Everything You Need to Replace Cable with Free OTA TV

A photo of someone kicking back and enjoying free OTA TV.

Don’t go crawling back to cable TV or expensive streaming platforms. Free over-the-air TV (OTA TV) is available at any time, featuring channels including FOX, CBS, PBS, ABC, and a slew of local broadcasters. Getting started with OTA TV can cost as little as $25, so what are you waiting for? Here’s everything you need to nix your cable bill and start saving money.

But hold on, I thought antenna TV sucked? You might miss out on some cable-exclusives with OTA TV, but it isn’t a big deal when you’re subscribed to streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, or Disney+. Plus, antenna TV offers better picture quality than cable, and you can easily add cable-like features and DVR-functionality to free TV with the help of an OTA box.

The Basics: Digital Antennas and Your TV

A photo of the 1 By One indoor digital antenna.
1 By One

You can’t watch antenna TV without a digital antenna. Don’t worry—we’ve moved past old-fashioned rabbit ears. Modern digital OTA antennas stick to your window or attach to the outside of your home to pick up clean uninterrupted broadcasts. They’re easy to set up, and they connect to the coaxial jack on the back of your TV. You can even connect a digital antenna to devices like the Xbox One or Roku, so long as you own an external tuner with video outputs. (You can also use this kind of external tuner to watch antenna TV on a projector, a tube TV, or any device without a built-in digital tuner.)

But what kind of antenna should you buy? Most people should stick with indoor antennas because they’re cheap, powerful, and easy to install. But if you want a ton of channels and fantastic reception, then an outdoor antenna is your best bet. (You can also install an outdoor antenna in your attic, or in any room that you don’t mind uglying up.)

I suggest checking which channels are available at your home before settling on an antenna. That way, you’ll know what you’re getting into. The TV Fool website shows all the channels available at your address, and even highlights channels with a lower signal strength that you won’t pick up without an outdoor antenna.

Add an OTA Box for a Cable-Like Experience

A photo of the TiVo Bolt OTA Box.

Free OTA TV is simple and easy to use, but it’s missing some of the best features you enjoy with cable TV. Your digital antenna doesn’t come with a DVR, for example, and you can’t navigate through free channels with an onscreen grid-guide. At least, not without an OTA box.

OTA boxes bring DVR functionality, grid-guides, live TV pausing, programmable recording tools, and exclusive streaming features to your antenna TV setup. Some OTA boxes even add streaming functionality to OTA TV, so you can watch local channels on your phone, computer, or any internet-connected device like Apple TV or a smart TV.

One of the most affordable OTA boxes, the $100 Tablo Dual LITE, lets you stream local TV to any internet-connected device. You can also connect the Tablo Dual LITE to an external hard drive for DVR functionality. More expensive OTA boxes, like the TiVo Bolt and the TiVo Edge, also include robust cable-like grid guides, built-in DVR storage, multi-channel recording, and streaming access to services like Netflix and Hulu.

If you’re already invested in a service like Sling TV or Amazon Prime, then the AirTV Anywhere or Fire TV Recast might be better options for you. These streaming boxes add local channels to your Sling TV channel guide or Fire TV home screen, plus all the DVR and streaming features that you expect from a basic OTA box. Plex users can also add local TV to their custom media setup, so long as they own a Plex-compatible tuner card.

Should You Prepare for ATSC 3.0?

A photo of an old tube TV with bunny ears.

Antenna TV may feel like a thing in the past, but the party’s just begun. A new era of free TV is on the horizon, thanks to a new digital format called ATSC 3.0 that supports 4K video, HDR, Dolby audio, targeted advertising, and direct streaming to mobile phones and cars.

The new ATSC 3.0 standard is exciting, but today’s OTA TV hardware can’t pick up or interpret ATSC 3.0 signals. If you want to save yourself from replacing your TV antenna in a few years, then you might be tempted to buy ATSC 3.0-compatible hardware today.

Problem is, ATSC 3.0-compatible hardware is super expensive. An ATSC 3.0 set-top tuner will cost you about $250 at the time of writing, and low-range indoor ATSC 3.0 antennas are too expensive to suggest with a straight face.

Unless you really want to be an early-adopter of ATSC 3.0, I suggest sticking with current-gen OTA TV hardware. Broadcasters are required to simultaneously air their content as ATSC 3.0 and current-gen signals until 2023 at the earliest, so you have a lot of time to prepare for the switch.

That said, outdoor ATSC 3.0 antennas sell for under $50. Installing outdoor antennas is kind of a pain in the ass, so it may be smart to buy and ATSC 3.0-ready model today if you already plan on going the outdoor route. That way, you don’t have to uninstall your old antenna and reinstall a new model come 2023.