Thursday, May 4, 2017

HDTV Antennas for Free, Glorious, High-Definition Televsion -- Ditch Comcast!

I recently switched to Comcast for my Internet service here in the Monterey, California area.  When I switched, Comcast promised that my TV service would remain exactly the same.  They gave me a good rate for having both Internet and TV service.  I've had the same service with them for years, called Limited Basic, around $35 per month.  Limited Basic service gives me the five major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) and it's enough for my wife and me. 

After the switch, I got a bill, and suddenly there were all these new, unannounced charges.  We have a CableCard tuner system for our first TV in the house, and two DTAs (Digital Transport Adapters) for two more TVs.  There was a DTA fee for each TV, $3.99 to $10.99 per month depending on whether you want HD.  There was a surprise $29.95 installation fee. 

We faced a yearly increase of $263.76 for the exact same services that we had in the past.  I generally have been satisfied with Comcast, but my experiences with them in the past three years (at my California home and summer home in Washington state) has shown me why "Comcast Is America's Most Hated Company" (http://www.pcmag.com/news/350979/comcast-is-americas-most-hated-company). 


I was not going to stand for this.  So I decided to put up an antenna on our house to get the five major network stations. 

I should explain what modern-day TV antennas do.  If you are within range of some TV broadcasters, then a TV antenna should be designed to bring in either VHF and/or UHF signals.  The best antenna brings in both VHF and UHF signals.  VHF is generally channels 7 and below; UHF is higher.  I will leave it to you to research this more.  In my area, I wanted to receive channels below 7.1 and above 7.1, so I really needed an antenna that would bring in both VHF and UHF signals.  If you can manage to research over-the-air TV signals (OTA), then you will find that TV shows from an antenna are in excellent, glorious HD quality -- better HD quality than the compressed signals that you will get from Comcast or DISH Network.  And the stations are free!


I got so mad that I've now gone through three TV antennas and over 30 hours of walking around my property and on my roof trying to get the best signal.  I finally found a good antenna that gets the four major broadcast networks, and am looking forward to telling Comcast to f*** off next year.  However, I will still need to get Internet from somewhere.  I will write about this in another blog post. 

I live in Pacific Grove, California.  The nearest broadcast antennas are in Salinas, 23 miles east of us.  The website tvfool.com has traditionally given great information about TV stations, channels, and their direction and distance from any address that you put in.  Sadly, this site seems to be on the outs; it appears that the person in charge of the site is not maintaining it.  I used to post questions to the forums, for instance, and can no longer post. 

Here are the antennas and various resources that I used:

1.  Solid Signal (http://www.solidsignal.com/) markets antennas.  They responded to my question that I sent to them over their website.  They recommended the Antop AT-414B UFO Smartpass Omnidirectional Amplified HDTV Outdoor Digital Antenna with 4G LTE Filter - 65 Mile Range.  I bought this antenna for $84, and it was on sale at several retailers including Amazon, newegg, and of course, Solid Signal.  I was surprised at the immediate and copious amount of marketing emails that I subsequently received from Solid Signal -- they sell all kinds of electronic gadgets, not just antennas.  They were like some kind of frenzied Fry's Electronics or out-of-control Radio Shack. 

The Antop antenna looks like a miniature model of the Star Trek Enterprise spaceship.  It comes with a 30-foot length of coax cable, and you have to use an electronic amplifier "in front" of your TV.




The Antop antenna surprised me.  It actually received the five major networks that I wanted to get -- the problem was that it only received 3 or 4 channels wherever I located it.  I spent 16 hours walking around my house and on my roof, trying to find the best place to mount the antenna.  I'd find a place where the antenna would get all five networks, but later in the day, I'd only get 3 or 4 stations.  The antenna, frankly, drove me a bit crazy because it was so inconsistent.  I ended up returning it, regretfully -- because it ALMOST worked. 


Another vendor, Antennas Direct, also replied to my questions.  It took them a week, but they recommended their Antennas Direct ClearStream 2V Antenna with Mount (60 Mile) × 1.  I bought this antenna from Radio Shack online, believe it or not. 

