Modem vs. Router: What’s the Difference?
A modem connects your home to the internet, while a router allows you to connect more than one device to the internet—and set up a Wi-Fi network.
Are a modem and a router the same thing?
Modems and routers are two different devices that work together to provide you with home internet. Modems receive an internet connection for your home, but wireless routers transmit the Wi-Fi signal necessary to wirelessly connect multiple devices to the internet.
Combined modem/routers exist, but they’re expensive. Plus, modem and router technology advances at different rates, so it’s harder to keep up with the latest versions if you have a modem/router combo.
What is a modem?
Modems translate internet data into signals your computer (and other internet-enabled devices) can understand, and they prep your outgoing data for the internet network. Most internet networks use a completely different type of signal than your computer does, so modems are a necessary go-between.
During your internet installation, you’ll register your modem with your internet service provider, which authorizes your modem to connect to your internet provider’s network. With your modem authenticated, your internet provider clears you to use your internet service.
Our recommended modem: ARRIS Surfboard S33
Most internet providers will rent you a modem guaranteed to work with their services. But if you have a cable internet provider, it will probably allow you to bring your own modem. (Sorry DSL internet folks—DSL modems are hard to come by and often have compatibility issues.) Check out our provider-authorized recommendations:
What is a router?
Your router directs internet traffic between your modem and the multiple internet-enabled devices in your home. Use the Ethernet ports on your router for a solid wired connection, or use your wireless router to broadcast the internet as home Wi-Fi.
During your internet installation, you’ll set up a network name and password for your wireless router. Your secure network allows you to control who uses your Wi-Fi, and it helps protect your internet data.
Our recommended router: TP-Link Archer AX90
What is a modem/router?
A modem/router, sometimes called a gateway or modem/router combo, combines a modem and a router into a single device. Modem/routers still use the regular modem and router technology, but they take up less space when paired up in the same shell.
Our recommended modem/router: NETGEAR CAX80
Which is the modem and which is the router?
Commonly, modems look like plain rectangular prisms and tend to be smaller than routers. Routers are larger boxes and usually come armed with external antennae. If one of your internet devices looks like a spaceship, that’s the router for sure.
Where are you going, dear router?
What worlds have you seen?
Can a modem work as a router?
Generally, a modem has only one Ethernet port, so it can connect to only one device—usually your router. But in a pinch, you could connect one computer directly into the modem with that Ethernet port instead.
Do you need a router if you have a modem?
While you can still get one computer online without a router, a router is handy for connecting multiple devices to the internet. And wireless routers can get you online with Wi-Fi—no Ethernet cable needed. We’re mobile-friendly these days thanks to wireless routers.
Is it better to get a modem/router combo or separate devices?
While a modem/router combo usually takes up less space, separate devices are handy for flexibility and keeping up with the latest technology.
Say you move to a new area with a different internet type—you need a different modem to translate cable internet than DSL internet (and DSL signals vary from region to region too). If you have a separate modem, you only need to buy a new modem.
And the latest Wi-Fi technology, Wi-Fi 6, is hard to find in modem/router combos. Getting a separate router will make it easier to get on the Wi-Fi 6 train and have a better, faster Wi-Fi network.
Can I get internet without a modem?
While internet access requires a modem somewhere along the line, there are particular circumstances where you may not need one. For instance, some apartment buildings have a shared modem setup, and all you need to do is plug your router into an Ethernet port in the wall.
Can you just buy a router and have internet?
Unfortunately, a router isn’t a self-contained internet box. You also need a modem and an internet service provider to have an internet connection in your home.
But if you want fewer devices around, a modem/router combo may be a good solution for you.
Bonus round: What are Wi-Fi extenders and mesh Wi-Fi systems?
Wi-Fi extenders and mesh Wi-Fi systems are two different ways to extend the reach of your router. If you need your Wi-Fi network to reach only one more room, a Wi-Fi extender can do the trick, but mesh Wi-Fi systems are great for homes over 3,000 square feet.
And if you want a wired connection but don’t want to snake an Ethernet cable through your walls, you should check out powerline Ethernet adapters.
Final take: You’ve got this
To connect your home to the internet, you’ll need a modem and a router. You can save money in the long run by buying your own devices or enjoy the ease of renting a gateway modem/router from your internet service provider.
Either way, you’ll have what it takes to connect your home to the internet.
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