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Modem vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

When you use the internet, you’re likely using both a modem and a router. But what are they, and how do they work together? In short, the modem is the doorway to the internet, while the router directs the internet (and its traffic).

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While you can have a separate router and modem, you can also find devices that combine both functions — hence the confusion over which you have. We’ll discuss both components in-depth and explain how they work together.

Modem

Brad Jones/Digital Trends

Modem is short for “modulator demodulator,” which means that it modulates transmissions to receive and carry data. It’s the door to the internet that receives and sends data between cables/telephone lines and all the devices in your home. Think of it as the interpreter that makes everything possible, translating the internet from the massive infrastructure highways to the smaller pathways inside homes and offices.

The modem is your on-ramp to the world wide web. They are offered as part of packages by IPSs (Internet Service Providers) across the United States, big players like Verizon, Comcast, and Spectrum. These and similar broadband providers “rent” modems as part of their subscription plans so you can access their subscription-based service. But you can purchase compatible modems separately from any retailer to cut down on the monthly cost. Either way, you’ll need one to access the internet.

How it works

Modems usually include lights/LEDs along their front, so you can see what’s going on at a glance. One light indicates that the unit is receiving power, one signals that it’s receiving data from your internet service provider, and one shows that the modem is successfully sending data.

This is where you start in a troubleshooting scenario: If the send and/or receive lights are blinking, then your internet service provider is likely having issues, or something is going on with the connection outside. Another LED is provided, indicating that wired devices are accessing the internet.

Newer modems on devices like laptops are also going more wireless, such as Intel’s 5G modems, but this isn’t yet a common option for the average in-home internet connection.

Before we move on, note that modems aren’t just for a coaxial cable connection. Broadband can also be served up through a Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL. This internet on-ramp is accessed through telephone lines instead of coaxial cables, so the connecting jack looks no different than what you would see on physical, land-based phones. DSL is typically slower than cable-based broadband and useful in rural areas where phone lines already exist, but there’s no infrastructure supporting cable-based TV and internet services.

Routers can be designed for either cable or DSL connections, but both types have several additional Ethernet ports that are used for wired devices with a matching port or adapter. These can include desktops, laptops, HDTVs, gaming consoles, printers, and more. If you want the most out of your broadband connection, using these ports for your hardware is the best option, especially if the ports support speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (aka gigabit Ethernet).

Router

ASRock X10 IoT Router

The router is a stand-alone device that connects to an Ethernet port on the modem and “routes” networking/internet traffic to its connected devices. Routers typically have a dedicated, color-coded Ethernet port that it uses to physically connect to the modem (WAN, or Wide Area Network) and four additional Ethernet ports for wired devices (LAN or Local Area Network).

Thus, the router sends and receives networking traffic from the modem with one connection and routes all that data through its four Ethernet ports and through the air via the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Despite advertised numbers, wired is faster than wireless, and we still suggest using Ethernet if you want every ounce of bandwidth out of your subscription. But obviously, you can’t do that with smartphones, and draping Ethernet cables along every wall is just downright ugly.

Routers come in all sizes, prices, and exaggerated promises. On the wireless side, they can include two external antennas or more, depending on the model. The more spiky antennas, the better the Wi-Fi coverage — at least in theory. Your connection speed will still depend on your proximity to the router and the technology powering that connection.

While most existing routers use the 802.11.ac standard (Wi-Fi 5), newer ones can support Wi-Fi 6, which we explain here.

How it works

If all of this is confusing, just imagine a high-speed train. It enters your home through the modem, travels to the train station (router) at full speed, and is redirected to a destination. If the destination is a wired connection, then it plows full speed ahead. If the destination is wireless, its speed is based on how many tracks/streams it can use at once (one, two, three, or four), the amount of congestion these tracks must penetrate, and the distance between the train station and the destination. The train will lose speed the farther it travels away from the station.

The “up to” term means the hardware is physically capable of supporting those maximum speeds, but again, you won’t see them. Part of the “congestion” slowing your local data train is your neighbor’s network spreading the love in the same airspace. There’s also interference from devices within and outside your home. Having a router with multiple external antennas with amplifiers will help push back all that unwanted noise.

Typically, routers will choose the ideal channel for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands that have the least interference. The 2.4GHz band is divided into 14 channels, while more than 20 are set aside for the 5GHz band. But if you’re having connectivity issues, manually changing the channels within the router’s web-based interface can sometimes help. There’s a lot more at play regarding speed that gets into the heavy technical territory and can make your head spin.

