A cord-cutter's guide to digital TV antennas

Consumers who want to say sayonara to their pay TV providers need a quality digital antenna. Tons of different antenna options exists, and finding the right one can be a challenge. Here's how to get started.

1byone digital tv antenna

1byone's 'Paper Thin TV Antenna'

Credit: 1byone

Back in the day, people had "rabbit-ear" antennas on their TV sets and spindly metal antennas on their roofs. Cable and satellite TV practically led those devices to extinction, but now that millions of people are "cutting the cord," or slimming down their cable bundles, antennas are making a comeback.

For a relatively modest sum — often less than $50 — you can connect an antenna to a modern HDTV and watch much of the same local programming you'd pay for on cable.

Do digital antennas have drawbacks? Of course. If you're not relatively close to a broadcast tower — line of sight is ideal — or if you live in a building made of steel or concrete, you might get poor reception. And in some cases, you might have to place an antenna on the roof and run a cable to your TV. Although many TV news stations still publish programming lists, you'll also miss out one the convenience of the channel grids built into the majority of pay TV services.

A surprising amount of local programming is available via digital antenna. AntennaWeb, a site run by The Consumer Technology Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, is a valuable source of information on the channels you can get in your neighborhood.

By entering your zip code or address into the site's search box, you get a list of over-the-air stations available in your neighborhood. For example, AntennaWeb says I can access up to 78 channels from 26 stations at my home in San Francisco. (Some stations broadcast on multiple channels.)

How to find the right digital antenna for you

What kind of antenna should you buy? AntennaWeb is also helpful there. Next to the listing for each station that's available in your area, the site shows a color-coded box that corresponds to a type of antenna. In my case, 14 of the channels require a basic, short-range directional antenna. ChannelMaster offers such an antenna for $25. Other stations in my area require more expensive antennas that need to placed on the roof.

The color coding on the AntennaWeb site corresponds with coding on antenna boxes. However, not all companies belong to the trade association that uses the color ratings, so they aren't available on every antenna. The site only recommends antennas made by a handful of manufacturers, but many more options exist.

Cut Cable Today offers an antenna buyer's guide that's also helpful. It recommends a product called the Mohu Leaf, "an affordable, small, sleek antenna with a 50+ mile range" and calls it "the best TV antenna for those seeking a quality indoor antenna." It sells for about $70. Tom's Guide, a site that I've found to be reliable over the years, also rates the Mohu Leaf highly. [ Find it on Amazon *What’s this?* ]

Consumer Reports has an informative piece on indoor antennas that includes buying recommendations, as well, but it's three years old.

A quality digital TV antenna is an important part of a sound cord-cutting strategy. If local stations are very important to you, it's a good idea to buy an antenna while you still have a pay TV subscription to test it out. Most modern TVs let you select an input source, so simply plug the antenna into the set, select "antenna" or "TV" from the input menu, and see how well it works. If you don't get a signal at first, try to move your antenna to a different location in your home. 

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