In my own lab tests, cheap rabbit ears outperformed the newfanged versions every time.
I balance as graceful as ganesha atop a kitchen chair in front of my living room window.
Glancing over my shoulder, I scowl at the dormant screen of my brand new 42-inch Toshiba flat-panel television, raising the rabbit ears above my head. Still no joy.
Standing on tippytoes, I stretch my arm a little to the left and suddenly a digital blast like machine-gun fire breaks the silence. For a moment, a crystal-clear picture appears on the screen. The image freezes, distorts and disappears again.
Inspired, I aim the antenna westward and gingerly place it in my wife's favourite hanging plant. I spring from my perch just in time to catch the opening credits of my favourite program airing in glorious high definition.
Cable companies would like you to believe that you have to subscribe to their services in order to watch your favourite programs in high definition. But don't believe it. The fact is, you don't have to pay a monthly cable bill to receive HDTV. It's free.
All you need is a set of rabbit ears and a relatively new television with an HD (ATSC) tuner.
Now, let's be honest - those who can't live without specialty cable stations and hundreds of choices aren't about to disconnect their cable any time soon. But for those of us who find life quite comfortable with only a few stations, things are about to get interesting.
Last year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that on August 31, 2011, analog over-the-air broadcasts will be shut off and replaced by digital. Broadcasters south of the border will make the switch next year.
At that time, viewers with older TV's will be forced to buy a digital converter or a new TV with an HD (ATSC) tuner. But it also means aerial freaks like me will be able to pick up more than the nine HD stations that I get now. Many American stations are already digital, and a few broadcasters in Canada - including CanWest Global - have followed suit.
You have to love the irony. The high tech that drove networks to the brink of extinction is now prompting the resurgence of old-school antennas. Online forums dedicated to over-the-air high definition (OTAHD) are full of posts from keeners bragging about how their Byzantine towers pull in the most elusive stations.
One blogger from T.O. claims to receive 18 OTAHD stations using a rooftop antenna purchased for less than $300. Indeed, impressive rooftop rigs are popping up right across the GTA. But those of us in apartments, and most renters, don't have that option.
No matter. A broad range of indoor antennas are available online, and big box stores carry cleverly marketed "HD-capable" antennas that sell for as much as $70 apiece.
But buyer beware: these redesigned HD babies are no different from the ones your father or grandfather used. In my own laboratory tests, a cheap set of rabbit ears out-performed the newfangled versions every time.
Gone are the days when viewers trying to pick up signals tuned into snow, white noise and ghostly images. With a digital tuner, you receive either a pristine picture or nothing at all. Which means you have to work with Mother Nature.
In bad weather, distant stations may drop out, and such momentary losses of signal often force me off the sofa mid-program to move the antenna into a station's sweet spot.
As well, reception is largely dependent on your physical location. Those with a clear line to broadcast towers such as the CN Tower report the best results. But the biggest payoff, besides the non-existent price tag, is that the high-def signal you get for free is of better quality than the one the cable companies are charging for.
John O'Connor, recently retired vice-president of engineering at Global, tells me why. "Uncompressed high definition requires a bandwidth of 1.5 gigabits. But cable companies are compressing the hell out of it to get it through the pipes," he says.
For many, the impending shift from analog broadcasts will be the final justification for replacing antique tube jobs with sleek flat-panel models. But don't leap to the cable command; the signals are out there. Might as well use them freely.