The 8 Best Portable Satellite Antennas
Thanks to modern technology, you can still enjoy all your favorite shows and movies even when you're camping in the wild, tailgating outside a sports stadium, or parked in an RV lot for the evening. The portable antennas we've listed here allow you to connect to satellites in near-earth orbit to receive programming from your media provider of choice. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best portable satellite antenna on Amazon.
A Brief History Of Satellite Antennas
That technology has been around since antiquity, and simply needed to be re-purposed to fit modern needs.
Today, you can receive crystal-clear picture and video on a satellite that's barely noticeable, and the units can be found in homes nationwide.
While the idea of using satellites for just about any form of communication is second nature to us today, it's amazing to think how radical that idea would have seemed only a few decades ago.
The technology may be new, of course, but the idea behind it is rather old. The concept of using parabolic satellite antennas to reflect radio waves was taken from the tradition of focusing light into a beam by using a mirror. That technology has been around since antiquity, and simply needed to be re-purposed to fit modern needs.
In fact, antennas were instrumental in proving the very existence of radio waves. In 1888, the German scientist Heinrich Hertz successfully transmitted a low-frequency wave from one antenna to another. However, parabolic antennas aren't ideal for low-frequency emissions, and so they would largely stay on the back burner until microwaves found use after World War II.
That war would foster an increased reliance on radar for military purposes, and so parabolic antennas began to enjoy a resurgence. The ensuing Cold War would emphasize the need to transmit information and propaganda (and Hogan's Heroes reruns) across wide swaths of land. Plus, there were immense commercial possibilities involved, so satellite television started to become a development priority.
The first public television satellite signal was sent from Europe to North America via the Telstar satellite in 1962, with a US-to-Japan transmission following a few months later. Not to be outdone, the Soviets made their own successful broadcast in 1967.
All of this laid the groundwork for the consumer satellite dish, which would become a reality in 1976. HBO, TBS, and the Christian Broadcasting Network were among the first programmers to utilize this new technology, with PBS not far behind. However, there was a limited audience for early dishes, as they were massive — and massively expensive (and that's before considering the cost of HBO).
The 1980s saw incredible advances in the technology, allowing for a reduction in both size and price. As a result, more consumers made the plunge, with over a half-million units being sold in 1984 alone. Unfortunately, not everyone saw this as a welcome change, especially landlords and homeowner's associations, which viewed the dishes as eyesores.
The early 1990s saw the release of PrimeStar, a subscription satellite service launched by a conglomerate of cable companies. Its popularity was immense but short-lived, as it soon fell behind newly-launched competitors DirecTV and Dish Network.
Today, you can receive crystal-clear picture and video on a satellite that's barely noticeable, and the units can be found in homes nationwide. It's likely that future changes to the industry will bring about even smaller dishes, while also improving on the quality, cost, and reliability of the service.
It's amazing, really — electromagnetic waves are willing to go all the way to space just to make sure you never leave your couch.
How Satellite Antennas Work
Have you ever wondered how your cop show can be beamed from space to television sets around the country, all at the same time? The answer lies in how satellite antennas work.
It then zaps this new wave over to a smaller receiver opposite the middle of the dish, like a magnifying glass held in the sunlight.
The process starts when your TV provider blasts the signal from a ground-based station to a geosynchronous satellite that orbits a single spot over the Earth. When this beam hits the satellite, it's converted into an electromagnetic wave, and they like to spread. Think about what happens to the water when you throw a rock in a still pond, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the satellite does to the signal.
However, the further that signal has to travel, the more it will diminish in strength along the way — bad news for anyone living far from the satellite's location. That's where the parabolic antenna comes in.
The wide "dish" of the antenna collects as much of the dispersed waves as it can, and then re-focuses them to boost their strength. It then zaps this new wave over to a smaller receiver opposite the middle of the dish, like a magnifying glass held in the sunlight. From there, the signal travels to your TV, likely via coaxial cable.
Choosing The Right Portable Satellite Antenna
Whether you're looking for a portable satellite antenna to spice up your next tailgate, improve a camping trip, or just liven up your RV, finding the right option can make all the difference in the world.
Before you start shopping, however, know that you probably won't get picture quality that rivals stationary models. That said, you can still get more than your money's worth, thanks to their convenience, low cost, and portability.
You may also need to grab some extra coaxial cable if any of the televisions are going to be set up far from the dish itself.
The first consideration is whether you want a manual or automatic option. Manual is cheaper, but you'll have to go through the hassle of finding a signal, and as a result most models come with bubble levels and other calibration equipment. Automatic satellites are "set and forget" units, but they're also more expensive.
Decide how many TVs you'll want to hook up, as well. The signal will inevitably weaken as it splits among different units, so you'll need a more powerful antenna if you're looking to set up several sets (or you'll need to invest in a cable amplifier). You may also need to grab some extra coaxial cable if any of the televisions are going to be set up far from the dish itself.
Not all antennas are capable of in-motion use, either, so if you want to watch the Discovery Channel while driving through Yellowstone, you'll need to make sure you have a dish that's capable of supporting such an endeavor.
Ultimately, you'll need to pay a little more for better performance and versatility, but that's likely money well-spent if you plan to use the satellite frequently. After all, the worst thing that could happen is that the satellite could go out while you're on vacation, forcing you to actually talk to your family.
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