How to Get Free Digital TV (DTV & HDTV)

I haven’t subscribed to cable television in… well, ever. I don’t watch much TV. When I do, it’s usually for a specific show or online on sites like Hulu. If you don’t need all the hundreds of various channels that cable TV provides, you can get digital HDTV absolutely free over the air (OTA). Earlier this year, the US government mandated that all OTA broadcasts must switch to digital from analog. This means that all OTA TV now has great picture quality and clarity.

To take advantage of this, I set up a pseudo TV with my computer monitor, a home-made antenna, and a free converter box. This guide will show you the steps you need to take to create your own free, completely legal, digital TV solution. Let’s get started!

Step 1: The Antenna

The first thing you need to do is make or buy an antenna. If you buy, this solution is obviously no longer free, but it is still a one-time cost. The antenna is necessary to receive OTA broadcasts, and you will need one for each TV if using an indoor antenna, unless you can amplify the signal and send it around the house.

Making an Antenna

It’s very easy to make your own antenna out of household materials. Screws and other tools can be bought cheaply at places like Home Depot. Assuming you have most of the materials just laying around the house, the only expense will probably be for the UHF/VHF transformer, which can be found for only a few dollars at local stores or on Amazon.

While making it yourself can be time-consuming, it also brings a sense of satisfaction when you see the results! Using a home-made antenna, I am able to get around 50 digital channels, good enough for me not to consider buying a replacement.

Buying an Antenna

There are two types of antennas you can get: outdoor and indoor. Outdoor ones are placed on the roof of the building or in another place where it won’t need to be moved and can receive clear signals. These are the best in terms of quality, but they are more expensive and there are other concerns, such as HOA and community rules about placing them.

Indoor antennas are much cheaper and can be had for less than $20. Monoprice, the best place online for cables and adapters, has several indoor antennas in this price range that are fairly well reviewed. Amazon has a wider variety should you be interested.

Step 2: The Converter Box

You will need a digital-to-analog converter box unless you have a TV or computer with a digital tuner. If you want to just use an older TV or computer monitor, you need a box. Until July 31, 2009, the US DTV transition program was accepting requests for converter box coupons. Each household could request up to 2 $40 coupons good for the purchase towards these boxes. Since some of the boxes are being sold at the $40 price point, they are essentially free with the coupon.

Although you can no longer request coupons, many people still have valid coupons (they are good for 3 months from issue). You can use these coupons in retail stores or online at sites like Amazon. Without the coupon, you will have to pay full price (or buy used on eBay), but this is again a one-time cost rather than a monthly subscription fee. The question then becomes, which box should you buy?

The Best: Dish Network DTVPal Plus ($69.99)

From many reviews, the Dish Network DTVPal Plus is probably the best converter box. It has great picture quality and the best EPG (Electronic Program Guide) of all the boxes. It is also eligible for use with the coupon. Dish Network is selling it at a reduced price ($59.99) for a limited time, though it is also available through Solid Signal for retail price.

Note that some comments on this review indicate receiving some faulty units, so be sure to see what the retailer’s exchange policy is.

Free with Coupon: Magnavox TB100MG9 ($40)

Right now, you can buy the Magnavox TB100MG9 for free after coupon from Amazon. If you look elsewhere, you can find other boxes that are free after coupon from other vendors as well.

Avoid: Tivax STB-T8 ($49.99)

A great box is the Zinwell ZAT-970A, which is now out of stock nearly everywhere. When it was still available, I was able to get one and use it. The menu reaction speeds are very fast and the picture quality was good. The lack of lag was especially noticeable compared to the Tivax STB-T8, which is the best-selling converter box on Amazon. I have no idea why, but it’s certainly not because of its speedy reactions and fantastic user experience. It does always seem to be in stock though, so that may be why it’s sold so well. I would not buy another one of those.

Step 3: Wiring and Setup

The last step after you obtain all the necessary parts is to hook everything up.

Setting Up the Antenna

You have to take care when setting up the antenna. In particular, it’s necessary to consider direction and windows (for an indoor antenna) to get the best possible signal quality. To find out what stations and signals are available in your location, check out AntennaWeb. After entering your address, you can see all the stations you are likely to receive as well as view a very useful map showing you where they are coming from.

Use this map to find the best location in your house for the antenna and TV or converter box, taking into account any windows that enable clear signals. The cable that connects from the antenna to the TV or box must be very short, as the signal is not amplified. Most converter boxes and TVs should be able to amplify the signal and send it on longer cables throughout the house if it has the outputs to do so.

Setting up the Converter Box

Connecting the converter box to the TV or monitor should be done using the composite audio/video cables if possible, as this provides superior quality (though still not the best) to the RF cable. Should your converter box support component or S-Video, you should obviously use those.

You can hook up the converter box to multiple TVs/monitors since one can use the composite connection and another can use the RF line. You can always split the line as well, though keep in mind that all TVs connected to the same box will share the same channel, since channel control is done on the box.

Step 4: Enjoy Free TV!

When you get everything hooked up, you will want to do a channel scan, which can take several minutes. Make note of how many channels are found and test their quality. You may want to adjust the antenna direction and/or location and do another scan to find the best position.

Now you can enjoy your free, no monthly fee, completely legal, digital HDTV!

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