Check out our list of the best wireless routers you can buy right now. The top routers on the market include models like the Netgear Nighthawk AX5400, TP-Link Archer AX6000, and Google Nest WiFi (more on mesh Wi-Fi systems below).

Router/modem combo

modem vs. router

Unfortunately, there’s no official name for this specific device. Comcast calls it a “gateway,” while Spectrum simply calls it a modem. Regardless, you get the idea: It’s an all-in-one device that looks like your typical modem but crams a router inside. This combo unit can be beneficial and a drawback, depending on how well you want to manage your network.

In the typical stand-alone modem, you can adjust firewall settings, open ports for specific traffic, assign addresses, and so on. The add-on router essentially provides a secondary firewall for better protection along with parental controls, device management, usage statistics, and more. When combining the two, you lose that second firewall aspect and possible customization not provided by equipment rented from ISPs.

Another aspect to consider is that even though you’re “renting” one all-in-one device, your broadband provider may be charging you an additional fee for wireless service. Spectrum calls this a “Home Wi-Fi” charge that shows up on your bill for an additional $5 per month and only applies to modems with a built-in router rented out by the company. For complete control and a lower monthly bill, you’re better off supplying your own stand-alone router.

Mesh

modem vs. router

But wait! There’s more! A newcomer has arrived to crash the networking party. It’s similar in nature to routers but different in delivery. More specifically, the router is a single unit that broadcasts an internet connection like a radio tower. The farther away those broadcasts travel, the weaker the signal, thus a resulting slower speed. You get the same effect in a moving car: The farther away you move from the city, the harder it is to hear your favorite music station.

Even more, the 2.4GHz band is great for penetrating objects and walls, but its throughput speed is slower than the 5GHz connection, mostly due to congestion. Meanwhile, 5GHz is faster and less congested, but it has difficulty penetrating objects and walls.

One way to solve this problem is to purchase a second wireless extender device. It grabs the signal produced by the router and repeats it to areas outside the router’s reach. This is helpful in dead spots, but the drawback is that repeaters are grabbing an already-degraded signal unless you actually have a wired Ethernet connection between the router and the extender. These extenders are sold in various sizes and strengths, ranging from wall-based units to solutions just as big as routers.

Arriving to alleviate all those woes is mesh-based networking. Kits are typically sold with two or three identical units, thus the setup doesn’t consist of a router and an optional extender. Instead, one plays the router role by physically connecting to the modem’s output and then routes all traffic to and from the wirelessly connected nodes. So instead of a single unit broadcasting an internet bubble, you have multiple units creating a mesh-based blanket of coverage.

The awesome thing about these kits is that you get a single connection: The kit decides whether your device should use 2.4GHz or 5GHz. In addition, you won’t be able to see if your wireless devices are switching from one node to another as you change spots in your home. The main disadvantage is that these mesh-networking kits are expensive. They can be longstanding investments unless you’re okay with spending serious money every time an updated kit is released. 

Kinda sorta mesh

modem vs. router

The Netgear Orbi has two different connectivity styles, which merge to form a single efficient product. This kit features two components that resemble a mesh networking kit in practice. One of the components works as a router at its core, giving users the complete functionality of a stand-alone router. The second unit works as a satellite that doesn’t “repeat” the router-class unit’s signal. 

Under this design, the two units are ultimately splitting three connections. There are two Wi-Fi bands, which measure at 2.4GHz and 5GHz and can quickly connect to most wireless devices. The third connection is a 5GHz band used entirely by the Orbi units. This band provides a secure channel accessible by Orbi network components — meaning that no other wireless devices can use it. That is the primary difference between the Orbi and other mesh-based systems. The nodes take advantage of the same 5GHz space along with all other connected devices, which results in the nodes and devices fighting over the same traffic. Conversely, the Orbi’s designated highway is free of anything but Orbi-to-Orbi communication. 

To learn more about this product’s specificities, you can read our review of the Orbi RBK40 kit here or check out the more extensive (and more expensive) Orbi RBK50 kit here.

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Intel reveals flagship 11th Gen thin-and-light CPUs and a 5G laptop modem

Intel has added two new 11th Gen Core processors for thin and light Windows notebooks, along with is first 5G modem for PCs as high-speed embedded cellular connectivity gains traction. The Intel Core i7-1195G7 and Core i5-1155G7 will both offer Iris Xe graphics along with up to 5 GHz clock speeds.

