How To Get Free High-Definition Television — HDTV Isn’t Just on Cable!

 

For anyone who wants to get mind-blowing HD TV for free, this post is for you. If you don’t know about free over-the-air digital TV, you may want to read this article first.

The outdoor antenna

I was surprised when I got the call from saveandreplay.com installer that he could come over in the next couple of days to install my outdoor antenna, for it had been and was raining. Not so surprised when he called the night before that he wanted to reschedule. I, of course, was impatient to get my outdoor antenna installed, and so on the originally scheduled morning, he called to say he could come over after all. And in less than five hours, I had 29 digital channels coming in to my TVs.

It all began when I learnt of saveandreplay.com (located in several cities) as the place for outdoor antenna equipment and installation. I found the initial call a bit confusing. When I called they took down my particulars but didn’t set a date. Only after I made a second call did I find out that the installer doesn’t actually call you to schedule a date until about two to three days before he can come because of weather vagaries.

The rest went well. They needed to know my location and local environment — where you are in relation to the CN Tower, the lake, trees, tall buildings, all things that can affect reception and which antenna to install. Apparently fog off the lake creates the worst interference. They also needed to know how many TVs and what kind I had. I already had a digital-to-analog converter box for my ancient behemoth TV (see my article on converting your analogue TV to find out how to receive digital signals on your old TV), but my six-year-old Philips digital HD TV didn’t have a built-in ATSC or digital tuner. For some reason, manufacturers didn’t put them in until the US government told em to. They suggested and I agreed to order the Centronics ZAT502 tuner box*. I had looked at the cost of new digital TVs and felt the tuner box was an affordable way to go. Besides I’d never had any trouble with my cheapo converter box, so why would I have with a more expensive tuner box?

Installation

When Tom F, the friendly and helpful installer from saveandreplay.com, arrived, he scoped out the place and environs and checked to see if I had a chimney in order to determine which antenna to install. He also confirmed I needed a powered amp as I had two TVs and without it, the signal would’ve degraded at the split. The new outdoor antennas, unlike the old ones, are designed such that you don’t usually need a rotor. I did not.

Installation takes about four to five hours. I was thinking it’d take one hour. So that was a bit of shock. I can’t believe some would rather do this themselves. For DIYers, saveandreplay.com sells all the equipment you’ll need. Anyway, while Tom’s partner put the antenna and other pieces together, he installed the chimney bracket, the cables, the two grounding wires, the distribution amp, and the power supply for the amp indoors. It’s best if you have a power supply near where the antenna cable will come in so that you don’t have endless wires running over your walls or floors. Since I had had Rogers cable up until last December and Rogers left the cable in place, they used that cable to send the signal to my digital TV. They installed a new cable for my analogue TV. They can put a wall plate on where the cable comes in from outside so that you don’t have a bare cable poking through the wall for all to see. It makes no difference to the signal quality.

I asked how they run a cable to wall-mounted TVs. They told me they usually run a cable inside the wall, but it can get a bit difficult with having to go through the joists and then you also have to repair the wall afterwards. Some don’t run it through the wall for that reason; instead they cover up the cable run so it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Testing reception

Once all the outdoor equipment is installed and connected to the TV(s), they test the reception. First, they installed my tuner box, connecting it to the TV with an HDMI cable, and autoscanned the channels. I had 25 channels. But I was missing Citytv, and channel 25 was pixelated (bad reception). So while his partner monitored the reception on the digital TV and fed back the information via cell phone to Tom, Tom went back up to the antenna and moved it. It took a couple of tries, but he not only brought in Citytv, but a total of 29 channels too!** There was just one problem: the picture was shifted to the left. It took me a little while to figure out that was because the tuner box was displaying the picture as 480i and the button to change that up to 720p and 1080i was on the remote not in the menu system.

Then we tested the reception on my analogue TV. For some reason, it was only pulling in the American channels. After he tested it with his $100 converter box, he determined that the signal was too powerful for my cheapo converter box. Since my TV is already dying, it doesn’t make sense for me to buy another converter box. So for the price of two attenuators installed on the cable where it enters the room, I got my Canadian channels. I also learnt that the snowy reception I was getting off and on was because (1) I was using an RF cable to connect the converter box to the TV instead of composite cables and (2) the cable would not stay plugged into the TV. Once he switched the connection to composite cables, the snow went.

Comparing HD OTA signals to cable and satellite

So how good is the HD on the digital TV? Well, to put it in perspective when I was subscribing to Rogers’ digital HD TV service, I thought that picture was awfully good. Ha!

