Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
Routers are an important piece of technology that most of us have in our homes, but many of us don’t really understand them. In fact, most people don’t even realize what a router technically is and how it’s different from a modem.
Luckily, we are here to demystify the basic functions of a router so that you can get a better understanding of your network devices.
What Does a Router Do?
To put it simply, a router connects devices within a network by forwarding data packets between them. This data can be sent between devices, or from devices to the internet. The router does this by assigning a local IP address to each of the devices on the network. This ensures that the data packets end up in the right place, rather than getting lost within the network.
Imagine this data as a courier package—it needs a delivery address so that it ends up at the right recipient. Your local computer network is like a suburban road—just knowing this location within the world at large (i.e. the World Wide Web) isn’t enough.
The package could easily end up at the wrong house with limited information. Thus, the router makes sure that each location (device) has a unique number so that the package goes the right address.
If you need to return the data to the sender, or send out your own package, your router does this job too. While it handles each packet individually, it does this so quickly that it feels instantaneous—even when multiple devices send out data at once.
How Is a Router Different Than a Modem?
Since modern modems often come equipped with a built-in router, the distinction between modems and routers is often blurred. But those who remember the early days of the internet know that they have distinct functions.
You need your modem to connect to the internet via your ISP, while you need a router to connect multiple devices in a network—including your modem. Therefore, the router allows your modem and multiple devices to transfer data from one location to another. The modem is the conduit that sends data to and from the internet.
You need a modem due to the different types of signals used by computers compared to the internet at large. Computers and mobile devices use a digital signal, while the internet works on an analog signal.
The modem converts these signals to the correct format. This is where the device gets its name from: a modem is a modulator and demodulator. You will often receive a modem from your ISP when signing up for an internet package; we’ve looked at the best replacement modems/routers if you have Comcast.
This signal conversion is the dedicated function of the modem. Actually coordinating these signals is the router’s job.
What Is a Router Used For? When Do You Need One?
Once upon a time, in a single-PC household, you only needed a modem to connect to the internet. Technically, if you only want to connect one device, you can still use only a modem. Though for security reasons and future flexibility, it’s best to use a router even with only one device on your network.
But now that homes usually have more than one device, a router is essential. Think back to the example of a road name versus your house’s number. If there was only one home on the road, you wouldn’t need the house number since it’s the only location. But when there are multiple houses on a road, you need a local address.
You need a router not only when you want to connect multiple devices to the internet, but also if you want to connect multiple devices to each other. Without the internet, you can still create a local network of computers and other devices. This enables you to transfer and share files with specific devices within a network, including printers, scanners, and game consoles.
Without the router, the data wouldn’t end up at the right device. A command to print a document is useless if it ends up on your smartphone or a Google Home speaker—it needs to go to your printer.
Speaking of Google Home, routers are even more essential when it comes to connecting your smart home. Since a smart home is also a local network of devices, without a router they can’t talk to each other. Depending on the device, you might still need an internet connection if services are cloud-hosted. But ultimately, the router coordinates these data packages.
A local network can exist without the internet or a modem, but it cannot exist without a router.
Differences Between a Wired and Wireless Router
The difference between a wireless and wired router is what type of connections each device allows. A wired router only has LAN cable ports, while a wireless router (also known as a Wi-Fi router) includes antennae and a wireless adapter that allows devices to connect without a cable.
Most routers and modems nowadays include both LAN ports and antennae. There are a few points you should keep in mind before you select which Wi-Fi router to buy to make sure that you select the right one for your situation.
Finding Out More About Your Internet Devices
Now you know what a router does and the role it plays in connecting your devices to the internet. If you’re still looking for more information to sort through the jargon, we have a more guides to check out.
For example, what is the difference between a router, a hub, and a switch? Turns out you don’t need to spend cash on each device to connect your home network to the web. We’ve also looked at the best travel routers for when you’re on the go.