Getting HDTV for free, the director's cut

By Mike on 9:30 pm

Filed Under:

This year, analogue TV will cease to exist in Canada. The broadcast industry is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. This means one simple thing for consumers. After August 31st, 2011, those rabbit ears won't work anymore. Two years ago, I told you how you could get HDTV for free. Today we'll be revisiting over-the-air digital TV, so you're not left with static on the first of September.

Digital TV is a way to bring over-the-air television into the high definition age. It works in the same way satellite television does. Instead of hundreds of stations, you'll still only get the local ones. However, you can now watch them with a crisp, flawless picture. Gone are the days of the snow and ghosting.

DTV in North America uses the ATSC standard. In order to receive this signal, your TV either has to have a compatible tuner built in, or a converter box. All high definition TVs sold in the past few years will have this feature built in. If you're using an older TV, like the old cathode-ray-tube models, you'll need to buy the converter.

This Zinwell DTV converter is available at the Source for $90.
Courtesy of The

To call Canada ill prepared for the switchover is an understatement. Finding DTV converters is difficult. The Source sells one model, which retails for $90. You may have better luck importing one from the United States. All converters accomplish the same function. They take the DTV signal and change it to something older TVs can understand. Most now offer an electronic programming guide, like satellite and digital cable have. More expensive units allow you to attach a USB hard drive to record your favourite shows.

Once you got the TV itself sorted, it's time to set things up to receive the signal. If you already have a UHF antenna, then you're done. There's nothing special about "HDTV compatible" antennas. It's just a marketing gimmick. Older ones will pick up the signal just fine. If you're looking to cut the cable, and get HDTV for free, there are plenty of options available.

A old rooftop UHF antenna, like this one,
can still pickup HD-DTV signals

The first step is to setting up your antenna is to find where the transmitter is. Most antennas are directional. You'll need to point it towards the tower to pick up the signal. You'll also need to know how far away the tower is. Larger antenna arrays can pick up signals up to 70 miles (112km) away. However, smaller ones are limited to as little as 15 miles.

Next you need to decide where to mount your antenna. If you live in an apartment or condo, make sure to check with your landlord or HOA first. Some places may not allow permanent mounts. You should try to place the antenna as high as possible. Preferable on the roof of your house, or on a tall mast. Antennas can be mounted in an attic, but it negatively affects their range. Indoor antennas also aren't as good as outdoor models. That's because the radio waves have trouble passing through walls.

A basic installation is pretty strait forward. A "J" mount, the same used to mount satellite dishes, is the easiest to use. It can be attached to a roof or chimney. The old style mast, a staple of homes in the 1950s, is still the best. You can get more height that way. If you're using a directional antenna, but want to receive signals from different towers, you'll also need a rotor. It's a small motor that rotates the antenna via a remote control. Roof and mast mounted antennas should also be grounded due to risk of lightning strikes. Mast installations are best left to the pros, but a roof or attic antenna is a good DIY job.

If the transmitter tower is really distant from your antenna, you may need an amplifier as well. These boost weak signals to make them viewable. However, an amp cannot clean up a bad signal caused by distortions through walls or buildings. Most urban and suburban setups won't need one. If you live in a rural area, they're a good idea. Amplifiers should also be used if the cable connecting the TV to the antenna is very long.

On the inside, the whole system is hooked together with standard coaxial cable. You can buy this at most television stores. It usually comes in long bundles. If you have more than one TV, you will need a splitter. Some signal is lost with a splitter so just keep that in mind. Especially on long runs or with more than a couple TVs. It's another good time to use an amp.

So what kind of stations can you get with your DTV antenna. In Toronto, you can expect to pull in all major Canadian networks and most US networks. Canadian stations all broadcast in 1080i HD resolution. American networks are usually 720p, to conserve bandwidth. Don't expect to get any "true HD" 1080p programming. Few networks use it due to the massive amount of bandwidth it requires. Generally speaking, 1080i signals still look very good. Often better than satellite, since the data doesn't need to be compressed as much.

Remote Central
offers a complete list of all the over-the-air DTV stations available in the Greater Toronto Area. Some networks even offer sub stations that offer additional content. Most networks have their DTV channels on the same numbers as the analogue ones. Once you're set up, your TV or converter box will automatically scan all channels it can pick up. You can start watching from there.

One final note. You'll notice a lot of Canadian networks, such as Global and CTV, have weak transmission power. That means you may have difficulty receiving them with smaller or indoor antennas. American stations may actually be easier to get. Many Canadian cities still don't have full DTV distribution either. Major media centres like Toronto and Montreal have full DTV. Markets beyond those may not. Check Google or with your local TV stations to see what's available.

0 comments for this post