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Tune In and Drop Cable With a Digital Antenna

Dropping cable and streaming doesn't have to mean abandoning all TV. Here's everything you wanted to know about affordable, easy antennas.
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Simpsons antenna

Paying for cable television can amount to a big chunk of your monthly budget, which has made cutting out cable and switching to streaming increasingly popular. But did you know that you can get most major broadcast networks for free, and in HD, by simply plugging an antenna into your television?

Another benefit? They're cheap. You can find a basic indoor antenna for around $10, which costs less than a month of most streaming services. So if you like watching big network shows but you're tired of footing your cable bill, why not give an antenna a try?

What Can I Watch with an Antenna?

Though your reception will vary depending on where you're located in relation to the nearest broadcast tower, anyone in an urban or suburban area can expect to pick up the major networks: ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC and PBS. Since 2009, all broadcast stations have been required to broadcast in digital format, which means you can even get some local stations in 1080i with the right setup.

But to find out exactly what stations are in your area, head to AntennaWeb. Enter your address or zip code and click submit, which will bring up a map showing the nearest TV broadcast towers. Look on the right-hand side of the screen and check the distance from each station. If a station's within 25 miles, you can typically pick it up using an easy-to-install indoor antenna.

SEE ALSO: Here's What You Need to Know About the Latest TV Technologies

However, environmental factors can play a major role in the reception you'll get. Objects between you and the tower, like buildings or hills, can impact your reception. Even the type of building you live in affects your reception, as metal and concrete can block broadcast signals.

Antenna Features

Buying any type of technology can present you with a confusing array of technical jargon. Here's what you need to know about the different types of antennas.

Indoor vs. Outdoor
Modern indoor antennas are typically easy to install and designed to fit unobtrusively into your entertainment center. Installation is typically as simple as placing the antenna in your room — there are even wafer-thin antennas that simply stick to a wall — and plugging it into your television. Though these have the shortest range, they're the easiest to set up so they're probably what you want.

Outdoor antennas are larger and more powerful than an indoor antenna, and can be placed outside your home or in an attic. You'll need a bit of DIY know-how to mount one, so be sure to check the installation instructions before you buy.

Directional vs. Omnidirectional
Directional antennas need to be pointed in a particular direction to get reception. They can be a bit fussy, since you have to know the direction of the broadcast tower you want to pick up, and if the towers aren't all in the same direction you may need to adjust the antenna for each station you want to reach. However, directional antennas have better range than omnidirectional antennas, so this can be a good solution for rural homes.

Omnidirectional antennas can pick up signals from any direction, making them well suited to getting reception on multiple stations. These should be fine for most urban and suburban homes.

Amplified
Antennas can work fine without amplification, but this feature will greatly increase the range. However, amplification requires a power source, which can complicate installation — you'll have to set it up close enough to a power outlet. If you need an antenna with more range than an indoor unit, but don't want to deal with installing one outside, look for an amplified indoor antenna instead.

How to Get the Best Reception

Installation is usually a simple matter of plugging in the antenna and finding a good spot, but you'll still want to read the manual to make sure you aren't missing anything.

However, there's one piece of advice that's universal: before you mount your antenna, plug it in and try moving it around the room to see how the reception changes. There's no perfect placement, but you'll want to experiment a bit to find the best spot. Here are a few placement rules of thumb:

  • The higher you can mount your antenna, the better.
  • Placing it in on or in front of a window can improve reception.
  • Make sure it's on an exterior wall or window — an interior wall only adds obstacles between the antenna and the broadcast tower.
  • Try to choose a wall or window facing the broadcast tower you want to pick up, even for omnidirectional antennas.

However, if you move your antenna around and don't have any reception problems, you may be able to mount it somewhere unobtrusive, like behind the TV.

What Accessories Will You Need?

For the most part, you only need the antenna, but there are a few items you may want:

  • If you have an older television, you may need a digital converter box to pick up HD broadcasts.
  • Different antennas will come with different lengths of cable to plug into your television. Depending on where your antenna and your television are placed, you may need a longer cable.
  • If you can't deal with scheduling your life around TV, you'll want a DVR to record shows. Some DVRs, like TiVo, have a separate subscription service to get TV listings and other features. Both the DVR and the subscription are an added cost, but it's often a lot cheaper than cable.

Still not sure if an antenna will work for your home? Our final piece of advice is to buy from a retailer with a good return or exchange policy.

Readers, have you tried an antenna? Share your own tips and tricks in the comments below!


Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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9 comments
jake2011
I was surprised how powerful the indoor antennas are. My closest stations are 42 miles away, and all websites stated I needed a rooftop antenna. I tried a $20 indoor advertised here and it works great. I added an hdhomerun and now I can watch live tv anywhere on any device around the house
Jonathan Yarbrough (DealNews)
Receptionmaps.com is a good site as well for figuring out what is available in your area. I personally use that one.
dealnews-bglaser (DealNews)
@dbenesch

Right you are! Thank you for pointing that out, the article has been update.
dbenesch
"Since 2009, all broadcast stations have been required to broadcast in digital format, which means you can get local stations in full 1080p with the right setup."

Over-the-air broadcast TV does not support 1080p. They will broadcast in 720p or 1080i (and lower formats for compatibility). 1080p will only be available via cable, satellite, streaming, and physical formats.
LovelandFats
Cincinnati Time Warner Cable - standard internet, 15mbps is $59.99 a month. No phone, no tv, just internet. They call it "standard internet" . 15mbps download is the best it will ever be. Upload is maybe 1mbps. All this for a whopping $59.99 a month.
I feel they screw you if you don't take tv or phone. They know you watch Netflix and Amazon and other streams.
RudeVader
20-30mbps would be a fantastic deal for 20 a month, but those are usually seen in other countries outside of the US with a more concentrated infrastructure.

As gmfco mentions, 40 would be a good deal if you can get 20-30mbps. Many areas charge 40-50 a month for 10-20mbps.
gmfco311
@ dsaranteas; You're looking at more like $40 something bucks a month for just internet only through Comcast, plus another $10 on top of that for their modem rental per month.

So I suggest buying your own modem to avoid that extra $10 per month if you're wanting to save money.
dsaranteas
And by "good deals" I mean something that's like $15 to $20 a month with 20-30 MBPS of internet only and not bundled with any television programming.
dsaranteas
Are there any good deals on internet only plans with Comcast, etc?. I have a hard time being able to find internet only plans that don't include even just a few channels.