Is Dollarama’s $3 HDTV antenna worth it?

I was at the playground watching my kid play on the ground when I struck up my favourite conversation with my friend Nadine. No, we didn’t talk about panties, or Value Village, or why you should never buy someone else’s panties at Value Village.

We chatted about cutting cable television. The conversation may have gone something like this:

Me: I’ve probably saved a million dollars by cancelling cable four years ago. That math totally works.

Nadine: Me too! I use an HDTV antenna to watch cable channels for free.

Me: Me too! I spent $67 on mine. I get two channels.

Nadine: SIXTY-SEVEN BUCKS? I got mine for $3 at the dollar store and get up to nine channels.

Me: WHAAAAAAAAT? I either love you or not. Hook me up with your dollar store, I’m feeling squawky.

A $3 HDTV indoor antenna from the dollar store? I couldn’t make an indoor TV antenna for that cheap. I should know, I’ve tried with slightly quirky but mostly humiliating results. My daughter calls this one “The Owl”. I call it “The Hideous”.

antenna tv

Then there was my attempt at making a more “streamlined” version. This one got dubbed “The Space Invader”.

diy hdtv antenna

Both DIY TV antennas worked perfectly well, as long as Carl held it while I leaned out the window with a raised hand and a bent knee that either resembled a sad pink flamingo or a poor interpretation of that 80s Bangles hit, Walk like an Egyptian. Both attempts made the option of just paying for cable television look a lot less ridiculous. And both antennas got me just two free over-the-air (OTA) HDTV channels.

So a dollar store HDTV antenna seemed a perfectly sane option in comparison. Could Dollarama’s $3 HDTV antenna compete with my $67 higher-end model?

digital tv antenna

hdtv antenna review

I was totally into it. Nadine was into it too — so she bought me one.

tv antenna

Now I’m the first to admit this is not a scientific study of cheapo TV antenna performance. I would love to outfit The People Across Canada (ok, let’s not limit ourselves here, let’s aim for The People of The World) with $3 HDTV antennas and have them report back with the results. Not gonna happen. So let’s just enjoy my antics for what they are — a mostly thrifty attempt at watching TV for free with a humbling side of curiosity. Now let’s get on with it.

Setting up the $3 RCA HDTV Antenna

STEP ONE: Unpackage The Promise. Unboxing the $3 Dollarama antenna was fun. The unit is labelled ‘refurbished’ and looks very similar to this $20 RCA ANT1052F Digital Flat Antenna sold on Amazon.

BTW: Here’s a refresher on buying refurbished gadgets.

hdtv tv antenna

hdtv antenna

Dollarama’s indoor TV antenna is basically a flat plastic thing with a coax cable that resembles something only Batman would love. The packaging promises free local HD/VHF/UHF signals and improved reception of harder-to-receive channels with the ability to “disappear into surroundings”.

My current $67 RCA ANT1450BF Multi-Directional Amplified Digital Flat Antenna was bought at FutureShop and now sells for $25 on Amazon. This model is a little black monolith with hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d crack it open, but I doubt it’s full of stars.

The marketing says: “The patented design enhances reception by amplifying weak signals and outperforms traditional antennas with no need for constant adjustments.” I’m guessing the “no need for constant adjustments” part means you don’t have to walk like an Egyptian to watch the CBC. Good to know.

STEP TWO: Assembly. I grabbed my Phillips screwdriver, followed the instructions, and assembled the “antenna wing sections” together.

hdtv antenna installation

Be sure to remove the protective plastic coating from the wings if your refurbished model is coated. Despite being the caped crusader, Batman can’t operate at full capacity with plastic coating — everyone knows this.

STEP THREE: Installation. I’m trying to come up with a simpler way of saying: “I then plugged the $3 Batman-like antenna into my television” but the operation was really that simple.

best indoor hdtv antenna

Notice how Batman neatly disappears into the surroundings? In comparison, my $67 black monolith looks like an unsightly box strapped to my wall. I don’t have a picture, but revisit “The Owl” photo and imagine a black box hanging there. So far I’m voting the $3 Batman antenna the aesthetics winner.

