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The Open-Source Classroom

Actually Cutting the Cord

Shawn Powers

Issue #276, April 2017

Local broadcast channels on Roku? Yes!

In my last article, I talked about various streaming options available for folks who want to get rid of their cable bills. You might remember that although I found lots of options, I hadn't actually canceled my cable service because I couldn't get local channels. Since writing that article, I did in fact cancel my subscription and managed to get local channels anyway. But, it wasn't as easy as putting rabbit ears on my television, that's for sure! If getting those local channels is something you're interested in doing, but struggle with the logistics, I encourage you to read on.

Finding Towers

Figuring out what channels are available in your area can be the most difficult part of cutting the cable cord. Thankfully, with the advent of digital TV, several wonderful websites and apps were created that can help you determine your free TV potential. It's interesting that not all websites agree on signal strength. If you recall, as I wrote in my last article, I was certain I couldn't tune in any channels. That certainty was based on reports from several websites. Thankfully though, I expanded the search and decided to try it anyway. And, I currently get all the major stations even though I expected to get none!

Before we moved to the city of Petoskey, Michigan, we were in a rural area 30 miles east. Our house was in a valley, but thanks to AntennaWeb (antennaweb.org), I was able to determine that we could get stations with an antenna on a mast (Figure 1). So when we moved to our new house, I used the same website, and it informed me that we'd be able to get zero channels (Figure 2), regardless of what sort of antenna we used. That's when I gave up—at least temporarily. I tried another website, TV Fool (www.tvfool.com), and was surprised to see quite a few channels that were available, but just were weak (Figure 3). My suspicion is that AntennaWeb cuts off the stations that are really weak. Still, I'd like to know what's available.

Figure 1. Who knew living in a small town would mean better reception?

Figure 2. This was depressing.

Figure 3. Thankfully, TV Fool offers information on distant stations.

In the end, I found a few apps in the Google Play Store that were incredibly useful. Not only do the apps locate nearby towers, but if your phone has a compass built in, it helps you point your antenna for pinpoint accuracy. Several apps are available, but I use Digital TV Antennas (Figure 4): https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ar.com.lichtmaier.antenas.

Figure 4. These apps make pointing antennas so much easier.

Choosing Antennas

Once you've determined which towers you want to try, you can choose the antenna (or antennas) you want to use. If AntennaWeb shows you available towers, it also shows you the “color” antenna you'll need to tune in the various channels. Those ratings are standard, so you can look for a “blue” or “green” antenna and have a fairly good estimate of what stations you'll get. My towers are “fringe” at best, so I needed to get the biggest, baddest antenna I could get. I also needed a preamp (more about that in a bit).

If you're in an area with strong signals, you will likely be able to use an omnidirectional antenna to tune in towers from all directions. In fact, many people do really well with rabbit ears, especially if they're in a city near a television tower. If you need to pull a station from a long distance, however, you'll need a directional antenna. And, even those antennas come in multiple flavors, and they all have various strengths and weaknesses.

Before you pick an antenna, you have to determine what type of signal you need to receive. The spectrum is divided into three parts: Low VHF, High VHF and UHF. Those translate into channels 2–6 for Low VHF, channels 7–13 for High VHF and 14–51 (used to be 69) for UHF. The majority of antennas do a poor job with Low VHF, because the wavelengths require huge antenna booms to receive. If you need to pull in a Low VHF channel, be sure that whatever antenna you end up buying is designed for Low VHF. The good news is more and more stations are moving away from Low VHF, but it's often hard to tell without looking at sites like TV Fool or AntennaWeb, because stations will use “virtual channels” to preserve their station identification.

If you're a television station that has been “NBC on channel 2” for 50 years, that channel recognition is hard to give up. So those stations end up switching to a UHF frequency, but encoding a “virtual” channel so the television shows its original branded channel number. If you look back at Figure 3, you'll see that channel 35 has a virtual channel of 4.1. When you switch channels on your television, it will actually show the station on channel 4, even though it's actually being broadcast on UHF channel 35! It's confusing, yes, but it's honestly a good thing, because it means fewer and fewer stations actually require a Low VHF antenna. In fact, every single station available to me is a UHF station, so I can get a UHF-only antenna.

