What kind of outdoor TV antenna do I need?
If you’re entering the brave new world of life without cable, you want a TV antenna that’s going to deliver a crisp high-def picture into your home. You don’t want to lose all the prime time network channels you love, or the HD picture that you depend on.
This guide will show you the easiest and quickest way to get free Digital Television (DTV) to your household for life. There are also ways you can record any DTV channel that your antenna brings in. So you don’t need to start subscribing to apps like CBS All Access if you set up your own equipment. You can channels like CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS and others in many parts of the U.S. without any kind of cable or satellite TV subscription.
The goal here is to limit (or eliminate) your monthly TV bills, including cable and subscription platforms. I’m not going to judge you if you’re addicted to Netflix or Amazon Prime. That’s your thing. I’m not judging, baby.
When I started living without cable, I had two antennas in my home. One I bought, the other I made myself with some cable wire and duct tape I had sitting around the house. The simple homemade TV antenna I assembled in about five minutes works just as well as the one I paid about $20 for. The reason why is largely based on geography. I live in a metropolitan area, so I’m close to many of the towers that I’m drawing from. I will show you the video that I used to create the quick-and-easy antenna. But let me give you a quick tutorial on everything else you need to know first.
Antenna channels by zip code
There are two great web sites that will help you figure out what kind of TV antenna you will need. Check out this link to AntennaWeb and just type in your zip code. You can type in a town, city, and state as well. You’ll get a nifty map and a list of channels that are potentially in your range.
Since it’s always a good idea to draw information from multiple sources, we want a second opinion on our possible TV towers in our region. Another great reference the DTV maps tool on the Federal Communications Commission web site. The DTV maps tool can give you added information about individual stations by clicking on the Gain/Loss map located within the results of each station.
What do you need to get local TV channels?
Start out by using the AntennaWeb tool. Look at the distance of each tower. Do you have broadcast towers that are 30 miles or closer? Are the broadcast towers within 90 degrees of each other? If so, you can probably use an indoor TV antenna.
If you live more than 30 miles from broadcast towers, then you will probably want to use an outdoor TV antenna. But it’s not this simple for everyone. The bend of the Earth can have an impact on your reception just like trees, hills, tall buildings and so on.
You will hear a lot about indoor and outdoor antennas. But within those two types TV antennas are three categories that you need to know about.
A directional antenna should work fine if all of your TV signals are coming from the same direction. If a couple of the towers in your region are on opposites sides of your home, say greater than that 90 degree angle that I mentioned, a multi-directional antenna is what you’ll likely need. The third option, called an omnidirectional antenna, is worth a little more explaining.
How do I get channels if I live far away from a tower?
Remember, you just need to find out two things. How far away are you from a broadcast tower? Second, how far apart are the towers from each other?
Let’s do couple of quick examples with the tools that I mentioned above. I’ll pick a couple of states where I know the majority of my readers come from in hopes that it will help you guys in particular.
Let’s say you live in city like Waco, Texas. You’re between a couple of big cities, Dallas and Austin. You want to get the local NBC, FOX, CBS stations and the like.
It looks like you have a pretty good shot at getting at least six DTV channels broadcasting a strong signal in your area. That’s great! But man, you’d love to get PBS. Then you could watch all the Austin City Limits you want without having to score tickets or make the two hour drive south. But geez, look at the map. The tower for the PBS station is more than 80 miles away! It’s giving you a weak signal at that distance.
But here’s your other problem. The towers for all these channels you want are all around you like a spider’s web.
If you were just trying to pull signals from a couple of directions, a multi-direction antenna would probably work just fine.
But in Waco, you’re going to need the big guns. If you want the maximum amount of channels, and you’re going to mount an outdoor antenna to your home, you will want an omnidirectional antenna.
When might you want to try a multi-directional antenna?
If you’re living in a place like Santa Barbara, California, there are only a two directions to pull a signal from. You’ll probably want a TV antenna on your roof, especially if you want to draw from those towers north of Los Angeles. A multi-directional antenna will help you draw from towers slightly northwest and southeast as shown in our graphic.
How many channels can I get with an indoor antenna?