That, Intel says, is a first in the industry for high-volume thin and light laptops, not to mention a claimed 25-percent performance bump for the new Core i7 over AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800U. It’s not just raw power, either; Intel says its new chip can handle up to 8x faster transcoding and up to double the video editing speed with AI acceleration, compared to AMD’s processor.

Power, of course, is only part of what most laptop buyers are looking for these days. Connectivity is equally important, and Intel will be including WiFi 6E (Gig+) as a result. That supports routers using the 6 GHz band. There’ll also be Intel Optane memory H20 – with solid-state storage – support.

The Intel Core i7-1195G7 has four cores and eight threads, plus 96 graphics CUs and 12MB of cache. It supports DDR4-3200 and LPDDR4x-4266 memory, and has a 12-28W operating range. The base frequency is 2.9 GHz, or up to 5.0 GHz under single core Turbo (or 4.6 GHz for all-core Turbo).

As for the Intel Core i5-1155G7, that too has four cores and eight threads, plus 80 graphics EUs. It has 8MB of cache and supports the same memory types as the Core i7, plus the same 12-28W operating range. Base frequency is 2.5 GHz, or up to 4.5 GHz in single core Turbo; all-core Turbo is 4.3 GHz.

Intel says that we can expect more than 60 designs based on the Core i7-1195G7 and Core i5-1155G7 by the holidays. Acer, ASUS, Lenovo, and MSI will have models on sale this summer.

Intel 5G Solution 5000

Intel’s first 5G M.2 modem doesn’t exactly have a snappy brand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something Windows PC-makers – and buyers – haven’t been calling out for. The new embedded modem offers almost five-times the speed of a Gigabit LTE connection, the comply says.

It relies on Intel’s partnership with MediaTek and Fibocom: MediaTek provides the modem firmware, and Fibocom the module itself. There’s eSIM for easier provisioning, and support for sub-6 5G though not mmWave.

Still, you’re looking at up to 4.7 Gbps downloads or 1.25 Gbps uploads, network depending, and the ability to fall back onto LTE Cat 19 when outside of 5G networks. It’ll work with Windows, Chrome, and Linux machines.

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Five reasons why you might want to buy Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G (other than its modem)

If Samsung’s first 5G phone, the Galaxy S10 5G, somehow escaped your notice, you’re forgiven. From the Galaxy Fold to the Galaxy Buds, and of course the rest of the S10 family, Samsung’s first Unpacked event of 2019, on February 20 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, offered plenty of distraction. 

Much to our surprise, however, the Galaxy S10 5G its kind of a big deal. Like, literally. Samsung could have created a mere S10+ variant, but instead it crammed its first 5G phone with pretty much every conceivable spec. The largest and most powerful handset Samsung has ever built, the Galaxy S10 5G’s modem might be the least intriguing part about it. Here are five reasons why you might actually want to buy one, other than the theoretical promise of blazingly fast speeds:

Its display is huge

Samsung’s first 5G smartphone is also one of the biggest it’s ever made. But despite its 6.7-inch display, Samsung’s first 5G phone only measures 162.6 x 77.1 x 7.9 mm, just 5 mm taller and 3 mm wider than the S10+. That means it has a bigger screen than the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max, and the biggest phone this side of the 7-inch Galaxy W. We can’t wait to see it in person.

galaxy s10 5g camerasSamsung

The S10 5G has six cameras: four on the back and three on the front.

It has four rear cameras

Samsung’s S10 is the company’s first flagship phone to sport triple rear cameras, but it’s already been bested by the S10 5G. Samsung’s upcoming handset has four, count-em, four cameras on the back, three of which are the same as on the S10:

  • 12MP telephoto, f/2.4, OIS
  • 12MP wide-angle, f/1.5-f/2.4, OIS
  • 16MP ultra wide, f/2.2

It also adds a third 3D depth-sensing lens for superior portraits and AR applications. Samsung didn’t get into much detail about the camera’s capabilities, but we know it will handle features that we haven’t seen on a Galaxy phone before: Video Live Focus and Quick Measure.

The front camera has a time-of-flight sensor

The S10 5G has a dual camera like the S10+, but the two selfie systems are not created equal. On the S10 5G, the second camera is a 3D depth-sensing lens, which theoretically could be used for secure facial unlocking. We’ll have to wait and see whether Samsung enables that capability in the future.

galaxy s10 5g fullSamsung

The S10 is packed with everything you could possible want in a phone.

