Getting free TV with a television antenna
If you don't want or need the extra programming provided by cable or satellite TV -- or you just don't want to spend $100 a month or more for these services -- you can still find lots to watch. All you need is a TV with a digital tuner and a TV antenna. That will give you access to high-definition programming at the highest possible quality. The digital broadcasting system also makes it possible for local broadcasters to add extra digital channels to their main channel, and many offer content such as vintage movies and TV shows, children's shows, foreign language channels, and public-interest programs that you can pull in for free.
However, there's a caveat. Because of the nature of digital TV signals and the frequencies many digital stations now use, receiving them with a television antenna is more of a challenge than with the old analog system. Tall buildings, hills and other obstructions create lots of complications. In addition, the signals might not cover as wide an area as the old analog ones did. All of that means you might need to pay special attention to your HDTV antenna to get the best over-the-air digital TV.
In stores, you'll see many television antennas being promoted as designed for HDTV, but in reality you don't need a special HDTV antenna design to receive digital signals. In fact, in most cases, the best antennas are those based on the same designs used for decades for analog TV reception. If you already have a good antenna with which you received analog TV, it might be all you need.
One thing to watch for when selecting a television antenna for digital TV is that many so-called HDTV antennas are only designed to cover the UHF band (channels 14 to 69), which is where most digital TV signals are found, though that band has been cut back so that digital stations are now restricted to the lower part, channels 14 to 51. The problem is that some stations asked for and were granted permission to move back to their original VHF frequencies (channels 2 to 13) once the digital transition was complete in June 2009 -- leaving some viewers with UHF-only HDTV antennas in the dark.
If there's a VHF station you want to receive in your area, you'll need to select a TV antenna that covers those frequencies, as well. Otherwise, a UHF-only antenna will fit the bill nicely. If you don't know what stations you can receive and what channels they use to broadcast on, sites such as AntennaWeb.org and TVFool.com can help.
Television antennas -- and the availability of local over-the-air programming -- can play a big role in deciding whether to ditch your cable or satellite TV provider. Many people are abandoning cable and satellite TV providers in favor of streaming content online from Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus and more. However, in most locations, an over-the-air (OTA) antenna and a TV with a digital tuner are the only way to view local programs and network TV shows at the same time as they're originally broadcast. This is also sometimes the only way to see that programming for free.
Finding the best TV antenna
One problem with finding the best TV antenna is separating marketing spin from actual results, and that's complicated by the fact that an antenna that works great for one person because of their geographical location could be a miserable failure for someone living even a short distance away. The best reviews of TV antennas come from those who've tested a good number of them, and have done so under relatively uniform circumstances. For that, we turn to sources such as HDTVExpert.com, TheWireCutter.com and Tom's Guide. Likewise, user reviews can be helpful, especially for antennas that are evaluated by hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of owners. That helps normalize the feedback so results aren't skewed by those living in extremely difficult reception areas or where OTA signal strength is so strong that a bent coat hanger could work as an acceptable antenna. Amazon.com is tops for that, but we also consider feedback from other sources, such as BestBuy.com. The results are our picks as the best indoor antennas for most budgets and situations.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Indoor HDTV Antennas | Best Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antennas | Buying Guide | Our Sources