Why I Said No to Free, Off-the-Air HDTV

By  |  Friday, July 9, 2010 at 7:50 am

No doubt, watching a TV show or mobile in high definition is miraculous. The picture is sharper than sharp (so much so that like it or not, you can see the pores on an actor’s face).

I’m a DirecTV subscriber, but I’m too cheap to pay their extra fee for high definition service, so I decided to try an HDTV indoor antenna.

Off-The-Air Reception: Mind-blowing and Free

Terk sent me two antennas to try, both sleek looking jobbers. (Though if you’re a DIYer, you can build your own. And here are plans for a portable version.)

Portable high-definition antenna.

The indoor version (Terk FDTV2A Omni-Directional Amplified Flat Digital HDTV) is about the size of a small, thin notebook. It has 360 degree reception and comes with a bracket that lets you mount it a number of ways. I just placed it on a shelf near the TV.

Amazon sells the indoor antenna for about $45. There’s no skill needed to install it. Plug it into the TV’s antenna input port and move the antenna around to find the reception sweet spot. You might have to experiment with the antenna’s powered amplifier to get the best signal. You can make your job easier by giving AntennaWeb your street address; the site will help you orient the antenna’s direction; they also provide a useful FAQ with insights about high definition antennas.

With the antenna plugged in, I whizzed through the TV’s setup to decide which stations were keepers. Except for ABC, I picked up all the major networks, plus each of the multicasting sub-channels, as well as local channels, such as the Spanish speaking stations, and a couple of Asian-language feeds. The FCC has a list of HiDef broadcasting stations and there’s valuable info about antennas and channels (hit the pause button to ignore the dated video pitch) from the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade association.

One problem I couldn’t solve: If I walked in front of the antenna, CBS would fade out until I sat back down.

Terk’s outdoor antenna (TERK FDTVO Omni Directional Amplified Flat Outdoor) takes more skill to install (well, duh…). I tried setting it in the attic as well as outdoors, on the roof. The signal was as good as the indoor antenna and I got all the same channels, including ABC, and had no issue with CBS fading.

Amazon's price for Terk's outdoor antenna is about $65.

HD Antenna? It Ain’t For Me

After a few months of free, off-the-air broadcasts, I’m dismayed to say that it isn’t worth the bother. That’s because it didn’t take long for me to sorely miss the key feature on the DirecTV receiver we use: Fast forwarding through the commercials of shows we’ve recorded. I also miss the quick rewind and the ease of recording shows.

One solution was to find a receiver for off-the-air broadcasts. That wasn’t easy.

TiVo was the only one I’ve found that accepts a high definition antenna signal, but it’s dreadfully expensive. I searched for–and couldn’t find–a TiVo-like PVR or a DVR set-top box. (And before you write about any scheme that involves a PC, take note that I didn’t use Darryl’s advice below…)

So I asked the experts on the CD_ROM YahooGroup for advice. (CD_ROM has been around for ten years; despite the name, members talk about anything involving video and audio. Join here.) Here’s what I learned:

Susan Semple told me about the Magnavox HDD and DVD Recorder. It sells for about $250. There are rave reviews on Target’s site, but more than one Amazon buyer pointed out a few serious-enough deficiencies for me to cross it off my list.

No one seems to like the Dish Network DTVPal DVR–and I’m not willing to invest $400 on an about-to-be-released, first-generation Channel Master DVR.

Despite my admonitions, Darryl Gittins, the CD_ROM moderator, had a PC-based, geeky suggestion:

Here’s a crazy side-consideration for using a noisy PC for in-the-living-room: If you have a basement under the living room, drill a 1-inch hole through the floor (apologize to your wife later), put the PC in the basement, run the video cable, and a USB cable (for a USB hub to run USB devices, such as the RF receiver, the keyboard and mouse) through the floor into the living room. Sure, you can’t easily access the CD drawer and such, but it otherwise works great, and it’s quiet! (Yes, I actually do this for TWO systems in my house).

Your decision may be different, but I’m returning the antenna to Terk, and forgoing a high def image. Want to talk me out of it? Give me some suggestions; I’ll post the best in a future newsletter.

[This post is excerpted from Steve’s TechBite newsletter. If you liked it,¬†head here to sign up–it’s delivered on Wednesdays to your inbox, and it’s free.]


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17 Comments For This Post

  1. Jared Says:

    As I use the PC solution already I can't add anything new. I have a Win 7 64 bit unit connected. Add tuner cards and an antenna and use Window Media Center to record and change channels. Its much more refined than in the past. Adding an HDHomeRun to the mix will give you dual tuners there that work across your home network and you can add a couple of internal tuners as well.

    The combination of off the air recording, Hulu and Netflix makes for a compelling combination and a compelling reason to drop cable, as I pay $100 a month for cable but I understand Direct TV is less expensive than that.

  2. sfmitch Says:

    "I’m a DirecTV subscriber, but I’m too cheap to pay their extra fee for high definition service"

    How much are we talking about?

