In an age where hundreds of TV channels are a button press away, entertainment-hungry Americans have lost sight of a simple fact: Free, over-the-air television is alive and well in the good old U.S. of A.
You can receive pristine high-definition TV signals just about anywhere in the country by connecting an antenna to your TV - just like in the olden days.
If you live in a metropolitan area, an inexpensive indoor antenna may be all you need to pull in local broadcasts. But as you move away from broadcast transmitters in those urban centers and into rural areas, you will likely need a more expensive outdoor antenna, which is typically mounted on the roof or in the attic.
Antenna type and recommended placement will vary depending on the local geography and location of those transmitters.
Which Antenna and How Many Channels?
The first step to going wireless the old-fashioned way, is to visit AntennaWeb.org to find out which stations are broadcasting in your surrounding area. Created and maintained by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the site is a good resource for figuring out what type of antenna is best for your location.
Enter your zip code and street address and you'll get a list of stations and the channels they broadcast. You will also be asked to specify whether the antenna will be installed more than 30 feet above the ground so you can see how many more channels you will be able to pull in with an elevated antenna.
Putting in a suburban New Jersey address between New York City and Philadelphia, for instance, produces a list of 22 stations; select "yes" for an elevated antenna and the list grows to 28 stations.
Each station/channel listing is color-coded to indicate the type of outdoor antenna best suited to receive a particular signal. There are six colors covering different size multi-directional and directional antennas (the latter need to be aimed).
In the first example, 12 stations are Blue, which means a "medium directional antenna with pre-amp" is recommended to receive channels broadcast by these stations; eight are Violet ("large directional antenna with pre-amp"); one is Yellow ("small multi-directional antenna"); and one is Red ("medium directional antenna").
Armed with this information, you can now shop for antennas with corresponding color coding, although you will come across antennas that are not coded.
Once you find the right type of antenna for your area, it makes sense to check for independent reviews of a particular antenna you're considering - but keep in mind that many factors affect reception, including the type of antenna, how and where it is installed, and the local topography (getting good reception in a mountainous region can be challenging).
Indoor antennas, which are best suited for locations in or close to a city, are not included in the AntennaWeb mapping system, but the CEA created a red check icon for antennas that meet or exceed CEA performance specifications for indoor antennas. So look for the red check on the box.
Other resources include AntennasDirect.com and Crutchfield.com, both of which offer excellent tutorials and, in the case of the former, a step-by-step procedure for selecting "the best HDTV antenna."