What Are the Differences in an HDTV Antenna and a Regular Antenna?

By Steve McDonnell

Over-the-air HDTV broadcasts are free.
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All over-the-air television in the United States is broadcast using digital signals. There's no difference between a regular TV signal and a high-definition TV signal, or between a regular TV antenna and an HDTV antenna. Antennas may provide features, however, such as the ability to amplify a signal or point directly at a signal, and these antennas are commonly marketed as HDTV antennas. Choose an antenna that receives the HD channels you want to watch. Like all things digital, HDTV reception is an either-or proposition – you receive an HD channel in high definition or you don't receive it at all.

Broadcast Bands

Television stations broadcast on two distinct bands: Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF). VHF carries channels 2 to 6 in the low band and channels 7 to 13 in the high band; UHF carries channels 14 to 69. About 75 percent of the channels from full-power U.S. television stations are broadcast on UHF. You need a VHF antenna to view VHF stations and a UHF antenna to view UHF stations. You can use the same antenna to receive analog, digital and HDTV signals.

Antenna Recommendations

Since the antenna you need depends on the broadcast frequency, and the broadcast frequency depends on the channel you want to watch, pick the channels you want to watch first. Enter your street address and zip code into an FCC-recommended website such as AntennaWeb.org to get a list of broadcast channels in your area (see link in Resources). For each channel, the list includes the station and affiliation, broadcast frequency, your distance from the tower, the direction of the signal according to magnetic North, and a color-coded recommendation of the type of antenna you need to receive each channel.

Digital Reception

With analog television of the past, weak reception resulted in a poor-quality picture. With digital television, either you receive a channel or you don't. Because digital signals are more susceptible to interference from obstructions such as mountains and tall buildings, modern antennas include features to help you pick up more channels. Some antennas include a powered amplifier to improve reception, and some let you point an antenna directly at the signal source when you know its location. Outdoor antennas usually receive more channels than indoor antennas.

Over-the-Air Quality

Not all television shows were originally filmed in high definition, and it's common for stations to broadcast standard-definition shows on a high-definition channel. However, an over-the-air HDTV broadcast of content filmed in high definition is pure signal. It provides the best full-resolution picture possible – even better than cable TV, which is usually compressed or modified to remove definition so you can receive more channels.