If you think you need all of these features, you would be right. But after hours of research of our own, we understand the differences are not always clear.
The good news is you won’t necessarily need 3 separate devices.
Let’s explore why.
Routers are devices that both create and manage your network. They assign individual paths (or “routes”) to each of your devices. They also control the data entering and leaving your network.
Routers will assign an IP address to each of your devices, and create a routing table. Imagine it as a spreadsheet containing each of your devices and their assigned IP address.
When one of your devices needs to connect to another device or network, your router reads this table and sends the information to the right place.
In short, and for home usage purposes, a router is what decides where to send information.
Note: You will need a modem for your router to reach the internet. If you are wondering the difference between a router and a modem, we will explore it a little further down.
The main purpose of a switch is to connect multiple devices to each other on an internal network. They can’t communicate to external networks as routers can.
They usually have several ethernet ports, and nothing else.
It’s considered an “intelligent” device. Meaning it can learn the physical MAC addresses of each device connected to it. And while it can’t decide where to route traffic, it knows how to get there when given instructions.
When a data packet is received, it identifies its recipient and sends it exclusively to the intended device.
Switches are similar to hubs. They have multiple ethernet ports for devices to connect to. However, it will broadcast the same signal to all connected devices.
It does not have any smart features or “intelligence” and can’t filter out data. Hubs just know when you connect devices to them.
When any type of data arrives at a hub, it will copy it to all other connected devices. Regardless of whether the data was intended for that device or not.
Hubs see little use nowadays because they come with two big drawbacks.
First, they create security concerns. Because hubs broadcast to all devices, they are not a good option for security and privacy reasons.
Hubs also create too much noise. Copying the same data to all devices all the time creates unnecessary traffic. This can clog up your network and significantly affect your speeds.
Honorary Mention: Modems & Wireless Access Points
We can use routers, switches, and hubs to create internal networks without an internet connection. But that’s probably not what you’re looking for.
Modems are devices that translate electrical signals from our phone lines or coaxial cables, into digital information our computers can read. This allows us to communicate with the outside world via the Internet.
They are pretty basic and usually only include 2 ports. One that gets the signal from your ISP, and one ethernet port for you to use.
Since we usually have more than 1 device at home, a stand-alone modem will not be enough.
Wireless Access Points
Better known as WAP’s, wireless access points broadcast your connection wirelessly instead of using cables. Without one, every single device would need to be hard-wired in order to connect to the Internet.
The Modern Router Combo
By now you will have figured out that if you have several devices at home, you will need a modem (or an ONT for fiber connections), a router, a switch, and a WAP.
I would wager you don’t want to have 3 separate networking devices in your bedroom or living room.
And more importantly, you don’t.
This is because what we commonly refer to as a router, is much more than that.
Modern routers combine 4 devices: modems, routers, switches, and wireless access points into a single package. Saving you good money and important shelf real estate. And while we recommend having a separate modem and router, a single “modern” router is enough to manage all other functionality.
These modern routers that combine several devices into one are known as Gateways. But you’ll rarely see people refer to them using that name.
They have a port for an outside signal, whether phone line or coax cable. Several ethernet ports for devices to connect to, offering intelligent packet delivery. Meaning they can communicate with devices individually. And wireless antennas to broadcast your connection around your home.
Talk about convenience!
Hubs and switches are used to create networks, while routers are used to connect networks.
Understanding the difference between them is important, as confusing them can be costly.
If you only have basic needs, you will more likely than not only need a modem and a router in your home.