The ugly truth about getting free television is that a lot of your success depends on geography. That should be no surprise to you if you’ve tooled around with the two website tools I recommended on AntennaWeb and the FCC site.
If you live very close to towers, you might be able to get by with your own homemade TV antenna.
Even if you’re skeptical about the number of channels you can get, I suggest you try to make an antenna anyway. You don’t always have to spend money. Trust me, free TV is a lot sweeter when you get from scraps that you had sitting around in your basement.
In case you’re interested, here’s a video of how I made an antenna in about five minutes with some old cable wire that I had around the house.
Homemade vs. bought TV antenna
If you’re a little more ambitious on the DIY front, Popular Mechanics has a pretty neat design for an outdoor antenna that looks like a medieval weapon. With an indoor antenna, try to get it near a window so you can the most channels possible. For an outdoor antenna that you are mounting on a roof, I will let you do that on your own. I don’t know a thing about your house, your roof or how physically able you are to hook it up yourself. Once you get it installed and you have a wire ready to plug in, come back here and keep reading.
What kind of TV antenna should I buy?
You should already have an idea of what you might need if you’ve been using AntennaWeb and the FCC page.
But before you take the readout of your results and click over to the next tab to begin shopping, stop for a second. Take a second look at the geography around you. I only say this because there are plenty of people who see an indoor antenna advertised with a “50 mile range” and quickly buy it. They get it situated near a window or spot where it should pick up signals and they end up disappointed. What happened? They didn’t consider the geography. You don’t have to live in a box canyon to get interference. I don’t want you to freak out and buy the antenna equivalent of a Sherman tank. Just be realistic about where you live and what’s around you.
Remember, you have three kinds of TV antennas. I’ll quickly review them again so you don’t have to go back and find it.
Directional antennas: These are rudimentary in design and bring in broadcasts coming largely from one direction. Say you’re living in a big city, you can probably get by with one of these (or even make one) without needing anything else.
Multi-directional antennas: If you want to pull in TV from nearby towers that are located in a couple of different directions, this is probably the kind of antenna you will want. If you’re living outside of a big city, this also may be way you want to go.
Omnidirectional antennas: If you’re surrounded by TV towers and you want to draw from all of them, then an omnidirectional antennas is where it’s at for you. This is also probably the better antenna if you live in a somewhat rural area.
The best indoor TV antennas
ClearStream Eclipse Indoor HDTV antenna is multi-directional, and set up indoors. Sure, it’s elegant looking but the loop design is actually what gives the ClearStream Eclipse such power for an indoor antenna. This antenna comes with a lifetime warranty. Use the Sure Grip side of the antenna to attach it to any smooth surface. Near a window that faces the majority of your local towers is likely the best spot.
The basic model of this antenna gives a 35-mile range. You can use the ClearStream to get a HD 1080p signal from stations broadcasting in high definition, and receive lower grade UHF and VHF channels. This comes with 12 feet of cable so you have some decent flexibility on where to place it for best reception. The upgraded, 50-mile model of this antenna is basically the same unit except that it comes with an amplifier that’s plugged into an electrical outlet and 15 feet of cable.
A solid runner-up: Vansky makes an inexpensive, yet powerful amplified indoor antenna that’s hard to beat for the price. The Vansky comes with 16.5 feet of coaxial cable. The USB power adapter gives you the option to power the amplifier from your TV or a nearby wall outlet. The Vansky is best suited for those living in metropolitan areas, especially if you are in an apartment or condo and don’t have any plans to put an antenna on your roof. Like our top choice, this antenna gets the best reception if you can get it against a wall near a window. The Vansky was initially priced at $90, but can now be bought for about $26. It’s a great choice for the budget minded.
Best indoor antenna for VHF channels that are hard to reach
If other indoor antennas have failed you in the past, especially with getting crucial VHF channels like NBC or CBS, then Mohu Leaf Glide is decent option. The Leaf Glide is twice the size of its predecessor at 21-inches wide.
During a two-week review of the Leaf Glide, it matched the performance of a ClearStream Eclipse, but edged it out with getting hard-to-reach channels in a city environment.
