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Unfortunately, terminology has become quite confused around routers and access points, I'll describe each, how they relate, and why differences matter.

I've searched your archives and found tons of articles on adding a router to a router. That's the same as adding an access point, right?

No, it's not.

And it's a common enough point of confusion that I want to clarify exactly what each is and why the difference might matter.

Router

A router is a networking device that ... well ... routes. Smile

Its job is to take data coming in one of its ports and route it to one of the devices connected to one of its other ports.

A router is actually considered an intelligent device, as it can inspect the data and make changes to it, such as performing NAT, or Network Address Translation, that allows multiple computers to share a single internet connection and internet address.

You'll note that nowhere have I used the word wireless. The functions of a router actually have nothing to do with wireless networking.

Access point

An access point provides wireless access to a network.

Honestly, that's all that an access point does.

In a sense, it's very much like a hub in that it pays no attention to the data that crosses it - it simply sends everything that it receives on a wired connection to the wireless transmitter and everything that it receives wirelessly is sent to the wired connection.

And you'll note that nowhere have I used the word router. The functions of an access point are completely unrelated to that of a router.

Wireless router

Here's where the confusion arises.

Because it's such a common configuration to have both a router and a wireless access point, many equipment manufacturers have devices which do both.

But be clear - all that it really amounts to is two separate devices - a router and an access point - in one box.

That box is typically referred to as a wireless router because it's a router with a wireless access point.

Unfortunately, it's also often referred to as just a router. By now, you should see that that's technically incorrect. At best, it describes only half of what's inside a wireless router and completely confuses the situation when you don't know which of the two that you're actually referring to.

Why it matters

If you have a router - either wired or wireless - and you want to add or extend a wireless network, you don't want another router.

You already have a router.

What you need is simply another wireless access point.

Wireless adding an access point

You would connect that wireless access point using a cable to your existing router.

Here's the really confusing part: you could use a wireless router instead of a wireless access point. It would actually work - sort of.

The problem is that the router would, among other things, act as a firewall preventing machines on one side of it from seeing machines on the other side. It would also cause what's known as "double NATting", where the technique that a router uses to allow multiple computers to share a single IP address would happen twice; once for each router.

Some things would work, others would not.

Now, some wireless routers can be dumbed down to act pretty much like access points. Whether that's possible and what collection of options you'd have to select will depend on the specific model of wireless router you're working with as usual.

If you're just extending your wireless network or adding wireless capabilities to your existing network that has a non-wireless router, an access point is what you want.

Article C5056 - January 27, 2012 « »

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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.

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11 Comments
Esley L. Loftis
January 31, 2012 8:38 AM

Love your explanation of the difference between
a wireless router and a wireless access point.

MENACHEM ROSENBERGER
January 31, 2012 8:42 AM

just bought a smart tv:philips 7406.it can project movies from the pc to the pc.i have a stick installed in the pc and a programm installed in the pc.the problem is that it works(projects)not when i want it to work.it works occasionaly and i have no idea why?

DT
January 31, 2012 8:43 AM

So, by definition, whenever some says access point, then they're automatically talking about a wireless capable device, because an access point is, by definition, a wireless device. Right?

I mean, otherwise, a non-wireless access point is just a switch. Right?

Correct. (But a non-wireless access point is actually more like a hub.)
Leo
31-Jan-2012
Andre
January 31, 2012 9:16 AM

Again ....your explanations are perfect!
Thanks

chesscanoe
January 31, 2012 11:09 AM

Good article - I bought my first laptop last month and has to wade through lots of manufacturers info to know I needed a wireless access point. I'm happy with the access point I chose, but maybe I'll regret my choice in the future if my old faithful router fails. I wish you'd expand your "Some things would work, others would not." comment further re using a combination wired - wireless router.

Ianmac
January 31, 2012 2:16 PM

Thanks Leo. Your answers make more sense of this issue to me now as I have a wireless router in my office at one end of the house and a (hard wired) access point at the other end to provide better wireless signal at that end. Interestingly, my laptop in the office picks up both signals but understandably (perhaps) uses the stronger signal (I think) from the wireless router in the office. Pretty clear to me now I guess. Thanks again.

Rabbani
January 31, 2012 7:22 PM

Yes, you have clearly explained the differnces between the Network devices..Gud KIU

Frank
January 31, 2012 7:33 PM

Some Wirless Access Points reguire that a antenna, be purchase separtely. And there a various type of antennas (such as omni and bidirectional, etc.).

Allen Rose
February 1, 2012 7:13 AM

Excellent presentation of routers-access points-router&wireless combos. I'd love to to see you include devices below to the exposition, using the same style language you used for the above:
hub, wireless hub, switch

Thanks.

Mark J
February 1, 2012 7:39 AM

@Allen
I believe you are looking for this article:
What's the difference between a hub, a switch, and a router?

Quvadus Hennings
February 6, 2012 5:04 AM

Hello Leo,

An excellent presentation. The writing is clear and brief. I thank you for the information and the illustration of a router and an access point situation.

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