I tuned to channel 9.1, I saw Oprah talking and my jaw dropped. No, not at her talking! But at the way she looked — way older than I had ever seen her. I could see every wrinkle, every fold in her skin, the texture of her skin and hair in exquisite detail. The picture has such depth and detail that it’s like being sucked into it. I tuned to the news. Wow, is the makeup ever thick on the CBC Anchor Anne-Marie Mediwake! And Mayor Rob Ford’s skin is not as smooth and white as I had seen on Rogers or my digitally converted analogue TV. He has splotches! And that young guy on Sun TV News who looks like he should still be in high school, his skin is showing sun effects. I never saw freckles in such detail on TVs before. Now I understand why Peter Mansbridge says he no longer wears makeup. You can not only see it and the texture of it in true HD, you can see the thickness of it too. Unfortunately, with no makeup, you can see every freckle, every wrinkle, every bag. Oh my, I see a new form of TV makeup and technique and lighting needing to be developed. Oprah actually looked the best. Aside from my obsession over people’s looks and skin, I also noticed how clear the graphics are. For the first time, I can easily read the time and temperature on CBC Toronto News graphics. The weather map is no longer hard to distinguish (I have been grumbling about how hard it is to read on Rogers digital or converted analogue TV since they changed their set).

I recently checked out some 1080p TVs at the Source, which I believe were connected to satellite. If that was HD, yikes! My picture is way better than that.

The over-the-air digital signal

So why is HD sooooo much better over the air than over cable or satellite? Compression! The over-the-air signal is not compressed. The big companies all compress their signals before sending them to your TVs. It makes an enormous difference — in both picture quality and your pocketbook. Can’t beat free! Plus no more simulcasting. If I want to watch an American show on an American channel with the original ads, I can. This would be a boon for Superbowl fans who’re always pining to see the half-time ads.

Some of the channels I’m receiving are weather and seasonal dependent (TCT and ion) because their signals are weak, their transmitters far.

According to the info on the tuner box, signal quality for all the stations is at 100%; signal strength varies from 34 to 64%. But the strength meter is like those quiet descriptors on dishwashers: useless as a comparator. They only tell you that for this TV or this tuner box, a certain signal strength means you’ll have a picture, and if it goes below it, you won’t. The picture will become pixelated or disappear altogether.

Digital channels are neat because a broadcaster can send info on the show you’re watching along with the signal and they can put sub-channels on each channel, and those sub-channels can be in HD (high definition, 720p or 1080i) or SD (standard definition, 480i).

The info includes date, time, picture resolution that’s being broadcast, title of program, description, and what comes next for the entire day. But what you see of that info depends on the converter box or TV and broadcaster. Of the Canadian broadcasters, only CTV, TVO, and Citytv sometimes are taking advantage of this feature. Our public broadcaster not at all. The rest send useless info like “DTV program.” Also, some broadcasters can’t tell time. So as you scroll through the channels, the time changes. Sheesh. And then there’s the box or TV.  My cheapo converter box shows me all the info; the tuner box I original had didn’t bother showing the program description or what comes next. It was just about useless.

Sub-channels are .2, .3 of the main channel number and are as good in signal quality as the main channel. Unfortunately, only US channels NBC and PBS are taking advantage of this feature. Global has a sub-channel but as an SD version of its HD channel. Rest of the Canadians are stuck in the 20th century. I hope this will change, especially for CBC. CBC, after all, is our public broadcaster, paid for by every Canadian for the benefit for every Canadian. I think they should put their News channel on sub-channel 2 and sports on sub-channel 3. That way Hockey Night in Canada and the endless playoffs will no longer interfere with regular programming, Rick Mercer no longer has to end too early, and Strombo isn’t bounced on and off the schedule. Plus the dramas won’t have such short runs. And if CBC puts their news channel on 5.2, then CTV will have to in order to compete, and even the newly-announced Citytv news channel, then we’ll have more than CHCH TV as the only all-news OTA channels. And maybe that will snowball into the broadcasters putting specialty channels on their sub-channels. That’s my theory anyway!

Channels in the Toronto area

So you’re probably screaming by now: what channels you get?!!!

