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The Differences Between a Modem and a Router in Home WiFi

Katy shares her tech knowledge and research with anyone who wants to learn the smartest way to use technology.

What's the Difference Between a Router and a Modem?

Setting up your home's Wifi starts with understanding the difference between a modem and a router.

A Modem - converts the signal coming into your house from the Internet company to a hard line data connection (so you can use an Ethernet cord to connect to the Internet).

A Router - converts that hard line connection to 2.4 GHz or 4.8 GHz Wifi connection that your wireless device (like laptop, cell phone) can connect to for Internet.

If that didn't make sense you can find more detail below. We'll go over each device so you can set up the best Wifi network for your home.

The difference between a router and a modem.

The difference between a router and a modem.

Modems

Modems work by taking the cable or phone line and converting it into an Internet connection.

Connections

Modems connect to the wall cable outlet with a coax cable. These are the cords that have an outside casing that screws into the wall. In addition to the data connection it will need to be plugging in to a normal wall outlet for power.

The outputs are Ethernet ports on the back. Ethernet cables carry data from one port to another, are often yellow and have the distinctive plastic clip that clicks into place when inserted.

If you're using a router you will connect one of those Ethernet ports to it. Read on about what routers do and how to set them up in the next section.

The remaining ports can be used for any wired Internet connection. Wired connections are hard lines that running directly to computers, laptops or gaming consoles. This connection will be faster than connecting over Wifi.

How to Pick A Modem

They will cost about $20-30 for the cheapest but can cost over $100 for the highest speeds.

You'll want to select a model that can handle the top speeds in your Internet plan. There's no need to pay any more to get a device that handles speed beyond what you will receive.

Ethernet cable that connects a modem to a router or wired Internet connection.

Ethernet cable that connects a modem to a router or wired Internet connection.

Routers

Once your modem is set up, the router will take the Internet connection and broadcast it as Wifi. That means your mobile devices that don't have a wired connection like cell phones and laptops can connect to the internet.

Connections

Set up your router with an Ethernet cord to the back of your modem. It will also need to be plugged into the wall for power. Once the device is on and connected to your service provider you should be able to connect your devices to the Wifi.

Choosing a Router

Expect to pay $20 for the cheapest versions and up to $100 for a top of the line brand.

Modern routers output at both 2.4 GHz and 4.8 GHz. Most devices made after 2015 will use the slightly faster 4.8 GHz frequency. But if you have an older device with a wireless enabled you may need to make sure the router you're purchasing will output at 2.4 GHz.

If you have a large house try to position your router as close to the center as possible. You may need a more powerful version or multiple repeaters if you want stronger signals at the edges of the house.

What About A Modem/Router Combo?

You might be interested in a combination router and modem for your home network. This can definitely save on cost because you’re only buying one device.

Products

Best Combo Router/Modem: NETGEAR Nighthawk (about $170)

Budget Combo Router/Modem: NETGEAR AC1000 (about $85)

The Nighthawk is a good choice because it won't limit your download speeds. For budget options, make sure you compare their speeds with the up and download speed provided by your service plan.

Sometimes it’s still better to buy them individually. This is the case if you already have one and just need the other or you will want to upgrade one. For example, modems are all pretty standard but a high quality router can make a big difference for faster and further-reaching connections.

Also, it can be beneficial to have separate devices because then troubleshooting is a little easier. You can inspect and test each device individually instead of having no insight into what the combination box is doing.

Do I Need a Modem or Router for Xfinity?

As with any Internet service you will need at least a modem to access it. Xfinity rents out modems for the duration of your service but it’s usually much cheaper to buy one yourself. It will pay for itself in 3-6 months compared to renting from them.

Troubleshooting a Home Internet Connection

Understanding the difference between your home's router and modem can also help you when something goes wrong.

When your computer or phone can't to the Internet it could be either a problem with the device itself, the router, modem, or the Internet service. Let's start at the device and work backwards to the Internet provider to find the problem.

If other Wifi enabled devices on your network are having a problem that's a sign it's not with a specific device but could be the Internet service, the modem or the router.

Troubleshooting Your Router

The easiest way to test the router is to look at the lights on the front. The 2.4 GHz and/or 5 GHz lights will be illuminated if it's putting out a Wifi connection. If those are off, also check the power light and the "Internet" or "Network" light.

If any of the lights are off your first step is to unplug the router and plug it back in. Sometimes that's all it takes to get things going again.

Troubleshooting Your Modem

Most modems also have lights on the front to give you a status. Something else you can try to get an idea if your modem is working right is to test the Internet connection on something plugged directly into the modem. Most computers and game consoles have a wired Ethernet port you can use for this.

Internet Provider (Xfinity, AT&T, etc)

If both your router and modem are not connected to the Internet, the problem could be with your Internet service provider. Log in to your account on whatever provider you have (Comcast, AT&T, etc). From there you can see if there are any service outages in your area and check the connection to your modem.

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