Here’s the Difference Between a Modem and a RouterReading Time: 4 minutes
Modems and routers are important to home internet, but aren’t the same thing.
Setting up your home internet connection is a lot easier than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s self-explanatory. Terms like ‘modem’ and ‘router’ are often thrown around, sometimes interchangeably, even though they’re very different devices. Before you go out and buy what you need to connect your devices to the web, you’ll need to understand the difference between a modem and a router.
The best way to think of the modem, a blend of ‘modulator’ and ‘demodulator,’ is to imagine it as the door to the internet. Just like you can’t enter or exit your home without a door, you can’t access the internet without a modem to create that connection.
A modem translates the data from your ISP (your internet service provider) to your home network, and it translates whatever data you create on your home network to the internet. For example, when you clicked this article’s link, your modem sent the request to your ISP, who, in turn, passed the request along to the servers this article is hosted on. Those servers confirmed the request, and returned it back to your ISP, who, once again, returned it to your modem, finally connecting your device with this article.
In the early internet days, most folks only used modems to connect to the internet. And, if you’re just connecting your devices via ethernet cables, you can get away with running only a modem in your home. But if you want your home to have wifi, so you can connect to the internet wirelessly, you’ll need a router.
Think of the router as an intersection for your home network. All of your devices—such as your smartphone, TV, computer, and game console—connect to your router. The data those devices send to the router is transferred to the modem, so only the router directly connects to the modem. From there, the modem takes all those requests and translates them so they can connect to the internet.
Wireless routers often feature both hardwired connections and wireless ones (wifi). That means you can connect a multitude of different devices to the router, all without having to worry about the more limited connections that your modem might offer. Wired connections can be faster and more secure, while wireless ones offer convenience. (You don’t have to be directly next to the router in order to connect to the internet.)
If you live in a small space, or your wifi demands are light, a standard router might be enough to connect all your devices to, wirelessly or not. However, for large homes and spaces, a mesh router might be the way to go, which uses a system of multiple routers to ‘piggy back’ off each other and boost the available wifi signal throughout your home.
You don’t actually have to buy your modem and router separately. Instead, you can buy a modem and router combo unit, often called gateways, which makes the entire process a little bit easier. These gateways are usually what internet companies offer when you join their service, but some still offer separate modems and routers in their set ups.
The first thing you need to take into account is speed. Modems and routers are designed to provide specific speed capabilities to your home network. So, if you buy a modem or router that doesn’t offer support for the speeds your network offers (check with your internet service provider for that information) you could end up bottlenecking your home connection, forcing it to run slower than it normally should.
Let’s say your plan with your ISP offers connections of up to 1 Gbps. You’ll want to make sure your modem and router can handle that. If they only advertise speeds of up to 500 Mbps, for example, you’re not taking full advantage of your connection. However, if your network is capped at 300 Mbps, that 500 Mbps modem or router would be just fine.
Routers and modems will often feature a confusing name that actually denotes their speed. The first two characters indicate what wifi generation their compatible with. AC means Wi-Fi 5, while AX means Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E. The number following these characters denotes the total speeds offered by the bands (often 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), so you shouldn’t expect the router to be able to deliver those speeds for every device on every connection. The Netgear Nighthawk AX2400, for example, is Wi-Fi 6-compatible (AX) and has a top combined speed of 2,400 Mbps.
While this knowledge is great for quickly identifying a device’s speeds, you’ll also see this information in its specs, so just take a closer look at those when making your decision. You’ll also see other information, such as top wired speeds, maximum signal range, and whether the device is compatible with a mesh system.
Finally, make sure your ISP allows you to buy your own modem in the first place. If they don’t, you’ll need to rely on theirs anyway.
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