Thursday, April 23, 2020

Easy Cord Cutting Guide - Zero to Hero

By Tony Lee

In my house, we don't watch a lot of traditional cable TV, so we ditched cable years ago and instead increased our Internet bandwidth so we could stream more content such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, and now Disney+. Additionally we purchased a couple of inexpensive and easy to install over the air (OTA) antennas for two TVs so we can get local news + Good Morning America, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! This setup which provided around 18 channels total worked great until Covid-19 hit and the family started watching a little more TV. I figured now is a good time to level up our cord cutting game and reduce some house hold stress (everyone else's stress--not mine... ha!). This guide is intended to give you the quick basics to get you up and running fast using freely available over the air TV signal.

Topics covered:

  • Checking Channel Availability
  • OTA Tuners
  • Antenna Choice
  • Antenna Direction
  • Signal Distribution
  • OTA Digital Video Recorder (DVR)

Checking Channel Availability

Before you even spend one penny, you can check to see what sort of channels you can expect to easily receive by using one of a handful of free websites. Two are shown below:

After entering your address, the map shows the transmitters relative to your house and in which direction to expect the signal.  Figure out which channels you care about and target those transmitters first.

Figure 1:  Map showing transmitters relative to my house

The same site will also list the number of the channel, the affiliate (name you know), and the distance as shown in Figure 2 below.  Depending on the terrain, you typically have a very good chance of picking up channels within 20 - 25 miles. For transmitters that are 35 - 50 miles away, that can be a little difficult and the signal can cut in and out on smaller antennas that are not attic or roof mounted.  Anything above 50 miles can be very difficult to receive without proper conditions and the antenna as high as possible.

Figure 2:  Channel line up and the likelihood of receiving the channels

OTA Tuners

Once you have determined the stations you want and the estimated feasibility, now you need to make sure your TV has an OTA tuner. The good news is that most flat panel TVs come with built in TV tuners that can use to find channels when hooked up to an OTA antenna. Each TV will vary in how to accomplish this, but generally you want to go to TV input > Antenna > Scan for channels. If you have an older TV that does not have a built in tuner, you can purchase a tuner for very little money, but check your TV first since it is probably already built-in. Tuner quality can make a difference, but in most cases it will be minor. A sample tuner for $30 is shown below if your TV does not already have one:

Figure 3:  Sample TV Tuner

Antenna Choice

Now that we confirmed we have an OTA tuner, there are a ton of antennas to choose from and we could write a novel just covering antenna theory, design, and options, etc. But we want to give you the basics so we will cover three of the best options here:

1)  Flat antenna - We received a max of 18 channels with this antenna
Good for one TV tuner placed on an outer wall or window in the general direction of the towers--this is fairly discrete and the easiest and cheapest way to get started and test the waters with minor risk.  Sometimes you can even hide these antennas on the wall behind the TV with the double sided tape provided. We used this for years to get the local channels on a couple of TVs and it worked great. But when we started consuming a bit more TV content, we moved to the larger antennas mentioned below.

Note: This antenna comes with an inline amplifier. Try it first without the amplifier and then try it with it the amplifier. Each time you change direction or configuration of the antenna you need to rescan for channels. If you are already close to the towers, the amplifier can work against you by overpowering the signal. If you are farther from towers, this may be beneficial to use it.

Subnote:  This Antenna claims it has a 120 mile range, but that is quite the over exaggeration. The planets would probably need to align for that to happen.  Meh.

Figure 4:  Basic flat antenna that you can stick to the wall or window

Subsubnote:  We also tried a TV mounted bar antenna on an inner room without access to an outer wall and the experience was not as good, but might be worth trying. It just depends on your conditions and proximity to the transmitters.  An example is shown below:

2)  Inexpensive Small-ish Yagi Antenna - We received a max of 29 channels with this antenna
Now we will move into an antenna category that is probably too large to sit in your living room, but it should produce more channels by receiving signals from farther away. At around $50 regular price, this RCA yagi ( is worth the $20 upgrade over the flat antenna, but now you need to attic, ground pole, or roof mount it and figure out where to run the coax (we ran a new coax cable to a wiring panel). We placed this antenna in our attic right on top of the insulation since it was so light weight. It claims to be a 70 mile antenna and that could be the case given perfect conditions.  There is very little assembly required, but the instructions are absolutely terrible, so you may need to read the instructions a million times to get it right...

Figure 5:  RCA Yagi Antenna

Figure 6:  The RCA yagi is so light weight it just sat on top of the insulation

3)  More expensive larger Antenna - We received a max of 43 channels with this antenna!!
If the RCA yagi did not get you exactly what you are seeking you can try to spend a tad more money than the yagi and go for a more capable antenna such as Antennas Direct Clearstream 4 ( This also claims a 70 mile range which is quite possible given excellent conditions. This antenna impressed us right away with the easy assembly, increased amount of channels, and very strong signal.  The signals that came in weak for the RCA yagi came in great with this one. If you have $100 to spend on an antenna, this is worth it. This antenna not only picked up CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX from 20 miles away, it also picked up PBS which we were not even receiving with the RCA yagi!

