Camping TV: Antennas, Satellites & Dishes
March 19, 2012
Filed under RV & Trailer Accessories
There’s nothing wrong with sitting around the campfire, but sometimes it’s also nice to be able to watch your favorite movies, sports, news or TV programs while camping. And unless you’re willing to limit yourself to recorded programs and videos, you need a way to receive live programming. This can be from a cable at a campground, an over-the-air antenna or from a satellite.
Some campgrounds provide cable TV, but you can’t always depend on it, and with digital TV everything has changed. So before shopping for new satellite products, you’ll need to decide if you want to choose free over-the-air programming, or prefer paid subscription viewing with its greater selection of channels. Another option is to watch TV or movies over the Internet using a broadband connection, but you’ll need a computer.
High-definition television (HDTV) is video with resolution substantially higher than that of traditional standard-definition (SD) TV. HDTV has one or two million pixels per frame; roughly five times that of SD, and this increased amount of data requires improved cables and connections.
Many RV campers have found challenges with the new digital TV signals. Digital pictures are either all or nothing; you don’t get a “snowy” picture to help aim the antenna, though there are varying degrees of clarity until everything is properly set up.
With myriad dishes and antennas available, deciding which system best suits your needs can be daunting.
Roof Mounted vs. Portable Camping Antennas
Roof-mounted antennas are preferred by those who want their antenna ready for viewing at all times without setup, and who don’t want the components to take up any of the already limited storage space. Portable antennas require storage space, but do have some advantages over roof-mounted antennas. Portables allow flexibility to position them to avoid obstructions such as trees and buildings that may block satellite reception at some campgrounds. Portable antennas can also be used for other outdoor activities, such as tailgate parties.
Stationary vs. In-Motion Dishes
Most lower-priced dishes are designed just for stationary use, so you can only watch TV while parked. This usually isn’t a concern for trailer campers, since there’s no one in the trailer when it’s moving. However, in-motion dishes — which work both while parked and driving down the highway — are popular among motorhome owners, especially those who want to entertain children while traveling long distances.
Camping TV Terminology
When shopping for dish and antenna products, you’ll likely find several specifications that are helpful to understand when making an informed selection. The term Low Noise Block (LNB) refers to the device on the front of a satellite dish that receives the very low-level microwave signal from the satellite, amplifies it, changes the signals to a lower frequency band and sends it down the cable to the indoor receiver.
For over-the-airwaves signals, the frequency range for VHF is 40-300 MHz and for UHF it’s 470-860 MHz.
Generally denoted in “dB” (decibels), gain is a measure of how effectively the antenna picks up a signal. Basically, the more dB gain, the better.
Antenna impedance is typically 75 ohms (75Ω), and each component must match to ensure compatibility between cables, antennas, splitters and receivers. Be sure to check this.
Camping TV Accessories
Most of us who survived the 2009 changeover from analog to digital over-the-airwaves transmissions already have a digital-capable TV or a converter box. If not, boxes are still available for about $40 and up. Antenna signal amplifiers help lock in a weak signal; however, amplifying the signal also amplifies the “noise” or static in a signal. Higher-quality units typically provide a “cleaner,” quieter amplified signal to the TV.
Satellite finders come in a variety of styles from magnetic compasses used to manually find satellites and aim antennas to more sophisticated units. There are also websites such as www.dishpointer.com, which can be used to help aim the dish. And, yes, there’s also an app for that. Check out the iTunes App Store or the Android market to find yours.
Tripods and ladder mounts are often used to mount and aim portable antennas. Make sure to get a sturdy mount, and with tripods bring some tent pegs and tie downs in case it’s windy.
Camping TV Service Providers
There are a number of satellite service providers, including DISH Network, DirecTV and Bell ExpressVU (Canada only). Before buying, make sure a satellite dish is compatible to receive programming from the provider. It’s even better if it will work with more than one provider, should you ever decide to change providers. However, that’s not always possible.
Following are some of the most popular dishes and accessories for RV campers.
King Controls Antenna
King-Dome’s JACK roof-mounted, over-the-air antenna ($159.99) comes with a signal-strength meter to simplify setup.
King’s SureLock Digital TV Signal Finder simplifies antenna aiming and takes the guesswork out of finding local TV channels. A built-in signal meter detects digital TV signals as the antenna is rotated, indicating the best position for maximum reception. SureLock connects to an existing TV antenna output, between the antenna and TV or converter box. A built-in signal attenuator adjusts sensitivity when in very strong or weak signal areas. This signal finder can be used in conjunction with the JACK digital TV antenna head used on existing batwing hardware for digital and HDTV.