Batman: 1
Black Monolith: 0

Now for the real test — the channel scan. Does Dollarama’s $3 HDTV Antenna capture as many (or more) channels as my $67 indoor model?

tv antenna for digital tv

Two channels. Sigh.

And the winner is…?

best hdtv antenna

More Bottom Lines: Yes. Dollarama’s $3 refurbished RCA HDTV indoor antenna scanned as many watchable, clear picture, OTA digital channels as the pricier $67 model. Since the $3 antenna represents an astonishing 96 per cent savings AND vanishes away from sight, I’m kicking myself for not chatting with moms at the playground sooner. Let’s all thank Nadine, OK?

So where I am going with this?

Sadly, not far from my living room because that’s where the strongest OTA signal is in my apartment. And that’s kinda the point with catching free OTA airwaves with an HDTV antenna — it’s generally more about your proximity to the TV transmitter than the price of your TV antenna. Results will always vary.

Those watching television in concrete basements might get zero channels while those living in high rises with unobstructed access to TV tower signals often get dozens of channels. I have a hunch no matter which HDTV antenna you hook up, your reception is going to be determined by location, location, location.

So is Dollarama’s $3 HDTV antenna worth it? “Holy jackpot Batman!” If you don’t want to blow the three bucks and risk no reception, go ahead and research signal strengths based on your location by visiting www.antennaweb.org (USA) or www.tvfool.com (Canada) to find which broadcasters transmit locally, your distance from the nearest transmitter, and the direction to point your HDTV antenna for success.

Now excuse me while I step away from the boob tube for a bit. I have a few DIY TV antennas in need of recycling and a TV drama to write. In my made-for-TV movie “The Batman” handily clobbers both “The Owl” and “The Space Invader” while defeating an overpriced villain, “The Black Monolith”. I also owe Nadine three bucks.

Love,
Kerry

Question: How do you get your TV fix on the cheap?

Your two cents:

  1. Big Cajun Man June 24th, 2014

    In TORONTO that is very possible, and in most US Cities as well, but living in the frozen outback of OTTAWA, you need to amplify the signals, thus you end up buying something a bit more expensive. I got a $37 one from TigerEgg or some place like that, it does OK too.

    Good article though, I’d be curious to see the $3 antenna in Ottawa or maybe Barrie.

  2. Bryan June 24th, 2014

    As someone who has recently cut the cord, this is very intriguing. Just curious which Dollarama you bought this at…I am in the Durham Region and have never seen one out here.
    Thanks!

  3. Cara June 24th, 2014

    It is nice to see you back in Squaky action Kerry. I live in a basement so there’s likely no hope for me to get channels, but a $3 one is a cheap experiment worth trying. Thanks for the excellent tip.

  4. TabloTV June 24th, 2014

    Great review! We’re a Canadian company who makes a DVR for antenna TV users and I spotted this at my local Dollarama store the other day. Almost picked it up but I was a bit doubtful. We’ll be testing this for sure next week in our offices in Ottawa!

  5. Dawn June 25th, 2014

    I’m definitely headed to dollars at lunch to see if I can find one of these bad boys! I’m hoping that since I live in the Beaches with a nice view of the CN Tower I can get more than 2 channels.

  6. Gord June 25th, 2014

    It is great to see you back on top of your game (and life).
    I have missed your wit.
    As an early boomer, no antenna cuts it here in Innisfil. Satellite with time shift manages to provide real news and a couple of hours of viewing a day even at this time of year (thank God for PVR’s). It’s not cheap but at the price of bandwidth, streaming the available crap is not viable or convenient. I am both cheap and demanding and what we have is truely the frugal choice (for us).