    High-Def is awesome!! I can't imagine choosing to go without.

    DirecTV (or Dish or cable) offers many, many more channels in HD than just the ones that you could get via Antenna.

    Seriously, how much money would it cost to get HD through DirecTV??

  3. the Goat Says:

    You must be rich or amazingly lazy to choose to pay money for the satellite DVR subscription instead of building your own DVR. You already had the external antenna installed and that is the hardest part. MythTV running on linux is free. Or since you enjoy paying money to large companies try beyondTV or windows media center.

    Also I don't understand why you think the Tivo DVR is dreadfully expensive but paying the monthly satellite bill is a better solution. With satellite you have zero equity yet you keep paying over and over.

  4. Agama Says:

    Set up a custom DVR running linux? *Not* doing that is being "lazy?" You and I obviously have a different definition of the word "lazy."

    I did indeed build my own DVR (with Win7 x64, however), but I expect that 99.99% of people out there would rather have teeth pulled than make their own DVR, let alone set up linux on it. And the cost difference between setting up a linux-based DVR and a Windows-based DVR is simply the cost of the Windows OEM disc: roughly $100, hardly a huge expense that only the "rich" can afford.

  5. James Says:

    First off, it seems like you've really said no to not having a DVR not to free off the air TV. But that's a minor quibble over the wording I guess!

    Not going to try to talk you out of anything, but will add a reason to keep the antenna. I'm with you. I gotta have my DVR. So I happily pay for the local HD channels. But I also have an antenna installed in the attic. Two reasons to keep it: 1) you have an HD backup if the cable/satellite goes down. 2) picture in picture.

  6. keving Says:

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  7. infmom Says:

    Oh, for pity's sake. If you're so addictied to fast forwarding through the ads, dig out your old VCR and tape your shows.

  8. monk544 Says:

    I don't know about DirecTV, but DISH set tops have an antenna input so that you can pickup OTA signal; the benefit is no changing inputs on the TV and using the same remote and guide-plus being able to record shows off that input.

  9. @gblinckmann Says:

    I have a bit more complex setup. I also use Win 7 x64 as some others do, but I don't have that computer hooked directly to the TV. I connect up XBox 360's to the TV's and connect them via a network to the computer. It all works very well and gives me a whole home DVR for multiple HD TV's in my house. This is done with no monthly fees for DVR service. I started this setup because I didn't want to dedicate the PC to only being a DVR. Media Center handles this better than anything else I've tried.

  10. dholyer Says:

    I moved to Dish in 2003 from TCI cable, both companies are in Denver as their homes, and I live in Denver. But still have not upgraded to HD but do have OTA via by Turk antenna. I bought the Amplified Antenna so I could watch HD football. Namely to enjoy Broncos games.

    And my 40" HD LCD is far better a picture than my old 19" tube. And it up-scales everything to 1080p. And my PC only does 1680×1050 in a 16:10 format. But I still am limited to 720×480 to record anything, even DVD's. Now at 2500 movies on DVD I've made.

  11. dholyer Says:

    An added comment about legality of recording Movies or TV. In the 2003 DMA law it is not legal to copy a digital broadcast to a digital storage format, i.e. A digital OTA or Satellite or even cable channel. But it is legal to take a digital signal and convert it to analog and transferred via copper wire to a device to re-encode it into a digital format. Example I receive a movie via Dish and in digital format, play it out analog output (S-video) send it through a 6 foot S-video copper wire cable to the DVD recorder/encoder and have it digtaly encoded on to a DVD.

    If I had not done the digital to analog to digital conversion I would be pirating movies and get 5 years and a 100K fine for each movie in my now 3000+ collection. And my Dish 722k HD tuner down converts 1080i into 480i to record onto DVD, and my Toshiba LCD 1080p TV up converts back to the 1080p format. There is a minor loss in picture quality, but you really only notice this on still frames. So my Dish 722k outputs 480i to my DVD recorder and 1080i to my LCD TV via HDMI. And the DVD player connects to the TV via S-video. The TV up converts so it looks almost 1080p.

    I'm thinking of connecting One Terabyte USB hard drives to the USB connector on my 722k Dish tuner and keeping the Movies in digital 1080i form. And when I get more movies that a One TB hard disk can hold I just treat the drives a file cabinets and plug in the hard disk holding the movie I desire to watch. And the plug/unplug can be removed by using USB switch boxes.

  12. dean holyer Says:

    I just learned last week that Dish now lets you hook a 2 Terabyte external hard drive to 622, 722, 922 devices. The person I talked to said they may never have a RAID storage device connection ability because that may defete their copy protection system

    As for OTA recording yes that is possible and you do not need a DVR to do that, just a tuner. But you do need the $5 a month weekly EPG (electronic Program Guide) to give you the point and click programming. But you can always do the old manual remember the time date and channel aspect much like a VCR. And Sony even has digital recorders that give you DTV quality, you just need to by digital grade VHS tapes if you desire no bit errors.

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