Radio Shack pleasantly surprised me.  I bought the Clearstream antenna from them because the website stated "free shipping and returns on this item."  When I tried to return the antenna to Radio Shack, their process was a bit slow (everything was done through email and had to be approved) but I've received a prepaid return label, took the package to my local Fedex Office store, and got a full refund as promised. 


The Clearstream antenna had basically the same performance as the Antop UFO antenna - maddeningly inconsistent.  It also appears somewhat cheaply made.  It took me about 45 minutes to put the thing together, and it seemed like nothing more than chicken wire arranged in a grid along with antenna (VHF) sticks that you'd find on old TV antennas. 


My third and final choice of antenna, and the one I ended up keeping (I actually bought another, to put on the guest house at our property), was suggested by Winegard technical support.  I've had a Winegard FV-30BB FreeVision Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antenna for a few years.  This is a GREAT antenna, small, portable, and capable of pulling in faraway stations.  I used it at my summer house in Washington State to try out OTA television a couple of years ago.  I then bought a really big antenna to pull in stations in Tacoma and Seattle, over 40 miles away.  I say all this because I've had good experience with Winegard products.  This unpowered Freevision antenna pulled in just about all the stations that the Clearstream and Antop antennas had. 


Winegard tech support recommended the Winegard FlatWave Air FL6550A Amplified Digital Outdoor HDTV Antenna (4K Ready, High-VHF, UHF, Black) - 60 Mile Long Range.  I bought one from Costco.com (online) because it had free shipping and free returns (I'd have to bring it in to a local Costco store).  I liked this antenna so much that I bought a second one (from Amazon, this time).



This antenna is a largish black box.  It looks like a 2-foot square Apple TV.  It's sleek, black, and works well.  It looks better than the chicken wire Clearstream and the UFO Antop -- I'd be fine putting this anywhere around the house.  It is designed to be mounted on the eaves of a roof, not necessarily on a standard antenna mast. 

However, I found that this antenna, like the others, did not do well if mounted on a roof, unless it was mounted over six feet above the roof.  All antennas worked best on the ground rather than the roof, in a relatively open area with a relatively clear view of the east and north (where the station's broadcast antennas were located).  Signals seems to bounce off the walls of our houses, so that I'd get one station very dependably in the narrow space between our buildings, but not on the roof! 

I did finally find an area on my roof where the Winegard FL6550A antenna could find all five broadcast networks.  It's been working great.  It does have a USB power injector that needs to be place so it can transmit 5 volts to the antenna.  Winegard tech support told me:

"The FL6550A has an amplifier that is internal to the antenna. The device that goes in the coax line simply inserts power into the line to power the antennas internal amplifier. It should be installed between the splitter and the antenna, however if you can locate a splitter with one side is power passive you can install the power inserter after the splitter (sic)."

You can therefore split the antenna signal into two coax cables either in front of or in back of the power injector, as long as the splitter can pass the 5V voltage up to the antenna.  I tried a few splitters, and the Linear 2512 ChannelPlus DC & IR Passing 2-Way Splitter/Combiner ($5.46 from Amazon) did seem to work (I still need to do more testing on this; it seemed to NOT pass one channel but did pass the others).  The other splitter that I tested was a CHANNEL PLUS 2532 2-Way Splitter/Combiner ($2.82 at Amazon).  This splitter/combiner did NOT work behind the power injector.  You could use this splitter, however, downstream of the power injector to split the antenna signal to two TVs. 


It turns out that the Antop ANT414 UFO antenna and the Clearstream 2 antenna had near-identical performance.  They picked up the same (incomplete) number of stations at the same locations.  The big difference is that the Clearstream 2 antenna did not need any power or amplifier to supply a signal to a TV tuner. 

The Winegard FlatWave Air FL6550A Amplified Digital Outdoor HDTV Antenna performed better than the other two antennas, pulling in all five channels that I wanted, and more.  It was so good that I bought a second one. 


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