Getting Free HD TV Programming


As I mentioned before, I bought a new HD TV for Christmas (a Sony 40 inch XBR4). That put me on the hunt for good sources of HD programming.

Something I overlooked for a while, and I'm sure I'm not alone, is over-the-air, free programming from local TV stations. We're so used to the "antenna == bad" school of thought that the cablecos dished out for the last twenty years that we don't even consider it.

There's no doubt that for analog television antennas almost always produced worse results than satellite or cable, but for digital, that's no longer true. In fact, I think the digital TV programming over an antenna is actually superior to the programming you get, for clarity anyway, over cable or satellite. Of course, you can't get ESPN or Discover, but that's another issue.

You might think you need a special antenna for HD programming, but that's not usually the case. It's just UHF TV. When I built my house, I had an antenna installed in the attic and a cable run down to my machine room. Turns out, that works fine. I get 30 digital channels or something with that.

Thirty is a little misleading since stations have decided to use their bandwidth differently. KSL, the local NBC affiliate, for example has one HD channel and two SD channels (all digital). KBYU, BYU's PBS affiliate, has four SD channels and no HD channel. KUED, Utah's PBS affiliate, has one HD channel and one with Spanish programming. It's all over the map.

I found one channel (30.1 if you live in Utah) that seemed to exercise some bug in my TV and caused the whole thing to lock up and turn unresponsive. I had to unplug the coax to get it back to block the channel. Now that you TV is a computer, you get bugs like that I suppose.

That said, the clarity is good and when you get a good 1080i signal, it's as good or better than anything else you can get. One thing's for sure, as more people buy TVs with higher resolution, the demand for more HD programming is going to go through the roof.

I bought an HD Tivo to decode and record digital over-the-air signals. My old Series 2 Tivo just didn't cut it anymore. The new Tivo works great for recording over-the-air programming although that's not something you'd understand very well from reading the Tivo Website. I got it 15% off at CompUSA, which is closing, if you're in the market.

One thing to keep in mind when you're shopping for an HD TV--something else I'd failed to appreciate until recently--is that just looking at the resolution (e.g. 1080p) isn't enough. Keep in mind that you're not just buying a display, you're also buying the computer that renders the picture. They are not all alike and the rendering engine makes a big difference in overall quality of the picture. Also, be sure to check out the contrast ration--higher is better--if you won't be watching it in a darkened room all the time.

As an aside, what's with Best Buy and Circuit City carrying $100 Monster HDMI cables exclusively? You can get perfectly good cables for a third of that or less other places. When I think of all the people who've been snookered by expensive HDMI cables, I cringe.

At any rate, if you haven't done it, hook a good UHF antenna up to your HD TV or Tivo and give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised.