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Modem vs Router

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If you aren’t already tech-savvy, it can be difficult to figure out the difference between a modem vs. router. But if you want to set up your own internet and WiFi, it’s important to know what distinguishes the two. We’ve created this simple guide to help you learn what modems and routers do, and what to know about using them.

What is a modem?

A modem is a hardware box used to establish a connection with your internet service provider (ISP). It does this through connected cable or phone cords. Modems take the signal transmitted through these lines and allow the data to be compatible with computers and access the internet.

A cable modem can be wired directly to your computer (or another digital device) to provide internet access. But a modem doesn’t provide WiFi — that’s what a router does. If you set up a WiFi network in your house, you will need to connect your modem to your router first, so that it can create wireless internet access. 

Troubleshooting a modem

If you run into problems with your internet connection and think your modem may be malfunctioning, you might need to talk to your ISP to diagnose the issue. When you’re talking to tech support, it’s useful to know the basic anatomy of your router. 

At the back of your modem are four ports: a power port, an ethernet port, a USB port and a coaxial cable port. The ethernet cable connects to either your computer or your router to provide internet access. The coaxial cable connects to your ISP’s service line. 

The front of the modem will have several different lights indicating different statuses: power, receive, send, online, activity and standby. The standby light turns on when there is a connection blockage. If any of the other lights are flashing, it usually means your modem is in the middle of a related process. If one of these lights is off, it could indicate a problem with your connection. Make sure you check these lights before calling your ISP to help them understand the status of your modem. Above all, make sure you power-cycle your device before calling by unplugging it and waiting for a minute before plugging it back in again.

What is a router?

Routers work in partnership with a modem. They take the internet signal from the modem and make it wirelessly available throughout your home. This allows you to create a local area network (LAN), the network of devices in your home that all connect to and use your internet. 

A router can sometimes act as a firewall between your home’s devices and the internet. This can be useful for protecting your privacy and the security of your devices. This security can be enhanced by outfitting your router with a virtual private network (VPN). This obscures your real IP address by running your internet connection through a dummy network. Some routers come with VPN functions built-in, but you can also DIY your own VPN or pay for a VPN service

Troubleshooting a router 

If your device is having trouble connecting to WiFi, you may need to check your router to solve the problem. You can often visually distinguish a router from a modem by looking for antennae. Because routers need to distribute a WiFi signal, they will usually have one or more antennae sticking out. 

Looking at the bottom of your router, you’ll find labels that contain information you or tech support may need. This includes the device management website address, your router’s model number, serial number and the wireless network’s name and password (the original that came with the router). 

Another thing you may need to know is how to find your router’s IP address. You can typically do this by inspecting your network and internet settings or checking

One of the simplest ways to troubleshoot a router is to reset it. This can be done either by pressing the reset button on the back of the router or unplugging it for 30 seconds and plugging it back in. Power-cycling should always be done before checking with tech support.

What is a modem router combo?

Modem router combos combine the two functions of both in one device, sometimes referred to as “wireless gateways.” They can be useful when you want to simplify your setup by minimizing the number of devices you have to configure and manage. 

One reason not to go for a modem router combo is that the technical requirements of routers continue to advance, but modems can stay useful for many years. This means that you will regularly need to upgrade your modem router combo instead of just the router from time to time.

By selecting one of the best modem router combos, you can get more lifespan out of your device. Netgear and Motorola make modem routers that are generally rated well for quality.

Modem vs. router: which do I need?

Whether you need one or both devices depends on several factors:

  • If you do not need a WiFi network and plan to connect your computer to the modem directly, you do not need a router
  • If your internet service provider uses a fiber-optic connection, you won’t need a modem. Fiber connections are already fully digital, so there’s no need for a modem to translate the signal. 
  • If your ISP uses a cable or DSL connection, you will need a modem to translate the signal. If you want WiFi, you will need to get a router too
  • If you want to get broader tech support for your device, it can be worth the cost of renting a modem, router or modem router combo from your ISP
  • If your priority is to save money over time and are willing to fix and upgrade your own devices, buying your own modem, router or modem router combo is the best choice

Renting vs. buying a modem

Many ISPs will offer you a modem, router or modem router combo as a part of your internet service package, often for a monthly rental fee ($10 or more per month). This can be useful if you don’t want to deal with buying your own modem and making sure it’s the right choice, but it can cost more in the long run. 

One benefit is that you can get more tech support from your ISP in return. If something seems to be wrong with your modem router combo, support can help you with troubleshooting, sometimes even remotely.

If you expect to alter the advanced settings of your ISP-provided modem, router or modem router combo, it can cause problems. That’s why it’s best to avoid renting if you plan for more than basic home use. Additionally, having a separate modem and router will give you even greater control over your settings. 

It may not be apparent to most users, but there are many reasons for using a modem or router’s advanced settings. These can include creating custom parental controls and even prioritizing the download or upload speed of specific services (like a streaming service or online gaming platform). 

Do I need other devices?

Depending on your circumstances, you may need some accessories to enhance the function of your modem and router. For example, if you have a large home and your WiFi signal gets weak in the rooms farthest away from the router, you will need a range extender to expand your router’s signal reach. Mesh network routers also perform a similar function, creating multiple signal points to ensure complete coverage of an area. 

Frequently asked questions

Do I need a modem or a router?
Modems are necessary for you to establish a connection with your internet service provider (ISP). You’ll need to add a router if you want to set up a WiFi network. Some ISPs will rent these devices to you or you can purchase your own. 

Should I rent or buy my router?
Renting your modem or router is more expensive long-term, but it can be useful if you need your ISP’s tech support or have trouble figuring out which device to choose. If you’re comfortable configuring and supporting your own devices, consider buying your own equipment to save some cash. 

How much do modems and routers cost?
As of early 2020, typical modems can cost anywhere from $45 to more than $150. Basic routers are usually priced in the range of $25 to $100, while more advanced routers can exceed $200. Modem router combos can cost $100 to $200 or more. 

What if I need help installing my modem or router?
If you rent your modem, router or modem router combo from your ISP, they will usually offer setup and troubleshooting services. Buying your devices from a major retailer like Best Buy can also get you professional installation service. 

What are the most popular brands of modems and routers?
Arris, Linksys, Motorola and NETGEAR are some of the bestselling brands for both modems and routers. Google Nest systems are also becoming popular. 

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