How to choose the best digital TV antenna to buy


May 8, 2019 — 6 min read

Even if you don’t have a cable or satellite TV subscription, you can still watch dozens of channels in HD for free.

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You’ve ditched that TV subscription, but don’t leave yourself in the dark from movies, news, sports and TV shows. It’s entirely possible that you could be just as happy with over-the-air channels which cost absolutely nothing to watch. All you need to get started is a digital TV antenna and a TV unit.

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What’s the best digital TV antenna to buy?

Here’s how to choose the best digital TV antenna that’ll get you dozens of channels in high definition (HD) to watch for free.

How do I choose a digital TV antenna? What else do I need?

Before you start shopping for a digital TV antenna, know exactly what areas to look at:

Location — Indoor models are more popular, and they can be positioned in hidden places that are rarely seen. Secure it to a wall or window, and you’re done. But, if you prefer a retro appearance, digital TV antennas can still be purchased in the ‘rabbit ears’ style. Outdoor models, on the other hand, sit atop your roof and can bypass some signal-blocking objects.

Direction — The digital TV antenna can be omnidirectional or directional. Each comes with unique advantages. If you choose an omnidirectional model, the signal will come from multiple directions and potentially increase the number of channels available. A directional model will pull a signal from a specific area, and thus lead to a stronger signal but likely fewer channels. Unless you’re located a significant distance from any metropolitan area or deal with a fair amount of obstruction, it’s best to choose a multi-directional model to get more channels.

Range — Between all the different digital TV antennas, you’ll see a number listed as the range. It indicates just how far the model can reach to pick up on a signal. The higher the number, the more channels you’re likely to receive. Still, the digital TV antenna must fight through objects like buildings, mountains and trees in order to get a signal.

The digital TV antenna can’t be used alone, of course. Pick out a TV unit, too, if you don’t already own one. Using the included coaxial cable, link the digital TV antenna to the digital TV tuner port on the TV unit and you’re ready to receive a signal. If your TV unit does not include that port, you’ll need to purchase a digital converter box as well.

Which channels will I get to watch? How’s the picture quality for over-the-air channels?

You’ll get to watch the major local channels and a limited number of other networks; it varies by location. Everyone in the United States should expect a digital TV antenna to receive ABC, CBS, FOX, MyNetworkTV, PBS and The CW. Beyond that array, the lineup largely depends on the level of range that the digital TV antenna can achieve.

What you won’t get to watch, however, are cable channels. Maybe that’ll be difficult for some people, but affiliates of major media companies do feature comedies, dramas, newscasts and sporting events on their channels. Needless to say, a digital TV antenna ensures there’s always something worth watching.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also created the DTV Reception Map. With this government agency-run tool, anyone can find out the channels that are designed for their address. The list appears to be small, and that’s why we recommend using the channel lookup tools created by TV Fool or your digital TV antenna’s manufacturer. It’ll allow you to get a better idea of what channels to expect and how reliable the signal might be.

By the way, ignore ‘4K Ultra HD’ labels you see on digital TV antennas. In the U.S., none of the existing over-the-air channels go above 1080p or 1080i for video resolution. Quite honestly, many of them are going to be broadcast in 720p or 480p. Regardless, you should have no trouble getting at least a few channels in HD.

As was stated earlier, use the channel lookup tool on various websites to see what channels are available in your area. The actual picture quality, however, is dependent on signal strength. So be sure to optimize your digital TV antenna’s location, direction and range.

Are there any additional benefits like DVR or streaming?

Unfortunately, it’s not too simple to take advantage of useful features that cable or satellite TV providers offer. The ability to record a program and play it back later isn’t available unless you purchase a separate device like the Amazon Fire TV Recast or the TiVo Bolt OTA. With those types of add-on devices, you can have a digital video recorder (DVR) for the channels available locally and watch content on TV, mobile and web.

Just remember that you’ll need to pay for access to guide data. For example, Amazon’s Fire TV Recast will be a one-time cost, but TiVo, meanwhile, sells the Bolt OTA at a similar price but tacks on a monthly service plan. It’d be wise to choose something like Amazon’s product to avoid recurring costs.

As for on-demand video streaming, that’s a total no-go. Media companies are trying to generate revenue from their channels, whether that’s through cable or satellite TV subscriptions or advertisements. Since you’re getting a whole bunch of channels at no cost, these channels are limited to what you can watch live or via an OTA-based DVR. Otherwise, you’ll need to start handing over some money to watch what you want at any time.

The advantage of choosing a digital TV antenna over a cable or satellite TV subscription is that you’re not paying a monthly fee, which explains why features are extremely limited.

Mohu Leaf Amplified Indoor TV Antenna

Why you should buy this digital TV antenna: Mohu offers a wide range of digital TV antennas, and this model earned a spot on our list for its extensive range while remaining very affordable. The Leaf, which gets positioned inside, captures a signal from channels within a 60-mile radius. No matter where you call home, Mohu’s Leaf might be the right choice. The far-reaching range can get an ample number of channels to keep you entertained.

Channel Master Outdoor TV Antenna

Why you should buy this digital TV antenna: With this digital TV antenna, you’re positioning it outside and aiming in a particular direction. That’ll help secure a stronger signal from the channels based out of the nearest city. Channel Master does require you to assemble this digital TV antenna, but there are only a few steps separating you and your media consumption.

AmazonBasics Ultra-Thin Indoor TV Antenna

Why you should buy this digital TV antenna: The 25-mile range isn’t the highest you’ll find; however, Amazon’s digital TV antenna focuses on individuals who are living in metropolitan areas. You’re getting a lineup of local channels in HD for the cheap. It’s a terrific value, especially since digital TV antennas are free of monthly costs.

We recommend that you purchase one of these three digital TV antennas, but there are many other models that could also perform well in your home. Take location, direction and range into consideration more than anything else. Finally, decide how much money you’re willing to spend. It could be worth the extra money to get a digital TV antenna with a higher range.

What should I do if I want more channels?

Maybe your digital TV antenna doesn’t supply enough channels. Well, don’t rush back to a cable or satellite TV subscription yet. Check out a video streaming service. If you’re searching for more channels, DIRECTV NOW and YouTube TV deliver streaming-friendly packages on all devices. For on-demand content, Netflix and Hulu serve up catalogs with thousands of movies and TV shows. All of these services are well-regarded; however, do some research to understand what specific content they offer.

Live TV and on-demand streaming require monthly payments, but either could be a terrific value if your digital TV antenna leaves some entertainment to be desired. In the end, you could still be saving money compared to a cable or satellite TV subscription.

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