Figure 7:  Antennas Direct Clearstream 4

Figure 8:  Pole mounted the Clearstream due to the weight and inability to sit upright with the insulation

Antenna Direction

Before you climb into the attic to mount the antenna, make sure you download an antenna app or two to tell you the rough direction in which to point the antenna. We used two apps to spot check each other.

RCA Signal Finder app:

Digital TV Antennas app:

Both of these apps use GPS and compass capabilities in your phone to point you in the direction of the transmitter towers. So, we suggest you use multiple apps to check each other and this will get you very close. You may need someone standing at a TV confirming the signal quality though. One of our TVs (TCL 49S325) actually has a signal meter which was handy for this part.

Figure 9:  Using a phone app in the attic to determine the direction that the antenna needs to point

Signal Distribution

If you are using an attic, pole, or roof mount antenna, you probably want to run this signal to multiple TVs which requires splitting the signal. You could use a 2 or 3-way splitter to send it to a couple of TVs or your house may have a distribution panel which allows you to send it to all coax wall jacks. Either way, make sure you select the proper hardware below.

Passive Splitters:
For around $10 or less, you could try a passive splitter to send the signal to multiple TVs, however these introduce loss which matter far more in receiving OTA signal than through conventional cable TV.  Each split in the line can reduce the number of channels you can find and the overall signal quality. These are not really recommended--especially when chained, however if you need to split signal, try to get higher quality splitters with decent reviews. Two examples can be found below:

2-way splitter:

3-way splitter:

"Lossless" distribution amplifier:
Signal boosters that also split the signal are typically more expensive ($40+) than passive splitters, however they should perform better--especially when splitting the signal to a high number of TVs. There are a fair amount of options here, but the most popular seem to be Leviton, Channel Master, or Antronix.

Figure 10:  Channel Master distribution amplifier

Figure 11:  Picture of my wiring "closet" - Distribution box into some splitters - needs some clean up.  :-|

8 output Channel Master Distribution Amplifier:

9 Port Antronix Bi-Directional Cable TV Splitter Signal Booster:

OTA Digital Video Recorder (DVR)

The last step to complete the premium OTA experience is to be able to provide a TV guide (some, but not all, TVs can generate this for you) and the ability to record, pause, and fast forward your favorite shows. For this, you will need an OTA DVR which can be the most expensive component of cutting the cord, but it may also be the step that makes it most palatable. There are a number of options listed below, but we chose the Amazon Fire TV Recast since we are already a household driven by Amazon and Alexa. This enables us to record 2 channels at the same time and watch 2 channels at the same time through the Fire sticks and any echo show device. The UI can be a little clunky at first, but once you get used to it, the experience is quite nice. My only wish is that it could stream to more than 2 devices at a time. If we need to do so, we just use the TVs tuner to watch live TV, but we don't get to fast forward or pause when we use the TVs tuner directly.  #FirstWorldProblems - let's keep it in perspective... Some other options are below, but note that some of them do not come with a hard drive and that is an additional cost.

Figure 12:  Fire TV Recast

Fire TV Recast ($194 on sale and includes the hard drive):

Tablo Quad OTA DVR ($199 and still needs a hard drive):

TiVo Bolt ($199 and includes the hard drive):


This article outlines the various levels of cord cutting OTA heroism which is summarized below. You can spend as little as $30 for a decent experience or you can spend several hundred dollars for an experience so good--most do not know it is OTA. Either way, you will recover your investment over the long run and regardless of the reason for cutting the cord, you have plenty of options to still receive useful content for a reasonable time and money investment. Please feel free to leave feedback in the comments section.  Enjoy!

Level 1: - ~$30 - $60 total
 - Confirming channels - Free
 - Confirming tuner availability - Free or $30 max
 - Adding a flat antenna for a single TV - $30

Level 2: - ~$160
 - First two in level 1
 - Antenna is mounted on roof, attic, or pole in the proper direction - $100
 - Signal is distributed to multiple TV sets or the whole house via a powered distributor - $55

Level 3: Cost of Level 1 or 2 + $200+
 - All or most of level 2
 - OTA Digital Video Recorder

Figure 13: Progression of OTA super hero status

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Battle Covid-19 Using 3D Printing

By Tony Lee

This is a bit of a different topic than we usually cover on this blog, but it is difficult to ignore the current situation regarding the Coronavirus. That said, many of my friends and family are putting in a valiant effort sewing masks to give away to doctors, nurses, family, friends, and even strangers on Facebook--hopefully these masks are a last resort for some previously mentioned but we might as well be prepared for the worst. That had me thinking as a non-sewing individual, how can I contribute? That's when I saw folks 3D printing parts for face shields and these things called "Ear Savers" which help prevent skin irritation behind the ear caused by friction from elastic bands found on common protective masks.

