It's hard to argue with the value of an over-the-air, or terrestrial, antenna, pulling in the highest quality high-definition television possible for free, with a wide range of programming that rivals what's offered through cable or satellite plans. Although the antenna itself is not free, the lack of a revolving monthly subscription is a tempting proposition for many. These devices come in a surprising array of shapes and sizes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Indoor, outdoor, powered and unpowered; the choices may initially seem confusing but come into sharp relief once you evaluate your needs and pinpoint your location relative to broadcast towers.
Amplified and Unamplified
Depending on how far you are from towers or the amount of obstructions between those towers and your antenna, you may require an antenna. Other factors such as the overall length of the cabling between your antenna and each tuner in your home determines the need for a preamplifier or amplifier. Simple amplifiers are typically found included with smaller indoor antennas in an attempt to compensate for the relatively small receiving area. Preamplifiers are used with otherwise-unamplified units, giving the signal more boost to overcome longer coaxial cable runs. Distribution amplifiers are found in coaxial patch panels to mitigate losses incurred with each split in the line. Preamplifiers and distribution amps are commonly used together in larger homes and businesses to maximize signal strength.
Depending on your physical address relative to local broadcast towers in your area, you may find varying levels of effectiveness with directional and omnidirectional antennas. If your home or business more or less directly faces the broadcast towers within a 20 degree radius on a map, you can take advantage of the increased power and range of a directional antenna. These require more precision in aiming, which necessitates the tight tower grouping required for maximum effectiveness. Omnidirectional units are best for those situations where you are surrounded by towers, or have one or two that are outside of the prescribed 20 degree allowance. Both versions come in a variety of sizes, and both should be mounted as high as possible to combat the effects of multipath, or destructive signal bounce.
VHF, UHF or Both?
During the initial rollout of digital TV broadcasts, UHF was the band predominantly used. As analog channels gradually went offline culminating in going completely dark in 2009, VHF began to creep back into the picture. VHF and UHF channels are divided up among the channel bands, with VHF assigned to channels 2-13, and UHF assigned channels 14-69. With stations constantly evolving their broadcasting plan, it makes sense to deploy an antenna that handles VHF and UHF equally well. Online sites like TV Fool and AntennaWeb help place you on a map and show your relationship to local towers. Your details are assigned a color code, which you match to the code on an antenna at retail.
Apartment and Condominium Issues
Placing a large antenna on your roof sounds fantastic, unless you live in an environment that limits or prohibits its installation. Although the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits a homeowners' association from preventing use of an antenna, the association may place restrictions on where you can install it. For example, many restrict mounting so the unit is not visible from the street. Condominium associations allow antennas, provided you mount it in an area under your exclusive control. Such places include balconies, yard spaces not for common use, rooftops or porches. Apartments rarely allow any permanent installation of any antenna; mounting one in a concrete-filled bucket and placing it on your balcony is often effective if not otherwise prohibited. Check with your local association rules to see how they dovetail with the FCC's ruling. Of course, indoor antennas are always options, best placed near windows or sliding doors to mitigate effects from brick and other structure elements.
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