Cord Cutters Guide To Choosing HDTV Antenna
Which is the best indoor, attic or outdoor antenna to get clear reception of free, Over-The-Air (OTA) High-Definition (HD) broadcast television? Well, it depends on: where you live (city, suburbs, rural), how far away the transmission towers are, what obstacles are in the way (walls, trees, buildings, mountains), and a bunch of other things.
We’ll go through some of the basics of antennas (yes, maybe we should use the correct “antennae” for the plural), indoor vs. outdoor, amplified vs. non-amplified, and a whole lot more. Each of these sub-topics could easily be an article (or book) on it’s own, so we’ll try to stick to the main points.
If you’re just looking for the quick recommendation, without reading all the details, below are the two top picks from our article reviewing the best 12 indoor antennas (you can read that complete article on our website).
If you only have $10 or just want to try another antenna, it’s an easy choice: the Channel Master FLATenna, rated for 35 Mile Range.The FLATenna is a good performer, simple to install and the least expensive. For $10, you can find out pretty quickly if an indoor antenna is right for you. At less then your spend for your daily Starbucks run, it’s worth trying out.
If you want to “splurge” then we’d opt for either the Mohu ReLeaf, ($35) or the ClearStream Eclipse ($40). The ClearStream Eclipse wins out on features, though: it’s flexible, reversible and even comes with its own adhesive. If you find you’re getting an unusually low number of channels with the base version you can always upgrade to the ClearStream external amplifier later. The amp is available for $20 on its own, so you don’t really save anything by opting for the $59 bundle instead.
A broadcaster, or transmitter, takes their content (which could be data, pictures, sound or some combination of all three) and converts it to electro-magnetic signals referred to as “radio waves”. Most stations are identified by the frequency of the radio wave. For example, an AM radio station may be at 1040 kHz (kilo Hertz), an FM station at 98.7 MHz (mega Hertz) and for HDTV the frequencies are from about 41 to 250 MHz (VHF = Very High Frequency) and 470 to 960 MHz (UHF = Ultra High Frequency).
The physical antenna elements are sized to be one-half the wave-length of the signal you are trying to capture (or tune in). Some antenna are one-quarter wave-length in size. Going back to high-school physics, the wavelength of a signal equals the speed of light (c = approximately 300,000 km/second or 186,000 miles/second) divided by the frequency. There are many types of antennas, each with specific benefits depending on the type of signal you are tying to capture. For simplicity here, indoor HDTV antennas are usually made with many loops of thin copper wire in a circle or rectangle; Outdoor and attic antennas have a number of different length metal rods attached to a main center piece.
Most indoor antenna makers usually promise reception within a 50-mile radius for “passive” or non-amplified antennas, and up to 100-mile radius for attic / outdoor antennas. Adding an amplifier can often give you up to double this range as well as make it it easier to tune in closer broadcasters. Check the FCC’s DTV Signal Reception Maps to find which broadcasters are in your area, and their signal strength for your address.
In general, you’ll have better performance the higher you can place the antenna and the more different windings / elements the antenna has. Also, the less physical obstructions (walls, buildings, trees, etc.) between your antenna and the transmitter, the better your reception.
It’s important to note that HDTV is a digital signal, comprised of 0’s and 1’s that your tuner / receiver decodes into the televisions audio and picture. If the digital signal is too weak, or has too much noise, you’ll get a blank screen or a frozen image. It’s basically an “all or nothing” deal.
So if you want better performance than even an amplified indoor antenna can give, you’ll need to consider going bigger and going higher. This means either an attic mount, a roof-top mount, a mast-mount or a combination of mast-on-roof-top. These antennas are generally larger and more sensitive than indoor models, and their installation outdoors in an elevated position lets them receive channels with far less interference than an antenna in your living room. If you live in an apartment, condo, town-house or a neighborhood with restrictions (e.g., HOA or CCR) you may not have this option available.
The next few sections go into more details for these basics, and can help you decide which type of antenna is best for your situation.
Who Should Buy An Indoor Antenna?
Cable, satellite, U-Verse and FiOS TV subscriptions can be expensive, but often we forget that broadcast TV (which includes all your network channels, PBS stations, Shopping channels for many of the most popular programs) is still free and is transmitter in High Definition (HD) 1080p. Anyone who wants a cheap and easy way to get HD programming from major and local networks should give free over-the-air (OTA) HDTV a try.
Also, if you already get most of your content from online streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and others, you may not need to spend more for cable / satellite channels. Most sports programs are also available through free broadcast HDTV. To be able to tune in these stations, you’ll need to have an antenna.
The indoor antennas are the best fit for people who can’t or won’t install a roof or attic antenna. Most models can be attached to your window, on a wall, or behind your TV; those are generally designed for simple, unobtrusive setup. And at around $10 for some of the least expensive indoor antennas, it’s hard to say no to giving it a try!
After you get your new antenna, you’ll definitely need to experiment with the placement. Check the FCC map site above to see where your transmitter towers are located, and position your antenna where it will have maximum exposure to those signals. It may be that wall is actually better than a window depending on the orientation of your living room. Also, keep the antenna away from magnetic metals such as security bars or the like, if possible, as they can interfere with your signal. Definitely do not attach the antenna to your refrigerator, furnace or water heater.
Most of the indoor antennas are small enough and light enough to be held in place with double sided tape, which is usually provided. I don’t recommend using duct tape or masking tape, since these can be messy, gummy and often not very effective in any case at holding the antenna up. If you don’t have double sided tape (e.g., here is some on Amazon), packing tape or poster putty may work instead. For some of the larger antennas, these will need to be screwed onto a wall and come with keyhole slots in the back for this. Keep this in mind when choosing the best antenna for you.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Antenna
For most people, an indoor antenna rated for 25- or 50-mile will be enough to capture all the digital over-the-air (OTA) signals available. These are typically mounted on the inside of a window, and come with double-sided removable tape. You will need to consider how far the window is from your TV so that the co-axial cable will reach. You can always get additional cable if you need to more length, just be sure to get the minimum length since you’ll loose some signal strength through the cord.