The new King-Dome AIR antennas offer satellite and over-the-air antennas combined in a single dome no taller than a standard air conditioner. With the stationary automatic 2200 Series ($1,299), users park and push a button for automatic satellite acquisition. The 3200 Series ($1,499) adds in-motion tracking, while the Premium 9762 ($2,299) operates even faster and has dual LNBs for two receivers.
King’s portable VuQube Series includes models VQ1000, VQ2000 and VQ3000. The VQ1000 ($599) comes with a wireless remote for easy aiming; the VQ2000 offers automatic stationary acquisition and has dual LNBs for two receivers; and the VQ3000 ($1,699) is actually a portable automatic in-motion tracking satellite system all in one.
KVH Satellite Antennas
KVH offers TracVision rooftop domed satellite antennas in several colors and varieties. Four 12-inch-tall dome models are available. The R4SL ($1,299) is a stationary system that works with DISH Network, DirecTV and Bell TV. For $1,399, the R5SL has similar capabilities, but adds in-motion tracking. The R6DX ($2,299) is an in-motion antenna compatible with DISH Network. The R6ST ($2,149) is similar in size and appearance, but works with DirecTV. Model A7 ($3,995) is a low-clearance antenna that’s only 5 inches high and works with DirecTV. Specifications and a side-by-side comparison are available on the KVH website.
MotoSat Satellite Dishes
MotoSat offers four fold-down satellite dishes for RV use. The dishes work with MotoSAT’s Nomad Controller, which allows push-button operation to deploy reflectors from a modest 10 1/2-inch stowed position to automatically locate and adjust the signal in minutes.
The most-popular MotoSAT HD series TV System ($2,195) is compatible with all major satellite providers. The MD500 ($1,795) enables simultaneous multi-satellite acquisition with the push of a button and works with DISH Network or Bell Express. The Executive ($1,595) is currently MotoSAT’s longest-running satellite TV product, and provides single satellite acquisition for satellite programming from DirecTV, DISH Network and Bell Express Vu. The MSC60 ($1,895) was conceived and designed specifically for Canadian viewers and provides instant, on-demand satellite television to StarChoice (Shaw Direct) subscribers.
Winegard’s Sensar IV amplified antenna ($159.99) receives over-the-air VHF/UHF digital channels, enabling viewers to enjoy free local programming while parked. It combines the Sensar III antenna with the UHF-enhanced Wingman antenna for improved reception and can be raised, lowered and rotated by a hand crank from inside the RV. It includes the amplified antenna, lift assembly and a 12-volt DC power supply and coax cable.
The add-on SensarPro TV signal meter ($69.99) provides real-time feedback for faster TV reception. It features an adjustable amplifier and is compatible with all amplified Sensar antennas.
Winegard’s compact GM-MP1 Carryout Manual Portable Satellite Antenna ($199) is a versatile satellite dish, marketed as a low-budget system that’s great for first-time satellite dish owners or for use as a backup system. Winegard’s Crank-Up satellite dish antennas are popular with trailer owners. The RM-DM46 ($382.20) is a manual roof-mounted antenna that is simple to operate with the Winegard “Digital Magic” elevation sensor. Raise, rotate and lower the dish with the hand crank inside. The model RM-DM61 ($443.42) is a satellite dish and over-the-air omnidirectional RoadStar antenna combined, with one mount and one installation for satellite and local broadcasts.
Winegard TRAV’LER dish antennas ($1,599-$1,899) view all satellites simultaneously, which allows viewers to watch any program on any TV at any time, without worries of interrupting someone watching a program on another TV. TRAV’LER DirecTV Slimline model is designed specifically to get DirecTV HD signals.
Winegard’s RoadTrip roof-mounted dome satellite TV antennas feature a compact 20-inch footprint and are fully automatic with controls inside the RV. They’re compatible with DISH Network, DirecTV and Bell TV. The MiniMax series ($899-$1,299) has a 15.6-inch dome height, while Mission models ($1,199-$1,499) have a 12.9-inch height. Choose between stationary or in-motion models.
Winegard’s compact Carryout Automatic Portable Satellite TV Antenna ($899.99) is fully automatic, quickly finding satellites for easy viewing. The unit plugs into a 12-volt DC outlet, can support up to two receivers and is compatible with DISH Network, DirecTV and Bell TV.