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A router is a router is ... actually, there are several different kinds of routers that are used in different situations. I'll review the most common.

This actually started out as an article answering "What's the best router?", followed by some specifics relating to the questioner's situation.

What dawned on me is that we throw the word "router" around quite a lot, but in fact, there are several kinds of routers that are used in several different situations. They differ based on how you connect to the internet, what your ISP actually provides, and how you connect your computers.

So rather than try and answer the unanswerable (what's best?), let's instead take a look at the different kinds of routers that you're likely to encounter and when you might use each.

Ethernet Router

The most common kind of consumer grade router takes a network connection on one side, presumed to connect somehow to the internet, and provides four or more wired connections to which you would attach your computers.

The most common configuration looks something like this:

Common router connection

The internet is delivered through a modem provided by your ISP, which is connected to a router that allows that single internet connection to be shared among multiple computers.

This type of router provides only wired, ethernet connections.

Modem+Router

Because the configuration above is so common, many ISPs actually provide a single device that combines a modem and a router:

Combined modem/router

In this case, the cable, fiber, or DSL line is connected directly to the modem/router which then converts the incoming signal to ethernet and provides the router functionality to share that connection among multiple machines.

Adding wireless

So far, all that we've discussed is wired routers - routers that only use ethernet connections requiring a cable to connect to your computers.

Wireless capability, or more specifically WiFi can be added to such a wired network just by adding a wireless access point (WAP):

Wired network with a wireless access point

Note that a wireless access point is not a router. It's simply a device connected to one of the wired router's connections so that the network can be extended wirelessly. The functions of a router are still provided by the wired router on the network.

Because this scenario occurs often, it's extremely common to find routers and access points combined into a single device, often called simply a "wireless router":

A common scenario with a wireless router

And, as you might expect, ISPs sometimes provide a single device that combines the function of a modem, a router, and a wireless access point:

Single device that acts as a modem, a router and a wireless access point

Mobile wireless

All of the previous scenarios are based on having a wired internet connection to your home; typically either DSL, cable, or some kind of fiber-optic connection.

Mobile wireless uses the cellular or mobile telephone network as an alternative way to provide that connectivity:

Cellular mobile data network

Instead of paying a monthly fee to your wired ISP, you'd pay additional fees to your mobile carrier.

Many mobile devices and even a few laptops already include the cellular modem required to connect to a mobile data network, although these often will work only with a specific carrier.

More commonly, laptops will use a USB modem or "dongle" purchased from your cellular carrier of choice.

In this scenario, there's no real router involved - the device is connected directly to the internet using the cellular modem.

Mobile wifi hotspot

In recent years, the concept of a mobile wifi hotspot has evolved. These are devices that turn that device into a portable wifi hotspot connected to a cellular network.

A mobile hotspot in operation

Conceptually, a mobile hotspot does nothing more than take a mobile data connection on one side and make it available as a wifi hotspot on the other.

Mobile hotspots typically come in two forms. Originally, a mobile hotspot was a dedicated device - sometimes referred to as a "MiFi". These are typically smaller than a pack of playing cards and available from several mobile carriers.

Of late, many smartphones now include the option to run an application that turns the device into a mobile wifi hotspot. Which phones support this will vary based on your mobile carrier.

A mobile wifi hotspot is a router.

More correctly, it's a combined modem (to access the mobile network), access point (to allow wifi-enabled devices to connect), and router (to manage sharing of the connection among multiple devices).

So, what do you need?

It starts with what your ISP has given you.

If all that they've given you is a modem, then you'll definitely want to add some kind of router. If you expect to use wireless, getting a combined wireless router makes a lot of sense.

If what your ISP has given you is itself already a router, then you may be done. If there's no wireless support and you don't need wireless, just connect up your computers and go. If you do need wireless, then the easiest thing to do is to get a wireless access point (not router) and connect that to the router.

And of course, if the ISP gives you a combined modem/router/access point, then you're pretty much done - almost all of your connection options are covered.

