What channels can you receive? An important first step in selecting an HDTV antenna is learning what signals you can receive at your home and how strong they are. A few websites can analyze virtually any address in the U.S., using factors such as distance to the transmitter and local topography to give a fairly reliable prediction of what to expect in terms of reception and how powerful an antenna you'll need. Sites like TVFool.com and AntennaWeb.org do an excellent job.
AntennaWeb.org produces a color-coded chart that matches the Consumer Electronics Association's (CEA) color rating scheme for antennas, which makes picking one -- particularly for outdoor use -- easier. TVFool.com deals more directly with indoor TV antennas than AntennaWeb.org, but uses its own color scheme instead of the one developed by the CEA.
Some complain that AntennaWeb.org is too conservative in its predictions of what stations you can receive, which the site itself admits to. However, that's a means of avoiding disappointment because many factors can negatively impact TV reception beyond what these sites can account for. If AntennaWeb.org says you can receive a certain channel with an antenna of a certain power, the odds are excellent that will be correct. Any additional channels you receive may be a welcome bonus.
In addition to considering available signals, determine the directions they come from, which is information also provided by AntennaWeb.org, TVFool.com and similar sites. In most places, most signals will come from the same general direction, but there could be signals from other directions that are receivable and desirable. In some locales, the best signals might come from a completely unexpected direction, such as transmitters in towns or cities that are farther away but that come in clearer due to nearby topography. That's important, because some antennas are highly directional while others receive signals equally or acceptably well in multiple directions.
Will an indoor antenna work where you live? When considering an indoor antenna, be realistic about what you can receive at your location. In analog broadcasting, weaker stations were sometimes received with acceptable picture quality as long as you were willing to put up with a touch of static. That won't work in digital TV. Because of the nature of digital signals, you'll either see a terrific picture, a picture that cuts in and out with annoying regularity, or nothing at all. If the predictions at AntennaWeb.org or TVFool.com say an indoor antenna won't cut the mustard, it won't.
What about an outdoor antenna? While an indoor antenna can do the trick for many if not most TV viewers, that still leaves a good number for which there's no alternative except an outdoor HDTV antenna. They're more costly and difficult to install, but in nearly every case an outdoor antenna mounted as high as possible will outperform an indoor one. For viewers located more than 50 miles or so from the transmitters, an outdoor antenna is virtually a necessity. Those who are closer but surrounded by hills, buildings or other obstacles that reduce signal strength might also need to choose an outdoor antenna.
The CEA has developed a color-rating system that identifies outdoor television antennas by type and receiving strength. Antenna types range from small, multidirectional models coded yellow that are suitable for use in high-signal-strength areas to large, directional TV antennas coded violet that may be your only hope if you want to pull in a distant or weak signal. Reports by address generated at AntennaWeb.org include that color code information.
Choosing an outdoor television antenna is relatively easy: Match up the reception prediction with the color code rating of an antenna, and a good chunk of the work is done. You also need to make sure the antenna is a good performer for the channels available in your area, especially if some broadcasters have elected to remain on VHF.
Can a television antenna amplifier help? While some indoor and outdoor TV antennas include built-in signal amplifiers, you can add an external amplifier to just about any passive or unamplified antenna. In fact, the CEA says adding an amplifier to a large directional outdoor television antenna is the surest way to receive violet-coded digital TV signals.
That said, adding an amplifier to a TV antenna isn't always the best course of action. An amplifier can actually harm reception in areas where signal strength is already decent because too strong a signal can overload a digital tuner. Amplifiers also amplify noise along with the intended signal, which may result in no real improvement in the case of very marginal signal strength.
You don't need a digital or HDTV antenna to receive digital signals. Although the range of frequencies has been reduced, all fall in the bands used by the old analog broadcasting system. That's why the best antennas are still based on tried-and-true designs developed over decades for receiving analog TV signals. So if you already have a high-quality analog antenna, either indoor or outdoor, you might not need a new antenna at all for digital TV.