Should You Use the Internet or an Antenna to Watch TV for Free?

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Stop paying for TV. I’m not just talking about cable: You can drop Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney+, and still be able to watch TV for free. Sure, you won’t be keeping up in the golden age of streaming, but you’ll have 24/7 no-cost entertainment in your living room, thanks to both antennas and internet TV. If you’re thinking about truly cutting the cord and committing to one of these options, you’ll want to know what makes them special, but also, what makes them different from each other.

How does antenna TV work?

Free, over-the-air TV still lives on today. In the age of cord-cutting, streaming, and overall expensive television, there is still free-of-charge programming flying over your head every minute. You can’t access them with your TV alone, however, nor can you rely on “rabbit ears.” In order to take advantage of that content, you’ll need an antenna.

There is a huge variety of antennas out there, each serving a different purpose. If you live in an open, uncrowded space, you’ll probably be fine with a cheap, flat antenna. These usually run about $20, which makes investing in one less of a leap. Antennas begin to ramp up in price as their quality increases, however: Some are capable of receiving 4K signals, and are able to pick up more channels than the bargain options.

That said, the cheap antennas could suit you well, even in an apartment in a crowded city. However, you’ll likely need to go through some serious trial and error to find the right spot for the device. Unlike the advertisements, which show the antenna resting on the wall behind your TV, in real life, you might find the ideal location for the antenna to be somewhere weird or limited.

Windows are the best place to start, especially if you have access to the outside of the glass, such as through a balcony, fire escape, or if you’re on the ground floor. If you want to place it on a wall in your home, you should be prepared to test out every square inch of available space, with the antenna in nearly every configuration imaginable. If the antenna is upright on one wall of my room, I won’t get a signal, but shifting it 90˚ brings in the channels. Don’t ask me why.

How many channels you’ll pick up depends on your antenna and your area. The bigger and better the antenna, the more options it’ll connect to, with some antennas claiming a range of 60 to 70 miles. Again, if you live in an open, unobstructed location, in terms of both your housing and the land around it, your signal is likely stronger than if you live somewhere with a lot of interference.

With some patience (and a little elbow grease), you’ll no doubt find a spot in your home that picks up a decent amount of channels with a stable connection.

What is internet TV?

The more immediate and convenient option is to use a free internet TV service. There are plenty of options, from Pluto TV to Tubi TV (for a full list, check out my guide here). These services allow you to tune in to live TV streams entirely for free, as if you had an antenna attached. If you have a smart TV or a streaming device like a Roku or Fire TV stick, you likely have access to apps for these services built-into your system, or at least available to download free of charge.

There are two main advantages to internet TV versus an antenna in my mind: The first is the utter convenience. You won’t be wasting an afternoon testing out each and every location in your home for your antenna (angling the antenna 90˚ on this square inch of wall gives me 20 channels, but right-side up on the window by the balcony gives me 45), since all you have to do is open up the app and start clicking. Of course, no antenna means free TV really free: It costs nothing to launch the Pluto TV app, while an antenna is an investment (albeit small).

The second advantage is the amount of channels you’ll find. There is a seemingly endless supply of these free channels, many providing shows you actually want to watch. My favorite channels are the ones dedicated to a single show, like the Portlandia channel. Who doesn’t want non-stop, unlimited access to Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein?

Of course, these channels are all ad-supported. No one likes ads, but you’re going to be dealing with them whether you choose an antenna TV or internet TV. Ads are worse with internet TV, though. While antenna TV serves up ads with standard, predictable timing, internet TV will sometimes throw ad breaks into content at random. You’ll be watching a movie on one channel, when, all of a sudden, a dramatic scene is interrupted by Dr. Squatch. But, hey, it’s free: It’s tough to complain about ads when you’re not paying for TV. Hell, you see a million ads when watching cable TV, and you pay a LOT for that.

It’s worth having both internet TV and an antenna

With all this said, internet TV seems like the clear winner: a similar experience, with no pain-in-the-ass setup? Why would anyone bother with an antenna? Well, as you might have gathered, I still use an antenna, and for one reason: local channels. Internet TV is undoubtedly great, but it’s the same everywhere. It offers a lot of the channels you might pick up with an antenna, but local stations that only serve your area won’t be there. An antenna is how you can snag these options, stay up to date on local news, and check out great programming from public stations.

I like having both options, and I recommend it for anyone looking to have the complete package.

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