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Antenna Tests Show Digital Reception Travels

By Wayne Rash
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page F07

When people talk about the high cost of digital television, they often forget that it can also be the cheapest kind to use month after month. While many people opt to get digital broadcasts as they do analog by paying for cable or satellite service, you could instead use a digital receiver and an over-the-air antenna to pull in a clear, sharp high-definition picture from local stations for free.

This was always part of the digital-TV promise, but many earlier receivers had serious trouble tuning in off-air signals reliably. Lately, though, as manufacturers and broadcasters have fine-tuned their equipment, off-air reception has become surprisingly possible -- as we found out in testing digital reception at a handful of locations across the Washington area.

Zenith's Silver Sensor antenna gave the best reception except in Fairfax. (Courtesy of Zenith Electronics Corp.)

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This traveling television test show consisted of a 17-inch flat panel display from LG (the RU-17LZ21, $1,199), digital receivers from Samsung and LG, and antennas from Zenith and Terk. We also used whatever older antennas were available at each of our test locations, which represented a wide range of distances from the television transmitters clustered in the District's Tenleytown neighborhood.

The first tests took place in a home in far southwestern Fairfax County, in a rural area near Clifton. The second was in Silver Spring, just outside the Beltway near Georgia Avenue. A third was in an Arlington neighborhood close by Fort Myer, and a fourth was held in a row house in the District, a few blocks east of Georgetown University.

The big surprise: Despite years of counsel from television experts that an outdoor antenna would be required in most places, we needed an external antenna only in Clifton, roughly 22 miles distant from the transmitters.

Not so surprising: As we'd suspected, we didn't need HDTV-specific antennas. That Clifton roof-mounted antenna, for instance, was a 10-year-old analog model. An outdoor aerial in Silver Spring, which worked as well as the indoor antennas, was even older, dating to at least the first Bush administration. In Arlington, we got by with a simple set-top antenna that had been collecting dust for several years.

At all four locations, reception was startlingly clear. Most of the time, we had to experiment briefly to find which way to point the antenna, but then the signal stayed locked in. Digital even worked in places where analog reception was miserable, such as that Georgetown residence.

The best overall results came with Zenith's Silver Sensor, a $30 set-top device that needed no fiddling to pick up all the local digital broadcasts -- ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and WB, plus public televisions stations WETA and Maryland Public Television -- in every location but Fairfax.

The downside to Zenith's antenna is that it picks up only the UHF signals used for digital and some analog broadcasts, not the VHF signals that carry channels 13 and lower. Terk's HDTVi, $40, includes a set of VHF rabbit-ear antennas in addition to its UHF antenna.

This set-top model, however, didn't work as well as the Zenith -- a design flaw prevents a solid connection between its detachable, tree-like antenna and its internal wiring. Thursday, Terk said it was withdrawing this model from the market.

Lastly, we tried out Terk's TV55 antenna, a $100 four-foot-long cylinder that can be mounted indoors or outdoors and includes a powered amplifier (and therefore needs its own power outlet). It was exceptionally direction-sensitive, a problem if the desired digital transmitters aren't in the same spot. The TV55 could pull in signals from farther away than the other indoor antennas we tried -- but not from as far out as Clifton.

Since the HDTV we used, like most such sets, didn't include a digital tuner -- often called an ATSC tuner, after the Advanced Television Standards Committee that developed the technology -- we had to plug it into one of two external boxes. Both Samsung's SIR-T451, $350, and LG's LST3410A, $999, pulled in all of the available broadcasts. LG's seemed to lock into signals slightly quicker and included a 120-gigabyte digital video recorder -- but it also cost three times as much as Samsung's.

The bottom line is, digital television works. Based on our test, if you can receive an analog signal at home now, you can probably get a better digital signal using the same antenna. You'll just need a digital TV and most likely a separate receiver -- either one integrated in a satellite receiver or one built solely for off-air reception. (Some cable boxes may include off-air tuners as well, but since you can't opt out of paying for local HD broadcasts via cable, there's not much point in setting up such a receiver.)

If you need to buy an antenna, a cheap indoor model should work inside the Beltway or not far outside it. Farther away, you'll want a more expensive amplified indoor antenna. Unless you live really far away or have major obstacles -- for example, hills -- between you and the transmitters, you probably won't need an outside antenna.

The best approach is to try the smallest antenna first -- making sure you know the store's return policies in case you need to trade for something better. Bear in mind that digital reception may still be impossible in locations with too many adjacent structures or geographic impediments.

A few area stations still aren't broadcasting digitally at their full, authorized power, which means they are harder to receive than they should be. Check that you can receive all of the stations that are important to you. To verify the locations of your favorite stations, consult a Web site run by the Consumer Electronics Association: www.antennaweb.org.

Once you do have your stations dialed in, the results are spectacular. One of the people who loaned us their living rooms, Post columnist John Kelly, looked in awe at the images that appeared and had one question: "You don't have to pay for this?"

© 2004 The Washington Post Company