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People who only have a single desktop computer in their homes might choose to wire their machine directly into the ISP-provided modem. After all, why introduce unnecessary additional hardware and cables when less is more, right?
Plugging your device directly into your modem without using a router is a terrible idea. In this article, I’m going to explain the dangers of going “router-less” as well as provide some extra thoughts on why routers are great to have regardless.
Modem vs. Router: What’s the Difference?
The two terms are often — incorrectly — used interchangeably. In practice, they have some important differences.
A modem is a data transfer device. It picks up the Internet signal from your ISP and sends it to computer (ideally through a router). If you have cable internet service, the connection will be supplied through a coaxial cable. If you have DSL service, it’ll come from the phone line.
A router’s main job is to share the internet signal between multiple devices (i.e. it creates a network). It operates using a single internet IP address and provides derivative addresses to the computers and gadgets connected to it.
Some ISPs provide two-in-one modem-router combos, thus leaving you with a single box. Others only supply a modem, forcing you to buy your own separate router. So, if a modem can connect to the Internet by itself, why is it still recommended to use a router?
Security Is the Main Concern
The biggest reason for using a router, even if you have a single-PC setup, is security.
A modem is not a security device. It exists solely to transfer data between you and your ISP. Therefore, it offers no protection between your computer and the endless sea of internet-connected devices in the world.
It also means that your public-facing IP address resolves directly to your PC. Think of it like leaving your door unlocked: anyone with the time and inclination can dig around your computer trying to find vulnerabilities.
An anti-virus suite won’t be enough to protect you here. “Vulnerabilities” can mean anything from erroneous open ports to well-known exploits on your operating system of choice.
And in case you think your vulnerable IP address will be safe among the estimated 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses in the world, think again. Millions of automated bots search for and discover weak IP addresses around the clock, 365 days a year.
It boils down to this: if you have an Internet > Modem > PC setup, you’re entirely reliant on your firewall and operating system to keep you safe. Given that tests have shown that in some cases Windows can be compromised before its built-in firewall can block an incoming connection, this is a foolhardy choice.
A router’s biggest advantage is that it comes with a built-in firewall that’s considerably more robust, stable, and advanced than anything provided by your operating system or third-party companies.
This prevents anything else on the internet from initiating communication directly with your machine. The WAN port of the router is the only thing that’s open to the internet and your computer’s individual IP address is only available on your home network, so it’s less likely for a malicious user to take advantage of that.
Are There Any Other Benefits?
The benefits of deploying a router extend well beyond the realm of security. Here are a few more reasons why using a router is a logical decision even if you only have one computer.
1. Wireless Internet
Unless your modem has a router built into it, the only practical way to get wireless internet in your home is to install a wireless router.
On the one hand, an direct Ethernet connection to your modem (or router) provides the fastest and most reliable connection, but wireless access is incredibly useful if your single PC is a laptop — and even if you have a desktop PC, you can give it wireless capabilities with a Wi-Fi USB stick!
And if you’re going to go wireless, there are a lot of factors that could affect your internet speed — including the router that you choose to use.
Most modern devices are equipped with a new wireless protocol called 802.11ac. This is an improvement on the previously-available 801.11n, and vastly superior to the now ancient 802.11g. (Learn more about these Wi-Fi standards.)
2. Network Flexibility
Just because you have a single machine at the moment doesn’t mean you won’t want to add more gadgets in the future.
Devices such as smartphones and gaming consoles have been able to take advantage of Wi-Fi connections for quite a few years now, but as the internet-of-things continues to grow, we can expect more and more stuff to come online. Fridges, televisions, security cameras, and even pet food dispensers can now connect to the internet to offer additional features.
And what about when you have friends and family over? You really don’t want to be passing around one single Ethernet cable between everyone, do you? That just sounds like a nightmare.
3. File Sharing
Because a router puts all the connected devices onto a single local network, you can easily share things between those connected devices.
For example, if you don’t have a Wi-Fi enabled printer, you can still let other computers print to it by routing through you (provided your host computer remains on at all times).
You can also share files between computers, which is perfect for letting other users access your photos, movies, and music.
On Windows the feature is called HomeGroup (Control Panel > Network and Sharing Centre > HomeGroup); on a Mac you have to set it up through the Sharing menu (Apple menu > System Preferences > Sharing). There are also third-party tools available.
What Setup Do You Use?
If you’re one of those people who connects a single computer to a single modem, I hope I’ve convinced you to revisit your setup. You’ll be much better off for it.
And it’s not even expensive to make the switch. You can find perfectly acceptable routers on Amazon for as little as $25.
Let me know about your setup – did you suffer any bad experiences after omitting router? Do you still have a router-less setup in your own home? Do you disagree with my argument?
Get in touch with your opinions and stories in the comments below.