How's this for a deal: Pay less than $50 now to save $1000 or more each year. That's the kind of savings you could reap by ditching your cable or satellite TV service and using an HDTV antenna instead.
And you needn't conjure up scary images of clambering up on your roof to mount a skeleton of aluminum bones. In many locations, you can use an unobtrusive inside antenna and still receive dozens of stations with, in some cases, a crystal-clear high-definition picture.
I tried five leading interior antennas, ranging from one that resembles a sheet of paper you stick to a wall to one that looks like it should be receiving signals from distant planets. I discovered that, for my location, I could get reasonably good results with inexpensive and non-ugly options such as the Terk Amplified HDTV Indoor Antenna or the Mohu Leaf, each about $40.
I tested the five antennas (the others were the $35 Philips Digital TV Antenna, the $42 RCA Digital Flat Antenna, and the $48 Winegard SS-3000) at my house in the suburbs of San Francisco. The antenna information site TVFool.com shows that the closest transmitter to my home is about 20 miles away, and that many others are around 30 miles away. Many antenna sites say that I would need an antenna mounted on my roof to obtain a good picture from such distant sources. But I found that interior antennas actually brought me perfectly watchable signals on dozens of channels.
The antennas had some significant holes, though. For instance, none of the models I tried could deliver a signal from our local ABC affiliate, KGO. And each antenna had a handful of stations for which the picture was marginal--it would look fine for a while, and then it would freeze for several seconds or a few colored blocks would appear on the screen and disappear a moment later. Whether such problems are tolerable over the long run probably depends on your patience, or how committed you are to seeing that rerun of I Spy.
And of course, an HDTV antenna won't bring you networks such as ESPN, TNT, or Turner Classic Movies. If you can't do without your fix of college basketball, Mad Men, or His Girl Friday, cable cutting probably isn't for you. Remember, though, that it's possible to supplement the over-the-air offerings with video from sites such as Hulu, Netflix, or WatchESPN.com.
There seems to be no consensus about what design is most effective for interior antennas; each antenna I tested looked very distinct from the others. One clear differentiator, though, was whether the antenna was amplified. Nonamplified antennas simply plug into your TV through a coaxial cable, whereas amplified antennas also plug into the wall. The electrical amplification is supposed to boost weak signals, but I didn't find that amplification universally improved signals. Of my two top choices, the Terk antenna is amplified, but the Mohu Leaf is not.
Terk Amplified HDTV Indoor Antenna
To test these five antennas, I measured the signal strength of every over-the-air station that each antenna could bring in. The $40 Terk antenna had the strongest signal on more stations than any other antenna I tried, winning on 15 of 28 stations. The Terk antenna also had a usable signal on 3 other stations.
If you're design conscious, you probably won't love the Terk, but you won't hate it either. The antenna consists of a foot-long fan of curved metal slats in a wedge shape, mounted on a 10-inch-high pedestal. From the back come two old-fashioned rabbit ears that can extend to 3.5 feet. With the rabbit ears fully extended, the Terk is pretty ugly and pretty unbalanced, but I didn't need to extend them very far.
The $40 Mohu Leaf is your best choice if you care about how your living room looks. It resembles a laminated sheet of paper with a coaxial cable connected to one end. One side of the Leaf is white, and the other is black, but you can face either side out. I simply stuck the Leaf to the wall at the side of my TV, but you can also stick it to a window. Because the Leaf isn't amplified, you don't need another cable dangling from it--and it won't be yet another leech on your power bill.
The Leaf pulled in the best signal on 8 of the 28 stations I could receive; the signal was acceptable for viewing on 7 other stations.
Winegard SS-3000 Amplified Indoor Antenna
The $48 Winegard SS-3000 did a good job pulling in stations. It was a hassle to set up, however, and it’s the ugliest of the antennas I tried. With an oblong front wing nearly 2 feet wide, and an even longer plastic reflector attached to the back, the Winegard looks like it could be searching for extraterrestrial life. Of the five models, it was the most complex to put together, and snapping the reflector into its plastic holders had me uttering a few choice words. Still, even with the hassle, setting up the SS-3000 didn't take longer than 15 minutes.
Once assembled, the amplified SS-3000 drew a decent signal for 16 stations, though it had the best signal for only 2 of those stations.
Philips Digital TV Antenna
The Philips Digital TV Antenna ($35) fits in easily with a living room full of shiny black boxes. It's a thin black box measuring 11 inches wide by 3 inches tall, with a mast antenna that telescopes out to 15 inches. The antenna is amplified, and it even has a thumb dial in one corner that's supposed to allow you to boost the antenna's gain, effectively pumping up weak signals.
Despite the amplification and gain dial, though, I didn't find the Philips antenna especially effective. It pulled in a watchable signal for only nine stations, and had the best signal for two stations in my tests.
RCA Digital Flat Antenna
The RCA Digital Flat Antenna ($42) is another flat black box, though this one is bigger: 11 by 10 inches, and less than an inch thick. You can hang it on a wall, lay it flat, or stand it up on a table. The RCA antenna did the worst job in my house. Only five stations were fully watchable, and it pulled in the best signal for just one station.