Modem vs. router: What’s the difference?

Knowing the difference between a modem and a router can be tricky. They’re often confused for one another, but they work together to deliver a reliable internet connection. Rather than modem vs. router, think of them as a team.

A modem is a device that gathers the data signal to make your internet connection possible. Internet routers enable the signal that’s gathered by the modem to then be transferred to various devices in your household. They have to work together to get the job done.

Modem vs. router: What’s the difference?

It can be confusing trying to figure out the difference between a router and a modem. Here are some of the key differences broken down in a way that makes it easier to understand.

Modem

  • Modems work by converting a digital signal that is then translated to web browsers, email, etc.
  • The modem uses an IP address to communicate with your device.
  • A modem is a method through which it’s possible to access your network.
  • They are priced at around $46.99 and up. 
  • You can choose from leading brands, such as Motorola, NETGEAR, ARRIS and more.

Router

  • A router works by communicating with your modem to deliver internet service throughout your household.
  • It assigns IP addresses to the devices on the household network.
  • A router directs traffic through the network, making it possible for data to be communicated.
  • Prices start around $49.99 and go up from there.
  • You can choose from leading brands, such as NETGEAR,  Linksys, eero and more.

What is a modem?

Many of us have heard of modems but, what exactly does a modem do? It brings in the data from your internet service provider and converts it into something your home devices can understand. Think of it as an interpreter for your digital equipment. Most modems will fit nicely next to your computer, behind your television or on a desktop surface.

The modem you choose should be able to support the kind of connection speed your plan supports. If you have a high connection speed that delivers up to 1Gb, you’ll need a modem that can support such a large capacity. If your plan only offers upload speeds of up to 100 Mbps, then you can save money by purchasing a modem with a lower speed capacity. 

Where do you get a modem? 

Modems are sold most anywhere you can purchase computer equipment. Places like Best Buy, Amazon and Walmart have a variety of modems for sale. You can also rent a modem from your internet service provider. Just be aware that several providers charge a small monthly fee. The benefit of that is, you’ll always know your device is compatible.

You can find modems for as low as $46.99 if you’re on a budget. The Motorola 8 x 4 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem is a top choice. It can handle data speeds up to 343 Mbps and it delivers high-speed Ethernet service directly to your home.

For $249.99, you can choose a top-of-the-line residential modem. The NETGEAR Nighthawk 32 x 8 DOCSIS 3.1 Voice Cable Modem can deliver up to 1Gb of high-speed service. It not only supports the internet you have today, but it also supports the internet service you upgrade to in the future. 

Types of internet modems 

External modem

  • An internet modem is a standalone device.
  • Can be hooked up to a separate router
  • Often connected directly to your internet service provider through the wall

Integrated modem

  • It works with only one computer
  • It’s integrated into your computer through a USB port or PCI card.
  • Less popular due to it being limited to one device

Cable modem, DSL modem, fiber modem and dial-up modems

  • DSL modems can be purchased specifically for DSL service. The same is true of cable, fiber and dial-up.
  • Dial-up modems are extremely rare nowadays due to the slow service they provide.
  • A cable modem works with cable internet service to provide a high-speed connection.
  • Fiber modems are the latest form of technology and make it possible to transmit up to 1Gb of data. 

What is a router?

You can’t create a wireless network without the use of an internet router. So, what does a router do? Think of it as “routing” traffic between that internet connection and devices, like your computer. It’s an essential device that communicates between your household electronics and your internet connection. 

Finding the right WiFi router for your household needs is important. That’s why you have to first know what to look for in a router. Find out how many Mbps it can transmit, how far it can transmit signal throughout your house, what security it provides and whether or not it has a guest network. 

Your router helps determine how far your WiFi signal extends and how well your computer receives that signal. It can also give outside devices access to your home network if you’re not careful. It’s important to take security measures to keep your router safe.  Your router can make it so that only certain devices have access to your network. 

Where do you get a router?

Routers are available anywhere you can purchase computer equipment. Places like Best Buy, Amazon and Walmart have a variety of routers for sale. You can even obtain a router from your internet service provider. Many of them charge a small monthly fee for it, but often it can be worth it. You’ll know that the device is compatible with your provider and that it’s the latest technology.

You can also find a range of prices and shopping options by doing some online comparison shopping. If you’re on a budget, you can get something like the NETGEAR RangeMax N600 Dual-Band WiFi Router for $49.99 at Best Buy. It provides wireless security and allows your devices to share information on the network. It even has a guest network option so you don’t have to share your master password.

For $249.99, the Linksys WRT AC3200 Dual-Band WiFi 5 router is an excellent option. It supports high-end gaming, so there won’t be any internet interruptions during that ultimate winning moment. It also has a remote management system that makes it possible to manage your router from any location you’re at.  

Types of routers

Wired router

  • A wired router’s best function is for a small home office. 
  • It plugs directly into your device and doesn’t offer a wireless option. 
  • People go with this type of router when they’re looking for a high level of security and don’t need to connect a lot of devices throughout their house. 

Wireless router

  • A wireless router works best for a household with several devices. 
  • It communicates with your devices wirelessly using radio frequencies.
  • These are an excellent option for people who have many devices or a large household and want the freedom to move about their home without losing signal in certain areas or rooms. 

Virtual router

  • A virtual router is a non-tangible device that’s virtual, rather than a piece of hardware in your home. 
  • They are a smart choice if you want to have a backup in place, should your tangible router suddenly stop working. Nowadays, we have so many devices (such as Ring, Nest and Alexa) that are reliant on our router operating properly. If it suddenly stops, you can be left in a dire situation. This is where a virtual router comes in handy.
  • It can be maintained from any location. You might think there would never be a need for this, but imagine there is a network issue with your home security system while you’re away on vacation. There’s peace of mind in knowing you can work on the router from anywhere if you ever need to.

Modem router combo devices

A modem router combo can be a great choice for an easy and convenient way to connect household devices. The modem converts the data from your provider and the router makes that data available to the devices on your network. Finding the best modem router depends on what you’re looking for. The best modem router combo can mean something different to each person. 

Pros

  • Save money at first by opting for a combination device, rather than purchasing individual devices.
  • Takes up less space, requires only one plug-in outlet and uses fewer wires
  • Easier to set up
  • Often comes with your internet service provider’s services

Cons

  • You’re stuck with the speed and configurations it offers. You cannot buy a higher processing speed or security extras for the modem and router individually.
  • You can’t upgrade one at a time. If newer technology comes out that is specific to only the modem or only the router, you still have to upgrade them both.
  • Similar to the upgrade issue, if something goes wrong with either the modem or the router, then you’ll be forced to replace the entire device. 

The bottom line

A modem provides a connection to your internet service provider, and a router makes it possible for the devices in your home to connect to your ISP. Now that you know how each of them works, it should be easier to make educated decisions about your home network. Being armed with that knowledge will help you make the best connectivity decisions for your family.