OK, I promise...for a while anyway: this is the last time
that I use the word free
in the title of this column. But I couldn't resist. The allure of anything related to HDTV being free is too great. So here it is, my companion piece to "Free HD TiVo knockoff: Is it worth it?"
To get the free HD TiVo, the hardware cost nothing up front, but--as the reader comments were all too quick to remind me--it was more than offset by the cumulative increase in the monthly cable bill. This time, free
means "you buy the hardware, but there's no
monthly bill." Before you can hook your trailer to the gratis train, however, you'll need an antenna and either an HDTV with a built-in HD tuner
or an HD-ready set attached to an external HD set-top box. String it all together with some spare coaxial cable, and you can indeed get local HDTV broadcasts without paying any service fees from cable or satellite providers--so long as you live within range of the HD broadcast transmitters, which are usually located in or close to urban centers. (To find the broadcasters in your area, check out antennaweb.org
Get free high-def programming--from this $230 box.
I already receive HD programming from the criminally expensive Time Warner Cable of New York City, but one day, I decided enough was enough. I didn't want to spend an extra $8.95 a month for an additional cable box in a guest room where the TV, an older direct-view Samsung HD-ready tube set, is rarely turned on. I happen to also have an old Panasonic HD set-top box--one of the very first--which I bought six years ago for $600 at the recommendation of CNET reviewer and video guru Kevin Miller. (I saw one being auctioned on eBay for $99 recently.) It was lying in a closet, so I thought, "what the heck, I'll see what I can get with it." My Manhattan apartment doesn't have a view of the top of the Empire State Building (where, post-9/11, virtually all of New York City's broadcast transmitters now reside), but the window in that room faces in that general direction.
I first tried hooking up an $8.95 RadioShack antenna, and lo and behold, I managed to pull in a few stations. CBS and Fox came in, along with NBC's all-digital (but non-HD) local weather channel. In this area, you should also be able to pick up NBC, ABC, WB, and UPN in high-def (the local PBS, PAX, and Spanish-language Telemundo and Univision affiliates offer non-high-def digital transmissions), so I decided to hook up a powered Terk antenna to see if it would do any better. (Another good, inexpensive antenna is the Zenith ZHDTV1 Silver Sensor, shown here
). Sure enough, I was soon pulling in clear images of everything but ABC. Why I didn't get it is a bit of a mystery, but hopefully the station will put out a stronger signal in the future.
How do you get your HD: antenna, cable, or satellite?
Overall, the picture and sound--yes, you do get surround sound--was quite good with the stations that did come in. With smaller TVs such as that 30-inch Samsung, it's harder to tell how good the picture really is, but Senior Editor David Katzmaier--who can
pull in ABC from his Brooklyn abode--says that he thinks the over-the-air signal actually looks better in many cases than the cable HD feeds. Of course, HDTV generally looks great no matter where it comes from, and most people won't care about the slight differences in image quality as long as the picture comes in clearly.
Digital stations have a reputation for either working perfectly or not working at all, but in the skyscraper-filled lower atmosphere of Manhattan, the reality is that, with weaker stations, the image sometimes breaks up or doesn't appear at all and sometimes comes in well. Stronger stations came in flawlessly. If your location isn't surrounded by tall buildings or trees, and you're within range of your broadcasters, then most of your local HDTV stations should come in nice and strong.
After my experience, I'm convinced more people will turn to this "free" method of getting HD, particularly as prices for smaller HD sets with built-in tuners drop (the FCC has mandated that virtually all TV sets sold after July 1, 2007 have built-in HD tuners) and as cable and satellite prices continue to rise. It also doesn't hurt that set-top boxes such as the Humax HFA100
and the Samsung SIR-T451
are getting cheaper; soon they'll be less than $100, brand-new.
The argument goes that anyone buying an HDTV for between $2,000 and $4,000 probably can afford--and wants to have--all those premium HD cable and satellite stations: HBO, ESPN, Showtime, TNT, and the rest. But for those of us who have second sets that are kept in bedrooms or guestrooms and which are used mainly to watch DVDs and play video games, getting a little free HD isn't such a bad thing, especially as more shows and sporting events are broadcast in HD on the major networks.
Of course, you may have a different opinion. Feel free to voice it