What is a Modem and What Does a Modem Do?
Speaking a technical language,
“A modem (modulator-demodulator) is a network hardware device that modulates one or more carrier wave signals to encode digital information for transmission and demodulates signals to decode the transmitted information.” — Wikipedia
Not the easiest description to wrap your head around sometimes, and not exactly a necessary info for an average user. So let us simplify it for non-tech geeks. The modem is the device that connects your computer to the Internet. There are several types of modems.
- Dial-up modems. These were the original modems that used dial-up phone lines to offer Internet connection. In the early 1970s, only the biggest companies could afford one, like news networks. Later, they became available for general public. Today, they still exist but they offer a very slow connection, up to 56 Kbps.
- DSL modems. One of the broadband (high-speed, high-capacity) types of modems, DSL also connects to the phone service but offers a much greater speed than a dial-up modem.
- Cable modems are also broadband, they connect to your cable television service line instead of the phone.
- Fiber optic cable modems today may offer the fastest speed but they are quite expensive.
- Wireless modems use mobile networks to connect to the Internet.
Generally, a modem has a port for a cable or for a telephone line (dial-up or DSL) and a port to connect to your computer or router.
That’s it, in a nutshell. A modem is basically what you need to be online but it only connects one computer to the network and usually does it with a cord (we will talk about wireless modems a little later). If you need a wireless connection and a Wi-Fi, you need a router.
What is a Router?
A router is a device similar to a modem in design, so much so that they are often mistaken for one another. However, a router performs a different function. It connects computer networks. Meaning, you can’t connect your laptop to the Internet directly with a router alone but you can create a home network with it and spread the Internet connection from your modem to not one but all of your gadgets, either with a wire as routers usually have a number of Ethernet and/or USB ports for wired connection to several computers or wirelessly via Wi-Fi (for that, routers have external or internal antennas).
Routers can be single-band and double-band. Single-band routers operate on a single 2.4GHz frequency band used by 802.11b and 802.11g, their main drawback is that sometimes other devices like cell phones and microwave ovens that use this frequency can interfere with a router. A double-band router (that’s 802.11n) either uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands or alternates between them. 802.11a uses only the 5GHz band but encounters much less interference than 802.11b/g routers.
Routers also offer you a possibility to customize your network, including such an important setting as parental control. If there are children in your house, you want to restrict their access to the potentially harmful sites and social networks, porn, information on how to make or where to get drugs, etc. With a router, you can do this once and it will work for any device connected to the network.
Another really important feature of a router is that it has its own firewall that will protect your home network from being hacked (well, to a certain level, at least). Modems do not have this basic level of protection generally. You might think it’s not that important when you have an antivirus software and a firewall on your computer as well as on a smartphone/tablet/other devices but it never hurts to have an additional layer of protection, now, does it?
All-in-all, a router is not a must have in your home. If you live in a small house, don’t need a network, don’t use the Internet on more than one computer or laptop, and you have top-notch protection software, a modem alone can be enough. But a router is a good addition to the modem, it significantly broadens your options.
Mesh Internet Router
Mesh routers are a pretty recent development. To cut a long story short, mesh routers are kits of devices that you place all around your house to avoid drops in Wi-Fi signal. It’s a good solution for a big house as they are much more convenient and sophisticated than your regular Wi-Fi extenders but at the same time, their cost might break a bank and is simply not justified for someone living in a small house or apartment.
Cable Modem VS Router? How About Two-in-One!
Probably, it won’t be an exaggeration to tell that the roots for mistaking routers and modems for being the same device lay in the fact that today, it’s the easiest thing possible to buy a combo. That’s right, we call it a Wi-Fi modem but in reality what many of us have at home is not just a router or just a modem but both products stuck in one body. These combination devices were created to simplify the connection for users non-tech savvy in all the wires and ports and whatnot. As with anything else, there are benefits and drawbacks in using combos.
Pros of having a modem-and-router combination:
- You save on space. Not all that much but for some users, it is important. Also, a single outlet instead of two.
- You only have to deal with a single box when it comes to connecting, setting, and troubleshooting.
- Fewer wires to handle, trip over, and untangle your pets from.
- If you would like to go in step with the modern world, you might want to opt for a separate modem and a router as these devices are upgraded at a different pace, the technologies for routers appear more often nowadays.
- Some users claim troubleshooting is actually easier with separate devices, particularly because routers tend to encounter glitches somewhat less frequently than modems.
- When you move to another place or just switch to a different Internet Service Provider (ISP), it is possible that your current modem is inappropriate for your new ISP. However, many routers are compatible with almost any modems. With separate devices, you will only have to replace one of them.
Cellular Modem a.k.a. Wireless/Wi-Fi Modem
In the latest years, we’ve obtained a possibility to carry modems around and use them without any cables, wirelessly, in the form of aircards, mobile hotspots and, recently, our smartphones can be used for tethering. Although the latter two are not exactly modems but more like modem-and-router combinations. Cellular modems connect to mobile networks the same way our phones do, using towers, and to connect them to your laptop or other gadgets you can use either a USB or a Bluetooth/Wi-Fi module. These modems are great for people who travel a lot and need to stay online constantly no matter what. They also, more often than not, provide a higher Internet connection speed than dial-up modems. But, alas, Wi-Fi modems are yet to contest DSL and broadband cable modems in terms of overall performance and for a constant use, they are quite expensive so it is really a solution for a travel, not for continuous home use.
Whereas modems and routers do not heavily depend on each other and can be used separately, when asked “Do I need a modem and a router both?” we are inclined to answer “Yes” for the variety of reasons. Starting with usability and convenience and ending with security issues, we believe a router is a pretty much necessary addition to a modem. With the selection the market offers today, it is possible to find a proper solution for any wallet and any needs. If you are budget-strapped or space is exceptionally limited in your apartment, you can opt for a combination device. There is an option for those who use the World Wide Web only every so often and for those who can’t live without checking social networks throughout the day, options for businesses with enhanced security and for large homes. In fact, the selection is so wide it is dizzying. We hope our guides can help you not get lost in it.