Is one better than the other?
Like many things in life, the answer will mostly depend on your situation. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s not always black and white.
I am a network engineer, and while I do have a preference, my answer can change depending on who is asking the question.
When you invest in networking equipment, you will want to go with the options that provide the most benefits for you. But figuring them out is not always easy.
But don’t worry, we’re here to help you figure out just that. Let’s break down the pros and cons of both options so you can find what fits you best.
Let’s dive in.
What Is a Modem?
Most of us have heard this word before. But few know what they do. Modem stands for modulator-demodulator, and it’s responsible for transforming analog signals from your Internet service provider (ISP) into digital signals your computer can understand.
This process is what makes our connection to the Internet possible.
You could actually get by and use the Internet with just a modem. However, they usually only have a single ethernet port and no Wi-Fi.
If you want to learn more about modems, check out this article, where we go much deeper into how they work.
What Is a Router?
A router is the reason why you can read this article while Aunt Susan watches her cooking YouTube videos in the living room at the same time.
It assigns IP addresses to all devices connected to it, and it’s responsible for routing (as the name suggests) traffic to the intended device.
Routers can be wireless so that you can connect via Wi-Fi. But they can also be wired to each device using ethernet cables.
As we mentioned above, you don’t necessarily need a router to connect to the Internet, but you will be limited to a single device if using only a modem. Aunt Susan probably won’t be too happy if that were the case.
And even if you are the only one in your house, you probably have more than one device. Some might even be wireless-only, like cell phones or tablets. You’ll need a router to make these connections happen.
What Is a Gateway?
A modem-router combo is commonly known as a gateway. And just like the name suggests, it’s a single device that combines the functionality of both a modem and a router.
The obvious advantage here is that you will have one device instead of two, leading to an easier installation and saving some shelf space.
What’s the Difference?
Besides space, there are other things to consider when choosing between the two options. Let’s explore some of them.
The performance will, of course, vary depending on quality, brand, and model. But as a general guideline, cramming two devices into one will mean there will be some sacrifices. Usually in the form of slower transfer speeds and reduced signal strength.
We can go even further than the physical limitations of the modem-router combo. These devices are generally created for convenience, and manufacturers aren’t overly concerned about top performance.
On the other hand, router manufacturers are in a constant battle of achieving greater speeds and longer distances. Which ultimately leads to some premium performance devices that are way above any gateway’s capabilities.
Like the above, gateways are created to be simple to set up and use. That’s the whole point.
Routers, inversely, offer an almost overwhelming set of features, which is constantly increasing as the industry evolves.
Things like Quality of Service, parental controls, MU-MIMO, and beamforming are standard on even lower-end routers. While usually missing, hard to find, or limited in gateways.
Cost is highly variable. You can get a $70 router or a $600 router, depending on your needs and preferences. So take this section with a grain of salt.
However, for most people, the cost of buying two separate devices is usually higher than buying a single device. Considering this, the price of a gateway is commonly less than the cost of a separate modem and router.
All of this might not matter if all you are looking for is performance. But if budget is important, getting a gateway could be the best option for you.
Device replacement could be the exception to this rule. With separate devices, you can just replace the faulty one. With a gateway, you’ll need to replace the whole thing if something breaks.
In addition, your ISP probably offers the option to rent your gateway. Whether that is beneficial for you will depend on your situation.
You can learn more about the benefits and disadvantages of renting a gateway from your ISP here.
As said above, you can rent your gateway from your ISP. Whether you end up paying less or more for it, in the long run, would need to be calculated.
But a great benefit we simply can’t ignore is that it means they will hold your hand and help you troubleshoot any issues you may have. Worst case scenario, they can even replace it free of charge.
Something to note here is that when your ISP helps you troubleshoot and ends up resetting your router, you’ll need to set up your network from scratch again. This is something you could avoid by having your own devices.
If buying your own modem or router, you will need to deal with any issues that come up yourself. So, if you are not too tech-savvy, renting or buying a gateway from your ISP might be a good option.
Benefits of a Separate Modem and Router
- Better customization options
- More features
- Improved security
- More affordable to replace
- Usually faster connections
Benefits of a Modem-Router Combo
- Saves space
- Easier troubleshooting
- Simpler installation
- Usually less upfront cost
What’s the Better Option?
As seen in this article, the answer is not always black and white. And it will always depend on your particular situation.
If you want to keep it simple, rely on your ISP for support, warranty, and replacements; a gateway is the way to go.
Getting into cost and savings, neither is a clear winner. You might save some money by getting a gateway, but you will need to replace the whole thing if it breaks down. Plus, while renting seems like a low monthly cost, it can add up to hundreds more than its outright cost in the long run.
On the other hand, if performance is your thing. The answer is more apparent. A separate modem and router is the way to go. Gateways simply can’t even come close to the performance of high-end routers.
Adding to that the vast array of extra functionality that a stand-alone router offers.
You might have some routers with four, six, or even more antennas. Something gateways simply do not offer. This means an increased signal and longer ranges.
That being said, gateways aren’t dial-up slow at all. They’re just not built for maximum performance.
As a network engineer, I’m always biased towards speed and performance. So my recommendation is to get separate devices.
However, I completely understand it would make sense for many people to get a gateway, especially if cost is an important consideration.
If you need help picking a modem or modem router combo for your ISP, check out this article. And if you’re looking for a great performing router, don’t miss our best modems for your ISP guides.