Shop the best antennas to get free TV

Julianne Ross, CNN Underscored
Wed February 27, 2019

In this age of endless streaming services and cable bills that may prompt a desire to toss your TV out a window, it's easy to forget that plenty of programming is actually free for the taking: All you need is the right antenna.

Free TV may sound too good to be true, but there's no scam here. Antennas pick up over-the-air signals from the affiliates of networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS and deliver them to your TV for nothing. (This is why they have commercials — because advertisers are paying for the airtime, consumers don't have to.)

Antennas are the best choice for local coverage as well as live sports and events and have improved a lot since the rabbit ears and hand-cranked contraptions of old. These days, you can get quality, easy-to-install devices often for less than the cost of one month of cable. Your shows may look better, too: antennas automatically capture uncompressed HD digital signals, often resulting in better quality than you'd get from a cable provider (which, even if you pay for HD channels, compresses its signals). These signals are also more reliable than cable, meaning you're less likely to get stranded without coverage in case of something like a thunderstorm.

All recommendations below are based on proper selection and installation based on consumer's specific geography; beyond distance, physical obstructions like hills and even large buildings can affect reception, which is why it's important to research which antenna is best for your circumstances before buying.

Here's one very cool thing to be aware of. Antennas actually often pick up lots of local OTA signals that are not included with cable or satellite packages. These are essentially regional substations of larger channels including local access stations.. Cable providers also may sneakily advertise OTA channels within their packages, effectively charging for something that's free. An antenna plus a streaming service of your choice will get you a solid combination of live, local, and prestige programming.

Ready to cut ties with your cable bill? Read on for our picks of the top TV antennas on the market.

What to look for when you shop:

There are a few important things to keep in mind when buying a TV antenna. First, you'll have to decide if you need an indoor or outdoor device. Outdoor antennas, which are typically installed on a roof, can pick up a broader range of signals, but they're obviously not always an option and often not necessary. If you live within roughly 30 miles of a broadcast tower, you'll probably be fine with an indoor antenna -- mount it on a window for best reception.

You'll also run into the terms directional, mulidirectional, and omnidirectional when shopping for antennas. A directional antenna is focused on receiving a signal from one direction, a multidirectional from multiple directions, and an omnidirectional antenna can receive signals from all directions. One option isn't necessarily better than another; again, what works best depends on where you live and whether you'll require a more focused signal or not.

Finally, UHF and VHF refer to different channel bands, sort of like AM vs. FM on the radio. All of our picks can detect both UHF and VHF bands, but, again, exact signal strength will depend on your location and surrounding geography.

The website TVfool.com will tell you what type of antenna is best depending on your address and the channels you want to receive. The graph might look daunting, but color coding makes it simple: to receive any channel highlighted in green, an indoor antenna is sufficient, while those channels in the yellow to red range will require an attic- or roof-mounted antenna. AntennaWeb.org is another site for figuring out how far you are from broadcast towers and how many stations you can expect to receive at your address. The color coding here can help you decide if you need a directional or multidirectional antenna.

Once you've figured out your basic requirements, one of our picks for TV antennas should work for you!

1. Indoor antenna: Mohu Leaf 30 ($27.99; amazon.com)

With 4000 5-star Amazon reviews, this slim model from trusted brand Mohu is a great choice for a simple indoor antenna that will meet many people's needs. As its name suggests, the Leaf 30 boasts a 30-mile range. Its low-profile, paper-thin design is meant to be stuck on a window or wall. Because this is a multidirectional antenna, you don't need to worry about orienting it in any specific way. Everything you need for an easy setup is in the box, including a 10-foot detachable coaxial cable. The Leaf 30 itself is reversible, with one black side and one white. You can even paint it to match your decor.

2. For apartment dwellers: Mohu Leaf Metro ($12.99; amazon.com)

This tiny, inexpensive option from Mohu is an excellent choice for those living in a city, who don't have to worry so much about distance from broadcast towers. The sleek design can fit in a shoebox apartment or dorm room while detecting channels over a 25-mile range. It still features Mohu's paper-thin, wall- or window-mounted material, but in a smaller package even easier for hiding away. Like the Leaf 30, the multidirectional Leaf Metro comes with a 10-foot detachable coaxial cable and is both reversible and paintable.

3. Indoor/outdoor antenna: Antennas Direct ClearStream 2V ($84.57; amazon.com)

If you live farther from TV broadcast towers, you're going to need something heftier. This is definitely a leap in price over the other antennas here, but you're paying for a more powerful device. The ClearStream claims a range of more than 60 miles but still has a relatively compact design that wouldn't look entirely out of place if you brought it inside. Its 4.3-star rating from 1,500 reviews shows that people love the ClearStream, which users deem reliable and easy to install. The antenna comes with weatherproof mounting materials, but you'll need to purchase a separate coaxial cable.

4. Outdoor antenna: RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi ($42.57; amazon.com)

RCA's Yagi may look a bit like an alien laser pointer, but this highly rated model claims a 70-mile range and is one of the best options for those living far from the city limits. Don't be intimidated by its comparatively old-school design: The Yagi comes preassembled to simplify installation and includes easy mounting hardware for the roof or side of your house. The RCA Yagi has a 4.5-star rating from nearly 5000 reviews, with users praising its ability to withstand the elements as well as its impressive range. Unlike the other antennas, it's important to point the Yagi toward the nearest broadcast tower for best results. For help on positioning the antenna, download the RCA Tower Finder app or head to TVfool.com. Simply put, if you have a clear shot towards a single tower and that's the main source for the content you want, Yagi will give you a dedicated path.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.