November 24, 2020
Best TV antenna for cord-cutters in 2020, starting at only $10

How to buy and install an antenna for free over-the-air news and TV


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Sarah Tew/CNET

With no immediate end in sight to the coronovirus pandemic you may be looking for free and convenient entertainment to while away endless hours indoors. What you might not have considered is the antenna tuner already built into your TVOver-the-air TV has been around for years, and is a free source of entertainment available to anyone with just an antenna. It’s especially useful for getting live local news reports — more important now than ever — and the latest national news and shows broadcast by ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS (note that ViacomCBS is the parent company of CNET). It’s no wonder that OTA is one of the first stops for anyone looking to cut the cord after streaming TV.

The best part is the price. The broadcasts are completely free, no monthly fees required, and if you live in an area with decent reception you can get OTA TV with an indoor antenna for under $20. In other parts of the country you might need to spend more on an outdoor antenna.

Antenna TV is going to be around for a long time, even as it transitions to a new ATSC 3.0 standard (now called Next Gen TV), and it’s simple to get set up. Read on!

Go on, give it a try. It’s cheap

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Indoor antennas are so inexpensive that my best advice to just buy one, connect it to your TV and see what channels you pull in. I reviewed the top indoor antenna models from Amazon and found that the best in an urban environment is the Channel Master Flatenna. It’s available directly from the manufacturer for $10 plus $7.50 shipping. Or you could get it for $19 with free shipping from Amazon.

In my testing I found that the number and strength of channels didn’t increase in a poor coverage area when replaced with a more expensive model, even with a gain amplifier. In other words, if the Channel Master doesn’t work, it’s likely nothing similar will. That’s because your location is the single biggest factor in whether or not you get reception — your antenna tech is a distant second, at best.

If you’re having trouble getting reception your might get some improvement with an outdoor antenna. Unfortunately they cost more and are significantly more difficult to install because they typically require access to a roof or an attic and you may need professional help to install one.

We haven’t tested external antennas at CNET, but highly rated ones from Amazon and tech site Tech Hive start from $60. Try to get an antenna compatible with both UHF and VHF, for while most channels have moved to UHF with the advent of digital transmissions, some legacy stations are still using VHF.


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How to cut the cord for $10: installing an indoor antenna



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Tips for installing an indoor antenna

Given the complexity and potential danger of installing a roof antenna we’re going to stick with internal antennas for this article. Here’s what you need: 

Most modern indoor antennas are flat and designed to be installed high on a window, preferably facing in the direction of a broadcast antenna. How do you determine which way that is? 

In addition to selling their namesakes, Antennas Direct is also an excellent cord-cutting resource and offers maps based on your location, as well as the direction of the nearest antennas. Keep your compass or Google Maps app handy!

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Antennas Direct offers a map showing where your nearest broadcast towers are.


Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The Flatenna includes adhesive strips for mounting but if your antenna doesn’t, you’ll need masking tape or poster putty. Try not to use duct tape, as it can mark your walls or windows. 

Install the antenna as high as you can because neighboring houses and buildings can block TV signals. Experiment with placement — if a window doesn’t work, try a wall as it may give you better reception. Try to keep the antenna away from magnetic metals such as security bars and radiators if possible.

Many indoor antennas have a long, detachable coaxial cable, but if your TV and best reception placement are too far away, you may need a longer cable. Once you have enough slack in the cable, connect the spare end of the coaxial cable to the back of your TV or DVR. Screw it in nice and tight. Finally, you can now set your tuner to scan for available channels.

Which channels can you get?

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Local TV shows and stations, seen here in Sling TV’s OTA interface via AirTV 2.


Sarah Tew/CNET

If you live in an area with good reception you’ll be able to get at least the major network channels and their affiliates, including your local PBS station. Depending on where your house is you may have some issues due to natural or man-made obstacles, and searching for a problem channel on Google can tell you if it’s a common one.

In addition to the Antennas Direct site mentioned above, the FCC maintains a DTC Reception Maps page where you can enter your address and find the channels available in your area. It grades each station according to frequency as well as signal strength but it won’t tell you which direction the antenna is in.

If you live in a poor reception area you could try a model with a built-in amplifier. But be aware that this can overload your tuner and you could end up with a lot less channels. If you have a model with an amp, try it without first. 

Because you’re receiving digital signals, instead of analog ones, you won’t get snow in the case of suboptimal reception. If you have poor to no reception, you’ll either get a jumpy or pixelated picture or nothing at all, just blackness.

Finally if you get good reception and decide you like using antenna TV, you might want to invest in an antenna DVR. It will allow you to schedule and record shows for playback later, skip commercials and even stream your antenna TV outside the home.

Read more: Best antenna DVRs for cord cutters

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The Amazon Fire TV recast is our favorite antenna DVR.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Will I need a new antenna for Next Gen TV?

Next Gen TV, aka ATSC 3.0, is the next-generation version of free OTA TV, rolling out in select areas of the country now and over the next few years. Among other improvements it supports 4K HDR video and an internet back-channel which is used for on-demand video and usage data. 

To get Next Gen TV you won’t need a new antenna. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that you will need a new TV or external tuner box. TVs with Next Gen TV tuners are just starting to arrive and they’re mostly expensive. No TV tuner boxes have been announced yet but we expect them to arrive later this year.

ATSC 3.0 transmissions are still in their early stages, but by the end of 2020 up to 60% of households will be able to receive broadcasts. It won’t immediately replace HD either, if at all, and those transmissions are expected to continue for at least the next 5 years.

In other words, your cheap antenna will be useful for a long time.



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