When the term “Smart TVs” started doing the rounds on the Web – back in 2010, if memory serves – it used to mean different things to different people, but there was one definition accepted by all: for a television to be considered “Smart” it would need to provide network connectivity, preferably both Internet access and local home network access. That was before the advent of the first true TV operating systems: if a TV somehow offered YouTube video playback and was able to display photos from a shared folder on one’s home PC back then, it was considered to be a Smart TV. Pretty wild, right?
Impressive progress has obviously been made since then: not only is now almost every TV sold out there in significant numbers a Smart TV by default, but it also provides the kind of network functionality consumers could only dream of back in the early 2010s. There’s just one problem: Smart TV connectivity hardware has not kept up with the pace of emerging network services, particularly when it comes to entertainment content. Films, TV shows and video games have greatly evolved audiovisually during the last few years, so the amount of data they use requires the kind of high, consistent connectivity speeds many Smart TVs just can’t work with.
What can consumers do, then, to ensure that their new Smart TV will be able to handle the entertainment content of their choice in terms of network connectivity, no matter what the use case? Fortunately, there are a few ways one can go about it. Read on.
Wireless Smart TV connectivity and its current limitations
Televisions gain access to networks and the Internet through a wired (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi) connection, so taking a close look at what each type can achieve can help consumers understand their respective limitations. All Smart TVs offer Wi-Fi and most (but not all) also offer an Ethernet port, but consumers may or may not have both options available to them depending on where the router – the device providing the Internet access itself – is placed. There are certain cases where Ethernet is preferable (we’ll get back to those in a bit) but Wi-Fi is usually way more convenient for most people, so let’s start from there.
For the last three years or so almost all mid-range and hi-end Smart TV models offer either Wi-Fi 5 (AC) or Wi-Fi 6 (ΑΧ) connectivity, which is plenty fast for almost any kind of content. Since both versions can easily handle data transfer speeds of 200 Mbps or higher in real-world use, any Smart TV wirelessly connected to a Wi-Fi 5/6 router will have no trouble displaying movies or shows offered by leading streaming services – such as Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus or Paramount Plus – as this content tops out at bitrates of around 45 Mbps. Even content coming from Sony’s Bravia Core film streaming platform – which lists Internet connection speeds of 120 Mbps or more as a requirement – tops out at around 80-85 Mbps, which is manageable by the company’s 2023, 2022 or even 2021 Smart TV models.
Truth be told, Wi-Fi does have a reputation of being finicky or inconsistent. That may still be the case under certain circumstances – effective home Wi-Fi is a complicated subject all on its own – but it’s now much less of a problem than it used to be. It’s also worth noting that domestic wireless access points are usually shared by more than one device, so Smart TVs don’t always have the available speed of a home Internet connection all to themselves. Generally speaking, though, the difference between content bitrate speeds and wireless connectivity speeds achieved by most Smart TVs via modern Wi-Fi is so great, that watching movies or TV shows over a good broadband (or faster) connection is virtually trouble-free these days.
There’s just one use case where a modern TV’s Wi-Fi connection might prove problematic: cloud gaming. More and more Smart TVs – Samsung got the ball rolling, LG followed a year later, others are looking into it – are able to offer access to full, complex video games without the help of a PlayStation, Xbox or PC (without installing any game files onto their own internal storage space too). Instead of that, they provide direct access to network services like GeForce Now or Xbox Game Pass: the games themselves are stored on a company’s servers (hence the “cloud gaming” term) and they are played by essentially letting gamers control them via the Internet while they’re being displayed on a TV’s screen.
There’s a serious catch, though, in this otherwise extremely convenient game streaming model: latency. That’s the time it takes for a player’s control command to be sent over to the cloud servers, be registered by the game and sent back to be displayed on-screen as an action. There’s inherent delay in that approach and a lot depends on the Internet connection speed consumers use, their geographical distance from the closest cloud server and the overall network traffic during which one’s playing these games. Then there’s also additional delay introduced by the Wi-Fi connection and by the TV itself when displaying video games in general (input lag). These delays when happening all at once can make controlling many types of video games feel slow, inaccurate, inconsistent and downright frustrating at times.
