The ChannelMaster CM-2018 is a top-selling over-the-air antenna. ($50 at Amazon.)
TV can still be free, once you buy the hardware.
Fun fact: Over-the-air television still exists, just like it did 50 years ago. OK, it’s way better than it was 50 years ago, with proper audio and video coming in at 1080i resolution. And in the coming years it’s only going to get better.
Oh, and by the way, it’s free. All you need is some sort of antenna, and a TV tuner.
Indoor? Outdoor? There’s actually no single best antenna for everybody.
The former may already be attached to your house, probably near the entrance to the Cold War-era bomb shelter. The latter may well be built into your television set — that "antenna" connection that you’ve never used.
If you’re just getting back into the OTA game, we can help. Our data folks (yes, we have those) have combed the internet for the most popular antennas being bought today.
Which one’s right for you? Well, that’s the thing. There is no one right antenna. It comes down to a number of things, but the principle is the same in any case. The bigger it is and the higher it is, the more easily it’ll pick up signals from farther away. Trees and hills and mountains don’t help matters. And if it’s a highly directional signal and your antenna isn’t pointing the right way? That’s another problem.
First: Do some OTA homework
It’s worth spending a few minutes with a website that helps you locate the TV towers in your area. It’ll show which direction they’re in, and how far away they are. That should give you some sort of idea of what kind of antenna you need.
Two such websites we like:
Next: What to buy? My basic rule of thumb is this: If you have a good way to mount an antenna outdoors, at least 10 feet or so in the air? Do it. It’s worth it in the long run. If an indoor antenna gets it done for you, though? Great. Maybe snag an inexpensive amplifier. The point is it’s going to be different for everyone.
Here’s my experience: I started with a cheap indoor antenna, and it worked OK. But I was missing my local Fox affiliate, and the local CBS affiliate was spotty. (And that was a thing during football season.) The problem? The indoor antenna just wasn’t strong enough or elevated enough — and it was facing the wrong direction.
I then moved to a better outdoor antenna, facing the right direction for those two channels, and life is good. I could have saved some money overall if I’d just spent a little more upfront. But every situation is going to be different.
A smarter tuner
Most televisions have a built-in tuner. That is, you can plug an antenna straight into the TV, scan for channels, and it’ll work just fine. But we can do better in 2018.
Boxes like HDHomerun, Tablo and AirTV let you plug in an antenna and shoot that feed out over your home network, so you can watch that over-the-air TV on nearly any device. And these boxes have multiple tuners, so you can watch on more than one device (tablet, TV, whatever) at a time.
These are accessories worth looking into if you’re serious about over-the-air TV. And they have apps for just about every major platform — Android, iOS, Xbox and your home computer.
And with that, here are the antennas we think you should take a look at.
The best over-the-air antennas
Channel Master CM-2018 ($50)
Well, then. This is the sort of old-school outdoor antenna you might remember back from the 1980s. (Look around your neighborhood, folks.) This updated model rates 60 miles for VHF and 45 miles for UHF and will almost certainly get the job done.
This is one of the highest-rated antennas around, and for good reason — it works really well.
Plus you can hang your laundry on it in a pinch.
ClearStream Fusion ($99)
This latest entry from ClearStream is a great go-to antenna. It’s meant for indoor or outdoor use (remember that the latter is always better) and doesn’t take up a whole lot of square footage. You’ll know it’s there, but it’s not horribly gaudy. The included J-mount and 20dB amplifier (which now uses microUSB for power) are nice touches as well.
This is the sort of antenna you want to turn to if you’re serious about OTA TV but still want to look good doing it.
RCA Flat Digital Amplified Indoor Antenna ($31)
This is the sort of thing you’re likely to find sitting on a living room entertainment center or bookshelf, connected directly into a television set. It’ll get the job done for the strongest channels, but you can pretty much forget about receiving anything at a distance.
Winegard FlatWave Amped FL5500A Digital Antenna ($51)
This 50-mile indoor antenna is reversible, so you can sort of pretend to hide it on a wall, or stick it to a window. (Preferably get it up as high as possible.) Direction is still key with this kind of antenna, so you’ll want to make sure it’s pointing the right way, if at all possible.
Clearstream 2Max ($56)
Now we’re getting serious. This 60-mile external antenna can go in an attic, if it must. But better would be to stick it on a mast outside. (We’re talking just a few screws into the side of a building is all.) While no antenna is what we’d consider attractive, this is probably one of the better-looking signal-catchers of the bunch.
Mohu Leaf 50 ($49)
This is another one of the most popular indoor antennas. It’s got a 50-mile range, but it’s still an indoor antenna. So distant stations might still be an issue. It’s also paintable (again, if you want to try to conceal it), and it’s also extremely thin.
Updated May 29, 2018: Added the ClearStream Fusion to the ranks.
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May 29, 2018 at 08:16AM