Antenna Angle

If you need a Low VHF channel, or even a High VHF channel, your options are a bit more limited. In fact, you'll likely want to get a traditional television antenna like the Channel Master 3020 (a.co/83uaKeY), which is around 15-feet long and 8-feet wide! Obviously I'm going to the extreme size, and if you don't need to pull in weak stations, you can get away with something smaller. With an antenna this big, an outdoor roof installation makes sense, but I've installed something similar in my attic (Figure 5) and had fairly good luck. Unfortunately, this style of antenna is fairly directional, so they work best if your towers are in the same direction. They can certainly pull a bit of signal from towers not directly in front of them, but they do best while pointed at the tower, especially VHF towers.

Figure 5. This photo doesn't do the size of the antenna justice. It's enormous!

Using the Android app mentioned previously, pointing an antenna like this is trivial. If you're trying to find a sweet spot between two towers, however, the best thing to do is connect a television and make minor adjustments until you get the most stations to come in clearly. Keep in mind that weather affects reception, so a station that comes in clearly one day might not come in at all on another day. It can be frustrating. I've taken far too many trips to my attic attempting to get the best compromise between quality and quantity of stations!

If you just need UHF channels, I highly recommend getting a bow tie antenna. Like the traditional-shaped antenna, they can be mounted indoors or outside, but they are more affected by wind than traditional antennas. Bow tie antennas often are worth the hassle, however, because they do an incredible job with UHF channels, plus they have a wider area of reception. Every antenna is rated for a different angle of reception, but if you have a few towers that a unidirectional antenna can't get at the same time, a bow tie might work better. Unfortunately, the math goes only so far, and you'll likely have to try various models to find the best match. I ordered the HD4228 antenna (a.co/5qPRjcm), hoping it will pick up multiple towers a bit better than my traditional directional antenna (Figure 6). I recommend unwrapping antennas carefully, because it's possible you'll need to return them when they don't work like you hope. I didn't do that, and I now have three antennas I can no longer return.

Figure 6. This antenna hasn't arrived yet, but I have high hopes.

Amp? Preamp?

If you go to a department store, you'll likely see lots of amplified antennas, which are marketed as magic bullets to enhance even the weakest signal. That's not what amps do for television signal. Also, note that “amp” and “preamp” are the same thing when it comes to television antennas. (There might be a technical difference an RF pro can explain, but for all intents and purposes, “amp” and “preamp” both mean preamp when it comes to television antennas.)

A preamp does not make a weak signal stronger. If your antenna doesn't tune in the station, an amp won't help. What a preamp does help with is eliminating signal loss on the way from the antenna to the television. That's why preamps are installed as close to the antenna as possible—usually directly on the mast. The preamp takes the signal from the antenna and strengthens the signal on your in-house coax cable. Think about it like tuning in a radio station with an antenna and having an amp to make the volume louder. It's the same process. The amp makes the signal “louder”, so all the televisions in the house can “hear” the signal, but it does not make the signal any clearer.

Just because preamps aren't the magic-bullet antennas marketing folks would like us to believe, they are still a vital part of retrieving a weak signal. Every connector, splitter and foot of cable introduces signal loss into the system. A preamp guarantees every bit of reception gets to the television tuners, and with fringe towers, it can make all the difference. Thankfully, preamps are relatively inexpensive and easy to install. I use the Wineguard LNA-200 (a.co/2xCR5rn, Figure 7), which is powered by an injector (Figure 8) in the cable before connecting to televisions.

Figure 7. The preamp is as close to the antenna as possible.

Figure 8. The power injector can be a bit away from the actual preamp.

Multiple Antennas?

If you have towers that are in different directions, it's possible to point two directional antennas and combine the signal to get both. Logically, this makes a ton of sense, especially if you have towers that are impossible to get with a single antenna. Unfortunately, it seldom works in practice. The problem is that along with combining reception, it also combines interference and noise. The end result is usually channels that have a ghosting effect, and instead of getting both towers, you end up with neither.