Consumers can’t do anything about a TV’s input lag (it will always be there and some TV models are simply better than others in that respect) or about cloud gaming latency (that’s defined by their Internet connection and content service choice). But they can do something about the wireless connection delays: for the particular use case of cloud gaming it is strongly recommended – for lower latency reasons, as well as for consistent image quality reasons – to use a wired, not wireless, connection. Ethernet connectivity performance is usually more predictable and reliable, less dependent on external factors and less prone to latency overall. This, unfortunately, does not mean that most modern Smart TVs do not have limitations on that front too, as described below.
Wired Smart TV connectivity and its current limitations
It’s no coincidence that wireless is the most popular way of networking Smart TVs: it’s a familiar, tidy and convenient approach, since one doesn’t have to take the placement of the home Internet router into account or manage any long-running cables. Wired connectivity does have a few advantages, namely being more reliable and less prone to latency. The problem: in the eyes of most manufacturers, Ethernet networking just isn’t a priority – and it shows.
Whereas in the world of computing wired connectivity has moved on from the days of “Fast Ethernet” (10/100 Mbps) to Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps), 2.5-Gigabit Ethernet and even 10-Gigabit Ethernet, in the world of Smart TVs we’re literally stuck in the 20th century (“Fast Ethernet” was introduced in 1995). There is not a single Smart TV out there right now that’s offering a Gigabit Ethernet port, meaning that every modern television in the market – even models costing tens of thousands of dollars – do not support data transfer speeds of more than 100 Mbps over a wired connection. In real-world terms that’s even lower: about 75-80 Mbps under most circumstances. All TV chipsets used by all TV manufacturers currently have this limitation when it comes to wired connectivity.
It used to be that this unbelievable, absurd oversight was not a big deal to anyone but us nerds, since there was not any kind of content, application or service actually calling for more than 80 Mbps of data transfer speeds to work as intended. Most use cases, like movie streaming or cloud gaming, still do not really need data transfer speeds of more than 50-60 Mbps tops. But there are now at least three use cases in the context of which the current Fast Ethernet limitation really can be a problem.
For one, there’s the case of services like Sony Bravia Core – and future services like it, most probably – which can deliver content encoded at up to 80 Mbps. Those actually need faster Internet connectivity than what a “Fast Ethernet” port can provide. Yours truly has already experienced this in practice: last year’s excellent Sony A95K QD-OLED TV cannot stream content from Bravia Core at 80 Mbps without a lot of video playback hiccups or brief buffering over Ethernet, making streaming over Wi-Fi the only obvious option for using that particular service with this TV.
Then there’s the case of Ultra HD Blu-ray disc backups. Those may be often associated with torrent files and illegal downloads, yes, but legal owners of these discs actually have the right to create copies onto HDD or SSD drives for personal use and safekeeping in many parts of the world – so it’s not an unusual thing to do. Material stored on UHD BD discs is encoded at high bitrates in order to provide the highest possible picture and sound quality, so modern movies peaking at 75-90 Mbps cannot be streamed to Smart TVs over a local home network through e.g. a Plex server without playback issues. This yours truly has also verified with several high-profile films in his disc collection over the years.
Finally there’s the case of user-generated content, namely high-resolution video, created at high bitrates (up to 100-120 Mbps). This can be captured using a variety of mainstream devices nowadays – from camcorders and digital cameras to smartphones and drones – so it’s not as exotic an option for consumers as it used to be 4 or 5 years ago. This footage also can’t be viewed over Fast Ethernet – through e.g. a local home network shared folder on a computer – without playback issues.
For people that recognise these examples not as edge cases, but as things they might actually want to do with their Smart TV at some point, the Fast Ethernet limitation is an actual concern. There’s a solution but, sadly, it’s not universal, in the sense that it does not apply to all Smart TVs out there: it’s widely known to work with Sony and LG models built around the Android TV, Google TV and webOS operating systems (there may be other exceptions but are definitely few and far between). Those specific TV models incorporate USB 2.0 and/or 3.0 ports, as many Smart TVs do, but their operating systems are able to recognise a number of different USB-to-Gigabit Ethernet adapters in order to provide much faster wired connectivity.
