Paying for cable television can amount to a big chunk of your monthly budget, which has made cutting out cable and switching to streaming increasingly popular. But did you know that you can get most major broadcast networks for free, and in HD, by simply plugging an antenna into your television?
Another benefit? They're cheap. You can find a basic indoor antenna for around $10, which costs less than a month of most streaming services. So if you like watching big network shows but you're tired of footing your cable bill, why not give an antenna a try?
What Can I Watch with an Antenna?
Though your reception will vary depending on where you're located in relation to the nearest broadcast tower, anyone in an urban or suburban area can expect to pick up the major networks: ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC and PBS. Since 2009, all broadcast stations have been required to broadcast in digital format, which means you can even get some local stations in 1080i with the right setup.
But to find out exactly what stations are in your area, head to AntennaWeb. Enter your address or zip code and click submit, which will bring up a map showing the nearest TV broadcast towers. Look on the right-hand side of the screen and check the distance from each station. If a station's within 25 miles, you can typically pick it up using an easy-to-install indoor antenna.
However, environmental factors can play a major role in the reception you'll get. Objects between you and the tower, like buildings or hills, can impact your reception. Even the type of building you live in affects your reception, as metal and concrete can block broadcast signals.
Buying any type of technology can present you with a confusing array of technical jargon. Here's what you need to know about the different types of antennas.
Indoor vs. Outdoor
Modern indoor antennas are typically easy to install and designed to fit unobtrusively into your entertainment center. Installation is typically as simple as placing the antenna in your room — there are even wafer-thin antennas that simply stick to a wall — and plugging it into your television. Though these have the shortest range, they're the easiest to set up so they're probably what you want.
Outdoor antennas are larger and more powerful than an indoor antenna, and can be placed outside your home or in an attic. You'll need a bit of DIY know-how to mount one, so be sure to check the installation instructions before you buy.
Directional vs. Omnidirectional
Directional antennas need to be pointed in a particular direction to get reception. They can be a bit fussy, since you have to know the direction of the broadcast tower you want to pick up, and if the towers aren't all in the same direction you may need to adjust the antenna for each station you want to reach. However, directional antennas have better range than omnidirectional antennas, so this can be a good solution for rural homes.
Omnidirectional antennas can pick up signals from any direction, making them well suited to getting reception on multiple stations. These should be fine for most urban and suburban homes.
Antennas can work fine without amplification, but this feature will greatly increase the range. However, amplification requires a power source, which can complicate installation — you'll have to set it up close enough to a power outlet. If you need an antenna with more range than an indoor unit, but don't want to deal with installing one outside, look for an amplified indoor antenna instead.
How to Get the Best Reception
Installation is usually a simple matter of plugging in the antenna and finding a good spot, but you'll still want to read the manual to make sure you aren't missing anything.
However, there's one piece of advice that's universal: before you mount your antenna, plug it in and try moving it around the room to see how the reception changes. There's no perfect placement, but you'll want to experiment a bit to find the best spot. Here are a few placement rules of thumb:
- The higher you can mount your antenna, the better.
- Placing it in on or in front of a window can improve reception.
- Make sure it's on an exterior wall or window — an interior wall only adds obstacles between the antenna and the broadcast tower.
- Try to choose a wall or window facing the broadcast tower you want to pick up, even for omnidirectional antennas.
However, if you move your antenna around and don't have any reception problems, you may be able to mount it somewhere unobtrusive, like behind the TV.
What Accessories Will You Need?
For the most part, you only need the antenna, but there are a few items you may want:
- If you have an older television, you may need a digital converter box to pick up HD broadcasts.
- Different antennas will come with different lengths of cable to plug into your television. Depending on where your antenna and your television are placed, you may need a longer cable.
- If you can't deal with scheduling your life around TV, you'll want a DVR to record shows. Some DVRs, like TiVo, have a separate subscription service to get TV listings and other features. Both the DVR and the subscription are an added cost, but it's often a lot cheaper than cable.
Still not sure if an antenna will work for your home? Our final piece of advice is to buy from a retailer with a good return or exchange policy.
Readers, have you tried an antenna? Share your own tips and tricks in the comments below!