If you don’t know the difference between a cable modem and a Wi-Fi router, don’t feel bad. A lot of people, even those who use computers day in and day out, don’t give it much thought because they can just ask friends and family for help when issues arise.
But if you have broadband internet in your home—and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you do—then you owe it to yourself to learn the basics. Not only will you feel more confident, but it could lead to tweaks that boost your internet speed.
And in some cases, it could even relieve you of the need to rent from your ISP, thus saving you a lot of money in the long run. In this article, we’ll walk you through the fundamental differences and what to look for if you want to improve your home network.
Modem, Wi-Fi Router, or Router-Modems
A modem translates data into electrical signals. The signals travel through cables to your house (or through the air in the case of satellite internet), and a modem is required to decode those signals back into digital data.
A router is like a mail sorter. If you think of every bit of incoming data as a piece of mail, then the router determines where each piece of mail goes—whether to your computer, your tablet, or your smart TV. Or in other words, a router lets multiple devices use a single internet connection (which is provided by the modem).
Note that even though the primary function is to serve one internet connection to multiple devices, there are several reasons why you should still use a router even if you only have one PC, such as for wireless connectivity.
And then there’s a third class of home networking device that’s a hybrid of the two: the router-modem. This isn’t an official term, but it aptly describes what the device does: it translates incoming data AND routes that data to the proper devices.
Router vs. Modem: Does It Matter?
When you sign up with an ISP, they MUST give you a modem at least—this is required to establish a connection to the service. However, these days, most ISPs provide router-modems.
How to tell if your ISP gave you a modem or a router-modem: Look at the back of the device and count the number of Ethernet ports. If you only see one, it’s a modem. If you see more than one (usually about five), it’s a router-modem.
So, should you buy a router, modem, or both? The answer is always both—either as separate devices or as a single router-modem device. (Router-modems are more convenient, but if they break, you lose both modem and router functionality.)
If you want specific product recommendations, jump down to the last section.
3 Important Router Features to Check
Buying a modem is surprisingly straightforward. Make sure it’s compatible with your ISP. (AT&T’s ADSL U-verse service works with surprisingly few modems.) If you subscribe to cable internet, make sure it supports DOCSIS 3.0. Finally, make sure it’s fast enough to help your internet Mbps speed. Good ones cost somewhere around $50, and you should never need to exceed $100.
As for routers, they’re a bit more complicated (but not so much that they should scare you). There are a few basic questions you should ask yourself, but if you’re in a rush, the three features listed below are the most important considerations to make.
1. Wireless 802.11ac
IEEE 802.11ac is the latest and greatest wireless standard that was approved back in 2014. It includes a lot of improvements (particularly to data transfer speeds) and additional features (such as beamforming) that make it worth the hike in price.
Backward compatibility was a big issue when it first debuted, meaning a lot of devices didn’t support 802.11ac connections, but now that a few years have passed, that’s not much of an issue anymore. These days, there’s no reason not to get an 802.11ac router.
2. Dual-Band or Tri-Band
A dual-band router can broadcast on two frequencies: 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz. This is important because if there are too many wireless connections traveling on the same band, they can interfere and cause congestion (i.e. slower internet speeds). The 5.0 GHz band comes in handy as a way to bypass any congestion on the more-widely-used 2.4 GHz band—or vice versa—which can significantly improve your wireless connection quality.
A tri-band router is similar to a dual-band router except that it has one 2.4 GHz band and two 5.0 GHz bands. As we explained in our analysis of how useful tri-band routers can be, this third band is like having an extra lane on a traffic-congested highway—it won’t raise the speed limit, but it will reduce the likelihood of congestion.
That said, there are several myths concerning dual-band and tri-band routers because people think they understand how the technology works but may be confused, so take your time. Learn the nuances now and future-you will thank present-you.
3. Guest Access
If you’re the kind of person who frequently invites friends over, hosts dinner parties and group events, offers up your home for family get-togethers, and things of a social nature, then you’ll seriously want a router with a guest access feature.
In fact, we consider it to be one of the most crucial elements in a modern router, mainly because it increases the security of your home network and makes it more convenient for everyone involved.
Routers with guest access can set up a separate sub-network with its own SSID and password. The guest feature means you don’t need to share your main Wi-Fi password. It also prevents guests from accessing other areas of the router, such as file sharing on the home network.
Our Device Recommendations
Maybe you don’t have the time or energy to do a lot of research. Or maybe you don’t care enough to learn the nuances. Either way, if you just want someone to tell you what to buy, you’ve come to the right place. All of the following devices assume you have a cable high-speed internet connection from your ISP.
I’ve been using the Linksys Advanced DPC3008 as my personal router since mid-2015, and I have yet to run into a single issue with it. For under $50, you get DOCSIS 3.0 support, download speeds up to 340 Mbps, and upload speeds up to 120 Mbps—and considering my internet speed is 25 Mbps up-and-down, that’s more than enough. If you’re on a budget, this is a solid buy. Note that it’s only compatible with Comcast.
The ARRIS SURFboard SB6141 is very similar in function and price to the Linksys modem mentioned above, but it’s slightly more expensive (or a lot more expensive if you get the black version) because it supports multiple ISPs: Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Charter, and most regional cable providers (excluding Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse). It’s good if you move a lot and/or frequently switch ISPs.
If you have a little more money to spend, the Netgear CM600 is a smart, future-proofed choice. It can handle download speeds up to 960 Mbps, upload speeds up to 320 Mbps, and is compatible with nearly every cable provider in the U.S. including Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Charter, and regional alternatives.
If you’re paying for really good internet speeds, you should get a modem like this one.
Since this article was published, Linksys has released a new version of the cable modem, the Linksys CM3008.
Routers & Router-Modems
The recommendations below all come in both router-only and router-modem versions. If you do opt for the router-modem versions, be aware that they are significantly more expensive!
The TP-Link Archer C7 is a smart option if you don’t want to spend too much but want to maximize your internet connection quality and home networking features. It’s 802.11ac-compliant with dual-band wireless, has two USB ports for file sharing, and has guest access functionality. It may not be cutting-edge, but it’s more than enough for the average home.
The Asus OnHub Dual-Band Router is a unique router. Its underlying technology was developed by Google, but the product is manufactured by Asus.
In other words, this is the Asus version of the Google OnHub router—a device that we think is excellent and worth checking out. It’s priced reasonably, it’s easy to use, it’s full of features like dual-band wireless and Quality of Service prioritization, and more.
At the time of writing, the Netgear Nighthawk X8 is the best consumer router available on the market. The router itself is a little under $400, but buy it as a router-modem and you’re looking at another $100 on top.
Is it worth it? With support for speeds up to 5.3 Gbps, tri-band wireless, four active antennas for speed, four internal antennas for range, and six Ethernet ports—you bet it is.
If none of the above appeals to you, don’t worry because there are hundreds of other modems, routers, and router-modems to choose from. As long you stick with the most reputable and best-rated brands, your purchase will likely serve you well for at least a few years.