It has the perfect amount of RAM and storage

While you can get the S10+ with 12GB of RAM and a terabyte of storage, no human really needs those specs in a phone. Instead of jamming tons of storage and RAM in the S10 5G, however, Samsung focused on the sweet spot: 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. If that’s not enough space for you, then you’ll need to consider the 512GB S10 or 1TB S10+, because the S10 5G doesn’t have a microSD card slot to expand the storage. With unlimited cloud drives and huge leaps in onboard storage, microSD cards are becoming less crucial. Samsung is betting that 256GB of space is plenty for most people.

The battery is massive and it charges crazy-fast

If you thought the 4,100mAh battery on the S10+ was big, the S10 5G wants you to hold its beer: Samsung has squeezed a 4,500mAh battery inside its new phone, the largest we’ve ever seen in a Galaxy phone. You’re going to need a giant battery to handle 5G, but with the modem turned to LTE, you should be able to get nearly two days of battery life. Because it’s going to take a lot of power to fill it up, Samsung has loaded the S10 5G with Power Deliver 3.0 support for Super Fast Charging at 25W, a big jump from the 10W max speeds offered by the current system.

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Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon X60 5G modem has an audience of one: Apple

Qualcomm’s latest 5G modem isn’t the leap that the X55 was last year, but it might be more important. While the Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System touts a slew of technical and practical enhancements to take full advantage of the next-generation networks’ tremendous speeds, Qualcomm’s new modem isn’t built for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 that are already on board with 5G, it’s made for the one that isn’t: the iPhone.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. The X60 is the first “to support spectrum aggregation across all key 5G bands and combinations.” That means X60 phones will be more futureproof than today’s X55 ones, supporting mmWave and sub-6 using frequency division duplex (FDD) and time division duplex (TDD) at a wider range of deployment. Plus, it can deliver up to 7.5Gbps download speeds and 3Gbps upload speeds, far greater than even the theoretical capabilities of the current 5G networks being built.

But while benefits like carrier aggregation and voice-over-NR are certainly important, the greatest improvement the X60 modem offers is in its size. Qualcomm’s new modem is the first to be built using a 5nm process, allowing for higher efficiency on a smaller footprint. That’s a big leap from the 7nm X50 and X55, and it’s unlikely anyone will be able to catch up anytime soon, including Apple. And that’s precisely the message Qualcomm wants to send.

Size over speed

It’s no secret that Apple will be climbing on board the 5G train with the upcoming iPhone 12, but what isn’t so certain is which modem it will be using. Apple and Qualcomm entered into a multi-year agreement to supply chips for the iPhone, which everyone assumes will include a 5G modem, especially since Qualcomm is basically the only game in town.

qualcomm x60 Qualcomm

The X60 modem is expected to make its way into Android phones and iPhones in 2021.

But after Apple scooped up Intel’s smartphone modem business scraps, reliance on Qualcomm isn’t part of Apple’s long-term plans. But the X60 shows that Qualcomm doesn’t see that path as an inevitability. By jumping to 5nm with the third-generation of its 5G modem, Qualcomm is delivering a smaller and more efficient modem, which just happens to be the very reasons why Apple would build its own modem in the first place. A smaller, more efficient modem would help Apple keep the iPhone thin without sacrificing battery life.

There’s also the issue of the antenna. A recent report from Fast Company detailed Apple’s efforts to design its own antenna for the iPhone 12 after rejecting the QTM525 5G mmWave antenna module Qualcomm currently makes due to its size. But a new antenna is on the way with the X60 modem, which “features a more compact design than the previous generation which allows for thinner, sleeker smartphones.”

If that’s not a direct response to Apple, I don’t know what is. Qualcomm wouldn’t even divulge exactly how much smaller the QTM535 modem is “for competitive reasons,” which basically a professional nyah nyah nyah-nyah nyah to Apple. Qualcomm wants Apple to know that its antenna won’t be as good.

So even if the new modem and antenna aren’t ready for the iPhone 12—Qualcomm was relatively vague about a timeline, only saying “commercial premium smartphones” using the new modem system are “expected in early 2021”—Qualcomm is putting tremendous pressure on Apple to deliver a system that’s better than the X60, lest we have another Antennagate on our hands. 