Leaf Glide’s amp can be plugged into an electrical outlet or USB port on the back of a TV.
The Leaf Glide antenna comes with 16 feet of coaxial cable and rounded easy-twist connectors on each end. The connectors made setup easier on the hands. Mohu says that the Leaf has patented SignaLift technology to draw in VHF (Very High Frequency) channels better than other indoor antennas.
UPDATE: Look over my other top picks for the Best Indoor Antennas of 2018.
The best outdoor TV antennas
After my latest round of testing in the Maine woods, my new pick for the best outdoor antenna is the ANTOP AT-400BV.
It’s not as inexpensive as my previous picks below, but it’s by far the most powerful outdoor antenna that I have tested this year. Also known as the “Big Boy” model, the AT-400BV has a rectangular shape that can sit on a stand or be mounted to a roof or roof peak.
The property where I tested this antenna was only getting about 12 OTA channels with another antenna mounted on the roof.
With the ANTOP, that number climbed to 30 and included some HD channels like CBS, and a station in a neighboring state a little over 53 miles away as the crow flies.
The AT-400BV really works best on a roof. The Big Boy model comes equipped with a metal bracket on the back of the panel for mounting and comes with all the hardware needed for installation. That includes a 39-foot cable with a thick weather resistant coating. You can read my full review of the ANTOP AT-400BV.
The RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi HDTV antenna has a 60-mile range when it’s attached to a roof, side of a home or attic. And it’s proven itself over the test of time. This particular model has been around since 2009. The Yagi is designed to get optimal reception from UHF and VHF bands, and delivers crisp 1080i HDTV broadcasts within at least a 60 mile range. This antenna comes with all the hardware necessary to mount to a home, along with a 75-ohm transformer. The Yagi only comes with a 12-month limited warranty, but roughly 3,825 Amazon users give this antenna 4.6 out of 5 stars.
The 1byone Amplified Outdoor/Attic HDTV antenna has an 80-mile range, but has a slightly more complicated assembly. This amplified antenna has a receiving frequency of 470-862MHz. The antenna length is about 35.5 inches. This 1byone model is optimized for pulling in 1080p digital reception. This antenna also has a 12 month warranty, and scores a 4.4 out of 5 star rating on Amazon among 303 customers. This particular model comes at a much lower price than our top recommendation.
How to hook up your TV antenna to get free over the air channels
The coaxial cord you are plugging in looks a lot like the one your cable provider used to use. (Same one.) Screw the cord into the input outlet on the back of your television. You’re not done yet. You need to go to the menu settings on your TV. I’m assuming that your TV is fairly new. And by fairly new, I’m talking seven or 8 years old.
Go to the menu and find the section of your menu that asks if you are using cable or “air” or “antenna”. Be sure to scan for channels once you select antenna. The scan can sometimes take a while – up to 30 minutes sometimes! That’s OK. Just let your TV do its thing. Once the scan is complete, your TV is now receiving channels from the antenna.
If you bought or made an outdoor antenna and want to hook it up to more than one TV, you just need to pick up a two-way or three-way splitter. Connect the cable that’s attached to the antenna to the splitter. Run coaxial cables from the TVs you want to connect to the opposite end of the splitter.
Best DVRs for recording antenna TV
Honestly, if you’re going to make the conversion from cable to antenna TV, I don’t recommend that you buy a DVR right away.
But such lifestyle changes aren’t for everyone. So you should make sure that you’re really happier in your new life without cable.
Eventually, you might want a DVR because you are intent on watching your favorite network shows whenever you feel like it. I record the nightly news and watch it after work.
I only recommend two models to consider. There are more popular over-the-air (OTA) DVRs out there, but I don’t care for them because they come with monthly fees. (Kind of like a cable company.) Those guys can get lost. I’m down with buying some hardware, and using said hardware without further cost.
TiVo Roamio Over The Air 1TB DVR and Streaming Media Player (2016 model)
Tivo has largely been unrivaled in the quality of their DVRs. I have been using TiVo products for years, but my biggest criticism of them was the monthly fees that were associated with their use.