By using an adapter of this sort it’s possible to get around 350 Mbps speeds (in the case of USB 2.0 ports) or around 800 Mbps speeds (in the case of USB 3.0 ports) from a Sony or LG Smart TV using a wired connection to a Gigabit Ethernet router. Yours truly has verified this with the Sony X90K, A95K, X90J and A90J (around 780 Mbps), as well as with the LG CX (around 320 Mbps). Every other Gigabit Ethernet-equipped device on the same home network – itself based on CAT6 cabling – was able to stream high bitrate content to all of these TVs, no matter how complex, with no issues whatsoever.
Smart TV connectivity: different use cases, different options
So, bringing it all together: modern Smart TVs can offer network access through wired (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi) connections and, since they can’t combine the two – like e.g. on PCs – their owners will have to choose one or the other. Depending on each consumer’s requirements and needs either Wi-Fi or Ethernet will work just fine, but there are specific use cases where each will face certain limitations. Here are some answers for the most common questions regarding these use cases and limitations, so people can take them into account when looking for a new Smart TV or need to decide how to make the most out of their current one.
Do all Smart TVs offer Wi-Fi and Ethernet network connectivity?
The vast majority of modern TVs offer both (it’s inexpensive to do so) but a number of entry level models may only offer Wi-Fi. Most people will be using Wi-Fi anyway.
Is Smart TV Wi-Fi or Ethernet fast enough for every content streaming service?
t is fast enough for almost all content streaming services – Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Max, Paramount Plus, Hulu, ESPN etc. – with the exception of Sony’s Bravia Core service, which requires fast Wi-Fi to deliver the best possible results. People using a capable Internet router and a broadband connection (50 Mbps or better) will not have trouble using any of the other services, over either Wi-Fi or Ethernet, at the highest possible audio and visual quality.
What type of wireless access do Smart TVs need for trouble-free networking?
Every Smart TV model released in the last 3-4 years offers either Wi-Fi 5 (AC) or Wi-Fi 6 (ΑΧ) connectivity. Both offer high enough data transfer speeds to always provide flawless media playback when working with Wi-Fi 5/6/6E wireless routers or access points. When Wi-Fi 7 routers or access points become widely available in 2024, they’ll remain compatible with all Smart TVs currently out there as well as with every new TV model certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
Do cloud gaming services work on Smart TVs over Wi-Fi?
Yes, they do, but they introduce additional delay to the process of sending and receiving game data, negatively affecting control and graphics quality. For cloud gaming on Smart TVs a wired connection is preferable to Wi-Fi.
Do I really need network connectivity faster than 100 Mbps on my Smart TV?
For most use cases… no. But in a few edge cases some content’s bitrate itself exceeds the real-world limit of Fast Ethernet ports (around 75 Mbps), so playback issues often arise. These cases include high-resolution video footage captured using various consumer devices (up to 100-120 Mbps), high-bitrate uncompressed 4K movies from Ultra Blu-ray discs (up to 80-100 Mbps) and next-generation streaming services like Sony Bravia Core (up to 60-80 Mbps).
Do USB-to-Gigabit Ethernet adapters work with all Smart TVs?
No, they do not. It’s actually the operating systems of Smart TVs that either can or cannot use these products. Android TV, Google TV and webOS can, so Sony TVs and LG TVs of the last 3 years are confirmed to utilise these adapters for much faster wired connectivity. It’s worth noting that not all such products work with all Sony or LG models either.
Does Sony’s Bravia Core streaming service work over Ethernet?
Yes, it does, but for modern films offering high audiovisual quality (bitrates over 75-80 Mbps) a Wi-Fi connection is recommended for trouble-free playback. Ethernet ports on Smart TVs only allow for data transfer rates of up to 70-75 Mbps in real-world scenarios.
It’s true that, in the context of mainstream Smart TV use, most people will be fine with just a modern wireless router and a fairly fast Internet connection. Everything’s going Wi-Fi anyway these days. But it’s still worth knowing what consumers can expect from either a wireless or wired Smart TV connection for future reference: they may not need certain aspects of its functionality today, but they very well might at some point down the line. No harm in being prepared, no?