NBC 2.1, 1080i Main Peacock Network Channel
2.2, 480i Antenna TV — retro TV, showing old shows
2.3, 480i Taken off air
CBS 4.1, 1080i Main CBS Network Channel
CBC 5.1, 1080i Main CBC Network Channel
ABC 7.1, 720p Main ABC Network Channel
WROC 8.1 Another CBS Channel
CTV 9.1, 1080i Main CTV Network Channel
CHCH 11.1, 1080i CHCH Superstation from Hamilton (news and movies)
PBS 17.1, 1080i WNED in HD
17.2, 480i WNED in SD
17.3, 480i Think Bright Channel (learning stuff)
TVO 19, 1080i Television Ontario in HD — Excellent quality
CW 23.1, 1080i Main The CW Channel
Radio-Canada 25.1, 1080i The French equivalent to CBC
TCT 26.1 Some US religious channel in SD
26.2, 1080i Same channel in HD (weird HD is on sub-channel 2)
26.3 Family channel
26.4 Spanish
Fox 29.1, 720p Main Fox Network Channel
29.2, 480i The Country Network – country music videos
CTS 36.1, 1080i Crossroads Channel out of Hamilton
Global 41.1, 1080i Main Global Network Channel
Global 41.1, 480i Global Network SD Channel
OMNI 1 44.1, 1080i The first of two OMNI channels (multicultural, owned by Rogers)
mytv.com 49.1, 720p This US station keeps changing its name
49.2, 480i The Cool TV – concerts and music videos
ION 51.1 What the heck is ION? A dinky US Network
51.2 All Cartoons, all day long
51.3 Home and Style Channel
Citytv 57.1, 1080i Main Citytv Network Channel
OMNI 2 64.1, 1080i Second OMNI Channel
SunTV 66.1, 1080i The All-News Sun Channel (taken off air by SunTV)

(List updated to include ones coming online or being newly received.)

As for my favourite SciFi shows, I can watch those over the Internet streamed onto my digital TV. Unbelievably, the picture quality is as good as or better than what I was seeing on Rogers digital. I have also recently learnt I can watch (some?) Food Network shows over the Internet too. More and more shows are being broadcast over the Internet. And since I don’t use the big telcos for my Internet, I have unlimited bandwidth usage for less than what the big guys charge. So why pay cable anymore? The only reason I can see to pay for an inferior picture is if the CRTC and any or all broadcasters have decided not to replace your local analogue transmitter with a digital one (hello London and Moncton) or you’ve always been too far away from a transmitter. Otherwise, it’s easy to switch to free! And your eyes will love you for it!

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*And now for a proviso. As I mentioned I bought a tuner box. I had problems with that tuner box. Specifically, when I switched up to 720p or 1080i with the HDMI connection, I got “sparkles,” audio dropout, and picture dropout. Sparkles are when pixels flash on and off. Audio dropout would happen for up to minutes of a time – I could see the picture but not hear a thing. Picture dropout happened in a flash – the picture would disappear and reappear in a second as if I had turned the TV off and on in quick succession. I spoke to Centronics, and they offered to exchanged the tuner. The new one was better, the problems were less frequent at 720p and didn’t start quite so fast at 1080i, but I still got the sparkles and picture dropout on 720p and picture dropout on 1080i. When I searched online, I learnt that audio dropout is a big problem with HDMI connections, that people have other problems with the Centronics box, that Sony had provided a software update to their TVs for the sparkles and picture dropout, and that as problematic as the Centronics tuner box is, it’s still considered the best, which as one wag put it, shows the abysmal state of this particular kind of equipment. After I spoke to Philips, I learnt my TV has a resolution between 720p and 1080i. I tried using the component cables, but they would allow me only to see a picture at 480i. I should point out that I had no problem with Rogers HD or digital using the component cables and with computer connections via HDMI or VGA. I conclude that the tuner box was not compatible with my TV, in that it probably wasn’t sending a strong-enough signal to it to lock on properly. Philips told me these problems were a sign of a weak signal. I talked to an electronics whiz as well (my Uncle), who independently suggested the same thing. It could’ve been the HDMI input on the TV, except I didn’t have problems with it when it was hooked up to my computer. I was reluctant to look at a new TV because of the price. But Tom F pointed me to online computer stores that sell monitors with built-in tuners. These sell for way less than a TV. He also recommended Sony and Samsung as, in his opinion, they have the best built-in ATSC tuners.The choice though is brain busting. The only thing for me that was non-negotiable, since I was buying new, was to get a 1080p HD TV. So, if your digital TV doesn’t have a built-in ATSC tuner, I’d go buy a new TV and use your old one for Internet TV watching.

Samsung T24A350 arrived. It turned on in default cable mode, but it was easy to switch to antenna (Air) mode. It picked up the analogue channels immediately. But as usual, being manual-challenged, I took awhile to figure out how to get the TV to scan for all analogue and digital channels. It picked up one more digital channel, a new one released on 8 June 2011. So now I have 30 (update: when rescanned again, it picked up another one). Also, the Samsung provides the most complete info of the converter box, tuner box, and it. The only thing is I seem to have to scan all the channels first before I can see the info on the Channel List guide.

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  • Brenda

    Thank you for the helpful info. 🙂
    Brenda

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