Cord-Cutting/ Lifestyle

Cordcutter’s Guide to Choosing the Right Indoor Over-the-Air Antenna for Your Home

Remember the days of fiddling with your rabbit ear antennas to get better channel reception?  Me either.  To be honest, the last time I fiddled with a set of antennas, I was probably in my tween years (middle 80’s).  Those days have been making a comeback as of late, as more and more people are canceling their cable and resorting to old fashioned antennas that bring in their local channels in (stunning) HD.  That is, if the channels come in at all.  Unfortunately, I realized this a couple weeks ago, when I cancelled cable and decided to return to watching network television with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna.  I learned (the long way) exactly how different the results are when it comes to antenna choice and hope that my knowledge on this subject will help prevent you from making the same mistakes as me.

QUICK START GUIDE

This article will cover the technical aspects of why you receive or won’t receive reception with your antenna in the way I understand it but if you are looking for a quick start guide without all the details, here they are…..

  • Determine the distance and direction of your network towers by going hereTVFOOL.
  • Once you have the mileage, half the mileage for any VHF channels (the “real” channels 1-13).  The mileage is in perfect conditions, which is highly unlikely for you.
  • Understand that things like metal siding, trees and building that obstruct the signal will reduce the signal.
  • Choose an antenna that will cover the VHF channels in mileage (UHF channels are way easier to get).
  • Bear in mind that if you are using a long cord to connect the antenna to your TV this will reduce reception as will putting a DVR or adding an additional TV will “split” the signal and reduce reception as well.

There are 3 things that you need to consider when choosing an antenna…..

  1. The distance and direction of the network towers.
  2. What type of antenna is right for your needs to receive reception.
  3. The distance factor of the antenna you select and what it means.
  4. If you are intending on adding something such as a DVR and the length of the cable from the antenna to your TV.

How an Antenna works

Basically, an antenna is nothing more than a bunch of metal wires strung together in a certain fashion. You can even make one yourself…


A network antenna sends signals in electical waves and your antenna picks up those signals and waves.  The amount of gain in an antenna (which other than direction, is the most important factor when considering an antenna) will directly affect how well you can pull in channels.  Outdoor antennas will pull in more channels clearer than an indoor antenna.  Antennas installed in the attic will perform better than set top antennas.

Also, there are two types of antennas- directional and omni directional.  Directional antennas are the ones where you point it toward the network antenna and get signal. Think “rabbit ears”.  Omni-directional antennas can “catch” a signal from any direction.  These come in all shapes and sizes although the most popular ones look like large flat sheets of paper.

In addition to this, there are other factors that will decrease reception such as metal siding in your house (or anywhere where the antenna is pointed) as well as (for VHF networks) things that can temporarily block the signal (think airplanes, buildings, ect.) or landscape topography (think mountains and big hills).

Finally, how long your antenna cord is and whether you are plugging directly into the TV or a DVR can diminish your signal.

All of these factors combined can make for a pretty frustrating attempt to get your local networks.  There isn’t a silver bullet in terms of antenna reception.  What works great for one locale, works terribly for another.  In fact, you can live in the same city and, depending on all these factors, you may or may not get all the channels you are hoping for.

Measuring the distance and direction of the Network Towers

The first step is to get a feel for how far and in what direction you will need your antenna to point.  There are all sorts of websites that can help you with this.  TVFool is one of them.  Below, you will see what channels I can possibly get using this website.

Antenna Reception Example
The “real” channel refers to the HD version of the channel.  This is important because it shows which channels are VHF and which are UHF (more on that and why it is important later).  To find out how clear the channel may come in, you take the NM(dB) and subtract it from the Pwr(dBm).  This is the best case scenario barring other factors.

Take the db’s, minus the power and compare that number to the image above.

Understanding the differences between UHF and VHF

Also, notice in the picture above, the “real” channel versus the “virtual” channel. This is important because any “real” channel below 14 runs on VHF and anything above runs on UHF.

UHF channels are typically easier to get reception, especially if you are using an indoor antenna.  In my case I could get all the UHF channels but the one channel I wanted (NBC channel 5) wouldn’t come in.  The website recommended “rabbit ears” that were directional.

My understanding is that VHF channels require a larger antenna than UHF channels.  How big?  According to one website, all things equal, getting reception for a VHF channel would need an antenna 10 times longer than needed for a UHF channel.  This wouldn’t be a problem for an outdoor or even in the attic antenna but the last thing I want to do is have some sort of monstrosity sitting next to my television.

