Increasingly, more people are abandoning cable or satellite TV in favor of a combination of free Over-the-air content with a streaming service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. We looked at theClearStream™ 2V from Antennas Direct, coupled to a SiliconDust HD HomeRun Connect TV Tuner,with a 4th generation Apple TV to see some of the options.
Since June 13, 2009, when the FCC mandated that broadcasters switch to all digital broadcast, legacy users had two choices, buy a new TV, or pick up a digital tuner with analog outputs to keep using their old sets. Millions of users (By August 5, 2009, consumers had used 33,962,696 coupons!) took advantage of a free coupon offer to make the switch over painless, and the program allowed people to keep using their legacy analog TVs. But, most of those tuners weren't High Definition, which meant that even some HD capable sets couldn't take advantage of the digital broadcast. But that was then, and this is now, and most users have ditched their old CRT units, and purchased new plasma or LCD sets with built in-in digital tuners so the transition to digital is no longer a problem.
If streaming services have proven anything, it's that users are moving away from owning physical objects like DVDs, unless there is a compelling reason for that, such as high-resolution Blu-ray audio, or if you are into bonus material, and the upcoming slow rollout of 4K content. But for the most part, most consumers have felt that there is no need to own when you can rent or stream.
Enter Netflix, and to a lesser extent Amazon Prime and Hulu, and pit them against the increasingly higher cost of cable TV, and you have a market that embraces Over-the-air broadcast. For lots of folks Over-the-air won't work for them. If you are a sports lover, than your content is severely limited by local broadcast restrictions or licensing deals, as Dodger fans have discovered to their dismay, or if you can't sleep without HBO or the Discovery Channel, then you probably need cable. But, if you watch the major networks, and if your team broadcasts local games for free over the air or through an Internet based subscription on your computer, tablet, or phone, you might be just fine dropping cable. Public Broadcasting is free as well, although we have had problems watching those stations due to a change in frequency for a few channels, a problem that we will describe later.
We have looked at several indoor antenna options and two brands come to mind. Antennas Direct, and Leaf.
Mohu pioneered the Mohu Leaf, a flat, almost paper thin antenna, which amazingly worked as advertised for most stations. The original Leaf design was a simple flat rectangle, white on one side, and dark grey on the other. It had a little hole at the top to hang it with. I know some folks who hung theirs in back of a framed photo, with a little degradation in signal, but hiding it from view. It could be hung on a wall or a window, and came in your choice of powered or non-powered. Mohu now has a full line of antennas, but at the time they had nothing to compete with the indoor/outdoor line from Antennas Direct.
A bit of discussion is warranted about what is termed “powered” or more accurately “amplified” antenna systems. You aren't powering the antenna, instead what you are doing with an antenna amplifier is to amplify the signal strength, so that weaker stations get a boost in signal, and stronger stations also get a boost. This doesn't always work as planned. For example, using the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse™ Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna, with the amplifier in use, some of the stronger stations were actually a bit noisy with more artifacts, while most of the weaker stations were improved. Part of this is the amplifier design itself, which tend to be inexpensive with limited filtering to keep the cost down of the entire package. But for most users, we recommend springing for the few extra bucks for the amplified version. We found the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse™ Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna very effective in our tests, and enjoyed its modern and clean aesthetic design. The Antennas Direct is a large “O” shaped flexible plastic design with a non-destructive adhesive on one side so it can stick to a window. It also comes with a non-amplified option. The Eclipse stuck to windows just fine, and it captured VHF signals better than the Mohu Leaf. It’s a great choice for someone in an apartment, dorm room, or even in a RV.
Antennas Direct ClearStream™ 2 V
Several years ago we pondered the state of broadcast television, and at the time we reviewed the Antennas Direct ClearStream™ 2 with a CPA-1 distribution amplifier. To better understand how we tested the gear then and now, we started off with a small powered set top antenna from Terk, which worked ok, not great, but ok. It had a rotating element, and you would need to move it around depending on the station. We used with a set top digital to analog tuner, and for the most part it worked. Later we moved it to the attic, since the house was wired for cable TV, with coax running throughout, so we were able to run the small antenna into the coax, and thus distribute the signal throughout the house. It was actually pretty slick, but with a compromised signal, and limited channel reach. How did we know this? Simple, just visit TV Fool on the web(http://www.tvfool.com/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=29) and you can quickly find a channel map for your area. So, it’s easy to see what you are and aren’t receiving.
During a CES press event, several colleagues were deep in a conversation about the move toward Over-the-air broadcast and what its implications were. When the question of antennas came up, all of them recommended that we look at products from Antennas Direct, who as you might have guessed by their name specialized in their own manufactured line of antennas. They have an extensive product line but their most popular was theClearStream™ 2, a design that combined their signature figure 8 design, with a rectangular metal grid in back, all mounted to a post ready for outdoor or indoor attic mounting. We were able to test it by placing it in our attic, so no need to clamber on the roof. Did we lose some signal? Probably, but we compare by placing out a top floor window, pointed in the same direction, and there was no discernible difference in station capture. But, for maximum sensitivity outdoor mounting with no obstructions is best. According to the manufacturer, “With its unique integrated diplexer for UHF and VHF reliability, this antenna is ideal for suburban area installations challenged with receiving signals through heavy foliage or roofing materials in your attic.” It also is available with a 20" J-Mount Mast, and it is stated to have 60+ Mile Range.
