I’ll admit, it isn’t easy to be a serious antenna hobbyist these days. While there are more antennas than ever available from Solid Signal, there are fewer ways to measure their performance. I personally use some very expensive equipment, but that’s going to be out of the reach of most people. True antenna measuring equipment is harder to find, and unfortunately Solid Signal’s own Digiair Pro meter is no longer in production. Here are some basic guidelines that will help you use the tools that you can actually get
Using a signal finder
For basic antenna aiming, you can’t beat this King Controls signal finder. It’s a basic, economical tool that will let you know where your signals are coming from. You get a simple four-LED display of signal strength. That should be all you need unless you are using a highly directional antenna.
I recommend this little gadget all the time and it’s something you should definitely have in your toolbox if you aim an antenna more than once a year or so.
Using an app
I am a real fan of this Winegard app. First of all it’s totally free. Second of all it’s ridiculously flexible. You can use it to aim local TV channels, satellite from different providers… it’s all there. Best of all it has an augmented reality mode which lets you literally hold your phone in front of you and see where the towers are. I can’t say enough about this app. It won’t give you signal levels but it will tell you where to aim and that’s all you really need right?
Using a TV or PC-based TV tuner
Some TVs actually have pretty good signal meters built in. It’s much more common with older TVs than with newer ones, so if you’re looking for the best suite of tools in your TV, start with that one you’ve relegated to the garage, or to that old DLP TV you’ve been meaning to take out of the guest room. Newer TVs may not even have a signal meter.
PC-based tuners like Hauppage’s WinTV often have signal measurement windows and if you have a tuner stick you’ll find it’s actually really good for measuring. Unfortunately this means in a best case scenario you’re bringing a laptop up on the roof. Personally I’ve found it easier to ask a friend to point his phone at the PC screen and then use Skype or some other video chat app to see what they’re seeing.
What to look for when you aim
In most cases, you won’t have a lot of options when aiming an antenna. Usually you’ll have to rely on signal strength, because that’s what an inexpensive meter will give you. That’s not going to be the best measurement, but it will tell you where the tower is. That may be all you need.
As I’ve said before, the best measurement for an antenna is signal-to-noise ratio. Raw power isn’t really going to tell you if you’ll get a nice clean picture, and you can use amplifiers to make a power meter read whatever you want. SNR really is the best way to know if you’ll get perfect signal but unfortunately there’s no meter that really measures it that’s designed for hobbyists.