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What's the Difference Between a Router and a Modem?

They look alike, these two small pieces of plastic hardware that sit on the desks of most homes. With a quick glance, you might even think they're two of a kind. Here's why:

  • They have plugs and jacks on the back that look exactly alike
  • They're about the same size and shape
  • They both have flashing lights to indicate they're doing their job
  • They both have something to do with going online
  • They both connect to a computer

You know that one's called a modem, the other is called a router, and they're both involved with getting you on the Internet and connecting you to the world. (Or at least your friends and family.)

But for a lot of us, we'd be hard pressed to explain the difference between the two to anyone. They're kind of like salt and pepper to us–different, but more or less the same. Right?

Not quite.

Although they're working hand in hand to get you connected to your favorite websites, they're doing totally separate jobs. So what is it that they do?

Here's the answer, simplified and deliberately non-technical, explaining the difference between a modem and a router and why you need one of them, and should have the other.

[Note: This article assumes that most of you are getting some form of high-speed Internet connection at home from a cable company that is also your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Time-Warner Cable and Cox Communications are two examples.]

Internet buddies.

    The modem connects to a cable/wire from the outside, bringing in Internet data (email, You Tube videos, Google search results, files) from all over the world. A different wire that goes from your modem to your computer delivers your Internet requests and activity to your computer and monitor. What you see is what you asked for. Thanks, modem!

    In case you're wondering, you can't simply plug that cable from your Internet Service Provider directly into your computer. It just doesn't work that way. You NEED that modem between the cable and your computer. No modem, no Internet.

    You could go online using just your modem and computer, but there's a reason to think twice. Modems are useful, but they are not smart pieces of hardware. They can't do much when it comes to providing Internet safety, like keeping hackers away. Also, one modem connects to only one computer.

    So with just a modem, your computer is at risk. You'll need to rely on special computer software (anti-virus programs, etc.) to fight of bad stuff coming in from online (computer viruses and such). And make no doubt, there's plenty of that out there.

Enter the router, a good companion for your modem, your computer and you. With a few wires and connections and installing some software, you're modem, router and computer get connected.

    A router does two special things by leeching on to your modem. (Well, three.)

    It can take the digital signal from your modem (which the modem gets from the cable company's cable) and share it with (route it to) other computers in the house. You now have a computer network at home.

    In order to do this, the router monkeys with and modifies the IP address on your computer(s). Just by doing that, it automatically makes it hard for hackers to now get at your computer. In fact, it's harder to target any specific computer linked to the router.

    A wireless router allows you to connect your Internet connection at home with any wireless device, such as a laptop, Smartphone or iPad. (Make a note: you just need to make sure your wireless network is secure. That information comes with the router.)

How technical does get it?

All this Internet cable/modem/router/computer connection stuff takes a little bit of jiggering and figuring–but it's not too difficult (your cable company can offer help) and the rewards in Internet convenience, speed and safety are worthwhile.

One last thing. You might be wondering what role your IP address plays in all of this. The answer? It is at the heart of it all. In simple terms, the networking software in your computer follows guidelines (Internet protocols) that connect you to the Internet. These protocols allow you to send emails and information back and forth through your modem and router–and your IP address helps directs the data YOU requested to YOUR computer and not to someone else's.

So remember this simple distinction between a modem and router:

  • A modem connected to your Internet Service provider and to a Mac or PC is what makes it possible for you to go online
  • A router connected to your modem is what allows you to share your Internet connection with others in your home, with built-in security against hackers.

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