The internet is now a part of our lives more than ever. It powers everything imaginable from streaming television shows to our online banking. With such a central role, some of its most central components are often misunderstood.
Those components are your modem and router. This article offers a very simple explanation of the differences between a modem and a router.
Modems Explained In Simple Terms
Your modem connects to your ISP via a coaxial connection, fiber or phone line.
It then receives the data that your ISP is providing and converts it into a usable form for your home.
Modems will normally have an Ethernet port on the back of them. This Ethernet port allows you to connect to them and transmit data between your device (normally a router - we'll come to that in a minute) and the modem via the Ethernet cable.
Connections via Ethernet are usually going to be more reliable due to the decreased chances of interference. Ethernet connections can support speeds as high as 10 Gbps. This is determined by your networking card and your Ethernet cable being used. In homes however, up to 1Gbps is used. 10Gbps is generally for the world of business and datacenters.
This video does a pretty good job explaining how the connection works.
Your modem can be used to provide the internet to one hardwired device. Generally, most cable modems are connected to a router. That is because the modem is only capable of breaking down data from your ISP into a usable format and not routing it to multiple devices. To deliver data to a broad range of devices, you will need a router.
Note that there are combined modem & router units, known as 'combos'. We'll come to those soon.
We have more to say on modems here
What About Routers? The Basics...
A router is basically a device that routes traffic between your home network devices (be they wired or wireless) and/or the internet.
The modem, as mentioned above, is the device that converts the internet signal from your ISP into a usable format. Your router then connects to your modem and routes the data signal to your other devices - and vice-versa.
One of the central elements of your router is its firmware. The firmware is basically the control software of the router itself (known as a GUI or menu system). Within this software, you can do things like open ports for gaming, adjust firewall settings, check network traffic, create wifi networks and much more.
It is imperative to regularly update the firmware of your router. Not only do the latest updates help with stability, they also provide increased security by patching various security vulnerabilities as they arise. CNET has a great article explaining the importance of this process for routers.
Routers usually come equipped with Wi-Fi these days. Wi-Fi has evolved substantially over the years. Potential wireless speeds can vary substantially based on the type of networking card your device uses and the wireless standard that is supported by your router.
Most computers support either 802.11n or 802.11ac wireless. The key difference between these is the limitation in potential wireless speed. The 802.11ac is the newer of the two wireless components. It supports up to three times the wireless speed capability.
Read more about wireless standards here
However, the potential speeds of your wireless network are going to be drastically limited by a variety of factors. One of the biggest is wireless interference. The more wireless networks visible, the more likely you are to experience a variety of connection problems.
Those connection problems can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You could experience slow downloads, frequent disconnects and constant buffering while streaming. One of the most common things to do to solve this is to change your wireless channel.
Your router also has Ethernet ports on the back to connect to as well. Generally, your devices used for streaming data and online gaming will receive the most benefit of being connected via Ethernet cable.
Some examples of devices you may want to consider hard-wiring to your router are Roku players, Smart TVs, games consoles and computers used for downloading.
Check out more on what we have to say on routers here
Should I Buy A Separate Modem & Router, Or A Router/Modem Combo?
Now that we have covered the differences, between a modem and router, we are going to work to clear up the confusion of hybrid modem/router combinations. Many times, especially if you rent equipment from your ISP, you will be using one box that combines a modem and a router together.
These modem and router combos do have several benefits. For one, it reduces the amount of clutter you have around your home. Fewer wires mean less hassle when attempting to power cycle equipment and trace connections & cables.
Best cable modem/router combo unit
Having a modem and router combination also simplifies the setup procedure. It also makes the troubleshooting process much easier if you are having connection problems. You just have to focus on one piece of kit.
If you elect for the streamlined approach and convenience of a modem router combination, then be sure to pay particular attention to its wireless component. As mentioned in the router section above, 802.11ac is the latest band that support higher data transfer speeds. Although hold on to your hats, the all-new .11ad is now available (the Nighthawk X10 is one such supporting device - it's a 'router only' device by the way!) - yep, things are changing yet again!
There is one potential downside to owning a modem and router combination. If you want to upgrade your wireless at a later time, then you will have to purchase a whole new modem and router combination (or go for separate offerings). Having a separate router allows you to just upgrade that piece of equipment.
Also, if your router component fails, then you will have to replace the whole unit as well. Of course another way of looking at this is if you do have a separate router & modem, there are two boxes that could break instead of one, so really it's something you need to think about.
Another disadvantage is for those who want more control of their network and potentially more speed. Separate units can help you network run faster and can be tweaked to perform better than a combo unit - but this depends on what kit you actually buy.
Overall, combo units are generally preferred by users who don't really want to get their hands dirty and just want that raw, and 'good enough' internet access without trying to tweak out every last drop goodness out of it?. Generally!
Modem vs Router: The Differences In Brief
To summarize, your modem is basically the device that converts the signals from your ISP into a usable format for your devices at home. Your modem will always have at least one Ethernet port to connect to a device or separate router.
A router is used to route the internet signal to a wider range of devices. Your router is also what transmits your wireless network (you can use a dedicated AP for this, but most users won't). This is the device that is responsible for connecting the vast majority of home network devices.
For many, the simplicity that a modem and router combination offers makes it a great choice. These devices provide an excellent general solution for those looking for a simplified and streamlined connection. Generally, owning a combination device is also less expensive than owning a separate modem and router.
If you desire more customization, you may benefit from a separate router in addition to your modem. By purchasing a separate router, you can upgrade that single piece of equipment at a later time without having to change your modem. Although, owning two separate devices can come at an increased initial cost.
Rent Modem and Router?
One last thing to consider is the prospect of renting or buying your own equipment.
Renting equipment from your ISP will save you money initially. Renting the equipment also means you can easily have the equipment serviced or exchanged by your provider. However, when renting your selection of equipment is limited by what your ISP provides.
If you buy your own equipment, it does come at an increased initial investment. However, that initial investment is often substantially less than the cost of renting your equipment over time. You also have the freedom and flexibility to customize your equipment choices based on your unique needs.
Just make sure your ISP supports the equipment before you go out and purchase, or will at least be willing to provide you broadband login details? so that you can connect your own devices!
As always, if you have any further questions please feel free to post a comment below.