Modem vs. router: What’s the difference?

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

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Router/modem combo

modem vs. router

Unfortunately, there’s no official name for this specific device. Comcast calls it a “gateway” while Spectrum simply calls it a modem. There are even listings that merely call it a modem/router combo. Regardless, you get the idea: it’s an all-in-one device that looks like your typical modem but crams a router inside. This combo unit can be beneficial and a drawback, depending on how well you want to manage your network.

In the typical stand-alone modem, you can adjust firewall settings, open ports for specific traffic, assign addresses, and so on. The add-on router essentially provides a secondary firewall for better protection along with parental controls, device management, usage statistics, and more. When combining the two, you lose that second firewall aspect, and possible customization not provided by equipment rented from ISPs.

Another aspect to consider is that even though you’re “renting” one all-in-one device, your broadband provider may be charging you an additional fee for wireless service. Spectrum calls this a “Home Wi-Fi” charge that shows up on your bill for an additional $5 per month and only applies to modems with a built-in router rented out by the company. For complete control and a lower monthly bill, you’re better off supplying your own stand-alone router.

Mesh

modem vs. router

But wait! There’s more! A newcomer has arrived to crash the networking party. It’s similar in nature to routers but different in delivery. More specifically, the router is a single unit that broadcasts an internet connection like a radio tower. The further away those broadcasts travel, the weaker the signal thus a resulting slower speed. You get the same effect in a moving car: the further away you move from the city, the harder it is to hear your favorite music station.

Even more, the 2.4GHz band is great for penetrating objects and walls, but its throughput speed is slower than the 5GHz connection mostly due to congestion. Meanwhile, 5GHz is faster and less congested, but it has difficulty penetrating objects and walls.

One way to solve this problem is to purchase a second wireless extender device. It grabs the signal produced by the router and repeats it to areas outside the router’s reach. This is helpful in dead spots, but the drawback is that repeaters are grabbing an already-degraded signal unless you actually have a wired Ethernet connection between the router and the extender. These extenders are sold in various sizes and strengths ranging from wall-based units to solutions just as big as routers.

Arriving to alleviate all those woes is mesh-based networking. Kits are typically sold with two or three identical units, thus the setup doesn’t consist of a router and an optional extender. Instead, one plays the router role by physically connecting to the modem’s output, and then routes all traffic to and from the wirelessly-connected nodes. So instead of a single unit broadcasting an internet bubble, you have multiple units creating a mesh-based blanket of coverage.

What’s great about these kits is that you have one connection: the kit determines if your device should use 2.4GHz or 5GHz. You also can’t tell that your wireless devices are shifting from one node to another as you move through the house. The drawback is that typically these mesh-networking kits aren’t cheap, thus the investment can be long-term unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks each time an upgraded kit hits the market.

Kinda Sorta Mesh

modem vs. router

Finally, this category mashes two connectivity styles into one product. We saw this with Netgear’s Orbi kits, which provide two near-identical units that perform like a mesh networking kit. But at its root, one unit is clearly a router, offering everything you will find feature- and customization-wise in most stand-alone routers. The second unit is a satellite, but it doesn’t “repeat” the signal stemming from the router-class unit.

In this setup, the two units have three connections: One 2.4GHz band and one 5GHz band accessible by all wireless devices. The third is another 5GHz connection that’s only used by the Orbi units, which is private, high-speed highway if you will that’s not accessible by any other device. That’s the big difference between Orbi and other mesh-based kits. Those nodes use the same 5GHz space as all the connected devices, thus data transfers will be slower due to traffic. With the Orbi’s dedicated freeway, there’s nothing on the road except for Orbi-to-Orbi chatter.

We reviewed the Orbi RBK40 kit here, and the more expensive (and larger) Orbi RBK50 kit here.

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