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Access Point vs. Router: What’s the Difference?

Written by: Jefferson / October 07, 2021

From the comfort of your home to the fast-paced environment of the office or your local university, the world continues to be covered with WiFi access for constant connection.
Entertainment, communication, and productivity all depend on wireless internet access, and it’s a trend that surely won’t reverse in our lifetime.
Of course, mapping out the perfect WiFi network isn’t so simple, especially if you’ve got a cover a lot of square footage, dealing with dozens of devices, and obstacles like dead spots and hard-to-reach corners of a space.
That’s why many network engineers use wireless access points to expand their WiFi territory with strong connections and simplify device management for everyone.
But how do access points differ from routers, if at all? Let’s compare these two popular network devices and see which one is best for you.

What Is an Access Point?

An access point is a piece of hardware that lets you connect your favorite devices to a WiFi network. Let’s figure out what makes access points unique from routers and the unique advantages they provide.

From Ethernet to WiFi

The key difference between an access point and a router is the roles they play in the configuration of a network.
Access points must connect to a router—the central hub of a local area network—via ethernet cable in order to function. Several access points can be plugged into your main router and placed throughout the area requiring wireless access.
In this sense, access points are not WiFi networks in the purest sense of the term. Instead, they create a sort of hybrid setup that combines ethernet cables and wireless access for devices.

More Connections and Coverage

You might scratch your head in confusion as to why someone would opt for ethernet-connected access points to set up a wireless network, but there are some distinct advantages to this networking approach.
Firstly, access points provide a stable and speedy wireless connection in the vicinity. For large and midsize organizations with dozens of critical devices always connected, this high level of certainty and stability is a big plus.
Access points also often function as a switch, meaning you can connect desktop computers directly via ethernet for an optimal wired connection.
Finally, access points are generally small, sleek, and versatile. They allow networks to expand quickly without having to rearrange objects or restructure the existing setup.

Simplicity of Management

From the perspective of a network administrator, access points have one more key advantage – the unified management of the network from one central hub.
This is a major point of convenience for anyone who has ever dealt with complex networks before. Setting up multiple routers means managing different networks, which leads to issues with security, communication, and overall efficiency.
With access points connected to the main router, everything stays under the same umbrella, and users can navigate the area without having to switch networks and interrupt their connection whenever they get out of range. 
In summary, wireless access points are a significant step forward for networking in large areas, but as we’ll discover, they have some limitations as well.

Access Points vs. Alternatives

How do access points stack up against networking devices like standard routers, range extenders, and mesh router systems? 
Let’s compare these pieces of hardware see how they shake out.

Access Points vs. Standard Routers

This may not be a reasonable comparison, since we know that a standard router is necessary to set up access points in the first place.
Therefore, standard routers and access points should be viewed as complementary devices rather than an either/or decision for admins to make.
Nevertheless, it’s smarter to add access points to your network if your goal is to cover more ground and shore up wireless access throughout a larger environment.
As mentioned, the addition of more standard routers is redundant and often causes more problems than it solves.

Access Points vs. Range Extenders and Repeaters

Why not just add range extenders or signal repeaters to achieve the same outcome as a wireless access point? It’s a fair question, but access points are typically a better choice for a few reasons.
While extenders and repeaters have the advantage of a truly wireless setup (no cables needed), you compromise a lot in terms of connection quality, speed, and stability when you use these devices instead of access points.
This is because extenders and repeaters are designed to broadcast only a portion of the router’s original signal strength, resulting in a weaker and less reliable connection.
It’s better than nothing, but getting a 50% wireless signal is not optimal if you’re trying to conduct a video conference, stream a live concert event, or play a rapid-fire multiplayer game with friends on a console.
If you can deal with the extra ethernet cables, we’d suggest you stick with access points over range extenders, boosters, and repeaters 10 out of 10 times.

Access Points vs. Mesh Routers

Prior to 2015, access points were considered the most reliable and effective devices for expanding wireless signals into new territory.
But with the introduction of mesh routers a few years back, the entire game has changed! Mesh routers accomplish what access points set out to do from the beginning, furthering a WiFi network with no cables, no complicated steps, and no compromises on connection quality.
This is accomplished via multi-band radios in mesh routers that communicate with the central hub, while simultaneously keeping devices connected with a flawless WiFi signal.
Like access points, mesh routers are managed easily under a signal network identity, allowing admins to manage the network in a simple, streamlined way.
Simply put, mesh routers are the next logical step in the evolution of wireless networks, taking all the cables out of the equation and making it possible for anyone to achieve enterprise-level connectivity in their home, business, or anywhere they wish.

Advantage: Mesh

Not sure how mesh routers improve on the foundation of wireless access points?
Let’s go piece by piece and explain why mesh routers are a step up in every way.

1. Easier Setup

Let’s not kid ourselves—ethernet cables are a hassle to deal with and take a lot of work to “hide” for an aesthetic appearance in the home.
You can use all the tape and carpeting you want (you can even drill holes and dig into drywall to make those cables disappear) but they’re always noticeable no matter how you cut it!
Mesh routers do away with ethernet cables once and for all, and with automatic setup via a central app on your phone, adding new satellite units is lightning fast, even for those who are less than tech-savvy.

2. Better Performance

Not every access point has features like dynamic routing or multiple band radios for network communication.
This can result in bottlenecks or choppy connections when devices are in motion throughout an area. When the pressure’s on, you can’t risk a thing.
Only the latest and greatest mesh routers can dynamically handle workloads to avoid slowdown and keep the connection strong in any scenario.

3. Superior Security

Access points are not equipped with security features, firewalls, or anti-malware protection. Mesh routers are far more secure in every way since these protections can be engineered at a network level.
For your family, your business, and your own identity, get the peace of mind you need with a mesh router instead of access points that could be vulnerable to cyber intrusion.

4. Greater Visibility and Control

Ask any mom or dad about the challenges of modern parenthood, and they’ll surely mention screen time. Kids are constantly glued to phones, tablets, and games, and parents wish they had more control over the situation.
The best mesh routers feature strong, network-level parental controls that give the power back to the parents and offer top-down visibility into apps, browsing, and more.
Parents can even cut off wireless access at certain times a day, whether it’s time for homework, time with the family, or time for bed!
That’s a level of control you can’t get from standard routers or access points.

Level Up Your WiFi Network

It’s only fair that we give you the straight facts on access points vs. routers. The truth is that routers—particularly mesh routers—have the edge in most major categories.
However, there may be a time and place for wireless access points. If you’re running a big organization with tons of devices and square footage to cover, for example.
But for the average family or small business, mesh routers are far and away the better option. Check out the lineup of mesh routers from Gryphon Connect to find routers that give you performance, parental controls, security, and much more.
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