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Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G: camera, modem, AI, gaming features

Smartphones built upon Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 888 processor will be able to take advantage of concurrent recording and HDR using three different cameras, a creative feature that will allow consumers and content creators additional options for crafting the perfect photo and video. It’s one of many new features inside the new Snapdragon 888 mobile chip, including integrated 5G. 

The Snapdragon series represents the chief opposition to the Apple iPhone and its A-series processors, powering rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S20 and the OnePlus 8 series. The new Snapdragon 888 will ship inside flagship smartphones beginning in the first quarter of 2021.  

Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon 888 and its basic capabilities at its virtual Snapdragon Technology Summit opening keynote on Tuesday. The company spent Wednesday diving deeper into the chip’s capabilities. 

The Snapdragon 888 will continue expanding on its various axes: computational performance, graphics performance, AI, and more. Qualcomm says the chip will be manufactured on a new 5nm process, helping its new Kryo 680 CPU core achieve 25 percent faster performance than its predecessor, and the new Adreno 660 core perform 35 percent faster than before. The 888 also includes the Hexagon 780, the new Spectra 580 ISP, and the integrated X60 5G modem—the first time an 8-series Snapdragon has had an integrated 5G modem.

qualcomm snapdragon 888 5g summary slide Qualcomm

A summary of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G platform.

What’s inside the Snapdragon 888

Below is a high-level overview of the Snapdragon 888. Feel free to use our table of contents to jump ahead about what this all means in terms of real-world features, or refer back to our coverage of the prior Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 for more granular comparisons.

  • Kryo 680 CPU: Octo-core architecture; 1 ARM Cortex-X1 (2.84GHz, prime) + 3 ARM Cortex A-78 (2.4GHz, performance) + 4 ARM Cortex-A55 (1.8GHz, efficiency)
  • Memory support: embedded LPDDR5 (3200MHz), LPDDR4x (2133MHz); up to 16GB
  • Adreno 660 GPU: internal/external displays up to 4K/60Hz, or 3200×1800/144Hz; HDR10+ support; HDR gaming @10-bit, H.265/VP9 hardware decoder
  • Spectra 580 ISP: 200MP still images (84MP/30 fps, single camera; 64MP + 25MP/30fps, dual-camera; 28MP/30 fps, triple camera); 8K video capture@30 fps; 4K video capture + 64MP photo; slow-mo 720p @ 960fps
  • Hexagon 780: Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise (THD+N) Playback: -108dB
  • Connectivity (5G): integrated X60 5G modem (7.5Gbps down, 3Gbps up, via 5G); mmWave (800MHz bandwidth, 2×2 MIMO), Sub-6GHz (200MHz bandwidth, 4×4 MIMO); LTE support (CBRS, WCDMA, HSPA, TD-SCDMA, CDMA 1x, EV-DO, GSM/EDGE)
  • Connectivity (Wi-Fi): FastConnect 6900 (Wi-Fi 6e/802.11ax, 802.11ac), 3.6 Gbps peak speeds, 4K QAM, OFDMA; MU-MIMO (up to 8×8 MU-MIMO)
  • Connectivity (Bluetooth): Bluetooth 5.2, with support for Qualcomm aptX voice specifications
  • Qualcomm Sensing Hub (2nd gen): Always-on far-field detection and echo cancellation; support for multiple voice assistants
  • Power: Quick Charge 5; supports 100W chargers, can charge to 50% in 5 minutes

Security

Unlike with the Snapdragon Compute chips for Windows on Arm, the Kryo 680 CPU at the heart of the Snapdragon series has never been top-of-mind for smartphone buyers, mobile gamers excluded. With the Snapdragon 888, however, there are two key features: a new ability to sandbox apps within virtualization, and a CAI-qualified camera. 

qualcomm snapdragon 888 hypervisor Qualcomm

The Snapdragon 888 can use virtualization to sandbox an potentially malicious app…or just wall off your work documents from your personal photos.

Virtualization allows your smartphone to function as both a work device and as a personal device, with specific versions of the Android OS for both. (Samsung’s Knox has something like this already.) It also allows micro-OSes for specific apps like wireless payments, explained Ziad Asghar, vice president of product management for Qualcomm.

Snapdragon 888 smartphones have also been qualified as the first CAI-compliant smartphone camera. The Content Authenticity Initiative and TruePic, plus Adobe, Twitter and the New York Times, worry that photos are being stolen and altered without the photographer’s consent or knowledge. CAI will allow CAI-qualified cameras to create a cryptographic “seal” around an image, Asghar said, preserving date, time location, pixel count and the depth map.

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