If you travel and you take your computer(s) with you, a mobile wifi hotspot can be a very valuable way to access the internet from wherever you might have mobile coverage. Just keep an eye on the data plans and rates when you sign up and as you use it.

In some infrequent cases, using a mobile wifi hotspot as your primary internet connection can be appropriate, but typically, folks are disappointed by the speed and it may even be against the carrier's terms of service. Be sure to check.

So, what's best?

As I said earlier, this is really unanswerable. "Best" depends on many things, including your ISP, your needs, your location, and in some cases, your budget.

That being said, I'm a fan of Cisco's consumer-grade equipment (formerly known as LinkSys) and brands like Netgear and D-Link are typically good. (I don't mean to imply that there aren't other good brands out there - these are simply ones that I've worked with personally.)

When it comes to mobile hotspots, you're probably most constrained by your choice of mobile carrier. I've been very happy with Verizon Wireless and often use my Android-based smartphone as a mobile hotspot. I also have a pay-as-you-go Virgin Mobile MiFi as a kind of backup because internet connectivity is particularly important to me.

Article C5017 - December 22, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

10 Comments
Ronny
December 22, 2011 6:34 PM

What if your router does not have enough ports?

Then you would purchase a switch, and plug it into one of the router's ports.
Leo
23-Dec-2011
Pirgnori
December 27, 2011 9:06 AM

Any opinion about the Apple Airport Extreme router? Thanks.

Evelyn Barker
December 27, 2011 11:02 AM

I am currently on dial-up. I will purchase my own modem because the carrier inidcates it will be cheaper. Your article explains modem-router-wireless; however, the carrier I will be utilizing said I should purchase all the above and is ATM compatible. What is ATM compatible?

Guy
December 27, 2011 1:26 PM

1. If you need more ports, could you just connect another rounter to one of the ports?

2. I replaced my wired router with a wireless only to find that it gives my neighbor (condo - she's in the next room but there's no door) a migraine. How can I disable the wireless and use the new router as wired only?

1) No. Well, you could, but it's not what you want since it will also insert another firewall and NAT addressing and other things you don't want and will make it impossible for some computers on your LAN to see each other. What you want in a case like that is a switch.

That depends enturely on the router - you'd have to look up the instructions for your specific model. I suppose you could take the antenna off and see if that helps. (FWIW I'm skeptical that the wireless is the cause, but I'm no doctor.)
Leo
27-Dec-2011
Robert
December 27, 2011 2:32 PM

@ Guy, # 1, you may just want to use a 4 or 8 port switch..# 2 , using ur browser enter the ip address of the switch ex.. D-Link uses 192.168.0.1, etc.
u can then disable the wifi from within the menu.
I would not remote the antenna(s), this may cause the signal amp output to fry..
Also, there is some research that indicates that there are some individuals who may be very sensitive to Hi-Fi signals, as well as wireless phones, microwaves, etc, etc. who lot of of reading concerning the topic from Goggle.
ciao


Robert
December 27, 2011 2:34 PM

@ Guy.. opps, small typo,, "remote should be "remove"..

Robert
December 27, 2011 3:00 PM

@ Guy.. here is a link regarding migraines and Wi-Fi, etc..
http://www.mastsanity.org/info-guides-/wi-fi-guide.html

Robert
December 27, 2011 3:01 PM

Hey Leo,
great article on modems, router, etc..
Thanks,
Robert

Arthur
January 23, 2012 5:51 AM

So, if I have a LINKSYS 5 port workgroup hub,
which has previously only been used for two hardwired connections, can I purchase one of these 'wireless access points" and just plug it into one of the other connections? How big are they, and what do they cost?

In general, yes. About the same size and cost as a router.
Leo
28-Jan-2012
Dupond
February 7, 2012 11:43 PM

Very good article, although you did not touch on trim routers and plunge routers... :-) I'm building reasonably big router table and I was showing off my work to a non DIY friend recently. I asked him do you know what a router is? He looked insulted and answered: of course I know what a router is. But later I understood he was thinking of a WIFI router, not a woodworking router... Hahaha...

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