Thursday, February 12, 2015

CC204 : Antenna TV

Olde School though it be, getting your television programming from an antenna can be more costly and potentially more work than getting Over The Top streaming. All is not lost. There are some simple and not so very expensive options and they all share one thing in common--you need an antenna and you need to point it the right direction.

And this is where living in Dunwoody makes most of us winners as all the important TV antennas are clustered in an area round about Stone Mountain just to the southeast and without much in the way of major obstructions. It's not like we're living in a concrete canyon in the middle of a city. A big city that is. There is a bit of ridge running thru the northern Wolds but that affects a relatively small number of us and even that is not crippling. The reason this is important is that most TV broadcasts at the higher frequencies (and almost all HD broadcast are) really likes line-of-sight and being digital when the signal gets weak you don't get a blurry, snowy picture it breaks up or just disappears. So does satellite but that doesn't make it any better.

If you're lucky enough to live in a two-story home with at least one south-southeast exposure you can get started with the digital broadcast version of rabbit ears. With a flat antenna and a recent vintage TV set you are in business.

Antenna To Right Of TV
One way to expand this system is to add an antenna to each set. This is cheap and simple but will not work (or work well) with sets that do not have good exposure. The basement media room is probably a non-starter.

Supporting TVs in these hard to reach locations will require a higher gain antenna, one or more amps, wiring and a few other bits of kit. For the in home wiring you may be able to leverage the cabling already in your home but there may be issues with that wiring. First would be plan impact: this may force an abrupt switch-over from cable to OTA rather than a smooth adjustment over time. Second is the cable itself. If your home has cable wiring more than 15-20 years old it is probably RG-59 whilst newer cabling will be RG-6 with the relevant difference being signal loss which is off less concern for cable than for antenna.

Picking an antenna can be confusing and sometimes vendors use that confusion to get your money. First, there is no such thing as an "HD TV Antenna". It is just an antenna that is tuned to the frequencies used by TV, including HD TV.  That said, there are two TV frequency bands, VHF and UHF, with most HD broadcasts in the UHF or high VHF portions of the spectrum. Most antennas tuned to UHF will provide adequate gain to also receive the high VHF signals, at least those in our general vicinity. There are times where beam width may be as much a consideration as gain. Not only does a wider beam width tolerate sloppy aiming and some weather effects it also handle situation  where transmitters may be twenty degrees apart.

The rig shown above includes a high-gain, wide beam width antenna suitable for attic or outdoor installation, a low noise amp, cable and a J-mount mast. A similar system has been deployed successfully at a suboptimally situated location in Dunwoody. An upcoming attic installation in a nearby city east of the antenna farm will be the subject of a capstone project.

So how do you know where to point the antenna and what can you expect to receive? Again, the web comes to the rescue. Cruise on over to TV Fool, enter your and get a map.

Based on distance and transmitter strength the table indicates which channels you are likely to receive  with an indoor antenna, an attic antenna or a roof mount from top to bottom. You will also see channel adjacency issues that will impair reception. The circle plot show where the antenna has to point to get the channels you want. A good low-noise pre-amp, located on the antenna mast, ensures that the highest quality signal is driven across the longer cable run. Support for multiple TV sets will require something to split the signal. One gazin and multiple gazout. The least expensive way to achieve this is with a passive splitter and if you are re-using existing cable wiring there is probably one already installed. You should keep in mind that each split cuts the signal strength in half--one to two cuts the signal in half, one to four cuts the signal by four. If you need to support more than four sets you will certainly need a distribution amp incorporating a low noise amp and a passive splitter. This may also be necessary to re-use RG-59 when the cable runs are long.

TV Fools will show you what stations you receive (sort of) but what can you really watch. Again, web to the rescue. Rabbit Ears provides detailed information on HD tv by market and by station.

Rabbit Ears lets you drill down showing the main programming (Channel 5.1 above) and secondary channels available (and coming soon) from the same "station." In Atlanta Channel 2 provides MyTV (old programs like Perry Mason and Rockford Files) on a secondary channel and Channel 5 delivers Movies! with classic movies. There are some lesser known (IE: not printed in the paper) delivery QVC, additional movies, news (France24), weather and much, much more.

What's that you say? "Where's my DVR?" Ahhh...glad you asked. To be clear if you have a DVR with your current pay TV provider you are going to lose any programs you've recorded when you fire them. But there are OTA alternatives.

One is the aptly named Simple TV as it is quite simple, though to be fair it doesn't directly connect to your TV. With the addition of your own disk drive you have a OTA PVR that allows you to record up to two channels at one time. To watch this you need a phone, tablet or a Roku box. And, you have your own version of a Sling box as you can access live and recorded programming while away from home.

Another interesting option is very similar to Simple TV is Tablo which comes with an option for a one-time life-time fee for access to the metadata rather than a monthly subscription fee (which is also available). Remote access is largely based on your phone/tablet's web browser (Simple TV has dedicated apps) in-home support has better device coverage. Of course Roku is supported. And if you really love recording, there is a Tablo model capable of recording up to four channels simultaneously. For those in a more urban area (than most of Dunwoody) Tablo has announced the "Metro" which incorporates the antenna and is intended for use within 25 miles of the towers.

Since you bring your own hard drive (check for compatibility before buying) you get to choose just how much programming you can store. There are other options, some with built-in hard drives and some with direct (HDMI) connections to your TV but for a the Cord Cutter these two lead the pack.

PS: delays in the scheduling of the capstone project means we'll take a brief break from Cord Cutting but will return after the install.