How To Get HD Channels Free with a TV Antenna
If you’re about to get rid of cable or satellite TV, buying a TV antenna for HD channels like NBC, ABC and CBS makes a lot of sense.
But first you should check to see if TV antenna will really benefit you. This guide will show you how to do just that, and then go about choosing the best TV antenna. I’ll also show you the best OTA DVRs for recording anything on networks, including FOX, PBS, NBC and others.
The goal here is to limit (or eliminate) your monthly cable TV bill. There are plenty of inexpensive streaming services you can use to replace cable beyond Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. But you should try a TV antenna as one of your first low-cost cord cutting options.
Chances are, if you can get your local NBC, it will be coming to you in 1080i or 720p, a high definition signal that’s uncompressed. In other words, your HD picture will look noticeably better than that what a local cable company can deliver to your home.
Here’s a quick tutorial on everything else you need to know first before you buy a TV antenna for HD channels, and take the second step of getting an OTA DVR.
- Using an Indoor TV antenna vs Outdoor TV antenna
- How to get local channels without cable
- How many HD channels can I get?
- Hook up the antenna for HDTV
- Choosing the Best OTA DVR
Using an Indoor TV Antenna vs Outdoor Antenna
There are two great web sites that will help you figure out whether you need an indoor antenna or an outdoor one to get local channels without cable.
Check out this link to AntennaWeb and just type in your zip code. You can type in a street address, town or city. You’ll get a nifty map and a list of HD channels that are potentially in your range.
These towers are broadcasting digital signals and much of what you can get will be uncompressed High Definition (1080i or 720p). More on that later.
Once you get your results, 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 likely want to use an outdoor TV antenna. You can mount an outdoor antenna or your roof or place one in your attic. The name of the game with outdoor antennas is elevation. Generally speaking, the higher you can go, the better.
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.
Knowing how far you are away from broadcast towers is important, but it’s not simply a matter of distance. The bend of the Earth can have an impact on your reception. So can like trees, hills, tall buildings and so on. That’s part of the reason why elevation can be an important factor with installing an antenna.
Antenna Types & Placement
Getting a multi-directional antenna will be the best choice for most people. If a couple of the towers in your region are on opposites sides of your home, say greater than that 90 degree angle, a multi-directional antenna can pull signals in from both directions.
An omni-directional antenna is often touted as a style of antenna where you don’t need to pay attention to where you place it. But I’ve rarely found that to be true. Don’t get me wrong. Omni-directional antennas can be a powerful tool for pulling signals from towers from all around you. That’s right, 360 degrees. But you still need to pay attention to where you locate any TV antenna.
How to get local channels without cable
Let’s do couple of quick examples with the online tools that I mentioned above.
I’ll pick a couple of states where I know the majority of my readers come from. 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 HD 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, an indoor TV 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, then you’re going to mount an outdoor antenna to your home. It’s likely that you will want to make your antenna has an amplifier as well.
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 an outdoor TV antenna on your roof or in your attic, 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.
It will give you an idea about whether it’s worthwhile to buy something before you spend any money.
You don’t necessarily need to keep this antenna. I’ve learned that the right model indoor antenna by a reputable company will have better design and features like amplifiers and LTE filters that can dramatically improve your reception.
Either way, having an antenna for HD channels that you’re getting free is pretty sweet.
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.
How to hook up your antenna for HDTV
The coaxial cord you are plugging in to your TV looks a lot like the one your cable provider used to use. Screw the cord into the input outlet on the back of your television. Don’t go channel surfing.
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 where you can set up channels. It’s usually broken down to two choices: Cable or Air TV/antenna. Choose the antenna option, then scan for channels.
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’re using 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 antenna 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.
The Best TV antennas: 5 Tips to Help You Choose
Here are five things to be aware of while choosing the best antenna for your particular location. I give a similar rundown on my months-long study mentioned below.
Marketing-speak: There’s no such thing as a HD antenna, or 4K antenna. All antennas pull in digital signals that are up to 1080i and 720p HD. You’ll likely also pull in some channels of lesser picture quality. So when I talk about getting an antenna for HD channels, I’m just talking about pulling in channels with the highest quality picture that you’re currently being charged for as a cable subscriber.
Uncompressed HD: The real advantage of using an antenna for HD channels is that you’ll get a clearer picture. Cable companies often compress digital signals to pipe them into your home over a cable cord. That can impact picture quality. With an uncompressed HD signal, you’ll notice a clearer and brighter picture.