  7. Marcello June 25th, 2014

    Being from the other side of the world, the land of the free (if somewhat boring and bland) 300 over the air channels, i was wondering what kind of programming you can get from the channels you’re trying to receive.

    M

  8. Sue June 25th, 2014

    Good article.
    I have no cord to cut so my TV has been a plant holder….I may consider visiting the local Dollarama. I wonder if Northern Alberta would have any more success than Innisfail, Gord.

  9. Byron June 25th, 2014

    I live on a 19th floor apt in Toronto, and I use an amplified Terk antenna that was under $50 on sale. It looks like rabbit-ears on steroids, but it gets a good dozen local channels for free, so well worth the money in my view. Many cities these days require that your TV has a digital tuner, though–so your older tube-TVs likely won’t work (without getting a separate tuner-box). Also, PVRs for use with an antenna are hard to find and expensive…

  10. Sheri June 25th, 2014

    We have the $67 RCA version and I don’t think I have ever seen the $3 version in Dollarama here in Calgary. We get 5 channels with our RCA version, the HD quality is fairly good, so says my husband, I don’t care. I will keep an eye out for this as I have been telling quite a few friends how we got rid of cable 6 months ago and haven’t missed it at all. Might be a alternative for them. Thanks for the heads up.

  11. Diane June 25th, 2014

    I’m in Ottawa and bought the same RCA antenna you have 3 yes ago at Factory Direct for $20.Aimed it towards Chelsea, QC and boom I have about 13 channels. The only way to go Bell.

  12. Jace June 25th, 2014

    I am so going to check out my dollarama tonight and see it we have these in Ottawa. I’m then going to try it out and see how it does in a basement apartment!

  13. Ruth Cooke June 25th, 2014

    I don’t watch television at all, but my mother just moved in with me and she does watch it. A lot. *sigh*

    So next month, we’re getting cable. *sigh again*

    I might give the three dollar job a try for the next month, and see if we can at least watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune…

  14. Karissa June 25th, 2014

    Paid $8 for HD rabbit ears at Princess Auto (in Oshawa). Gave them to Granny when she moved into a retirement home. Spent $15 for the same ones at Tiger Direct. Dollarama is an ugly addiction, so I try not to go in there at all.

  15. Emilio June 25th, 2014

    I terminated my $100-plus/month subscription to Star Choice/Shaw satellite TV back in 2011 after being tethered to SC for over a decade and having to upgrade receivers (at $100-$200+ a pop) every now and then just to keep on receiving some of the specialty channels (ie Fairchild) that I was paying for, and replacing the LNB heads on the dish every few years etc — all to have the privilege of getting hundreds of channels but having nothing worth watching.

    I made some Canadian-designed HDTV antennae from plans I found on the web using scrap materials that I already had on hand (short pieces of 1×2 lumber, 14-inch lengths of copper wire to bend into “Vees”, a handful of screws and washers and a bunch of baluns that I got on Ebay for less than $10 for 6, incl S&H — total cost of under $20 to make individual antennae for 4 TV sets.

    I’m in rural Ottawa about 35 kms from Parliament Hill and those home-made antenna pick up 14 OTA channels (CBC (Eng & Fr),Global (SD & HD), CTV (1&2),CHCH, Omni 1 & 2), TVO, CityTV, TVA, etc.)

  16. Emilio June 25th, 2014

    Sorry, my message got sent by the WWWeb gremlins before I was able to mention that the antennae are very quick/easy to make and that the plans for the DB4 and DB8 are at http://www.tvantennaplans.com

    (The DB8 is simply two DB4s put together into one.)

    I use the more powerful DB8 for TV sets on the lower level of my home and the smaller DB4s for TV sets on the upper level. (Reception is “easier” at higher elevations so the smaller antenna works just as well as the larger one downstairs).

