How to get started with cord cutting

How to cut the cable cord and get the best looking TV you've ever seen

If you want to have the absolute best video and audio quality from a broadcast, better than cable, satellite and even fiber, then digital broadcasts provided free and over the air to an antenna is for you. It gives you everything that is great about digital, and lets you avoid overly aggressive compression at the same time. So, where do you start?

On Vector 38: Cord-cutting I gave an overview of how cord cutting works, what's involved, and why people might want to consider it. Give it a listen.

Over the air broadcasts are not new. They've been around for decades. Before cable came to town,the only way to catch your favourite television shows was via analog signals from a transmitter. Depending on where you lived, you could get anything from a decent 480i image to... unwatchable static. The woes of poor reception due to physical or geographic barriers gave a big push to upstart cable companies. They not only promised better images, but even more channels! Cable and satellite became so ubiquitous that over the air broadcasts fell from public consciousness except for those people who couldn't "upgrade" to more modern ways to receive television broadcasts.

However, back in 2009 in the United States (and 2011 in Canada), analog broadcasts were cut off and replaced with digital signal broadcasts. The change gave the added benefits of a purely digital signal (that is, no more static once a "lock" is achieved), High Definition signals up to 1080i, 5.1 dolby digital surround sound, and multiple channel streams per broadcast frequency, each broadcasting different content. The digital signals that are provided over the air are the least compressed HD signal you can get in a broadcast and, as such provide, the best visual quality anywhere.

What broadcasts will you get?

To figure out what broadcasts you'll get, you will have to take into account 2 components.

  1. Your geographic location and
  2. The type of antenna you want to (or can) use.

Depending on where you live, the digital signal may all come from one direction, or many directions. You'll need to know, where the signals are coming from, how far away they are and if there are any physical barriers for you to get the signals. You can go to tvfool.com and input your co-ordinates to find out.

tvfool.com will provide you with a detailed "compass" of broadcast signals along with a color graded indicator of signal strength for each station to determine if you will need a regular, bunny ear antenna in your living room, or a full size roof mounted antenna with the highest gain. This leads us to component number 2, the type of antenna you will want or need. This will be a matter of preference. Do you absolutely need to get every station in every direction from your co-ordinates?

If your tvfool.com report shows any broadcast channel highlighted in red, then you are looking at a roof mounted antenna. If you only want to get some channels to supplement your current television, then anything highlighted in green can be received with a cheap pair of rabbit ears.

There are many different kinds of antennae. Popular brands include Wineguard and Channel Master. They'll suit many people's needs.

However, if you are daring enough and you want the absolute best gain in an antenna, one that is custom cut for your channel lineup, you can make your own hi gain antenna (called a Grey-Hoverman) by using free an open source schematics from digitalhome.ca.

Extras you might need

If you are anything like me, then you want to get every possible channel and you may need some of the following "extra" components.

  • A rotor for your antenna. If signals are in different directions, you may need to rotate the antenna towards the broadcast signal.
  • A pre-amplifier. Sometimes you may be on the edge of getting a signal and you need an extra boost to help you get that signal. A pre-amplifier can help in these situations.
  • A PVR system. You may be used to pause, record and rewind live TV on your cable box and would like to retain these features. You can do so by having your antenna cables going into a PVR (such as Tivo or a HTPC) to give you this functionality.
  • Splitters. If you have multiple televisions, you may want to have television signals going to each TV. This can be done with a splitter (free of charge as opposed to many cabe/satellite providers).

iPhone apps for cord-cutters

Once you have everything in place, there are some iPhone apps that can help you get the most from your new setup:

Mac media center

If you want to use your Mac as a media center, here's how to get started:

So what are you waiting for!? The best quality television broadcasts are floating in the air around you as you read this free of charge waiting for you to enjoy their digital HD goodness. Have you cut the cord? Let us know what you did in the comments below!

Anthony

Anthony is an IT administrator, retro gamer, and accessory reviewer for iMore.

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Reader comments

How to cut the cable cord and get the best looking TV you've ever seen

4 Comments

If you have an older "HDTV ready" TV without atsc tuner built in, you'll need a set top box to handle those signals. I have 2 1080p HDTVs that don't have a built in tuner for the digital broadcasts.

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Ugh. "HDTV Ready". They should all be flayed.

I live in a condo building so I'm curious to see what, if anything, I can get facing the direction my living room faces.

I did this for about a year. I eventually resubbed to the TV bundle even though the channels are 720p. Why? Because even though I'm more or less line of site and about 12-15 miles from the towers it was tweaky as hell with a Mohu Leaf indoor antenna (i.e. a good, well reviewed one). Signal would cut out, stutter, etc and was dependent on where people were in the room.

Now, I could have move to an outdoor antenna, etc... and might have. But I was paying Comcast $65 for internet only (25meg). Adding basic cable with HD? $74. Including HBO.

Understandable. If your antenna came with a pre amp or if it was multi directional, that may have been the cause of your unreliable reception. You can actually be too close to the transmitter and the pre amp will signal drop!! Similar with multi directional antennae.