I’ve been wanting to investigate receiving OTA (Over-The-Air) HDTV broadcasts in San Francisco for a while now. I am not yet committing to “cutting the cord”, but I wanted to run some experiments to see if it is even possible for me. Along the way I learned some things and discovered some helpful resources.
Learning about my location
The first thing to do (before buying any antenna hardware) was for me to find out what I might receive. The best online resource I found was this one.
AntennaWeb helps you see which stations you can get from which towers, and also helps you select an antenna type. My home out near McLaren park sits high on the hill and has a clear view of Sutro Tower. AntennaWeb suggested that I could get by with a “Small, Multidirectional” antenna for broadcasts from Sutro.
Note: AntennaWeb predicted that I should receive 59 channels at my location. We’ll see later that this turned out to be accurate.
Buying an Antenna
I went to Home Depot, Lowes and Cliff’s in the Castro. Each of these stores have small indoor antennas, but my previous experiments with indoor antennas had produced poor results. Cliff’s had a nice ChannelMaster antenna that was a good option. Lowe’s stocked two different large directional antennas. I found a small outdoor antenna at Home Depot (http://www.winegard.com/freevision) for $35. I thought I’d give it a shot and see what happened.
To be honest, I was not that pleased with the information on the packaging. I wanted some wiring diagrams and installation instructions. I had to pry open a package to see what mounting hardware and connectors was included. But I guess the packaging worked: I bought it.
The picture at the top of this post shows my installation. I connected a piece of PVC pipe to use as a short mast to a vent pipe on the roof. It works. This is how my DirecTV dish was installed on a different vent pipe by a professional.
Using a 50 foot coax cable, I connected the antenna to a Samsung TV. The TV found 59 strong stations in just a few minutes. (This was the number predicted by AntennaWeb.) The TV also has a built-in channel guide, which it updates via an ethernet connection to the internet. This isn’t a bad set-up, and the reception is great.
San Francisco was experiencing mild rain that day. The picture was steady throughout. Only once did I see slight interference with the picture.
Now I wanted a DVR. TiVo makes a great little Over-The-Air receiver called the Roamio. It costs only $50, but requires a $15 per month activation fee. One cool thing about the Roamio is that you can extend its programs to other rooms in your house with TiVo Mini units. These cost $149 each, and have no service fee. So theoretically, I could have whole-home TiVo with OTA HDTV for $15/month after I bought the equipment.
To use the multi-room setup, it’s necessary to have your house wired for Ethernet. My house has new CAT-6, so I’m good to go if I want to. At this point I haven’t bought one, but I’m tempted.
I haven’t decided to cut the cord. I still have my satellite system, and now I also have a TiVo-OTA system in one room of my house. Some of the programming on the local OTA channels is pretty appealing to me, and isn’t even on my satellite system (“Love, American Style”, for instance). But then there are things on my other system that I watch a lot (HGTV and HBO).
So I haven’t cut the cord, and I’m not saving money. Instead, I’ve added more cords and more subscriptions. I really love the TiVo interface and remote. No one has been able to do that better.
Appendix A – Resources
Here are some local resources for getting supplies.
- Cliff’s Variety in the Castro http://www.cliffsvariety.com: I shop local when I can. Cliff’s has cable and one outdoor antenna by ChannelMaster.
- Fry’s Electronics http://frys.com: has a huge selection of everything you need. Antennas, cable, connectors, antenna masts, roof and eave mounts. This is the place to go for finding mounting hardware.
- Lowe’s: cable, connectors and a small selection of antennas. No mounting hardware or antenna masts.
- Home Depot: cable, connectors, a small selection of antennas and amplifiers. No mounting hardware or antenna masts.
- Parts Express http://www.parts-express.com/cat/hdtv-tv-antennas/274: large selection.
Appendix B – Status Update
I’ve been using the Roamio for about 3 weeks now. All I can say is that I am really impressed. TiVo does a lot more than just record and time-shift your shows. With great reception and a ton of programming over-the-air there’s a lot of good stuff to watch.
Recommendations: The TiVo suggests shows you might like to record, and if you haven’t subscribed it goes ahead and fills up the drive with recommendations. I’ve discovered quite a few enjoyable programs this way. TiVo also notifies you of new major releases from the networks. This makes it easy to get a “Season Pass” for the new shows that sound good.
Netflix and Amazon: The Roamio device can be linked to your Netflix and Amazon accounts, for playing of course. But the Roamio goes further: it can cross reference and find shows that exist both over-the-air and on Netflix. For instance, it might know that I like the “Great British Baking Show” on TV and it will show me where I can watch Season 1 on Amazon. Truly Brilliant!
Air-Play: the Roamio is also an Air-Device, so I can play anything that is on my iPhone on the TV. This is pretty cool too.