You can watch hundreds if not thousands of TV channels with a cable or live-streaming TV package. But you'll pay for the privilege — with a monthly bill that probably runs over $50 or even $100 a month. When combined with Netflix, Disney+, and other popular streaming services, plus high-speed Internet, your annual streaming and TV-viewing bill can easily top $2,500 a year.
One of the simplest ways to scale back is by dumping cable and using an HDTV antenna to tune in totally free TV channels. Buying a TV antenna — starting at under $20 — can wind up saving you thousands. Yes, you'll sacrifice access to some TV channels, but, depending on where you live, a basic antenna should be able to tune in all the major free, over-the-air networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. That means that, among other broadcasts, you'll be able to watch your local NFL football team in action for free on Sunday afternoons.
While many of us are content to get our television through the same internet package we use to get our Wi-Fi, there are some unique advantages to throwing an antenna into the mix, or using one in place of a pricey cable or streaming TV package. There are no monthly fees to any channels you pick up from an HDTV antenna, and the sound and picture is often brilliantly clear. You won't be able to get, say, HBO from an antenna, but if you're content with the major networks and a few basic cable options, you can't beat FREE. And, of course, you can combine whatever mix of HDTV antenna, cable package, satellite TV service, and streaming service subscription (free or paid) that you feel delivers the best value for your household.
When looking over the options, be aware that some cable, satellite, and streaming TV providers don't carry local channels. A nice bonus is that you can set up an antenna on your camper so you can still watch TV while in the wild, if you're the outdoor sort.
Most modern televisions come with a built-in digital tuner these days (and here's a guide to making sure yours is configured correctly, courtesy of Drexel University), just make sure you aim your antenna directly at your local broadcast tower. (In case you need it, here's a transmitter locator.)
Here are a few other things to keep in mind before raising your antenna, courtesy of Josh Smith, a Tiffin, Ohio-based writer and video creator who specializes in making "technology, smart homes, games, and autos easy to understand for the average consumer."
Smith says that "Adding an indoor HDTV antenna to your setup can improve the picture quality and allow you to tune in more channels," adding that "ultimately, the effectiveness will depend on the antenna, the distance from the transmitter, and where you place the antenna in your home."
How to Get the Most Free TV Channels With an HDTV Antenna
Here's Smith's advice for getting the most out of your antenna.
- Many indoor antennas are designed to sit behind a TV or attach to a wall behind the TV, but you should experiment with placement. Many times putting the antenna higher on the wall or near a window improves the reception.
- Buyers need to consider whether they need an amplified antenna or a passive antenna. An amplified HDTV antenna typically costs a little more and you need to plug the antenna into power, but it can dramatically improve the reception if you are dealing with medium to low signals.
- If you know where you want to place the antenna, pay attention to the style. HDTV antennas range from flat stick-on designs, some of which are paintable, to figure-eight style antennas, blades, and even some options that look a bit like modern art.
Indoor antennas are super easy to set up, with no professional help needed. If you're inclined to install an outdoor TV antenna yourself, then Gavin D. J. Harper, author of several books about technology and electronics, says, "It's important to select the right kind of aerial for your location. Check out the DTV coverage maps at the FCC for details on transmitters. This will also give you important guidance on the direction of transmitters for mounting external antennas and the direction you will need to point them in."
Harper also points out that "indoor, traditional 'rabbit ear' and 'loop' antennas, or more modern stylish alternatives, may be suitable for areas where there is a strong signal, but for weak signals you will need an outdoor antenna," and in that case "mounting higher is better.”
Also, he says, “good quality coaxial cable will convey the signal from antenna to TV better." It is much better to "fit it once and know it is right rather than cheaping out and finding you have signal loss."
The good thing is that even if you buy a high-quality antenna and corresponding cables, the total bill is still fairly cheap compared to paying for cable every month. With all of that in mind, here are the best HDTV antennas for your money, as recommended by technology experts, as part of our ongoing product recommendation series.
Best TV Antennas
Even if you're kinda in the middle of nowhere, Smith says there's still an antenna for you. "Viewers on the edge of a signal will appreciate the Antop AT-500 SBS HD Smart Bar’s 80-mile range, 4G LTE filter to help improve image quality, and easy adjustment to fine-tune reception first on the bat," he says. "It mounts vertically or horizontally for flexible installation and can connect to two devices at the same time."
Antennas and charming local channels aren't just an American an American phenomenon, as Daniel Cooper, the London-based managing director of the digital transmission company Lolly.co can attest.
"Based on what I have used, the best HDTV antenna is the Winegard FL5500A Flatwave Amped," he says. "It is an indoor antenna that's easy to set up because it is flat. Due to its multidirectional nature, it allows for tons of local channels. As long as your focus is local channels, it is the best in the market."
If you live further away from a broadcast tower, like say an hour or so, don't despair, as Smith recommends this ClearStream antenna, which "is a little more expensive," or the Clearstream Eclipse 2 Amplified model. "It offers a simple peel and stick design that is easy to take from home to a camper, and it is paintable." He adds that "the Eclipse 2 is rated for 60 miles and includes an amplifier for better performance."
San Francisco resident Robin Brown is the CEO of the custom coins and pins company Vivipins with "a deep interest in tech." She recommends the Clearstream 2 Max Antenna, which "works well in areas where the environment is not ideal. Long-distance reception is delivered, and it is perfect for outdoor and indoor use." She points out that while, "the design is complicated, it can easily be arranged with the help of clamps and a base. It is large compared to other antennas but not big enough to mount the wall behind the TV. Outdoor installation of Clearstream 2Max needs a 20 inches mast."
Best Budget TV Antenna
"The Mohu Leaf Metro TV antenna offers a 30-mile range and is great if you are in an area with strong signals," Smith says. "The small design makes installation easy to hide and it is rated for up to 30 miles."