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OTA Antenna and HD ATSC Broadcast Information

Many people are interested in Over-The-Air (OTA) antennas and signals, especially with the rise of high definition (HD) television screens. There are presently two types of OTA signals: digital standard-definition signals and digital high-definition signals. Analog signals are also available in Canada. Following is an explanation of what each is, why you'd want them, and how to find out if you can get them. All, of course, in relation to TiVo and other DVRs.

  • Digital, high-definition (HD): This is the highest quality signal broadcast from antennas, and it's also generally higher than the compressed signals from satellite providers DirecTV, Dish Network, and cable companies. Local stations broadcast these ATSC signals in every major metropolitan areas and many smaller ones in the US. They sometimes carry more than one stream of HD signal allowing for more programming options. It is these channels that DirecTV is adding to its new satellite and broadcasting in the MPEG4 format. But the DirecTV, Dish Network, and cable rebroadcasts of these channels are down-rezzed so that the HD image loses much of its clarity and sharpness. In many cases the differences are enormous. For that reason, even if you have DirecTV, Dish Network, or cable equipment that can get these locals, you'll be better off with an antenna pulling these stations in from the local towers. Also, getting the signal this way is much more impervious to weather conditions especially rain-fade.
  • Digital, standard-definition (SD): Digital SD broadcasts are part of the transition to ATSC digital television and are often overlooked. They generally provide the same picture as the discontinued analog version, but at a much higher quality, and with a better chance of clear tuning. Basically, though, there is very little that can deal with these signals that doesn't also do HD, so there's not too much to do with it.
  • Analog, standard-definition: Generally called NTSC, this is the old-fashioned and original television broadcast. This has been discontinued as of June 2009 in the US, but still exists in Canada. We do have two units that can still receive and record this signal - the Humax DVD TiVo.

Equipment: To record these high quality HD signals, the current unit is the TiVo Premiere. This DVR will also record from cable, with CableCARDs, and can stream video from a number of online sources. (Keep in mind that the TiVo Premiere Elite does NOT work with an off-air antenna.)

Additionally, DirecTV customers with a HR20 DVRs can record HD antenna signals. For users with HR21, HR22, HR23, HR24 and HR34 units, an AM21 (antenna module) can connect to those DVRs for reception of HD antenna signals, fully integrated into the program guide.

As mentioned, a standalone TiVo, or a TiVo with a DVD burner can tune the old-fashioned analog OTA signals.

Other older units can record these HD signals:

DIRECTV HR10-250: The first TiVo to record HD, including OTA HD stations. This unit has four tuners from three inputs: two for satellite signals from a 3 LNB (elliptical) or 5 LNB (AT9) dish; and one input for OTA HD signals (one external port is split internally to two tuners since this is a one-way communication conduit). The unit can tune all current OTA signals - both HD and SD. The HR10-250 can record any two programs at once from any of the four tuners. NOTE: This TiVo is pretty outdated at this point. DirecTV and TiVo have announced that a new HD DVR from both companies will be available in 2011. We don't know whether that unit will support OTA recording.

TiVo HD: This product is a TiVo-brand DVR. It actually has six tuners, and the ability to record from any two at once. The six tuners are two of each of these three varieties: two cable (via one or two CableCARDs), two NTSC tuners, and two ATSC tuners. This is the most flexible TiVo by far - able to act as a cable box (with the CableCARDs), and receive and record the OTA HD signals - which are the cream of the crop. The key to any of the above scenarios is the source of the data. Re-broadcasters, like the satellite companies or cable providers, essentially try to cram lots of programming down a certain amount of bandwidth. In the process, they use some type of compression that inevitably results in the loss of image quality by the time it reaches your television screen. In the case of SD transmissions, the quality was never great, and it doesn't suffer a lot by the time you get it. And since satellite and cable providers digitize the NTSC signals at the source the quality is often better than a broadcast NTSC signal. But with HD, the reverse is true. The networks and their local affiliates all have the bandwidth to broadcast very high quality images. Local stations can broadcast ATSC OTA channels in resolutions up to 1920 × 1080, which makes for a pretty amazing picture, even on a 1080p screen (the highest quality currently available). Local stations have every reason to bring you the highest quality signal they can. The problem is that the re-broadcasters (satellite and cable companies) have the reverse incentive. They want to squeeze more channels in, generally sacrificing quality. Locals are ensured their frequency space and don't have this constraint.

Getting HD local broadcasts: An OTA antenna. Since the DirecTV HR10-250 and the TiVo Series 3 (as well as the non-DVR H10 and H20 and most older DirecTV HD receivers) can work with OTA signals, use those in place of the DirecTV-rebroadcast feeds. You'll get better quality, more options, and less vulnerability to weather problems. To find out how far your local stations' towers are, enter your zip code at AntennaWeb (all you need is your zip code, but entering a full address is going to get you more accurate information).

WeaKnees offers two antennas currently. We offer the Winegard SquareShooter line - the SS-1000 and SS-2000. The SS-2000 basically takes the SS-1000 and adds a power amplifier to it to extend its range. For more information about choosing and installing an OTA antenna, see our TiVo Blog entry on OTA antennas and TiVos.

OTA Antennas - The Winegard SquareShooter and directional 91XG
DirecTV R10
SS-2000: Antenna for receiving over-the-air broadcasts. Will receive signals from yellow, green, light green, red and blue distances (see AntennaWeb for detail). Includes Amplifier. $139 - FREE SHIPPING AVAILABLE


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