Recently, we updated our round-up of the best indoor HDTV antennas available. It's a great article and you should read it—after you read this.
The first time we did a "Best Right Now" for HDTV antennas, testing was conducted in Los Angeles. Our reviewer found he was able to get about 100 channels and didn't find much difference between the models.
When we went to update our roundup this year, we expected somewhat similar results, albeit with marginally-upgraded devices. What we found, however, was just how inconsistent HDTV antennas really are, based on factors you can't really control.
The most important factor? Your location
Our first testing location was in Renton, WA, a suburb about 12 miles south of Seattle. To start, we went to the FCC DTV reception site, to check what we might expect from that location. From a rough zip code search, we learned there were eight stations nearby with a strong signal, and a few more with a moderate signal.
Our previous tests in LA had led us to expect around 100 channels, but here, just outside a major city, we were looking at a 90% reduction in the maximum efficacy of the device.
Furthermore, the specific address in Renton where we were testing actually had much weaker signal than the overall estimate for the city: we were only able to tune in a single station. At that point, I'd start to wonder if the antenna would be worth what you paid even if it was half as much.
To be fair: that one station did have four substations, one of which was PBS Kids. We could definitely see how a one-time antenna purchase enabling unlimited PBS Kids could be a good value (and lifesaver) to some parents.
If there's one thing we don't abide at Reviewed, though, it's insufficient data points. So we shipped everything (including the tester) back to our main testing labs in Cambridge, MA. Here, we were able to get between 40 and 50 channels, depending on the antenna—still not the 100 channels LA had to offer, but at least it was a more significant data set than we found outside Seattle.
Radio waves aren't as immaterial as you might think
Intellectually, you might be familiar with X-rays and MRIs being based on your body's ability to scatter radio waves. It's sort of weird to experience that first-hand, though.
As we tested, we noticed significant blips in our transmission whenever someone walked near the antenna. Since our testing lab is on the ground floor on a busy street, we also noticed service interruptions whenever a sizable-enough truck drove by.
What can we conclude?
• Check your reception before you buy! Sites like the FCC DTV reception site or nocable.org can help you figure out how many channels you can access from your current address
• Make sure your antenna is mounted away from any outside interference, including foot traffic.
• While there is definitely some differentiation between individual HDTV antennas (and you should buy one of the better ones, for sure), those differences are negligible in the face of the above two bullets.
This didn't really belong anywhere, but when we were researching radio frequency propagation modes, we discovered their naming convention is kind of delightful. You might be familiar with UHF—or "ultra high frequency"—from Weird Al's cinematic masterpiece.
But did you know all modes follow this naming convention, and include very high frequency, super high frequency, extremely high frequency—all the way up to THF or "tremendously high frequency."