Figure 1:  Ear saver shown from:
Prior to printing anything of actual importance my 3D printer's main duty was to print Play-Doh molds and toys for my kids. It has now been reassigned to a greater purpose and we are using this article to share some tips and tricks with others that may also want to contribute to battling Covid-19 using 3D printing. You can get up and running with the basics for a couple hundred dollars or less--the rest is convenience and efficiency.


3D Printer
The 3D printer I purchased two years ago is a Comgrow Creality Ender 3 ( It is a very capable printer that can print larger items, but it is sort of a kit that you put together (a task not for the faint of heart). At the time it was regularly priced at $230, but I bought it on an Amazon lightning deal for $180 as a STEM project that I could enjoy with my kids. This is just an example of what I use--but the exact printer does not matter as much for this purpose. 3D printers vary widely in price and capability and some printers even arrive pre-built and ready to go.  ;-)

3D Printing Filament
This is the material that is melted by the heat from the print nozzle and then reformed into whatever you are printing. Polylactic Acid (commonly called PLA) seems to be most commonly used material and it is derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane instead of petroleum.  Two examples of PLA that I have purchased are shown below.

White PLA large spool - $21

Multicolor PLA 4 smaller spools - $23

Figure 2:  The 3D printer doing its thing!

3D Print Designs and Modification

Getting Ideas
If you are new to 3D printing, you may want to start off by using someone else's initial design and then possibly modifying it (if necessary).  A great place to get started with freely shared designs is Thingiverse (  This is where I download .STL files and then convert them to .gcode -- which is essentially the three dimensional coordinates in space that the printer uses to know where to place the print nozzle. If you are a multivariable calculus nerd, you should naturally love 3D printing--but it is not needed to enjoy this hobby.

Simple Modifications
If you need to make some modifications to the design or even create your own from scratch, you can use the included slicer software or there are some really great free resources on-line. My Ender 3 came with Ultimaker Cura slicer software, but I don't really use it other than to convert the .STL files to .gcode.  Instead, I use a free site called Tinkercad ( which is made freely available by Autodesk. This software is amazingly powerful for editing .STL files from Thingiverse or other sites, but it can also be used to create your own 3D designs. As a final step, I still slice the .STL to .gcode using the included Ultimaker Cura software, but you could also try using the freely available ideaMaker slider from

Figure 3:  Modifying the design and quantity using Tinkercad

Monitoring the Print Job

There are many fancy ways to monitor a print job--some of which include customized firmware and Raspberry Pis, but I took a different approach. I purchased a 1080p Wyze camera ( on sale from Amazon for around $20. I then play the video through my echo show ("Alexa, show me the Ender Camera") and watch for the print job to complete. The added bonus of using the Wyze camera is that it has night vision so I can turn the lights off in the garage but still monitor the print with excellent clarity. I can also ask Alexa to set a timer for the print job ("Alexa set a timer for x minutes") so I know roughly when to peel off the completed work and start a new one. A process that only takes a minute--the printer is doing the real work, but it doesn't mind.

Figure 4:  Monitoring the 3D print job using the Wyze camera through the Amazon Echo Show

Design Evaluation

The best thing about being able to 3D print something is instant gratification AND the ability to quickly evaluate the efficacy of an idea without a significant spend (time and money). In the case of the ear savers, we evaluated four different designs found on Thingiverse and tried them with the masks that my family is producing. Then we were able to stack rank them based on comfort and then start mass producing the most comfortable design. Of course, we appreciate everyone's contributions to Thingiverse, but some designs are work better for certain projects or are easier to modify when needed.

For example, the graciously provided ear saver designs we evaluated were:

Figure 5:  Evaluating the ear savers and ranking them in terms of comfort from top to bottom (personal preference)
This quick evaluation allowed us select the best option and now we include ear savers with every mask we deliver. When ear saver production out paces the masks, we send those out where there is a need.


At some point, we may post follow up articles that cover more of the intricacies of 3D printing, but we wanted to share this information with others who might also be looking for ways to contribute to the battle against Covid-19. We hope you enjoyed the article and encourage respectful and helpful feedback in the comment section below. This is by no means the only way to 3D print, but it should help some get started 3D printing to combat Covid-19. It is quite an amazing experience to see or hear about a person's reaction when you freely give them something you created to protect their health--sometimes they cry. There may be no way to describe this feeling in words, but it certainly makes the time and effort worth every second and every penny. Please stay safe and happy 3D printing.