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DTV tips: Choosing and using an antenna

Consumer Reports News: February 25, 2009 05:08 AM

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There are many factors that will affect your digital TV reception, as we've mentioned in many other posts, in our DTV transition guide, and in our buying advice on DTV converter boxes. Two of the most critical—and related—factors are your location and your antenna.

There are plenty of antennas that can pull in over-the-air DTV signals. (And as many visitors here on our blog have noted, you do not need to pay for those pricey "HDTV antennas" seen in some stores and online sites. Any TV antenna designed to receive VHF and UHF signals can work under the right circumstances.)

But choosing the right antenna for your setup depends largely on your physical location. Tall trees, hills, and buildings can degrade, or even block, sensitive digital signals. Distance is a factor as well. How far and in which direction your local TV stations' transmitters are located relative to your home will affect your antenna choice, too.

Since there are so many factors in finding the right antenna, Consumer Reports can't recommend a specific antenna that will work for you. What works best here in our hilly Yonkers headquarters (roughly 18 miles from the local New York City TV transmitters on the Empire State Building) might not be the best choice for you. But, here are some tips that might help if you're having difficulties in receiving DTV signals:

Indoor antennas. Start first with the lowest-cost option—a UHF/VHF antenna you already own or a low-priced indoor model from an electronics store. Some cost $20 or less. Simple "rabbit ear" antennas with just two arms won't work because they pull in only VHF stations. Indoor antennas tend to work best if you're located within a few miles of your local TV stations. Since the wood and/or metal within your home's walls might interfere with and degrade digital signals, try physically relocating your indoor antenna around various parts of the room—preferably near a window facing the direction of your local TV transmitters.

Outdoor antennas. Use, a web site established by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters. It has a free online tool that will help you find the right outdoor antenna, based on your ZIP code. Enter in your exact street address, and the tool will even produce a map showing which direction to "aim" your antenna.

Adjust carefully. If you find that you do need to re-orient your antenna, make slight adjustments slowly. You may need help with this task if you’re dealing with an outdoor antenna. Use particular care if you need to go up on your home’s roof, too. (See our Guide to ladder safety for important tips!)

Ask your neighbors. If your converter box and antenna set-up still isn't receiving all the stations you think you should be getting, check with neighbors to see if they have similar problems pulling in channels. (Neighbors with cable and/or satellite TV service may scoff at your predicament. But you can have the last laugh knowing you're not spending $15—or more—per month just to watch TV in these tough economic times.) If not, it's probably your setup.

However, if nobody on your block can receive those same TV channels, contact your local broadcasting stations. The broadcast engineers may be able to help you out. (Perform online searches for your local stations’ Web pages by using the channels’ call letters—i.e. "WABC NYC channel 7" for New York City’s local ABC station. You may not find the direct contact information for the station’s broadcast engineers, but at the very least you'll find the stations' main telephone number.)

–Paul Eng

Paul Eng

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