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Modem vs router: What is the difference, and do you need both?

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A modem and a router are two of the most common devices found in a home network setup. A modem is connected to an internet service provider (ISP), while a router creates a local area network (LAN). Both devices are essential for a functioning home network. However, it can be challenging to understand the difference between a modem and a router as both devices have similar functions. This article explains their differences and individual purposes.

What is a modem?

A modem, which stands for "modulator-demodulator," is a device connecting your home to your internet service provider (ISP) through a physical connection. The modem translates the data from your ISP into a format that your home network devices can use.

There are three common types of modem connections:

  • Dial-up — A modem that uses a phone line to connect to an ISP. This is the oldest type of modem connection and has largely been replaced by broadband connections.
  • DSL — A digital subscriber line modem uses a phone line to connect to an ISP but with much higher speeds than dial-up.
  • Cable — A modem that uses a cable TV line to connect to an ISP. This is the most common type of modem connection.

Most ISPs will either rent you a modem or sell you one outright. Many modems nowadays are "all-in-one" devices that also include a router, although you can still purchase a modem and router separately.

What is a router?

A router is a device that creates a local area network (LAN). The router connects to your modem and then to your devices, such as computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

The router connects all devices on your home network and allows them to communicate. It also allows those devices to connect to the internet.

Other advantages of a router include:

  • Firewall protection — A router can provide some protection against outside threats by acting as a firewall.
  • Network security — A router can also help secure your home network by hiding the IP addresses of your devices from the public internet.
  • Parental controls — A router can allow you to set up parental controls so that you can restrict internet access for certain devices.
  • Connect to a VPN — A router can also be used to connect to a virtual private network (VPN), providing additional security and privacy for your home network.

When it comes to routers that aren’t combined with modems into one unit, there are two main types: wired and wireless.

  • Wireless routers: A wireless router connects to a modem via an Ethernet cable. This transmits data by converting binary code into radio waves. Signals are broadcast wirelessly using antennas. Wireless routers don't create LANs; instead, they establish WLANs that connect several wireless devices.
  • Wired routers: A wired router connects to a modem using an Ethernet connection. It then uses other cables to link the network's devices to one another and connect them to the internet.

Each type of router has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, wireless routers are generally easier to set up and use, but wired routers can provide a more secure connection.

Do I need a modem and a router?

A modem and router are both essential components of most home networks, especially for those who have a home office and work remotely. The modem is responsible for sending and receiving signals from the ISP, while the router disperses the signal to devices on the network.

In a typical home network setup, the modem is connected to the router, which is then connected to each device on the network. The modem and router are essential in ensuring a stable and reliable connection. Without a modem, the router would not be able to connect to the internet, and without a router, devices on the network would not be able to communicate.

Modem and router combos

Modem and router combination devices are becoming increasingly common as manufacturers streamline the home networking experience. These combo devices perform both roles, modem and router; this is a convenient solution, for one because it takes up less space than two separate units. Moreover, a combo is easier to install, and you’ll typically spend less at the get-go.

What modem and router configuration is right for me?

The right modem and router configuration for you depends on several factors, including the size and layout of your home, the number of devices on your network, and your budget. For instance, a modem-router combo may be all you need if you have a small home with only a few devices. If you have a larger home or many devices, you may need to invest in a Wi-Fi extender or mesh system.

A Wi-Fi extender rebroadcasts the original signal from your router, enabling you to tap into an uninterrupted signal. A mesh Wi-Fi router system is multiple access points, or nodes, that communicate with each other. Each node broadcasts its own signal but is linked to the others via software. You tap into the signal from a particular node based on where it’s located.

Essentially, each node in the mesh is a router. A mesh setup is ideal if you have a large property with multiple dead spots where you need multiple devices to be able to seamlessly connect. If you only have one dead area — an outbuilding where your office is located, for example — a Wi-Fi extender should do the trick.

Equally important is to consider the types of internet connections you have and the speed of your internet service. If you have a high-speed fiber-optic connection, you may need a newer modem-router combo that can handle that type of connection. On the other hand, if you only have a slow DSL connection, and you don’t need to connect wirelessly, a standalone modem may be all you need.

Here’s the rundown of each type of modem and router so you can make a decision.

Singular modem

On one hand, a standalone modem is simple to set up and use. Typically, you’ll only need an Ethernet cable to connect to the modem and get internet, regardless of whether it’s dial-up, DSL or cable.

On the other hand, this simple set-up is a limitation, as you may not want to deal with an Ethernet cable, and you can only connect one device to the modem’s single Ethernet port. Worse yet, a modem doesn’t come with any built-in security and privacy features, and you may need to replace it if your ISP upgrades its equipment.

Separate modem and router

If you opt for a separate modem and router, you’ll get a more secure connection than a modem alone can offer. You’ll be able to connect a variety of devices, and if the router is wireless, you can do so without cables. The router should also offer more security features than a standalone modem would.

However, you’ll most likely pay more than you would for a standalone modem, the addition of a separate router will take up more space, and it could be more difficult to set up and use, especially if the modem and router are made by different companies.

Modem and router combo

Today’s advanced modem-router combos are the best of both worlds: they take up less space than a separate modem and router, can be less expensive, and offer more convenience, due to the fact that you only have to set up one device. What’s more, you can find combos capable of supporting the highest internet speeds. You’ll be able to connect multiple devices wirelessly — perfect for streamers, gamers, small businesses and anyone who enjoys updated, streamlined technology.

While technology has made it easier than ever to connect to the internet, there are still a few things you need to know before you can get online. For instance, it's essential to know viable solutions for network strain, as homes with many devices can often suffer from connection issues, especially those with multiple devices connecting to the internet simultaneously.

Another important consideration is security; with so many devices and people connecting to the internet, it's more important than ever to ensure your home network is secure. Other key considerations include internet speed and reliability, both of which are essential for a smooth online experience.

No matter what modem, router, or combination device you choose, it's necessary to understand the difference between the devices and how they work together. With that knowledge, you can make an informed decision about which type of modem or router is right for your home.