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Knowing more about how your modem and router work and interact with your internet-capable devices can save you money, time and frustration. We break down these crucial components so you can decide what you need to get the most out of your home internet connection.
What is the difference between a modem and a router?
Before Wi-Fi was a thing, most homes only had one desktop computer (if any!), and the only device you needed to connect your computer to the internet was a modem. Around 2001, Wi-Fi exploded in popularity, causing the number of Wi-Fi devices per home to skyrocket and the addition of a home wireless router to be indispensable.
What does a modem do?
- Your modem is your home’s connection to the internet.
- A modem receives signals from your internet service provider (AT&T, Cox, Spectrum, etc.) and translates them for your devices to use.
- Every modem is assigned a unique IP address, similar to a Social Security number, that can identify the device on the World Wide Web.
Term to know: IP address — An IP address is an identifying number for your network that lets the web know where to send information. Or, put another way, if you didn’t have an IP address, it would be like having a home without a mailing address.
What does a router do?
- Your router is the middleman between your modem and your internet-connected devices, such as laptops, smartphones and smart TVs.
- A router creates a local area network (LAN) around your house which allows multiple devices to connect to your Wi-Fi connection.
Term to know: LAN — Think of a LAN as an invisible “bubble” around your home in which your Wi-Fi signal lives. Without a router, you would not be able to have a Wi-Fi connection and would have to plug each device directly into a modem using an Ethernet cable.
What is a gateway 2-in-1 device (a modem and router combo)?
- A gateway is a router/modem combo, also called a wireless gateway.
- In the past, routers and modems have come as two separate devices that work in tandem, but now, it’s more common to see gateways.
- A gateway replaces the need for two separate devices. It simplifies set-up and takes up less space. Many internet service providers (ISPs) offer these 2-in-1 options for rent or purchase.
Term to know: Gateway — A device that performs all the functions of both a modem and a wireless router.
Modem vs. router: Which is better?
Technically speaking, a modem is fundamentally more important than a router because you wouldn’t be able to connect to the internet without one. However, as consumers collectively move away from standard computers and rely more on handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets, having Wi-Fi can seem as crucial as water.
What is a modem used for?
A modem transmits, receives and converts data. Whether you use DSL, cable, fiber or satellite internet, a modem is the device that translates signals from its digital or analog form to what you see on your screen. In other words, a modem gets the internet to your devices. A modem can function independently from a router.
What is a router used for?
A router is used to distribute the Wi-Fi signal throughout an area, thus creating a wireless network. A router cannot work without a modem. Though these two devices can look similar, a router will often have external antennas and multiple Ethernet ports.
Think of it this way — a modem is like the engine in your car. Without it, your car would not run. But the router is like a fuel pump because it gets the gasoline (i.e. the internet) where it needs to go.
Modem vs. router vs. gateway
A modem can function independently from a router, but a router cannot work without a modem. When a modem and router are built together as one device, that is called a gateway.
Learn more: The ultimate internet router guide
What is a mesh network?
A mesh network is a type of LAN that uses more than one router to extend your Wi-Fi beyond standard bounds. These additional routers, also called nodes, are smaller than a typical router and cannot function without being connected to the primary router in your home.
How can a mesh network help you? A mesh network can strengthen your Wi-Fi connection and give you greater connectivity overall, which can be especially useful when working from home.
Learn more about modems, routers and getting faster internet speeds in this four minute CNET video!
Should I rent or buy a modem and router?
Nowadays, ISPs are eager to rent you their equipment, usually in the form of a 2-in-1 device for around $10/mo. There are benefits to a provider equipment rental, such as specific technical support and equipment upgrades. But if you’re looking to save money, investing in your own equipment may be the way to go. Check out some pros and cons of renting vs. buying a modem and router.
Renting a modem and router
Pros to renting equipment:
- Repair and software updates included
- Guaranteed provider compatibility
- Technical support on hand
Cons to renting equipment:
- Use includes monthly rental payment
- Payment solely goes toward usage
Whether or not you should invest in your own equipment depends on your living situation, your commitment to your current internet access plan and who you’ll be sharing the purchase with.
Buying a modem and router
Pros to buying equipment:
- One-time purchase
- Purchase is a long-term investment
- Decreased annual internet bill
- Customer gets to pick their own equipment
Cons to buying equipment:
- Upfront cost of around $100
- Must install equipment yourself
- Repair, tech support and equipment updates are contingent on your warranty (not your ISP)
Now that you know the difference between a modem and a router, learn more about the internet equipment in your home and whether you should invest!
Originally published 5/24/20. Last updated 11/12/20.
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Written by:Taylor Gadsden
Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content
Taylor is a veteran member of the Allconnect content team and has spearheaded a number of projects, including a data piece on the top fiber cities in the U.S. and a troubleshooting guide on how to connect your p… Read more
Edited by:Trey Paul
Editor, Head of Content
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