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In a nutshell, a modem establishes a connection between your home network and the internet. On the other hand, a router connects all the devices you have – wired and wireless – into a home network and lets them communicate with each other or access the internet a modem provides.
In reality, things are somewhat more complicated when you add combo modems/routers to the mix. Still, knowing a bit more about each one of these devices and their differences can help you get the most out of your internet connection and home network. Now, let’s get into things a bit further.
As already mentioned, modems connect your computer to the internet. They process the signals from your internet service provider and bring the internet into your home.
The term modem comes from the modulation and demodulation that they do. In other words, they convert a computer’s digital signal into an analog one so that it can be sent through wires over the internet (coaxial cables, phone lines, etc.). They also convert analog signals to digital when receiving information from the web on your computer.
A lot of stand-alone modems only have one wired Ethernet port for your computer or router, and one port that connects to the internet; that’s how you’ll recognize them. This won’t suffice for most people that need multiple devices connected both through Wi-Fi and with wires, and that’s where routers come in.
Household routers started becoming more and more popular and common as people began to acquire multiple devices that needed to share the internet connection in their home. So, the purpose of a router is to route traffic between your home network devices, and between the internet and those devices. That way you can, for example, share files between a laptop and mobile phone through a router locally, without using the internet, or surf the web from all these devices individually.
Nowadays, wireless routers with a Wi-Fi access point and an integrated switch with extra Ethernet ports are the norm. In most cases, we recommend getting this device and using it with a stand-alone modem. But wait, there’s more.
Standing opposite a stand-alone modem and a separate router are modem/router combos. When signing up for internet service, your ISP will often offer to rent you a modem/router combo and charge you about $10 per month. These devices tend to have a modem, a router with an integrated switch and three or four wired Ethernet ports, and even a wireless access point all rolled into one.
A modem router combo is often simpler and quicker to set up, it takes up less space, uses only one AC outlet, and there are no potentially compatibility issues. Renting costs less up front than buying a separate wireless router, and internet providers will offer you troubleshooting or a replacement if your device stops working. All in all, this is the best option for the average home user that isn’t demanding when it comes to performance or interested in customizing networking options.
As far as downsides go, having a combo means that if one part of a unit stops working, you will have to replace the whole thing. Secondly, renting can be more expensive than buying a dedicated router in the long run. You also don’t get as much control, features, security, and performance.
Another important thing to note is that modem technology changes slowly so you can use a stand-alone modem for a long time, but the router in your combo may already be lagging in wireless tech. What we’re talking about is the MU-MIMO technology that new 802.11ac routers bring. Instead of sharing one stream of bandwidth and each device having a lower quality connection, multi-user multiple input, multiple output or MU-MIMO offers full bandwidth simultaneously for more than one device by using more than one Wi-Fi antenna.
In some cases, a combo device isn’t going to be enough to cover your whole house with WiFi signal, and you’ll end up with dead spots or poor reception. This happens when you’re unable to place your router in a central location, when there are obstacles like brick walls and unusual layouts, or just when there’s too much square footage to cover for the setup you have. But, you can fix the problem in a few different ways.
A good quality wireless router can be the best solution. It will automatically give you better range, a stronger signal, and lower latency.
A wireless extender is usually an affordable and intermediate option to try out if you only need to bounce a signal around an obstacle or boost it in one or two rooms. However, an extender shows up as an additional network, so you’ll need to switch devices manually from extender to router as you move through your house. It’s also recommended to place them halfway towards a dead zone, which means they won’t extend your range significantly.
A Wi-Fi mesh networking kit like the Netgear Orbi has three units with extra wired Ethernet ports that act as additional wireless access points and quickly cover a large, multi-floor house. One unit connects to a modem and the internet, while the others are used like satellites. The units are easy to setup and maintain, and work together seamlessly to make sure devices on the network are connected to the node with the best signal possible.
Now you know what are those things and what are they for. If you’re ready to get a wireless router, don’t hesitate to check our article where we’ve reviewed the best wifi routers and compared them all.