Antennas 101

Gone are the days when a large rooftop antenna was a status symbol. Cellphones and handheld GPS units have conditioned consumers to expect reliable wireless services in very small packages. Such dramatic changes in consumer preferences -- coupled with the new frequency allocations, channel distributions, and high demand for reliable over-the-air digital antennas -- mean that the time for new designs has indeed come.

The decades-old designs of most TV antennas on rooftops -- and in the market today -- are typically configured on a horizontal fish bone, with arms of varying lengths to handle a broad range of frequencies. Though the engineering of antennas in other spheres has advanced radically over the years, manufacturers of television equipment have stuck pretty much with the old designs for economic reasons. Traditional antennas were good enough for analog television, and the shrinking customer base for broadcast reception didn't offer much incentive to plow money into new designs.

The transition to digital has changed all that. Most digital channels are broadcast in UHF, and UHF antennas are smaller than those used for analog TV, where most broadcast signals were VHF. Also, the multipath problem, arising from signals that reflect off buildings and hills, which may have occasionally caused ghosting on analog TVs, can completely destroy a digital picture.

A few designers and manufacturers have done the necessary research and development and introduced improved models. First out of the labs were the Silver Sensor, introduced by Antiference, based in Coleshill, England, in 2001, and the SquareShooter, introduced in 2004 by Winegard, in Burlington, Iowa.

Still, the pace of product introductions is slow. To this day, some manufacturers are still relabeling old designs as HDTV antennas as long as they generally cover the right part of the spectrum. But some very good designs are finally on the market -- if you know what to look for.