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My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)
My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)

Digital Home

Tips and tools for the over-the-air TV enthusiasts Add to ...

In an earlier Globe Technology article, I wrote about how consumers in major Canadian cities are saving a significant amount of money each month by viewing free over-the-air (OTA) television signals, sometimes referred to as terrestrial or conventional television signals, rather than subscribing to a cable or satellite television service.

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For the OTA viewer or soon-to-be OTA viewer, just putting up an aerial to watch OTA signals is only the first step in maximizing your viewing pleasure. In this article, I take a look at four ways to expand and improve your OTA viewing experience.

The first way is to maximize the number of television stations you can receive. This can be done by installing a more powerful outdoor antenna – or even multiple antennas.

OTA experts can debate for hours the myriad ways homeowners can improve their reception as well as debate the merits of antenna design. However, simplistically speaking, there are three ways to improve reception: get a bigger antenna, mount your existing antenna higher so it’s elevated above as many reception-blocking obstacles as possible, and point the antenna directly at the transmitter.

Installing a bigger antenna or moving an existing antenna higher needs little explanation but how do you align your antenna when the incoming signals come from opposite directions?

One way is to use a rotor, which uses a small mechanical motor to rotate the antenna to point in the required direction. Change the channel and the rotor moves the antenna so it points in the direction of the incoming signal. The downside of a rotor is that it’s really meant for a single-TV home, because a second TV watching a different channel may not get a strong signal.

A second way to deal with signals originating from different directions is to have more than one antenna. For example, if you live in the greater Toronto area you might mount a relatively small discreet antenna for receiving stations broadcasting from the nearby CN tower and mount a larger antenna specifically set up to receive distant and weaker signals out of Buffalo or upstate New York.

If you are unsure about the type of antenna to get for your situation, check out Digital home’s Antenna Chart (in the sidebar of the article), which lists commercial antennas offering the best performance in various settings.

Once you’ve maximized the number of incoming signals, the next thing an OTA enthusiast will want is the ability to distribute the signals to multiple televisions in the home.

The simplest way to distribute signals throughout your home is to place a distribution amplifier at the point where the OTA signal comes into your home. While numerous types of amplifiers exist, a basic one would accept the incoming signal and redistribute it to multiple outputs so you can run a separate coaxial cable to each television in your home. If your home currently has, or has had, cable television in the past, then you may be able to use the existing cables in your home.

The type of amplifier needed will depend on various factors, such as signal strength, whether you have one antenna or two, how many televisions you need to feed and whether you still need your existing wire for cable distribution. A more complicated OTA setup with multiple antennas and televisions may also require the use of pre-amplifiers, attenuators, splitters and combiners.

Knowledgeable OTA installers will be able to advise consumers on what type of equipment is best suited for their needs, while do-it-yourselfers can visit the Digital Home OTA forums for assistance from our many experienced users.

A popular third way to improve your OTA experience is to add the ability to record incoming signals for future playback. There are a number of options for recording OTA signals, including standalone devices. However, the most common way is to add a home theatre personal computer (HTPC) complete with one or more ATSC tuners to your OTA setup.

For Windows users, there are many software options for recording television, including Windows Media Centre, which comes packaged within later versions of Windows. The most popular option for Linux users is Myth TV while Mac users typically use Eye TV from Elgato.

All of these options allow you to record TV shows for later playback, and not necessarily on your living room TV.

It is virtually impossible to quickly transfer digital recordings from a cable or satellite PVR to a computer or tablet computer because the recordings are encrypted by the broadcast distributors. OTA recordings, on the other hand, are not encrypted and therefore can be easily converted to digital formats that can viewed on a media extender, tablet or laptop computer using many free or commercial third party video converters.

Hugh Thompson is the owner and publisher of Hugh Thompson’s Digital Home , a consumer electronics news and information website. As a voice for the Canadian consumer, Hugh is a frequent guest on radio and television programs across the country discussing the latest in consumer electronics and the business of convergence in the Digital Home.

Hugh’s column normally appears on the first Wednesday of the month, though we held this one to be closer to Canada’s Aug. 31 digital TV switch.

Follow on Twitter: @digitalhomca

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