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Modems vs Routers:

What are the differences?

published April 29 2021 | DeviceDeal blog

While they might seem similar, modems and routers serve two completely different purposes.

Let's go over how they differ so you choose the right one.

Are modems and routers the same?

Before you go shopping for your next router, it's important to understand the distinction between a router and a modem. Since they often come bundled together, it can sometimes be easy to confuse the two. 

They also serve two entirely different purposes. You need both in order to connect to the Internet. 

We'll explain further, but to put it in simple terms:

  • Modems connect to the Internet to bring in the information you request and send, while;
  • Routers connect to your devices and modem, linking the two together.
  • You'll generally need both in order to connect to the Internet and browse cat videos, unless you plug your computer directly into your modem.

Modems connect to the Internet, while routers connect to your devices.

What do modems do?

Modems are devices which provide a direct connection to the Internet. On it's own, your router doesn't connect to the Internet - it needs a modem as well.

In fact, it's called a modem because it modulates analog signals - what travels through the undersea wires to connect to servers - into digital information which computers can read. So you can think of the modem as the interface between the Internet and your router.

When you send/receive information on your devices, you do so using digital binary information. Binary  basically refers to 0s and 1s, but we'll save the computer science course for later. To connect to servers, that information needs to travel through high-speed wiring. Unfortunately, wires can only transmit analog signals.

To fix this issue, your modem will transform your information into an analog signal which gets sent to your ISP, and information that comes to you is transformed back into useful digital information that your devices can read.

If you have a slow modem, your entire network will be slow as a result. So it can be worthwhile choosing a modem which supports your internet plan speeds.

So what are routers for?

That's a great question. If a modem connects to the internet, then why do you need a router? 

A router is what connects your devices to your modem. You can essentially think of it as routing data between your devices and modem. It does this by creating a Wi-Fi network which your devices can join. By joining this network, they communicate with the router so that it can talk to the modem. It will also distribute the information from the modem (e.g. the results of your Google search) to the right device.

It can sometimes be confusing, because your router creates a LAN (local area network) that you can connect to without a modem. A LAN network can be used to transfer files across computers connected to the same router, and you might even have the Wi-Fi symbol on your computer!

But without a modem, you'll be restricted to only connecting to nearby devices which have joined the router's network. It's also why you can still see a Wi-Fi connection to your router even if your ISP goes down.

In essence, a router will route data and connect to your devices, but it needs to be paired with a modem (or have one built-in) to actually transmit data to and from the Internet. 

Steps in network transmission

To illustrate how this all works, here's how a typical network transmission process works:

1. Device

Your devices connect to your router's Wi-Fi network. They might want to receive information from servers (like Google's home page), or send data to servers (like their payment details).

2. Router

Your router creates a LAN or Wi-Fi network that your devices can join. Devices joining this network can communicate with the router.

3. Modem

Connects to the Internet through your ISP. It's often paired with a router so devices can communicate to the Internet as well.

4. ISP

Your ISP provides the infrastructure needed to get data from servers to your modem. This is often underground cables that transmit data at close to the speed of light.

5. Internet

Everything you browse on the Internet comes from servers. These hold all the information about websites, and you typically request to view a website from a server which then travels through your ISP to you!

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