heard several times that people in apartment buildings or condos can try plugging their TV into the cable jack even if there’s no service. The theory is that doing so will use the entire building as an “antenna,” meaning you should get great reception for nothing. This didn’t work for me, but I’ve heard it so many times (and it’s effortless) so it’s worth a shot. Your mileage may vary. If you’d rather spend a few bucks, pick up something cheap, like this $ 10 RCA antenna. It’s omnidirectional, and it’s a tiny investment to see what you can get. Again, if it works for you long term, keep it and consider your search over.

Some Solid Antenna Options for Apartment Dwellers and Homeowners

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTVS

If you’ve tried the DIY approach but found you needed something beefier, you have some great options. We recently ran down five of the best over-the-air antennae for your money (which includes the RCA ANT1050 we just mentioned.) That’s a good starting point for suggestions for both directional and omnidirectional models, but here are some others that we’ve tested here in Washington DC, just south and east of most available channels (and a few others south and west):

  • The Mohu Leaf/Mohu Curve ($ 40-$ 80): It’s been a while since my initial review of the Leaf, but I still have two and use them every day. I get solid reception, and even pick up some far away channels I didn’t expect to get. It’s a paper-thin omnidirectional model, and placement against walls or near windows is important. One location might be terrible, and another a few feet to the left may be stellar. The Leaf is $ 40 for the standard model, $ 60 for the amplified version. The Curve (a Leaf designed to sit on a shelf instead of wall-mounted) is $ 50, and $ 80 for the amplified model. If you have your own home, the $ 150 Mohu Sky is an outdoor omnidirectional model designed to be mounted in an attic or on a roof.
  • The Mohu Leaf Metro ($ 25): The Leaf Metro is Mohu’s take on a smaller, more discreet (as if that’s possible) antenna for city-dwellers or people who have channels broadcasting to them from within 25 miles. If that’s you, the Metro is a tiny strip of antenna that can go virtually anywhere without being seen (aside from the cable, of course.) We tried it out, and it worked well, as long as your favorite channels are nearby. It’s also tiny—you’ll forget it’s behind your TV or on your wall.
  • The HD Frequncy Cable Cutter ($ 100): This omnidirectional antenna isn’t the most discreet (it’s a black metal frame) but it’s remarkably powerful. It’s The Wirecutter’s favorite indoor antenna, and that’s saying a lot. In our tests, it performed remarkably well, picking up all of the available channels near me with great, solid signal. Its size and build meant placement is less of an issue, which is good, because it definitely looks like an antenna. It’s also outdoor-friendly, and its waterproof construction will stand up to the elements.
  • HD Frequncy Cable Cutter Mini ($ 50): The Cable Cutter Mini was a joy to use, and worked well on a TV in a tight spot that I had previously had some trouble using a Leaf with. It’s HD Frequency’s city-dweller antenna, a smaller version of the Cable Cutter that’s still metal, but easier to mount. Again, it’s designed for people with channels within 25 miles or so, and it’s omnidirectional, but it worked really well, especially in a closed-in space far from a window.
  • The ClearStream C2 Directional Long-Range Antenna ($ 60): We reviewed the ClearStream 2 not too long ago, and it’s just as good now as it was then. It’s a directional model, and really powerful, so if your channels all come from the same direction, this indoor/outdoor antenna is worth the $ 60 at Amazon you’ll spend to get it. It’s tall, ugly, and definitely takes up space, but it works like a charm and picks up both UHF and VHF channels (you can tell from the design) well. It’s safe to mount outdoors, too.
  • Monprice (7976) HDTV Indoor / Outdoor Antenna ($ 20): This Monoprice model is a great starter antenna. It’s waterproof and can be mounted outdoors, and it picks up UHF and VHF channels spectacularly. Height and power may be an issue though—I found it a little on the weak side unless I got it close to a window or positioned in the right direction. It doesn’t say that it’s directional, but it certainly looks like the part. Still, it worked well in our tests, and it’s cheap.

There are tons of other models out there, but these are just some of the ones we had the opportunity to test, and that worked well. Do your homework, check out reviews, and—because we’ve been seeing them show up there—don’t buy an antenna from infomercials.

How to Improve Your Signal, and What to Look Out For

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Air Antenna for Free HDTVS

Once you have your antenna home and set up, use your TV to scan for available channels. On most sets, this is all in the setup menu. Switch the coax input from cable to antenna, and then do an automatic channel scan. It’ll scan for a few minutes, and then show you the available channels. Try them and note the quality. Then compare what you have against what TV Fool and Antennaweb said. If everything’s good, you’re set.

If you’re missing something you want, or the signal sucks, don’t send the antenna back just yet. There are a few things you can try:

  • Try different locations and directions. If you have a lot of walls between your antenna and a window, or your antenna is omnidirectional but still not facing the direction your channels come from, try switching up its position and direction. With some models, even a few feet makes a huge difference, or placement near a window versus against an interior wall.
  • Consider an amplifier. Now, this is the point where you might want to consider a signal amplifier. Mohu, for example, sells a $ 50 USB-powered amplifier that sits in between your antenna and your TV. Winegard sells several, and there are others at Antennas Direct or at Amazon. It may or may not work for you, but if you’re getting poor reception, it’s worth a shot.
  • Add a little coax. One thing that worked well for me was to use a longer coax cable than I thought I needed. It especially helped to coil it up a bit. You don’t want to just leave the coax lying about, but if you can make a semi-loose coil between the antenna and your TV, it can help a lot, especially with normally weak or finicky channels.
  • Keep your antenna away from other high-powered wireless gear. I recently got a new Wi-Fi router to test, and I normally keep it right next to the television. As soon as I hooked it up the new router, I noticed my over-the-air reception was terrible. The antenna is on the wall behind the entertainment center and TV, and the router is next to the TV. I powered down the router, and reception improved instantly. Turned the router back on, and reception took a nosedive. Moral of the story? If you can, move your Wi-Fi gear and antenna away from each other or anything else filling the airwaves with signal that the antenna may perceive as noise.

With these tips, hopefully you’ll be able to find the right antenna for you, cut the cable once and for all, or at least enjoy some free, high-quality over the air HDTV without installing a cable box or running a ton of coax around your home. Like everything, it starts with research, but that research can really pay off in the end.