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What is each one for?

When hiring an internet service for our home or office, what interests us most is the cost and speed. If you know a little about it, you will probably ask about bandwidth, but we will hardly ask what type of device the service includes. You know? Understand the difference between modem vs. Router can help us to have a better connection and avoid configuration problems. Many people confuse them, and not a few think that it is the same thing. But not like that, and we will explain it by comparing them.

A person in front connecting with one hand a yellow cable to a black router with two antennas that is on a table to verify the difference of a modem vs. router

To begin, we must say that both are necessary components for cable and wireless Internet access in your home. Understanding the difference between these two devices can help you diagnose and possibly troubleshoot network problems, before you have to make those insufferable calls to service.

Modem

modem vs. router

The modem is your access ramp to the global network. Once the internet became a household product in the early 1990s, modems became add-on cards for desktops and USB adapters for laptops.

Comcast's Xfinity is currently the largest cable provider in the United States, with coverage in 40 states. It is followed by Charter Spectrum, which covers 43 states. These broadband providers “rent” modems as part of their subscription plans so you can access the service. But you can buy compatible modems separately from any dealer to lower the monthly cost. Either way, you will need one to access the internet.

How it works

Modems often include lights along the front, so you can see what's going on at a glance. One light indicates that the unit is receiving power, another is receiving data from your internet service provider, and another is that the modem is sending data correctly. This way you will know if any problem is happening: if the sending and / or receiving lights are blinking, it is likely that your internet service provider is having problems or that something is happening with the external connection. Another LED indicates that wired devices are accessing the internet.

Whether the router is designed for DSL or cable-based broadband, all four Ethernet ports are used for wired devices with their corresponding port or adapter. These can include desktops, laptops, HDTVs, video game consoles, printers, and more. If you want to get the most out of your broadband connection, using these ports is the best option, especially if they support speeds of up to one gigabit per second (also known as gigabit Ethernet).

Router

modem vs. router

But not everyone wants to run Ethernet cables throughout the house, and that's where the router comes in. It is a standalone device that connects to an Ethernet port on the modem, and "routes" network / internet traffic to your connected devices. Routers typically have a dedicated, color-coded Ethernet port, which is used to physically connect to the router (WAN or Wide Area Network), and four additional Ethernet ports for wired devices (LAN or Local Area Network).

Thus, the router sends and receives network traffic from the modem with a single connection, and sends all of that data through its four Ethernet ports, and over the air using the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Wiring is faster than wireless, and we still recommend using Ethernet if you want to take advantage of the full bandwidth of your connection. But obviously you can't do that with cell phones, and the Ethernet cables along the wall are downright ugly.

You find routers of all sizes and prices. Wireless can include two or more external antennas, depending on the model. The more antennas they have, the higher the prices will be. Of course, the added antennas mean a longer range, but the connection speed will depend on your proximity to the router and the technology that powers that connection.

How it works

It is like a high speed train. Enter your home through the modem, travel to the train station (router) at full speed and are redirected to a destination. If the destination is a wire connection, then it is going full speed. If the destination is wireless, its speed is based on the number of tracks / streams that can be used at the same time (one, two, three or four), the amount of congestion that these tracks must support and the distance between the train station and destiny. The train will slow down the further away it is from the station.

The term “up to” means that the hardware is physically capable of supporting those maximum speeds, but again you won't see them. Part of the "congestion" that slows down your local data stream is your neighbor's network that occupies the same airspace. There is also interference between devices inside and outside your home. Having a router with multiple external antennas with amplifiers helps eliminate all that unwanted noise. Take a look at our guide to buying a wireless router.

Modem / Router Combo

modem vs. router

Unfortunately, there is no official name for this specific device. Comcast calls it a gateway, Spectrum calls it a modem, others simply call it a modem / router combo. It is an all-in-one device that looks like a conventional modem but complements a router. This combined unit can be beneficial or disadvantageous, depending on how well you want to manage your network.

In the classic standalone modem, you can adjust firewall settings, open ports for specific traffic, assign addresses, etc. The additional router provides a secondary firewall for better protection.

Please note that even though you are “renting” an all-in-one device, your broadband provider may be charging you an additional fee for wireless service. For complete control and a lower monthly bill, you'd better opt to have your own stand-alone router.

Mesh router

modem vs. router

But wait! There is more! A new device has arrived to sneak into the network party. It is similar in nature to routers but in this case it is a complementary device: it takes the signal produced by the router and amplifies it in areas out of range of the router. This is useful in deadlocks, but the downside is that repeaters are picking up an already degraded signal unless you have a wired Ethernet connection between the router and the extender. Also, these mesh net kits are usually not cheap.

Orbi Kits

modem vs. router

This category combines two styles of connectivity in one product. We saw this with Netgear's Orbi Kits, which provide two nearly identical units that work like a mesh network kit, in this case offering everything that can be found on most stand-alone routers. The second unit is a satellite, but it does not "repeat" the signal from the router unit.

In this configuration, the two units have three connections: a 2.4GHz band and a 5GHz band accessible by all wireless devices. The third is another 5GHz connection that is only used by Orbi units, which is a private high-speed highway that cannot be accessed with any other device. That's the big difference between Orbi and other mesh router kits. These nodes use the same 5GHz space as all connected devices, so data transfers will be slower due to traffic.

* Updated by Jos Luis Plascencia on March 21, 2020.

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