  17. Drmchsr66 June 25th, 2014

    My father used to fix tvs and radios 40 years ago and would be rolling in his grave if I paid monthly to watch tv. I have three of the huge Sony trinitrons in storage that were repaired cheaply. These are only backups to the main tv I use. I have the old style bunny ears connected to a digital descrambler box that I think I paid $100 bucks for. I get one channel which is just fine with me. I get the news, weather and a couple sit-coms.

    I get 160 movies or television series a year for free from the library.

    Television: free
    Cellphones (2): $25/month total
    Internet: $24/month total

    Drmchsr66

  18. Byron June 25th, 2014

    Ruth, if you have internet your mother can also watch a lot of stuff online. If so inclined, just check out the broadcast websites, and see what they offer…

  19. Sheree June 25th, 2014

    Sue, Gord said Innisfil not Innisfail. Innisfil is in Ontario, and I’m sure you are thinking of Innisfail in central Alberta. But seeing as I am from Innisfail, Alberta I might just give this a try and let you know how it goes.

  20. Juliana Todd June 25th, 2014

    Kerry, too bad you paid that much for the RCA flat HDTV antenna. I bought mine at Target about 2 years ago for $9.99 USD. Is the exchange rate that high? Ugh.
    But, I too, love the reception and have cancelled overpriced, under rated Cable.

  21. Dianne June 26th, 2014

    Welcome back Kerry you always make me laugh out loud!! Learned something new to try……

  22. Stephen @ How To Save Money June 26th, 2014

    Unfortunately, OTA just isn’t worth the effort in New Brunswick. I’ve tried with multiple antennas multiple times years ago. I think the only thing that might work is a large antenna on the roof but I never wanted to invest in that.

    Things might be a little better now with more digital signals, but I doubt it.

  23. Nicole June 27th, 2014

    Love your website and glad to see you back.

    We live in Orléans, a burb of Ottawa and have been cable free for over 18 years and have no regrets. We bought regular rabbit ear antennas (2) over 10 years ago for $15 each at Radio-Shack, and when everything changed, we tried to change them for something that might get us more channels. What a mistake. One, the price was more expensive, but the worst is that some of them screwed up all my wireless internet inside the house. I then read the document that came with the antenna, and that was a possibility. Since we work from home, I must have spent at least a full day reconfiguring everthing to get back to normal. Thankfully, I was able to return it and we are happy with our 6 channels (CBC, Radio-Canada, TVO, Télé Québec, Global (2 channels) and TQS). If we want to watch any other channels, we do so online, and when we want to and we are very happy with that.

  24. Jay June 30th, 2014

    Well, I’ve cut my cord 3 years ago and I’ve not looked back. However my approach was a little bit more advanced.

    I got someone to install a real HDTV Antenna – Channel Master CM 4221HD Antenna + Preamplifier – outside my home. The antenna connects to my TV sets inside my home via the same coaxial cable RG6 already in place, so I can have free TV whatever I have cable connections in my home.

    Better yet, because I asked the installer to remove the FM filter from the Antenna I get crystal clear FM reception on my stereo system and clock radios – these devices obviously need to be able to accept a coxial cable RG6 in their Antenna connection, otherwise you can buy an RG6 to Antenna adapter.

    The reason I got a professional installer was mostly for the convenience and lack of time. But almost anybody can install the external antenna as long they have the tools and are comfortable getting the cabling inside their home. I think the $450.00 I paid, including taxes and all the equipment was money well invested and within 6 months the new antenna paid itself. Now I enjoy about 25 free HDTV channel. The best option for me is the ability to remove all the silly channels in the line up, for example I’ve deleted all the 5+ 24/7 evangelical channels.

    I’ve also built a HTPC, loaded Ubuntu Linux in it and connected it to my main TV where I we can enjoy the family photos and movies, NetFlix, YouTube, Radio Stations from abroad, etc…Best investement ever.

