Sunday, October 18, 2009

Over the air HDTV - figuring out the basics

I'm sick and tired paying $50 a month to a company I despise. Comcast got enough money from me over the years and our TV viewing habits have changed enough that I don't value the cable-only channels nearly as much as I used to.

So over-the-air HDTV it is. My hdhomerun box supports both cable and over the air HDTV (even at the same time...) I went to the local Fry's and found a shelf full of indoors antennas. Wow, quite a selection. I pick one that sounded decent, went home, set it up in the garage and ... only got channel 36 "Action 36". Urgh.

That's when I learned about AntennaWeb. Plugged in my address and ... oha, all the major stations in the Bay Area transmit from San Francisco (50 miles away). Except Action 36, which has an antenna in downtown San Jose (18 miles) and is rated as the only station I should be able to receive with a simple indoor antenna.

Accoding to AntennaWeb, I need an antenna with the "blue" and "violet" color codes due to my location and distance from the broadcast towers, which require an amplified, large directional outdoor antenna. In other words, a commonly known "TV antenna".

Fry's doesn't have any (!) outdoor antennas, nor does the local Walmart. Both carry lots and lots of indoor antennas ("perfect for HDTV"), which are barely suitable to receive TV signals from up to 20 miles away. The vast majority of the South Bay doesn't fit that description. No wonder half of the boxes were returned...
Radio Shack had outdoor antennas, but not amplified, they weren't even rated for "blue", and still cost over $70, plus $35 for an amplifier.

In the end I ordered a Terk HDTVo antenna from Amazon, which showed up this week.

Today I went on the roof to test reception with that antenna. I used the hdhomerun_config_gui application running on my TV computer in the living room with the X Window output redirected to my Mac laptop, which I carried on the roof with me. Must have been quite a funny sight. Me on the roof, with an antenna in one hand, typing away at laptop in my lap with the other...

I'm able to receive all major broadcast networks, FOX, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, plus a bunch of local independent stations. KTVU, the local FOX affiliate, comes in weakest of the bunch, so I'm using as my guide when directing the antenna.

I planned to mount the antenna to the eaves board of my roof, so that it overlooks the neighboring house. Turns out that the signal of KTVU severely degrades about 1 feed above the roof line, and is reasonably strong at about 3 feet above the roof line. So I need (at least) a small mast. I don't feel like penetrating my roof with mounting a TV antenna. Instead I will likely mount the mast on a side-wall on the left side of the house above the master beed room, where the roof is not quite as high above the ground.

Of course I need to ground the antenna mast, as well as the antenna cable. I'm going to use the electrical conduit of the solar PV system for ground, and reuse the grounding block installed by my dear friends at Comcast for grounding the antenna cable.

Now, where do I find a suitable 5-6 ft long antenna mast and appropriate mounting hardware nearby?

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