Another unit we added was the ClearStream™ JUICE™ UHF/VHF Amplifier System, which actually combined two functions, first it amplified the signal from the antenna, and secondly it was a distribution amplifier, which helped maintain a good signal throughout all the long coax runs in the house. It also boasts better rejection of noise over its predecessor so you could get the benefits of signal amplification without the increase in noise that a less sophisticated design might create. If you have long coax runs, or are trying to pull in weaker stations we think the JUICE™ UHF/VHF Amplifier System should be on your recommended accessory list.
We did have one problem though, two stations in the Philadelphia region, WPVI (ABC) and WHYY (PBS)would only come in partially if at all, and unevenly during different times of the day. The problem is that those stations are on FCC mandated VHF (Very High Frequency) bands whereas all the other stations in the area useUHF (Ultra High Frequency) bands and most television antennas were designed primarily for UHF only. So, there have been problems for many consumers watching those channels unless you installed a separate antenna just for those stations. The other option was to give up and sign up for cable!
So, it was welcome news when Antennas Direct added a small low cost VHF Antenna to their ClearStream models, and as a separate VHF Antenna Kit product that seamlessly attaches to their customers existing ClearStream antennas. For under $20, the new VHF Antenna Kit made a significant difference in capturing both PBS and ABC in our area. The ability to tune in stations was impressive. Our high hopes for those two problematic channels were only somewhat realized. We did get one station, WHYY PBS Channel 12 fine once the new VHF antenna was installed, but WPVI ABC was still a bit flaky. But to be fair, this was the prediction of the support technicians at Antennas Direct since the channels are in a portion of the broadcast spectrum that you would need a more specifically designed antenna to capture, as well as a precise directional pointing. If you were in a situation like this, mounting a couple of antennas to your roof, one for the general spectrum, and another directional VHF antenna would do the trick. Or you could move up to one of their models designed to capture even weaker stations. The build quality of every product we tested was first rate, their product support was exemplary, and we found them easy to work with. The only problem you might have is what to do with the savings from your cable company! Might we suggest giving a donation to a visual arts organization?
The ClearStream™ 2 V, ClearStream™ JUICE™ UHF/VHF Amplifier System, ClearStream Eclipse™ Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna, and the VHF Antenna Kit from Antennas Direct all come highly recommended.
During this testing we wondered if anyone made a HD Digital to Analog TV set-top tuner, and our colleagueAdam Zucker recommended that we look at the SiliconDust HD HomeRun Connect TV Tuner. The unit is a small box, with a coax input, and an Ethernet jack. As for instructions, the card in the box says to go to their website, but you won't find much installation information there. The unit's premise is to grab the signal from the antenna, then convert to a signal available on your LAN (Local Area Network) so that any computer or wireless device has access to it. We were able to download their free software to access the unit on our Mac running Yosemite, and although the software is absolutely barebones, it worked reasonably well. We were also able to use the legacy Elgato EyeTV software with the unit, which enables DVR functions using your computer to capture, program, and schedule recordings. But, viewing the signal on anything other than a computer wasn't really possible, that was until the introduction of the 4th generation Apple TV and two new apps. InstaTV is a free app, works great, albeit a bit barebones, and it detected the SiliconDust unit without drama, and in a few moments we were watching LL Cool J dashing about NCIS on CBS. Very cool.
The other option we were interested in exploring was a new, more expensive app called Channels. I contacted the developer who told me that it came about from wanting a true, first-rate Apple TV app that could take advantage of the new features of the 4th generation Apple TV. According to the company, “Channels is designed to be used with a brand new HDHomeRun out of the box, with no computer or other apps required. You can mark favorites by clicking on channels on the Settings tab, or by click-and-holding them on the All tab. Favorites are local to the ATV though and not shared with other apps, since many of our customers have a different set of favorites in the living room vs. game room vs. kids room etc. You'll see that Channels is much more polished and maintains a native Apple TV look and feel throughout the app. One of the major features of Channels not available in the other apps is the ~90 minute buffer that lets you pause, rewind and fast forward live TV. Channels also offers audio track selection, closed captioning, full surround sound and sophisticated Siri remote interactions that you will be hard pressed to find with any of the alternatives.”
We are happy to report that it works exactly as promised, with clean, clear capture, the ability to create a favorites list, and more. It also cached the show you are watching so you can scroll back and view the part you missed when your pets decided to demand your immediate attention, a feature that other apps like InstaTV lacked. We do wish there was a trial version to test, since $24.99 is a lot to spend on an untested app. If it were less expensive this might not be an issue, but it's high enough to give some consumers pause. But, they do have a refund policy, so you can request a refund from Apple if it isn’t the right fit for you. We have a hunch that once you use it, you won’t go back. It is a beautifully written and executed app that will make it painless to cut the cable cord for most users. We are looking forward to seeing how its feature set grows in the future, such as Channels DVR that they discuss on their community site.
Should you stop using and paying for cable? It depends on your use and priorities. Since the average cable bill runs between $40 to $70 a month in addition to Internet and phone, that adds up to roughly $800 a year, which is enough to fly to round trip anywhere in the US, and even Europe. So, is having HBO worth it? With the move away from landlines to cell phones, and the approval for high-speed Wi-Fi just granted by the FCC, we can see a time when you won't need any wired connections. With Netflix and other streaming services providing more original content and cinema offerings, the need for cable and the costs it entails, is a perfect opportunity to cut the cable cord and move to Over-the-air broadcast.
Harris Fogel and Nancy Burlan, posted 4/25/2016
For more information on Antennas Direct visit: https://www.antennasdirect.com/
For more information on SiliconDust visit: https://www.silicondust.com/
For more information on Channels visit: https://getchannels.com/
For more information on Mohu visit: http://store.gomohu.com/antennas.html