If you want to try using multiple antennas, be sure to get the smallest directional antennas you can use and still get a signal. The idea is to tune in only the tower you're pointing at, so the interference is limited. Still, it's a long shot and seldom works. There are additional steps you can do like installing channel filters so only specific frequencies come through to the antenna combiner, but it becomes complicated and expensive very quickly. I've never had luck with multiple antennas, but some people do.

Seven Televisions?

There are seven televisions in my house: one in each bedroom, one in my office, one in the upstairs family room and one in the living room. I have Ethernet or Wi-Fi to each TV, but only one has COAX. I have no desire to run COAX cables and enough preamps to get television signal to each room. So for me, there has to be another step to cutting the cord—namely, network distribution of television channels. Thankfully, a few options work really well.

The Tablo DVR (a.co/7bmdB5q) is a device that has built-in tuners for watching and recording OTA (over the air) television (Figure 9). It requires an external hard drive and a subscription for TV guide information. Some apps make watching television easy on devices like the Roku, but paying for a subscription feels a bit like cable television fees. The system is reported to work well, however, so if you're looking for a DVR option, it's worth looking at. I want my local stations only for watching the news and the Thanksgiving Day Parade, so DVR isn't really high on my priority list, so I chose to install an HDHomeRun CONNECT device.

Figure 9. I've heard good things about the Tablo, just not the price.

The HDHomeRun CONNECT (Figure 10) has two built-in tuners and nothing else. It connects to Ethernet and acts like a network-based television tuner for any device that can connect to it. There are computer apps for watching television, but the real awesomeness comes when you use something like Plex Media Server. Plex DVR supports the HDHomeRun as a tuner, so you can use the DVR feature of Plex. Unfortunately, Plex DVR doesn't allow you to watch live television, just recordings after the shows are done.

Figure 10. I love the HDHomeRun, but I wish it had more than two tuners.

Plex has two channels that let you watch live television from any Plex device (Figure 11)—that includes remote mobile devices! This means I can watch my local television stations even while traveling. That's awesome. Neither channel is “official”, but each easily can be installed on the Plex Media Server. HDGrandSlam (https://github.com/jumpmanjay/HDGrandSlam.bundle) has a more complex menu system, but it detects what shows are currently playing on your OTA channels. The other channel is HDHR Viewer 2 (https://github.com/zynine-/HDHRViewerV2.bundle), which has a simpler menu system, but other than that, it's similar in function. I installed both, but I find myself using HDHR Viewer 2 more often simply because it's fewer clicks to get to the television. It's interesting to note that both channels take a significant time to start playing the station. I think that's due to transcoding and buffering. It's tolerable, but just know that channel surfing isn't fun.

Figure 11. HD Grand Slam has a cooler icon, but I prefer HDHR Viewer 2.

Am I a Happy Cord-Cutter?

If there was a magic bullet that made cord-cutting possible for me, it would be Roku. I have a few Roku TVs and some non-smart TVs with Roku devices connected to them. Roku allows me to use PlayStation Vue, Plex, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and live TV (via Plex), with the option to switch to SlingTV if Vue ever becomes too expensive. If my family members had to switch sources every time they switched from television to Netflix, it would be frustrating. Heck, the newer Roku boxes even have HDMI-CEC, which allows volume to be controlled with a single remote, which means no more piles of remotes for each room.

I've used just about every home theater set-top-box device around, from the original Xbox running XBMC, to a Raspberry Pi running Kodi, to the Boxee Box and Popcorn Hour. With a Roku, a Linux server and a bit of elbow grease, I've finally gotten to the point where watching television doesn't require any special tech skills. Heck, I even can turn the television on and off with my Amazon Echo—but that's another article altogether.

Shawn Powers is the Associate Editor for Linux Journal. He's also the Gadget Guy for LinuxJournal.com, and he has an interesting collection of vintage Garfield coffee mugs. Don't let his silly hairdo fool you, he's a pretty ordinary guy and can be reached via e-mail at info@linuxjournal.com. Or, swing by the #linuxjournal IRC channel on Freenode.net.

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