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Modem vs. router

What’s the difference between a modem and a router?

Getting the most out of your internet connection requires the right hardware, and deciding which components are right for your setup can be a little confusing. The modem (short for modulator/demodulator) is the piece of equipment that translates the cable signal into a digital stream your PC can use. Meanwhile, the router distributes that stream to multiple connected users via ethernet or, more commonly, Wi-Fi.

If you have cable internet, it’s worth investing in your own cable modem for performance, reliability and security purposes. Everyone, including cable and fiber users, should consider getting their own router for those same reasons.


For starters, if your ISP uses a fiber connection, the company should provide you with a small box that’s called an optical network terminal (it's also sometimes referred to colloquially as a modem). An ONT is managed remotely by the internet service provider (ISP), and you won’t have to worry about getting your own or tweaking any settings.

If you have cable internet, you have the option of investing in your own cable modem. While nearly all cable ISPs provide you with a compatible modem, ISP-provided models aren’t always the most recent and can have some shortcomings in terms of performance and security updates. This is especially true of units that combine the modem and router into one device, as combination models are usually far behind standalone modems and routers in terms of firmware updates.

There are two common varieties of modems in use today: DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1. The older DOCSIS 3.0 standard should satisfy most home internet connection speeds, but if you want to ensure peak performance and future-proof components, consider spending an extra 30% or so on a more recent DOCSIS 3.1 modem.

Pros of buying your own cable modem

  • High peak speeds: Having an up-to-date modem ensures you’re getting all the bandwidth you pay your ISP for.
  • Advanced security: The more recent your modem is, the more likely it is to be actively supported with continued security and reliability updates.
  • Eliminating rental costs: If your ISP charges a monthly fee to use their modem, buying your own can get rid of that added expense.

Cons of buying your own cable modem

  • They’re not for fiber: If you have a fiber internet connection, you’re already getting the best in security and performance.
  • Some ISPs have limited modem compatibility: Before buying your own cable modem, make absolutely certain that your ISP supports the model you choose.
  • You might not need one: There’s always the chance that the modem or modem/router combo your ISP provides works just fine with your internet connection.

Best cable modems

Arris SurfBoard SB8200

It’s compact and offers the high speeds and future-proof design that performance-minded computer users need. It’s widely regarded as the best for speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. 

Sold by Amazon

Motorola MB8611

Rated for speeds up to 2.5 gigabits per second, this high-performing option should satisfy even the most demanding users. 

Sold by Amazon

Arris SurfBoard SB6183

While it’s limited to the older DOCSIS 3.0 standard, that’s easily fast enough for most consumers, and this particular modem is both reliable and affordable. 

Sold by Amazon


The router is the component that broadcasts and manages your ethernet connections and Wi-Fi network. Every network needs a router, and the quality of your router directly affects your internet experience. To make sure you’re working with recent equipment, consider at least a Wi-Fi 5 or Wireless AC router. If you have multiple modern devices such as recently released laptops and smartphones, you’ll be able to get even more out of your internet connection with a Wi-Fi 6 router.

While peak bandwidth is one thing to consider when buying your own router, know that most new routers can far exceed the speeds commonly found in U.S. consumer internet packages. For example, even entry-level Wi-Fi 6 routers can handle nearly gigabit-class connections by definition, which is significantly faster than most people have access to.

Pros of buying your own router

  • Optimized connection speeds: If there are any gamers in your household, they’ll appreciate the ability to prioritize the connection to their gaming PC or console to reduce latency in fast-paced games.
  • Complete control over security: Some ISPs are notorious for providing out-of-date or relatively locked-down routers. Buying your own lets you configure advanced security settings such as guest networks, which might be out of reach on ISP-issued routers.
  • They’re basically universal: Unlike modems, all consumer routers should work perfectly with all consumer internet connections.

Cons of buying your own router

  • Some internet connections won’t benefit from a new router: If speeds in your area are already limited, you might not see any improvement from buying your own router.
  • You may not need the advanced settings: Casual internet users might not want or need to learn all about the most intricate settings offered by advanced routers.

Best routers

TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX55)

In addition to advanced Wi-Fi 6 support, this router was recently released and is sure to be supported by its manufacturer for years to come. 

Sold by Amazon

TP-Link Archer AX1500 (AX10)

Despite its moderate price, this option delivers enough performance for nearly all home internet connections. 

Sold by Amazon

Netgear AC1600 (R6260)

Even though it uses the last-generation Wi-Fi 5 standard, it works great with all modern devices and costs remarkably little. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t care about Wi-Fi 6, this one’s for you. 

Sold by Amazon

Should you get a modem or a router?

If you want to avoid paying your cable ISP a rental fee while also ensuring peak performance and reliability, consider buying both a modem and a router. Fiber users, on the other hand, should look into routers and don’t need to worry about modems. If your internet connection isn’t very fast and there aren’t many people using your wireless network, you might be able to get by on the equipment your ISP provides.

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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