OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


If you have a portable handheld TV with a telescoping antenna with an analog NTSC tuner, I have bad news. It will be worthless and not functional on February 17, 2009 unless the analog shutoff date changes, or it can pick up a low power station with programming only four people care about. But if you have a high end laptop with a fast processor, a lot of memory, and a lot of disk space, it is very possible that you can turn that laptop into a portable HDTV set.

First of all, let me tell you about the screen resolution of most laptops. For a TV monitor to be HDTV, it needs to be widescreen (16x9 aspect ratio), flat, and have at least 700 lines of vertical resolution. Resolution on TV sets are specified as the number of horizontal pixels by the number of vertical pixels, and there are laptops available with a widescreen LCD display. A display specified as WXGA widescreen has a resolution of 1280 x 768 or 1280 x 800, and that arguably qualifies such a monitor as a 720p HDTV! There are also monitors available with a WXGA+ resolution with 900 vertical lines or more, which is almost ideal for watching 1080i HD broadcasts, although you can see them on 720p monitors as well at the expense of a bit of resolution.

Now in order to enjoy the DTV broadcasts, you will need to keep in mind that broadcast HDTV uses an MPEG-2 stream of 10 Mbps or more. So without a fast processor and much memory, the video streams will be very jumpy, and freeze quite often. You will also need an off-air ATSC tuner, which can either be an internal aftermarket card, or a USB tuner with a BDA driver. Some USB tuners do not need an external power supply, they are powered by the laptop power pack or battery. You will have to be aware though the battery usage may be limited to jut a few hours. Then you will need software, and there are several options. You can purchase a laptop with Windows XP Media Center Edition with Service Pack 2. Another option is that you can just get a widescreen WXGA or WXGA+ laptop with Windows XP with Service Pack 2 without Media Center, and instead purchase a third party media center software. There are also packages available with a tuner and media center software available as a bundle. One such third party Windows XP media center software I have tried is BeyondTV by Snapstream. Here is a link to a page which has a list of recommended DTV tuners and PC requirements for a good HDTV experience: http://www.snapstream.com/products/beyondtv/hdtv-setup-center.asp. You will also have to have a good, fast video card for smooth HDTV video, just like the kind recommended for gaming.

Finally you can enjoy off-air HDTV broadcasts with an antenna, and a portable UHF antenna, although it may not get all the off-air channels, may get you several outside your residence, although outside you will have to be restricted to a nonamplified antenna. It will not be too much of an inconvenience, however, if you use a short piece of RG-6 cable, since there is very little signal loss through RG-6 cable lengths of under 25 inches. Remember that amplifiers are really intended to offset signal losses through long cable runs or splitters.

However bringing an antenna and USB tuner, especially one that can drain your laptop battery, understandably may not appeal to you. Well, if you travel often with a laptop and need to kill some downtime on a plane, a train, or in the hotel, you could use the media center software and an antenna at home to record off-air HDTV to watch later during those times. If your laptop has a 100 GB hard drive or more, you can record 10 hours of HDTV programming. The programs are stored as video files that you can easily access in the media center software, and you can use it to schedule a recording. Then you can disconnect the antenna or USB tuner, and take a recorded HD show with your work. The picture quality would be superior to subscription video podcasts or videos from iTunes that are meant to be watched in full screen on video iPods, and best of all, off-air HDTV shows are free! Keep in mind, however, that most recorded HDTV shows on PCs will be file protected, so you likely cannot be able to copy or redistribute the file to someone else. If you have a portable video player, you can convert the HD show to a lower resolution and enjoy on the portable device with the right software and some patience, and the conversion process takes time depending on the length of the program.

If you do record at home, even though the files are protected, if the laptop is connected on a Ethernet or 802.11g based (54 Mbps) wireless home network, the files could be accessed on a Media Center PC or extender, like on a high-end XBox 360, on the home network, and enjoyed on a big screen HDTV. So, you could either send high quality HDTV through a home network using a small indoor antenna, or the laptop DTV tuner can be connected to a wall plate on a MATV system hooked up to an outdoor antenna.

So if you are thinking about getting a laptop to do work and send emails and documents on a WiFi network, check the specs and consider adding on a DTV tuner and antenna, and with DTV recordings as well as on-demand broadband services like Akimbo, Movielink, and CinemaNow, all of whom can provide pre-recorded HD programs themselves, you can have great entertainment that suits your needs, and you will need to explain a pay-per-view purchase on your travel expense report.