It is primarily the reason why when you read the various customer reviews on antennas on places like Amazon for indoor antennas, you will find that the majority of missing channels come from VHF bands.

Understanding Antenna Mile Ranges

If you want VHF channels, cut the mileage rating in half.  This will show you the chances of getting reception under perfect conditions….

If you haven’t shopped for an antenna before, you will undoubtedly notice that they all have a mile range.  Some are 25, some are 50…a few go up higher than that.  While you would think that the longer the mile distance the better, understand that there is a sweet spot; go too big and risk the chance to overload the signal…too low and you won’t get the channel.  These mile ranges are devised under the most ideal situations….think clear sky with no obstructions.  I learned this the hard way when I discovered that a 35 (and even a 50 mile) rating wasn’t going to cover my needs in spite of the fact that the farthest tower was 25 miles away.

One thing that I learned from talking to an antenna specialist is that unless you are closer than 7 miles from your closest tower, it shouldn’t matter.

If you have an indoor antenna, things such as metal siding or even metal framework around a window can easily soften the mile range.  Add trees and buildings and…well you can see how this can blow your mileage fairly quickly.

With VHF channels, it gets even dicier.  A representative of MOHU told me in order to get VHF channels from an indoor antenna, I would need to half the mile range and even then, this is still under perfect conditions.

What you put in between your antenna cable and the TV matters

The More You Split Your Signal, the Less Signal You Will Get

Lastly, your reception will be much better if you plug it in direct to your TV versus plugging it first in a DVR before it goes to your TV.  I learned this the hard way.  Your reception depends not only on the antenna you choose but the tuner that it goes through AND whatever it may be splitting signal with.  A DVR like tivo, which can record up to 4 channels at once means that the reception is split 4 ways before it gets signal (at least this is how I understand it).  So, while I could get spotty reception from channel 5 plugging in directly to the TV, the channel was non existent plugged into my Tivo.

This would be the same case scenario if I was using one antenna to power two TV’s;  the more you split the signal, the less signal you have for each TV.

This is especially important if you are replacing a cable DVR with an OTA DVR to watch network TV rather than streaming it (and saving on internet bandwidth).

Choosing the right indoor antenna

As I said earlier, outdoor antennas are better than indoor and in the attic antennas are better than set top ones.  For the sake of simplicity, I chose a set top antenna.  While you will get better reception with the larger antennas, I just didn’t find them to be very practical in terms of set up.  In fact, I couldn’t find one installer in Memphis to install one anyway and since I have a tendency to botch up even the smallest job, figured that my chances of getting reception without a professional would be better if set up was easier.  I wanted an antenna that I could connect to my TV and get the channels I wanted.  My first one was a 1by1 HD indoor antenna with a 35 mile range.  I knew that the farthest network was 25 miles away and figured that it would be plenty strong enough to get all the channels.  And it did.  Even channel 5 although it was spotty at best.

However, when I plugged in my TIVO, channel 5 went completely away.  After doing research, I opted for another antenna, this time with a powered 50 mile range that was directional.  The result was that not only did I not get channel 5, but I was also missing a couple other channels.  I went to my local bestbuy and asked one of the sales associates if there any indoor antenna that could pull in WMCTV 5 (the local NBC affiliate in Memphis) and he said that that channel unfortunately was one of those channels that you either got or you didn’t and recommended an outdoor antenna if I wanted to receive the channel.

I was just about to concede when I decided to make one last ditch effort for an indoor antenna.  I had heard nothing but good things from a company called MOHU and emailed them explaining my problem and asking if they had any indoor antenna that could help with my problem.  The sales associate (Michelle) recommended their newest addition, the MOHU glide, which was powered and reputed to bring in even the toughest VHF signals.  (You can read my review of this product here).  Needless to say, after a little bit of finagling, the MOHU was able to get the NBC affiliate in Memphis without a problem.

And this is the part of the article where I recommend getting a MOHU glide, right?  Well, not exactly.  What I recommend is you do the math and see if you have any VHF channels supported by the major networks in your area and even if you do, I would say go to amazon and find a relatively cheap antenna first to see if it suits your needs.  If it doesn’t work the way you hope, then I would return it and try a MOHU glide.  It worked for me.

 

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