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.
- Checking Channel Availability
- OTA Tuners
- Antenna Choice
- Antenna Direction
- Signal Distribution
- OTA Digital Video Recorder (DVR)
Checking Channel AvailabilityBefore 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 TunersOnce 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: https://www.amazon.com/Mediasonic-HOMEWORX-HW130STB-Converter-Recording/dp/B01EW098XS
|Figure 3: Sample TV Tuner
Antenna ChoiceNow 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 (https://www.amazon.com/Antenna-Satellite-Broadcast-Epicenter-Reception/dp/B0024R4B5C) 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 (https://www.amazon.com/Antennas-Direct-ClearStream-Multi-directional-Installation/dp/B008PBTPOI). 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
Antenna DirectionBefore 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 DistributionIf 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.
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:
"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
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):
ConclusionThis 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