Our review on the Best Coaxial Cable for HDTV Antennas is coming out soon. You can have it emailed to you, along with out other Daily Best Tech, by signing up here or our newsletter.
If you live in more rural areas, and the distance from your house to the transmitter is further away, you may need a larger antenna or one with more “elements” (the metal pieces, or windings depending on the type of antenna). The larger the antenna, the better it will generally be a receiving the broadcast signal. Long-range antennas are mostly designed for outdoor installation, or in some cases the attic, so you’ll have to think about their placement. Most outdoor antennas will also need a mounting pole (or “mast”). Like indoor antenna, these can be either passive or amplified; Similarly, you can also add an external amplifier to a passive outdoor antenna. Another key consideration is how to run a co-axial cable from the antenna to your TV.
We’ll review the outdoor and attic antenna in an upcoming article. You don’t need to keep checking this article for the link, just sign up here for our daily best tech email and you won’t miss it.
Who Should Buy An Outdoor / Attic Antenna?
The rationale for an antenna is the same regardless of whether it’s indoors, attic or outdoors — to get free broadcast HDTV. But you may need to move to an attic or outdoor antenna if you need something bigger to pull in a clear signal. As mentioned in the Basics part of this article, the HDTV signal is digital, creating an “all-or-nothing” scenario for watching OTA broadcasts. In order to receive a signal that is strong enough, or without too much noise, in many cases an indoor antenna just isn’t enough. The larger size, along with the additional elements / windings, gives these antennas the ability to better capture the VHF and UHF broadcast signals.
Attic antennas are the next step up from indoor antennas. These are fairly small, but can be a little bit bulky. Attic antennas are definitely something you don’t want in your living room or anyplace you would see it, unless you really like an industrial look in your decor. Some have a short (e.g., 1 to 2 feet) mast for mounting, but most attach directly to the exposed wood framing in the attic.
Outdoor antennas are larger than attic antennas, and can have up to 40 elements for residential installations. These range in size from a few feet in length to 10 feet, and can weight up to 40 pounds. The antenna is attached to a long metal pole (“mast”), for maximum height as well as to clear the building roof-line. Since these are outside, they are subjected to wind and other weather, so the mast need to be securely mounted to a chimney or structural part of the house.
Outdoor antennas may also come with a motor to rotate the mast (and hence the antenna), to position the antenna elements for optimum reception of a specific broadcaster. This is important in some location where there are multiple broadcast transmitters that are located in different places. In general, an antenna only has about a 20-degree arc where is effectively pulls in signals.
With an attic or outdoor antenna, you’ll need to carefully consider how run the co-axial cable from the antenna to your TV. This will most likely involve drilling holes in walls / ceilings. When considering the labor involved, it’s best to make sure you have a high quality cable that will minimize noise, minimize signal loss and last for many years to come. Our review on the Best Coaxial Cable for Attic / Outdoor Antennas is coming out soon. You can have it emailed to you, along with out other Daily Best Tech, by signing up here for our newsletter.
Non-Amplified (“Passive”) vs. Amplified (“Powered”)
Antennas can be divided into two broad categories: those that need power and those that don’t. If the antenna has an amplifier then it will need an external power source for the amplifier. Depending on the antenna, the power may come from a USB cable or from an AC-to-DC adapter that plugs into the 120V house outlet. The power input is in addition to the co-axial cable that runs from the antenna to your television, delivering the digital broadcast signal. You can also purchase an external amplifier to work with a non-amplified antenna. In general, it’s not a good idea to use an external amplifier with an already amplified antenna.
We will be releasing a review on best amplifiers for antennas later this month. Sign up here for our daily best tech email and you won’t miss it.
Amplified antennas generally have better reception with a higher price, but you may be okay with a non-amplified, or “passive”, model depending on your location. If stations are broadcasting within a 20-mile radius of your home, and you have good sight-lines, you can probably make do with a passive antenna. If not, an amplified model may help. Similarly, if you are using an attic or outdoor antenna, the signal quality from the larger antenna may be sufficient.
Non-amplified antennas don’t require any additional power source. You plug the cable from the antenna into your television and you’re done. However, these antennas typically aren’t as good at receiving signals from longer ranges, so they’re better suited for cities / urban areas, where the broadcast signals don’t have to travel as far.
Amplified antennas are best for the suburbs and rural areas, where a TV signal has to travel a greater distance or has more noise interference. They also tend to perform better in rainy or stormy conditions, which can also affect how well a signal travels. You may also need an amplified if your antenna is more than 30 to 50 feet away from your television, since there is some signal loss through the cable. The downside is that amplified antennas require their own power source, which will require you to plug them into a standard outlet, or in some cases, a USB port in your TV.
It’s worth noting, that in some cases depending on your signal strength, noise and type of television you have, using an amplifier could actually make your reception worse. For that reason, we generally recommend starting out with a non-amplified antenna and then adding on an external amplifier if needed. Alternatively, if you know from past experience at your location, or have information from your neighbors, that you’ll need an amplified antenna, then start with that. Unfortunately, this isn’t an exact science and your reception will vary based on a large number of factors.
Our review on the Best Amplifiers for HDTV Antennas is coming out soon. You can have it emailed to you, along with out other Daily Best Tech, by signing up here for our newsletter.
For more information on which antenna would be best for you, please check out our reviews on the SourceTech411 site for the best 12 indoor antennas .