Buying guide: Best RV antenna and streaming devices for a recreational vehicle
Having the right RV antenna for your recreational vehicle can be really noticeable during a road trip.
You and your significant other will want to break up the monotony of the open road once in a while. Catching a favorite show on CBS or NBC now and then, or reconnecting with the world by watching the nightly news can feel luxurious.
In the last few years, there has been a tug of war between RV antenna manufacturers King Jack and Winegard. But the best TV antenna for a recreational vehicle is the Winegard RVW-395 Sensar IV. It has greater range for drawing in VHF and UHF bands than its competitors. The Winegard Sensar IV also has flexibility, allowing add-ons and accessories that can make it even more powerful.
While antenna use has become all the rage for homeowners during the cord cutting era, it’s nothing new for RV enthusiasts. In a way, RV owners have been cord cutting for a long time. They are really the un-credited, early adopters of cutting the cable cord.
This antenna review covers a couple of the best RV antennas out there. After that, I’ll outline some new ways to stream some of your favorite movies and TV shows using Netflix and other streaming services. I will also include a few DIY options for keeping a movie collection on an external hard drive.
Hopefully, this guide will get your imagination drifting toward an early kick-off to summer.
Best RV antenna for TV
The Winegard Sensar IV has the best range of any RV antenna because it’s essentially two antennas in one.
If you were to open up that case (I don’t recommend that you do) you would find a circuit board where both signals meet. The board is connected to a coax cable that stretches down into your vehicle and connects to your television.
The Sensar IV pulls in all UHF and VHF channels within a 55-mile radius, including uncompressed HD OTA signals being broadcast in the area. Most of your HD channels are on the UHF band. But there are some channels on the VHF band that you will want. So, no matter what you buy, make sure your antenna can draw both VHF and UHF bandwidth.
What’s the big deal about uncompressed HD channels? It means you’re actually getting a better picture and sound quality than what most cable companies charge you for.
Winegard Sensar IV specs
The Sensar IV weighs only 6.5 pounds and comes with all the parts you’ll need to install it in your RV.
A crank and kit that’s included with the Sensar IV lets you raise, lower and rotate your setup. So you can adjust where to draw broadcast signals from based on where you park.
You should be aware that the crank and gears are made of plastic. That may not be ideal. But most RV antennas on the market have plastic gears these days.
The antenna extends to 30 inches once it is raised. It lowers to four inches when it’s stowed. That’s a preferred feature. Sometimes you might have to drive into woodsy areas with low hanging trees or power lines.
The Sensar IV includes a +12 VDC power supply, two stretches of coax cable, and mounting hardware. The antenna is powder coated to protect it from nasty weather. The Sensar line was developed by John Winegard, who was the first to make TV antennas exclusively for RVs.
Fixing RV antenna vs buying a new one
Before you buy anything, I want you to look over a few things on your RV. You might be in a situation where you don’t need a full blown upgrade to your RV antenna. Saving a few bucks on your setup is always a welcome surprise when it can happen.
Are you replacing a Winegard Sensar II or Sensar III that recently met an untimely end? If so, you might be in luck. You can replace just the antenna itself with the Sensar IV Replacement Antenna Head if the mounting and crank of your old Sensar antenna is still intact.
All of the parts that come with the full-blown kit are essentially the same. The earlier Sensar models are also amplified antennas, so your older Sensar II and III models also have a switch that turns on your amp. Winegard even has one set of installation instructions for the Sensar II, III and IV. The antenna head will come with a small bag of e-pins and replacement clips as well. So you will have pretty much everything you need for an easy fix. If you do have a critical piece broken like the gear housing, you can still buy all kinds of replacement parts. That may still work out to be less expensive than buying the full Sensar IV antenna with all its parts. Save that money for a nice dinner out.
Winegard Sensar IV vs King Jack
There’s no doubt that King Jack is a tremendously popular RV antenna. The King Jack OA8500 is another top over-the-air (OTA) antenna made specifically for RVs. This model comes with a built-in signal finder.
The signal meter picks up OTA TV signals as you rotate your antenna, which can turn a full 360 degrees. Unlike the Sensar, you won’t be able to crank down the antenna when you are not using it. So you need to be aware of height restrictions when traveling under trees or bridges.
The King Jack OA8500 is designed to pick up VHF, UHF and FM bandwidth. Along with the antenna, the OA8500 comes with a mount, the built-in signal meter, shafts, a rotation knob and wall mount. Depending on your RV, you might need a different mounting plate in order to install a King Jack antenna.
Not everyone is crazy about having to use the crank to raise their RV antenna, and that’s fine. Personally, I would prefer the ability to move an RV antenna instead of a tree or the undercarriage of a bridge doing it for me. But there’s another reason that makes the Sensar IV a better option.