That’s been eliminated with TiVo’s Roamio Over-The-Air 1TB DVR. Their latest OTA DVR is aimed specifically at the cord cutting market. You can record 4 shows at once. The 1TB hard drive stores up to 150 hours of HD programming. It has the familiar interface that you may have seen if you ever used a TiVo as a cable subscriber. Except now the TV you are watching is free and coming off your antenna.
You will need to buy your own antenna, and this TiVo will work with any of them. But unlike many other OTA DVRs, you won’t need to buy a separate hard drive.
The Roamio also doubles as a streaming media player that includes apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Hulu, YouTube and iHeartRadio.
You won’t find those streaming options with any competitor. The only thing that could possibly make this better is addition of a Sling TV or PlayStation Vue app.
The “Skip Mode” option allows users to skip entire commercials with one button. About 1,738 Amazon customers give Tivo Roamio 4.4 out of 5 stars. You can read more about the TiVo Roamio OTA DVR if you’re considering buying one.
HDHomeRun vs Hauppauge vs Tablo DVR for OTA recording: lower cost options
There’s a growing number of choices when it comes to buying an OTA tuner/DVR. Using either a HDHomeRun tuner or Tablo DVR will allow you to watch recorded or live TV on your television or devices like a smartphone or tablet. You can read my detailed review of HDHomeRun Extend to learn how that tuner works.
If you’re looking for a TV tuner that works with a PC or NVIDIA Shield TV, the Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD works exceptionally well if you pair it with one of the indoor or outdoor antennas mentioned above. The WinTV-dualHD comes with a small antenna, but I found while testing for my review that an amplified antenna works best.
The Hauppauge is a little different from the HDHomeRun and the Tablo. You don’t need a subscription to utilitze DVR features. Instead, you save content to the hard drive on your computer.
With the HDHomeRun or Tablo, you will need to buy an external hard drive or NAS to store your content. You will also need to subscribe to either a DVR or guide service depending on what you buy.
No matter what you choose, your annual cost will still be much lower compared to the thousands of dollarsa typical cable or satellite TV subscription costs.
HDHomeRun Connect and the upgraded HDHomeRun Extend model broadcasts high definition OTA channels on your TV, computer, tablet or smartphone.
HDHomeRun tuners have official apps for Android devices like an Amazon Fire TVor NVIDIA Shield TV. Through the HDHomeRun app or Kodi, Windows 10 devices and computers can also stream live TV and recorded content.
Apple TV users can use the Channels app for streaming HDHomeRun content. The Channels app has timeshift support that lets users briefly pause or rewind a little bit of footage.
In my review of HDHomeRun Extend, I concluded it was a better tuner than HDHomeRun Connect because of built in transcoding to h.264 format. That made for smaller file sizes with recordings while giving a more widely supported format for playback.
HDHomeRun DVR service costs $35 per year. It allows you to schedule recordings, pause and rewind live TV.
HDHomeRun users can also stream recorded programming while outside of their home if they subscribe to Plex Pass. Plex DVR costs $4.99 per month, or yearly for $39.99.
Tablo specs, OTA recording
A Tablo-4 DVR operates on the same premise as HDHomeRun tuners. It connects with your HDTV antenna and your WiFi router to broadcast OTA channels across your home network.
One difference: HDHomeRun tuners require a subscription to a DVR service to record content. Tablo can record shows no matter what, but subscribing to Tablo Guide Data gives you far more features for your DVR.
I’ll explain more about that in a moment.
A Tablo-4 DVR allows you to record or watch four shows simultaneously. You will be able to watch those programs on up to six different devices.
The Tablo Guide Data subscription gives you a 14-day channel guide, a grid-style for live TV and recorded content and out-of-home streaming. You can see upcoming programs by categories like sports or movies. If you pull up a category like sports, you can see all of your baseball games broadcasting on Fox within the 14-day window.
You can subscribe to Tablo’s guide data for $4.99 per month, or yearly at $49.99. A lifetime subscription costs $149.99. You don’t have to subscribe to the guide service, but if you don’t, you will only get a one day window to set up recordings.
Tablo-4 can be streamed through apps on a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV devices, Xbox, Chromecast and Windows 10.