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Hands-On Revew: Mohu Leaf HDTV Antenna

Free TV Rises Again

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Hands-On Revew: Mohu Leaf HDTV Antenna

Flat TV? Flat Antenna.

Mohu
Remember when you first got cable TV? If you're under 40, you probably grew up with cable TV and thought it was great.  Or maybe your household went satellite when that became available in the early 1990s; same deal, more or less.  Great picture and sound (usually), as long as you paid your bill each month. For many of us, it's hard to remember that TV used to be free to watch.

Mohu hasn't forgotten that it still is -- there's plenty of free, over the air programming (depending on where you live) and if you've got an antenna like the Mohu Leaf or Leaf Plus, you almost get the proverbial something for nothing.  In an age where an average cable TV bill has tripled over the last 10 years, now runs over $1000 per year per customer on average, and could conceivably double in cost again by the end of the decade, a lot of people are thinking of cutting the cord.  Heck, they're not just thinking about it, they're doing it -- 200,000 "cord avoiders" left pay TV last year.

Why Would You Want An HDTV Antenna?

Sure, there's plenty to watch on the web, and from services like Hulu or Netflix if you want to pay for them.  But it's products like the Leaf that that genuinely set the "free TV" experience free -- again.  Even though I grew up just 15 miles from the Empire State Building (then the world's tallest TV broadcast antenna) I still vividly remember the gymnastics you'd go through to get reasonable reception from one of the dozen or so fuzzy analog VHF channels, which of course, were free.  Pictures would fade in and out, ghosting and video snow were taken for granted, and rainy weather often made it a short night for everyone.

The transition from analog-to-digital television in 2009 set free TV free again, though it took strong efforts from the FCC, the ATSC and the CEA to make sure that happened.  Digital changed the ballgame for everyone for a lot of reasons, but for the viewer, it changed things dramatically.  No more ghosts, no more fuzzy reception. TV became digital ones and zeroes, you either had a picture or you didn't.  If you did, it was clear and depending on the channel, beautiful.  If you didn't, you got nothing.

Back then, few cared.  By the time ideas like streamed TV became real and media boxes like Roku and AppleTV showed up, more than 84% of Americans were watching pay TV.  Many of the remaining 16% wished they could get cable or satellite themselves.

Times change and so does technology, and that was then and this is now.  If your tastes run to big-name broadcast programming for your favorite shows, or local broadcasts of your favorite sports teams (assuming they're not sold out and there's no blackout), free over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts are not only free, they're better in many cases than the compromised pictures (yes, even on HDTV) that your cable or satellite carrier typically send you.  That's right, better than cable and most satellite.  And free. 

To get free DTV and HDTV you need an antenna, of course; a good basic guide can be found here.  Roof antennas are not for everyone; they're an eyesore and if you live in a multi-dwelling unit, they're usually out of the question.  Indoor antennas like the Leaf, while not as powerful, are the most popular solution.

Connection and Setup

The Mohu Leaf, and its amplified cousin the Leaf Plus feature an intriguing industrial design that makes a lot of practical and technological sense.  It's about the size of a laminated 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, and not too much thicker.  Since it's so thin, you can hide it in places where a more conventional antenna would be conspicuous (and for most people, ugly), like behind your flat screen TV. But because the antenna has so much surface area, you stand a chance of getting good reception.

The Leaf comes with a short-ish 75 ohm cable to connect to your TV's antenna input.  You connect it to the TV in a few seconds, turn your TV's input selector to "tuner" or "TV" and you're off to the races.  It's the easiest hookup you'll make in your system. 

Performance

Unlike the old analog TV broadcasts, which tried to send out TV to as wide an audience as possible through an omnidirectional signal pattern, digital television  broadcasts are highly directional, as the indispensible AntennaWeb can show you. In my parcitular case --I now live 3 miles from the same Empire State Building with a completely unobstructed reception path -- there isn't much question about which direction signals are coming from.  You may find, however, that you need to move the Leaf around your room to get the best performance.  The supplied six feet of cable doesn't give you much latitude. You can get longer adapters from Mohu, or a trip to Radio Shack for an RF cable extender will do the same thing.

With such an ideal signal path to the broadcast tower in my area, it's almost unfair to judge how well the Mohu Leaf worked.  But under these near-ideal conditions, it worked really well.  Casually stuck behind my flat screen, the Leaf gave me 70 (!) channels of free programming.  This is a mind boggling number to people who remember depending on an antenna to watch TV, and usually not more than a handful of channels. 

Perhaps half a dozen of these channels might have fared better with different placement of the Leaf; with a long enough extension cable you can mount it practically anywhere.  If you need longer than say a dozen feet from the TV, the amplified model might make more sense.

In terms of picture quality, the Mohu behaved beautifully, and will accurately reproduce whatever your chosen channel is sending you.  Keep in mind that these broadcasts won't necessarily be in high definition, and in most cases, aren't.  But the big networks, plus PBS and other stations are broadcasting a pure 1080i or 720p HDTV signal.  Your cable company cuts down on these bitstreams to keep their pipes humming. They're also bringing you 1080i or 720p but using more compression in the picture; it's a noticeable difference. There are no free TV broadcasts in 1080p -- only Blu-ray discs and some DirecTV broadcasts give you this best possible HDTV resolution natively.

As for the rest of the programming, you'll see a lot of standard-definition (480i) channels, which on your HDTV which will likely be stretched to fit your screen and need a picture format adjustment on your TV's remote, so you can return them to their original square-ish 4x3 aspect ratio.  Such is the landscape with free TV.

Impressions

A lot of people are finding that between their computers, their tablets, their phones and their media players (Roku et al) the nearly $100 or more they spend every month to watch cable or satellite doesn't make much sense.  Others find that it's comforting and worth it to get hundreds of channels and choices (even if much of it is filler and/or dreck) and don't mind the money going to their TV service provider.

If you're in this second camp, you really don't need an antenna like the Mohu Leaf, unless you want to watch foreign language broadcasts. Chinese, Indian, Spanish and Korean were all in abundance during my testing.

On the other hand, if you've been thinking that your cable or satellite bill is getting unreasonable, and that you don't watch enough live (or DVR'd) TV to justify a not-insubstantial monthly expense, the Mohu Leaf will eliminate a substantial monthly bill while still giving you dozens of channel options for free.

There are caveats, of course.  Your reception will depend heavily on how distant you are from the broadcasts, and to a lesser extent, where in the room you place the Leaf.  If there are mountains or tall buildings between you and the broadcast signals, even a rooftop antenna might not get you much, much less an indoor model like the Leaf.

That being said, if conditions are right in your area for good TV reception, the $37.99 Leaf ($74.99 for the amplified Leaf Plus), is a killer addition to an A/V setup. I'm keeping my cable TV, but I must admit that when I watch network programming, I move the input over to antenna and watch through the Leaf.

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