Being able to raise an antenna can make a difference with your reception. That’s why people put TV antennas on the roof of their home. Elevation is all about getting above the trees, hills, and power lines obstructing an antenna from the best UHF and VHF reception possible.
Winegard Wingman and Sensar Pro, boosting an RV antenna
If you are going to buy a Sensar IV and do some significant traveling in the near future, there are two accessories that are worth considering.
The Winegard Wingman boosts UHF gain. Over 70 percent of HDTV channels are in the UHF band. The Wingman element collects more signals and delivers them to the main UHF antenna in the Sensar antenna. It can boost the gain between three to six db. So when you’re parked in a spot where it’s hard to get channels, the Wingman greatly improves your chances.
It’s also going to strengthen the weak signals you are already getting. Think about that spot that you love to go to every year where the TV channels come in a bit hazy. Are they on the UHF bandwidth – channels 14 to 83? If so, the Wingman can add to the quality of all that free TV you will be getting for the rest of your life.
No tools are needed to add the Wingman to your Sensar IV antenna. You only need the four push rivets that are included. Just remove the rubber bumpers from bottom of the Sensar. Find the holes in the Wingman and simply push into holes and lock into place.
The Sensar Pro takes away the labor of tracking down and fine tuning channels. This is especially useful if you are only spending a night or two in one spot then moving on to another destination. Repeatedly hunting down channels and fine tuning them can get monotonous.
SCAN: Checks each RF television channel between 2 and 51 and takes a reading of the signal strength. You can then adjust the gain for that particular channel.
SEEK and VOLUME: Once you have scanned for channels, SEEK and VOLUME modes work hand in hand to help you fine tune individual channels for the best reception possible.
CHANNEL: This mode will help you find low strength signals for a particular channel. The signal meter is directed to focus on a single RF channel that is weak or distant.
GAIN: The Sensar Pro contains an amplifier (yes, another one) to adjust gain. This shouldn’t be adjusted in most cases, but controlling gain can improve a weak channel that’s not-so watchable.
VOLUME: An audio tone that alerts you find the peak of a signal.
The instructions for setting up the Sensar Pro and using these modes are very simple. You will already be able to get a full slate of channels with just the Sensar IV alone. But the Wingman and the Sensar Pro can significantly enhance its performance. The other nice feature here is that these don’t have to be immediate upgrades. I would recommend using your Sensar IV on its own and see if it’s adequate enough. If you’re interested in getting more UHF channels, where many digital channels live, then the Wingman will help.
RV antenna alternative: ClearStream Eclipse Amplified Antenna
Portability is always a benefit for RV enthusiasts, especially when it comes to entertainment. Not everyone wants to deal with cranks or gears that come with the Sensar models.
If you’re looking for an RV antenna that’s easier to set up, the ClearStream Eclipse is the best option.Stick this paper-thin antenna in a window, scan for channels and you will be watching TV as soon as the scan is done.
No tools required.
You will get UHF and VHF channels as easily as many larger multi-directional antennas. The loop design is especially good at pulling in channels on the UHF band, where many HD channels now reside.
The antenna comes with a crescent-shaped Sure Grip strip, and a 20db in-line amplifier and power supply. There are also two coaxial cables included. One is 12 feet, the other is three feet. The Eclipse is about the size of a pie plate, and it’s surprising how powerful this antenna is given its size. I picked up 47 UNH and VHF channels within a 38-mile radius during my tests.
If you decide to pick up this antenna instead of a traditional RV antenna, then you’ll be able to use it in your home too. I actually selected it as the Best Indoor TV Antenna after a year-long study of indoor TV antennas.
You might want to move around this antenna before you settle on an optimal spot to pick up channels. The amped version of the Eclipse costs about $20 more, but worth it if you have a nearby outlet. The amplifier can be plugged into a USB port on the back of a TV for power if there is not an electrical outlet nearby.
Being able to clean the Sure Grip strip is a great feature on the portability front. Tacky surfaces can often attract hair or lint. If you are using your Eclipse at home and sometimes on the road, the SureGrip adhesive can definitely attract dirt. Use a damp towel or cloth and the SureGrip strip remains as sticky as when you first took it out of the box.
I have also seen people place a TV just outside their RV for an hour or two so they can sit outdoors and catch a ball game or some news. The Eclipse takes a decent share of the work out of a temporary outdoor TV setup.
This antenna comes at a lower price than Sensar IV or King Jack, so it’s also a solid option if want to avoid a triple-digit price point.
Streaming TV in RV
Whether you’re driving your RV up the Pacific Coast, or hunkering down in a woodsy camp in Northern Maine, one key piece of equipment or know-how can make your summer.
The challenge for many with streaming in an RV is a matter of access. You don’t want to burn up the data on your smartphone.
If you are staying at a campground or RV park, there might free WiFi. But it’s often not strong enough for streaming movies or TV shows. It’s good for checking e-mail and that’s about it. Even places that brag about having a zippy Internet connection could still give you problems.
