Modem vs. router: What’s the difference?

Everything you need to know about routers, modems, combos, and mesh networks

These days, our internet connections are fast, quiet, typically reliable, and always there given you’re keeping up with subscription payments. But you may not know quite how networks function, thus enter our modem versus router comparison.

Both are necessary components for wired and wireless internet access in your home. Understanding the difference between the two can help you diagnose and possibly fix networking problems before placing time-consuming calls with technical support.

We provide an explanation of each and illustrate how and why each device is important. We also explain a new alternative to using the standard router if you’re considering an upgrade to your current home network setup.

Modem

aol dial up a relic of the past modem and pc
Brad Jones/Digital Trends

The modem is your on-ramp to the world wide web. Once the internet grew to become a mainstream household product in the early 1990s, modems became add-in cards for desktops and USB adapters for laptops. Cable-based broadband producing speeds faster than 56Kbps seemingly reintroduced the external modem at the beginning of the century, thus here we are today.

Right now, Xfinity from Comcast is the largest cable provider in the United States, covering 40 states. That is followed by Charter Spectrum, covering 43 states.  These broadband providers “rent” modems as part of their subscription plans so you can access their subscription-based service. But you can purchase compatible modems separately from any retailer to cut down on the monthly cost. Either way, you’ll need one to access the internet.

How it works

Modems usually include lights/LEDs along their front, so you can see what’s going on at a glance. One light indicates that the unit is receiving power, one signals that its receiving data from your internet service provider and one shows that the modem is successfully sending data. This is where you start in a troubleshooting scenario: If the send and/or receive lights are blinking, then your internet service provider is likely having issues or something is going on with the connection outside. Another LED is provided indicating that wired devices are accessing the internet.

Before we move on, note that modems aren’t just for a coaxial cable connection. Broadband can be served up through a Digital Subscriber Line too, or DSL. This internet on-ramp is accessed through telephone lines instead of coaxial cables, so the connecting jack looks no different than what you would see on physical, land-based phones. DSL is typically slower than cable-based broadband and useful in rural areas where phone lines already exist, but there’s no infrastructure supporting cable-based TV and internet services.

Whether the router is designed for DSL or cable-based broadband, the four Ethernet ports are used for wired devices with a matching port or adapter. These can include desktops, laptops, HDTVs, gaming consoles, printers, and more. If you want the most out of your broadband connection, using these ports for your hardware is the best option, especially if the ports support speeds of up to one gigabit per second (aka gigabit Ethernet).

Router

ASRock X10 IoT Router

But not everyone wants to line Ethernet cables all over their house, and that’s where the router comes in. It’s a stand-alone device that connects to an Ethernet port on the modem, and “routes” networking/internet traffic to its connected devices. Routers typically have a dedicated, color-coded Ethernet port that it uses 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 networking traffic from the modem with one connection, and routes all that data through its four Ethernet ports, and through the air via the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Despite advertised numbers, wired is faster than wireless, and we still suggest using Ethernet if you want every ounce of bandwidth out of your subscription. But obviously you can’t do that with smartphones, and draping Ethernet cables along every wall is just downright ugly.

Unfortunately, routers come in all sizes, prices, and exaggerated promises. On the wireless side, they can include two external antennas or more, depending on the model. The more antennas they have protruding in the air like a dead spider’s legs, the higher the prices will soar. Of course, the added antennas mean increased range, but your connection speed will depend on your proximity to the router, and the technology powering that connection.

The current wireless standard is Wireless AC. Its first implementation enables three outgoing streams and three incoming streams (3×3) on the 5GHz band at up to 433Mbps each. They’re accompanied by three incoming and three outgoing Wireless N streams (3×3) on the 2.4GHz band at 200Mbps each. The latest update to the Wireless AC specification, aka Wave-2, adds a fourth stream for additional bandwidth. Problem is, smartphones typically only support between one (1×1) or two (2×2) incoming/outgoing streams, so they can’t get the full benefits of routers supporting 3×3 broadcasts.

How it works

If all of this is confusing, just imagine a high-speed train. It enters your home through the modem, travels to the train station (router) at full speed, and is redirected to a destination. If the destination is a wired connection, then it plows full speed ahead. If the destination is wireless, it’s speed is based on how many tracks/streams it can use at once (one, two, three, or four), the amount of congestion these tracks must penetrate, and the distance between the train station and the destination. The train will lose speed the further it travels away from the station.

The “up to” term means the hardware is physically capable of supporting those maximum speeds, but again you won’t see them. Part of the “congestion” slowing your local data train is your neighbor’s network spreading the love in the same airspace. There’s also interference from devices within and outside your home. Having a router with multiple, external antennas with amplifiers will help push back all that unwanted noise.

Typically, routers will choose the ideal channel for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands that have the least interference. The 2.4GHz band is divided into 14 channels while more than 20 are set aside for the 5GHz band. But if you’re having connectivity issues, manually changing the channels within the router’s web-based interface can sometimes help. There’s a lot more at play regarding speed that gets into the heavy technical territory and can make your head spin.

Check out our list of the best wireless routers you can buy right now. Some of the routers we’ve reviewed include the ZyXEL Armor Z2, the Linksys Max-Stream AC2200, the Linksys WRT3200ACM, and more.

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