Range vs Gain: A lot of antennas are advertised with phrases like “50 mile range”. You shouldn’t pay attention to claims about range because it’s not a great indicator for decent reception. Instead, see if there’s anything on the box about antenna signal gain. Digital signals get weaker over distance. So you’ll need a higher antenna gain to get a quality picture and pull in VHF and UHF channels. Gain is measured in decibels. A high gain is 32dB. Find an antenna with about 20dB and you’ll be in good shape.
Unlock New Channels: Never assume that your local cable company is delivering to you all your local channels. A TV antenna guarantees you’ll get local news, sports and even some shows that you had no idea were available for free. Maybe you’re a huge fan of the show Frasier and thought about buying up some episodes. Or maybe you’re a true crime buff who binges on Forensic Files. Either way, you don’t need cable for that.
Get sub-channels not on cable: Local networks like NBC and FOX are also broadcasting other channels from its tower. There are genre-specific channels. ESCAPE has a true crime shows like American Greed and Forensic Files. GRIT shows old westerns starring Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that there is plenty of live sports, movies and shows available free that you thought were only available on cable TV.
Cord Cutting Options: The Best TV antennas
I’ve spent the last couple of years testing out indoor and outdoor TV antennas. There are two brands in particular that I trust: Antop antennas and AntennasDirect. That’s not to say you should only buy from these two brands, or that there are no duds in their hardware lineup.
There are plenty of great antenna-makers out there. But those two brands have consistently outperformed others that I’ve tested in urban and rural environments. In my months-study of The Best Indoor TV Antennas of 2019, I concluded that the Antop Paper Thin Smartpass is the best indoor TV antenna for maximizing your channel lineup. This antenna is unique too because it has a LTE filter built into its amplifier. The filter gets rid of any 4G cell phone signals in neighboring bandwidths that could impact your reception.
The ClearStream Flex also did an excellent job with pulling in the most VHF and UHF channels. It comes with a 20dB amplifier and 15 ft. of coaxial cable so you can place the antenna panel high against a wall or ideally, in a window.
These antenna were both top picks from my months long-study: The Best Indoor TV Antennas of 2018, which details how I tested these antennas in the city and out in a rural environment.
The best outdoor TV antennas
I do much of my testing of outdoor TV antennas in the Maine woods. My pick for the best outdoor TV antenna is the ANTOP AT-400BV.
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.
Here’s a couple cheaper options that don’t quite have the same range, but are pretty effective for their price points.
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. 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 a slightly more complicated assembly. This amplified antenna has a receiving frequency of 470-862MHz. The antenna length is about 35.5 inches. The 1byone model has a 12 month warranty, and scores a 4.4 out of 5 star rating on Amazon among 303 customers.
The Best OTA DVRs for HDTV
Buying an OTA DVR is a second step of shedding cable TV forever once you figure out the optimal spot in your home for the antenna.
Here’s something to know up front: Most of the best OTA DVRs require you to subscribe to a guide/DVR service that can range between $5 and $8 per month.
There are exceptions.
Amazon just jumped into the OTA DVR market with the Fire TV Recast. If you own any generation of a Fire TV or a Firestick, you get a full channel guide of live channels and DVR functionality with no subscription fees.
There are two models of the Fire TV Recast. The entry-level Recast has two tuners and can store up 75 hours of recording. The internal hard drive is 500GB. Two tuners means you can record two shows simultaneously, or watch one channel while another is recording. And yes, you can always watch what you’re recording, too.
The four-tuner Fire TV Recast can record up to four shows, movies or sporting events simultaneously. It has a 1TB hard drive that stores up to 150 hours of recordings.
One advantage of a Fire TV Recast is that you don’t need it near your TV. You place the Recast wherever you can get optimal TV reception in your home. The Fire TV app is designed to help you find that exact spot in your house.
The Fire TV Recast is connected to a TV antenna and your wireless router – either over WiFi or Ethernet. You can watch live TV channels and recordings on iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Fire Tablets and Amazon Echo Show. So you’ll be able to have free live TV and recordings in a lot more places in your home – even where you have no TV.
Fire TV Recast: Controlling OTA DVR with Voice Commands
The Recast will be among the few OTA DVRs that will respond to voice commands, but you’ll need a Fire TV device to enjoy the benefit. So that puts the Fire TV Cube as the ideal streaming device because it already operates like an Amazon Echo Dot. Already the Fire TV Cube can power on a TV, sound bar and audio equipment, and tune in to channels on PlayStation Vue.
The Recast was released with a number of voice commands. Amazon says more will be on the way with future software upgrades of Alexa. Read my full Fire TV Recast review that I wrote after testing it out with a couple of Fire TV devices around my home.
|FIRE TV RECAST VOICE COMMANDS|
|Record||Alexa, record ‘Good Morning America’|
|Delete||Alexa, delete ‘Supernatural’|
|Cancel a recording||Alexa, cancel my recording of ‘Riverdale’|
|See the channel guide||Alexa, show me the channel guide|
|Tune to a channel||Alexa, tune to PBS|
|See your storage usage||Alexa, how full is my DVR?|
|Show your recordings||Alexa, show my scheduled recordings|
Fire TV Recast vs TiVO Roamio OTA VOX
The TiVO Roamio OTA VOX has been largely viewed as one of the best OTA DVRs out there for cord cutters. You can get your over the air recordings and apps for Netflix and Hulu all under one interface. But it’s also the most expensive at about $400.
Not everyone can afford the DVR equivalent of a Ferrari.
With the debut of the Fire TV Recast looming, the TiVo Roamio will no longer be the only plug-and-play OTA DVR with no subscription costs.
HDHomeRun: Best OTA DVR for Android and Android TV
It’s a setup that I use on my Fire TV and Android TV devices like NVIDIA Shield.
I can quickly catch up on local news on my Android smart phone. The HDHomeRun app is super useful if you’re running around the house with the kids, or sitting in the backyard.
The model I’m using is called a Quatro because it has four tuners, so you can watch and record up to four programs at once. SiliconDust, makers of the HDHomeRun, offers the least expensive channel guide/DVR service for $35 per year. That’s the cheapest OTA DVR service out there.
You need hard drive space either on your PC or one attached to another device like a mini-PC or NVIDIA Shield. I’m using a NVIDIA Shield PRO, which has a 500GB internal hard drive.
The HDHomeRun can be customized in a number of ways. You can either save your recorded programs to a hard drive on your computer, a mini PC or a NVIDIA Shield TV. You can use apps from SiliconDust, Plex, Channels, Kodi or Emby as a channel guide.
HDHomeRun tuners have wider device support compared to Fire TV Recast. But that may not matter to people in an Amazon centric household.
HDHomeRun Apps for Fire TV, Apple TV and Android TV. HDHomeRun tuners have official apps for Amazon Fire TV and NVIDIA Shield TV and Apple TV.
SiliconDust, the makers of HDHomeRun, have the cheapest subscription for DVR and channel guide at $35 per month. Even if you don’t subscribe to the DVR service, you can use the channel guide on the HDHomeRun app. I often use it to quickly check the news on my Android smartphone.
Apple TV users can also use Plex (with a Plex Pass subscription) or the Channels (Live TV) app for streaming over the air channels piped through a HDHomeRun box. The Channels app has timeshift support that lets users briefly pause or rewind a little bit of footage.
Android TV devices like NVIDIA Shield can use the HDHomeRun app, Plex (with Plex Pass) or the Channels app. Roku owners are out of luck with HDHomeRun. You’re better off going with a Tablo Dual for having OTA channels available across your home network.
Tablo Dual: Best OTA DVR for Roku users
A Tablo Dual OTA 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.
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.
Without a subscription, you get a one-day window to set up recordings. For some, that’s plenty.
Tablo Dual OTA DVRs can be streamed through apps on a Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV devices, Xbox, Chromecast and Windows 10.
Best OTA DVR for Laptops and PCs
The Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD is a palm-sized TV tuner that works with a laptop that you have on the road, or with a NVIDIA Shield TV
There’s no subscription fees to record if you have it connect it to a PC or laptop and use your computer for viewing. But the WinTV-dualHD can also be used with software hubs like Plex.
When using it on a PC or laptop, plug the tuner into a USB port, and attach the antenna to the other end of the tuner. Download the WinTV software to your PC or laptop.
Do a channel scan and you’ll see your channel lineup in the interface. The WinTV-dualHD is the most portable tuner that’s also ideal if you’re traveling and want OTA channels on the go.
No matter what you choose, your annual cost will still be much lower compared to the thousands of dollars a typical cable or satellite TV subscription costs. So now that I’ve outlined so many ways to get HDTV for free, share with readers your favorite antenna and OTA DVR setup.
Want to know more about cord cutting hardware? Read my reviews on the Fire TV Cube and what I consider the best streaming stick. Check out Cord Cutting 2019: The Definitive Guide for more tips and tricks on getting rid of cable.
* This guide was first published on May 16, 2016, and has been updated.