  25. Julia June 30th, 2014

    I live in the Ottawa-Gatineau region and unfortunately could not find it at the Dollarama here. But I bought it off of Amazon.ca and installed it today. Works really well! Took me 2 minutes to assemble, scanned the channels and now have 8 channels for free! Keep in mind I live on the top floor of a 2 story building, but I would highly recommend!

  26. Ross July 1st, 2014

    My first $50.00 digital converter only lasted for 1 year. I purchased a replacement 4 months ago. We only get 4 channels in Regina. I had not heard of the Dollarama model, but will check our local stores.

  27. Maureen July 2nd, 2014

    I live in Kitchener, Ontario.

    I made myself this HD antenna and pick up Global, CTV, and sometimes TVO: http://lifehacker.com/5829379/make-your-own-hdtv-antenna-using-aluminum-foil-and-cardboard

    After reading this article, for kicks I picked up the Dollarama antenna and tried it out this weekend. I get Global, CTS (a Hamilton station, but the quality was questionable), and TVO. Unfortunately I lost CTV.

    I’m going to switch back to my homemade antenna because I really want CTV. :)

  28. Abby July 4th, 2014

    Has anyone in Ottawa been able to find this antenna at Dollarama? So far I’ve been to three locations and no luck.

  29. This is an amazing realization. I love it. Thank you!

  30. Sam R July 9th, 2014

    I too live in a basement, but I use 2 antennas and a splitter turned the other way. Hint here people, in the window facing towards the CN Tower… connected the amplifiers that came with in series, I get 12 channels.
    Now the rest of my family live close to Detroit… they get everything including side bands where abc, nbc, fox and cbs play their pay per view channels for free. If you live close to Buffalo, you get their mains, plus all the side bands. Something is not right letting the cable companies buy the TV stations. If I can pick up some buffalo channels in my basement facing the wrong way, we might want to have a whee talk to the CRTC and see if we can get some kind of signal boost.

  31. Liam July 16th, 2014

    Nice to have you back Kerry!

    We live in Richmond Hill and have a great path to the CN Tower so we have always gotten great reception using an amplified TERK antenna (about 22 channels).

    After reading your article we picked up the 3 dollar antenna from Dollarama to use upstairs, and got 13 channels! So not quite as good as my amplified antenna but $45 cheaper, and no plug to worry about!

    Keep those articles coming!

  32. Ian July 21st, 2014

    I went a slightly pricier / more effort route. But I think it was worth it.

    Living 60K west of Ottawa means an indoor antenna is not going to cut it. (line of site is 40K and 55K to the local broadcasters)

    Bought a VHF-L/H / UHF HD Antenna, and attached it at the roof peak using a mounting bracket ( like a sat mount). Using the existing coax cable from the now defunct satellite dish meant no further cable runs, and it goes right to my TV.

    We get 8-9 English language channels, about the same in French, and all HD. HNIC is in un-compressed HD, with 5.1 surround sound. You can see the stitching on Grapes’ Jacket, and almost ID the teeth that get knocked out.

    Long Distance (50-mile / 80KM) HD Antenna: $140 (tax in)
    Bracket: Free (sales guy included it – normally about $15-$20)
    20 Feet of Coax and an end-to-end connector: Free (sitting in my garage – normally about $20)
    Time: About 2 hours total. (that bracket is not going anywhere!)
    Months without feeding a certain company whose name rhymes with Hell? 18 (and counting)
    Money Saved: $120 each month. (not that I was paying them full price – that’s what they wanted me to pay. I paid less. Now none!)

  33. Deidre July 23rd, 2014

    It is very true that location is key. I live in Niagara and get about 30 channels. I had the antenna professionally installed (as there was no way I was going on my steep roof). I am not sure that with the indoor antenna I would be able to get as many stations. Since I live so close to the border I get many American stations as well as your standard Canadian stations. I don’t miss the cable at all, and it will only take about 6 months to recoup my costs. I was tired of paying a big price for something I can get for free!

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