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 skip Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney+, and still watch TV for free. Sure, you won’t follow the golden age of streaming, but you’ll have free entertainment 24/7 in your living room, thanks to antennas and Internet TV. If you’re thinking of really cutting the cord and committing to any of these options, you’ll want to know what makes them special, but also what makes them different from each other.

How does aerial television work?

Free live television still exists today. In the age of cord cutting, streaming, and overall expensive television, there’s still free programming flying over your head every minute. However, you can’t access it with just your TV, nor can you rely on ‘bunny ears’. In order to enjoy this content, you will need an antenna.

There are a wide variety of antennas, each serving a different purpose. If you live in an open space with little traffic, an inexpensive flat antenna will probably be fine for you. These usually cost around $20, making investing in one less of a leap. However, antennas are starting to rise in price as their quality increases: some are capable of receiving 4K signals and are capable of picking up more channels than market options.

That said, cheap antennas might be fine for you, even in an apartment in a crowded city. However, you will probably have to go through some serious trial and error to find the right location for the device. Unlike advertisements, which show the antenna resting on the wall behind your TV, in real life you might find the ideal location for the antenna in an odd or limited location.

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 every square inch of available space, with the antenna in almost any configuration imaginable. If the antenna is vertical on a wall in my bedroom, I won’t get a signal, but shifting it 90°, I get the channels. Do not ask me why.

The number of channels received depends on your antenna and your region. The bigger and better the antenna, the more options it will connect, with some antennas claiming a range of 60 to 70 miles. Again, if you live somewhere that’s open and clear, both in terms of your home and the terrain around it, your signal is probably stronger than if you live somewhere with a lot of interference.

With a little patience (and a little elbow grease), you’ll undoubtedly find a spot in your home that picks up a decent amount of channels with a stable connection.

What is Internet TV?

The most immediate and convenient option is to use a free Internet television service. There are many options, from Pluto TV to Tubi TV (for a full list, check out my guide here). These services allow you to connect to live TV streams for free, as if you had an antenna connected. If you have a smart TV or streaming device like a Roku or Fire TV stick, you probably have access to apps for those services built into your system, or at least available as a free download.

There are two main advantages to Internet TV over an antenna in my mind: The first is absolute convenience. You won’t waste an afternoon testing every location in your house for your antenna (tilting the antenna 90˚ on that square inch of wall gives me 20 channels, but the spot on the window near the balcony gives me 45), since all you have to do is open the app and start clicking. Of course, no antenna means free TV is really Free: It costs nothing to launch the Pluto TV app, while an antenna is an investment (albeit a small one).

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

Of course, these channels are all ad-supported. Nobody likes commercials, but you’re going to have to deal with them whether you choose antenna TV or Internet TV. Ads are worse with Internet TV, though. While Antenna TV airs commercials with a standard, predictable timing, Internet TV will sometimes throw commercial breaks into the content at random. You are watching a movie on a channel, when suddenly a dramatic scene is interrupted by Dr. Squatch. But hey, it’s free: it’s hard to complain about ads when you’re not paying for TV. Hell, you see a million ads when you watch cable TV, and you pay A LOT for it.

It’s worth having both Internet TV and an antenna

That said, Internet TV seems to be the clear winner: a similar experience, with Nope annoying setup? Why would anyone bother with an antenna? Well, as you may have understood, I always use an antenna, and for a reason: local channels. Internet TV is undoubtedly great, but it’s the same everywhere. It offers many channels that you could pick up with an antenna, but local stations that only serve your area won’t be there. An antenna lets you access these options, keep up to date with local news and discover great shows from public stations.

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