Often there are too many people hogging up the bandwidth. Take a peek in the park office where the router is kept and you might notice another problem. The router is designed to accommodate a single home, not a whole campground full of dozens of smart phones, tablets, laptops and streaming devices.
Your best bet is to either download what you want to watch before you leave home. So you should consider more than just what kind of RV antenna you will have for your TV setup.
I’ll quickly cover options for downloading from streaming services, then some other DIY setups for watching movies on the go.
Watching movies, TV shows in my RV
There are growing list of streaming services that allow you to download movies and TV shows on the go. But each service has its own restrictions. With some movies, you will have a short amount of time to watch it because of licensing restrictions.
If you’re using a tablet to store downloads, you should make sure you’re using one that has a lot of memory to spare. With an iPad, you’re pretty much stuck with the memory that it comes with. Android and Fire tablets let you expand your memory with a MicroSD card.
The Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet is the best deal out there right now for cheap streaming on the go. It costs $90 at Amazon.
Lately, I’ve been more in favor of using a portable hard drive, which I’ll get into below. But the best approach is to diversify your entertainment, especially if you plan on being on the road for a good stretch. That way, if your RV antenna isn’t getting any channels because you are in a remote location, you can rely on a movie that you downloaded or ripped to your hard drive.
How to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime in an RV
With Netflix, you’ll want to download the titles while you’re at home and connected to the Internet. When you’re offline and on the road, you’ll still need to sign in and use the Netflix app to watch your download.
You can download content to either a laptop with Windows 10, or onto an Android tablet. But choose wisely. You will be limited to one device per account. Netflix says you can download up to 100 titles on a device, but the time you have to watch downloads can vary between 48 hours to several days.
Amazon Prime Video: Prime members can download select titles, but the timing will also depend upon individual licensing rights. If you purchase a video, then you can watch it indefinitely. The Prime Video app is available in the Google Play Store. So that means you can now access your movies and shows on an Android smartphone or tablet. Amazon Prime has a 30-day free trial if you don’t have a membership. The Amazon Prime Video app also comes pre-installed in the Amazon Fire HD tablets.
Showtime, Starz and Epix: These three premium channels all allow downloads and have standalone subscriptions either directly through their websites. Epix is the cheapest of the three at $5.99 per month. But you’ll probably notice movies that are also available on other streaming services like Amazon Prime. STARZ is $8.99 per month and has originals such as Power and American Gods along with a variety of new and older movies. Showtime costs $10.99 per month, and has popular originals such as Billions and Homeland. Showtime also has a fresh inventory of new movies.
The Criterion Channel: This streaming service just debuted in 2019, and pulls together “important classic and contemporary films” from The Criterion Collection and Janus Films.
So you’ll find “The 39 Steps” by Alfred Hitchcock alongside newer filmmakers that have won awards or garnered a lot of attention at the Sundance Film Festival, and others. The Criterion Channel costs $10.99 per month, and has instructions on how to download to Android and iOS devices.
Other TV setups for RV
An RV antenna is a great asset on the road because it can pull in a lot of free television. But it’s not your only option for entertainment. So before I wrap up, I want to review a few more pieces of equipment that I’ve used and tested over the years.
The Nebula Mars II portable projector was one of the coolest pieces of hardware that I tested last summer. The projector has impressive JBL speakers built in, a nice leather handle on the top and lots of ways to stream with or without an Internet connection. If you do have a solid Internet connection, the projector has built in apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube. Otherwise, connect to your computer using a HDMI port. The Mars II is a great way to watch a movie or even live TV outside (or indoors). Read my review of the Nebula Mars II and see what you think.
A Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD tuner can turn your laptop into a little TV that receives over-the-air channels when connected to a TV antenna. This tuner is fairly inexpensive compared to a TV, and plugs into a USB port on a Windows 10 laptop. You need to attach a portable antenna like the ClearStream Eclipse that I suggested above. My review of the Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD covers how to set it up and use.
With a Laptop, External Hard Drive and HDMI cord, you can connect your computer to your TV or a projector. I recently bought a Pioneer Blu-Ray burner, model BDR-XD05B, to rip my personal Blu-Ray collection. I’m using an inexpensive WD MyBook 4TB external hard drive to store the movies. There are more portable options too like the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim.
There’s still nothing wrong with having a DVD player on hand too. Remember that game consoles like an Xbox or PlayStation can do double duty as DVD players. That can come in handy if you have a Redbox nearby to tap into. If not, you can always rely on all free television being pulled in by your RV antenna.
I hope this guide was helpful to you. So what’s your favorite RV antenna and streaming set up. Share you favorite audio and video setup in the comments below. And check out the main page of The Cord Cutting Report for more tips on antennas, streaming and product reviews.
*This review was originally published 4/13/2017, and has been updated.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble