Free and Clear: Over the Air High Definition

If you're like me, you rushed into buying a new High Definition Television (HDTV) without much thought as to why the picture and sound were so vibrant in the store and were a little upset when you lugged your four pay-check behemoth back home only to find that standard cable and DVD are a grainy mess on it. If you're even more like me, you threw things at the screen and burned its likeness in effigy. But before you start plotting against the manufacturer, know that there is a simple, cost effective solution to your lack of High Definition content.

Unfortunately, HDTV is only as impressive as the content pushed through it. You may remember a few years back when you transitioned from VHS to DVD and were shocked by the clarity of picture and sound your television was capable of delivering through the same input. The same gap lies between content designed for the Standard Definition Televisions (SDTV) of yore and their big brother the HDTV. The problem with HD content is that to get it you'll have to dig further into the wallet you just tapped for the television itself.

Don't reach for that return policy just yet. Our friends in the broadcast industry didn't forget those of us with the wallet depth of a kiddie pool. The answer to our dilemma is Over-the-Air High Definition. That's right, free feeds of digital content available through the use of a simple coaxial antenna available at most electronic and department stores.

Choosing your antenna

Before you even think about buying an HD antenna, make sure that your TV has a built-in HD tuner. If not, then you'll have to buy one before an antenna will reap any benefits. OTA HD is sent via radio waves just like analog television signals, so if you don't have any HD broadcasts in your area obviously you cannot receive a signal. When you're sure your TV is ready, check out to see how far your local digital broadcast towers are from your home. Note also that this site shows each tower's cardinal direction relative to your location; keep this in mind when installing your antenna as you'll get the best reception when the antenna is pointed directly at the tower.

If the broadcasts you want to watch originate from further than about 15 miles away, you'll want to buy an amplified antenna that can pick up fainter signals. Any further than 30 miles away, and you'll likely need to buy a more permanent outdoor antenna to get a stable signal. If outdoor antennas aren't an option and there are no HD broadcasts within a reasonable distance, OTA HD might not be a viable choice for you.

I live in an area with several HD broadcasts, all between 18 and 30 miles away, so an indoor amplified antenna was the logical choice. I chose the Phillips MANT510 because it had a stylish look (it was going in my living room, after all) and the highest amplification of the models I considered. At a mere $29.99, the price couldn't have been more reasonable.


The physical installation of the antenna was surprisingly pain-free. I screwed the coaxial cable on to the "antenna out" post on the antenna, the other end onto the "digital antenna in" post on the television (for your own sanity's sake, note that there is a difference between the digital and analog coaxial inputs), plugged the antenna's power source in, and as soon as I ran the channel search the TV detected seven digital channels. There were, however, a few obstacles to overcome.

Because OTA HD is transmitted through radio waves, any device that emits radio waves presents a problem for signal stability. This means that for optimal reception your antenna should be a fair distance from cell phones, portable phone bases, Wi-Fi antennas and the like. Just having a cell phone in the same room as my antenna causes signal drop and pixelation.

This presents a problem, especially if you have several of these devices near your TV. Through a little experimentation, I've found that the more walls you can put between your antenna and radio-based devices, the less effect it will have on your signal. I also tried putting my antenna in my carport and attic, with varying degrees of success. The higher I placed the antenna from the ground, the stronger the signal seemed to be. However, be aware that large areas of metal (in an attic or storage shed) will block radio waves and ruin your reception. Above all, you should place your antenna in an area that is easily accessible because you may have to move the antenna around quite a bit to find just the right spot. Keep in mind that the signal is directional, and you will receive the strongest signal when pointing your antenna in the direction of the station's broadcast point.

After weighing my options, I decided to do a semi-permanent installation in a utility closet. I didn't notice any signal depreciation because of the extra long (100ft) coaxial cable I used, but obviously if you can get away with using a shorter cable, you should.


For all the trouble I had finding a place to put my OTA HD antenna, I feel that it was completely worthwhile. Yes its just network television and PBS, but they're in glorious high definition with Dolby digital sound. And did I mention it was free?

So if you cleared out your savings to get onboard the HDTV bandwagon and can't afford to be extorted by the cable and satellite guys, or if you just want the option of having local digital broadcasts on hand, OTA HD will be an excellent addition to your entertainment center that will let you enjoy your HDTV investment and still be able to put food on the table.


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