Modem and router are both words you’ve probably heard countless times. You can’t get on the Internet without them, and whether you know it or not, you’re using both modems and routers more than you probably think. The line between the two can be difficult to distinguish at times, which is why so many people are confused. This guide breaks down what both modems and routers do and offers some suggestions on which device is best for you.
What Is a Modem?
A modem is a device that lets you connect to the Internet. There are various types of modems, depending on your Internet connection.
These include ADSL, cable, and fiber optic modems, to name a few. While these all work slightly differently, you don’t need to worry about that. All you need to know is the type of Internet service you have in order to choose the correct modem.
If you pay for your own Internet service, you probably already have a modem inside your home, usually supplied by your local internet service provider (ISP). These have a connection to your ISP and a connection for your devices to use to connect to the Internet.
Some modems, like those provided by some ISPs, also have built-in routers. We’ll look at what those are next.
What Is a Router?
A router sends Internet traffic to various devices in your home. These let you take the modem supplied by your ISP and connect it to computers and various other devices. Most routers these days also let you set up wireless networks.
A router will have an Ethernet port for your modem and multiple Ethernet ports for desktop computers or other devices that use a wired connection. If it’s a wireless router, it will also let you set up a wireless network within your home. This is what lets you go online on your laptop, tablet, or other devices.
There are various wireless network standards like 802.11ac, 802.11n, 802.11g. 802.11ac is the current popular format, but new wireless standards tend to come out every few years with better range or faster speeds.
A wireless router has a limited range when it comes to connections, so if you live in a large home, you may have some areas that don’t get a good connection. Mesh networks or mesh routers solve this problem by placing multiple devices that share the connection throughout your home, letting you always be in range of one.
Home routers these days will often include multiple security features, like a firewall to help keep devices on your network safe.
Modem vs. Router
Now that we’ve looked at the technical differences between a modem and a router, let’s look at the practical differences.
Both devices look fairly similar: a device with blinking lights on the front and a few cables coming out the back. How do you tell them apart? Most routers will also have antennas for wireless connections, while a standalone modem will never have antennas.
A modem will also have fewer cable connections: one for your ISP connection and one for your computer or router. A router, on the other hand, will usually have one port to connect to a modem and then four or more for devices inside your home.
To connect to the Internet, you only need a modem – technically, anyway. Only one device at a time can connect to a modem, while if you plug a router into a modem, multiple devices can use that modem. Don’t forget the extra security features of the router, either.
A standalone modem does not broadcast the Internet connection wirelessly. You will need a router if you plan to connect wirelessly.
2-in-1 Modem/Router Devices
A modem that also includes a built-in router sounds like a great idea, and sometimes it is, but not every time. While it’s handy to have the two devices in a single piece of hardware, this can be limiting.
Most of the time, when you encounter a 2-in-1 modem/router combo, it’s supplied by your ISP. These are meant to work for almost every customer the ISP serves, but it often means that neither the modem nor the router inside the box is especially good.
If you intend to buy your own separate router and modem, it may make sense to opt for a 2-in-1. In this case, because you’re buying it for your own needs, you can make sure that both the modem and router sides of the device have the features and functionality you need.
Which Should You Buy?
If you’re looking for faster Internet speeds, you may be tempted to upgrade your modem, your router, or both. Which of these would provide the most benefit? Should you upgrade at all?
Buy a Modem If …
- Your ISP allows you to upgrade your modem.
- Your existing modem has a dated or substandard built-in router.
- You’re looking for a more flexible network setup.
- You want a standalone modem with no integrated router.
Buy a Router If …
- You want to plug more devices into your modem.
- You want to transfer data between devices in your home.
- You have devices with more modern Wi-Fi technologies than your existing router can handle.
- You want to upgrade the security of your home network.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Will a new modem speed up my Internet connection?
Possibly. The ultimate arbiter of your Internet speed is your ISP. If your current modem is capable of reaching the maximum speed you’re paying for, a newer modem won’t change that. If you have a limited older modem, switching to a new one may allow faster Internet speeds.
If you’ve recently upgraded to a higher-tier Internet plan and are not seeing faster speeds, upgrading your modem may help.
2. Will a new modem speed up a slow Wi-Fi?
Unless your modem has a built-in Wi-Fi router, no. Wi-Fi speeds tend to cap out before your Internet speed does. You can check this by visiting a site like speedtest.net from a wired connection, then the wireless connection to compare.
3. Will a new router speed up slow Wi-Fi?
Sometimes, yes. If you have a new tablet, but your router doesn’t support the latest Wi-Fi technologies, for example, your tablet will be stuck at the speed of the older Wi-Fi tech. Upgrading your router will let your device make use of the faster new technology.
4. How do I know which type of device I have?
Aside from the differences we’ve mentioned, the easiest way to tell is look up the model number and search for it on the manufacturer’s website.
Pay More Attention to Your Router
For most things we care about when it comes to security, Internet speed, and ease of use, your router is more important than your modem. Your modem connects to the Internet, but the router makes all the connections that matter to your devices.
If your router is giving you trouble, be sure to check out our guide to troubleshooting your router. If you decide you need a new router, ask these eight questions.
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