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Modem Router Combo vs. Separate: Which Is Better?

Written by: Jefferson / October 07, 2021

It can be quite a long process whenever you are trying to set up an internet connection in your home. There are plenty of decisions that you will have to make in terms of which internet service provider to use and the best overall subscription package for your needs. After you have made your choice, there are still some decisions left to be made. 
Unless you already have the necessary equipment, you will need to acquire a modem and a router. While these pieces of hardware are typically sold separately and with plenty of incredible features available, they are sometimes packaged together into one unit. Before you make any decisions on which path to go down, you should first learn a little bit about what each piece of equipment does.

What Does a Modem Do? 

The role of a modem is to connect directly to the internet by using the cables provided by your internet service provider. Modems get their name from their ability to “modulate” and “demodulate” the electrical signals that make up the internet. They are responsible for taking these complex electrical signals and breaking them down into universal analog signals that can easily be read by your personal computer, phone, television, tablet, or whatever other device you are using. 
Most modems will only have two ports with two different purposes. One of the ports will connect to the internet via a coaxial cable or other similar wire while the other will use an ethernet cable to connect directly to a computer or the router. Since modems can usually only connect to one other device at a time, this is where the router will enter into the process. 

What Does a Router Do? 

Technically, you don’t need a router in order to connect to the internet. However, you won’t be able to use Wi-Fi and will most likely only be able to use one device online at a time. Contrary to popular belief, routers do not connect directly to the internet. Instead, they connect to the modem and rely on that connection to reach the internet. 
A router is responsible for creating a Wi-Fi personal network that connects to all of your various devices. When your device connects to the router, it will then be able to upload and download data information from the internet through the modem. Another often underrated responsibility of the router is to act as the first line of defense against cyber attacks. The modem generally only acts as commanded, downloading and uploading data based upon the prompts and requests that your devices make. 
As a result, there can often be viruses, malware, and other cyber-related threats that sneak their way into your network. Most routers will come with a firewall or some degree of basic protection, but there are a few security features that truly excel at keeping your information safe. When considering a router, you shouldn’t overlook this highly important feature. 

Can a Modem and a Router Be Combined? 

Although they are performing two different functions, it’s fairly common for a modem and router to be bundled together into one piece of equipment. In fact, it’s so common that they actually have a term for it: gateway. For the sake of convenience, it’s becoming more common for people to use gateways instead of using a router and a modem separately. The combination of two different pieces of equipment is nothing new for technology and has long been the natural progression of equipment. 
For example, televisions used to require a separate DVD player or VCR in order to play videos. After some time, the combination DVD and VCR player became an option. Not much longer after that, televisions started coming with DVD or VCR players built directly into the base. Although it’s very clearly much more convenient to combine different pieces of technology and equipment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the better option. 

Why You Should Buy Each Separately 

First, we will go over the reasons why it’s better to buy each piece of equipment separately. There is no denying that using two different pieces of hardware will be less convenient, but it’s worth it in the long run for quite a few different reasons.

Upgrades Are Cheaper and Easier

The speed that technology is updated can be so fast it will leave your head spinning. In the earlier example, VCRs and DVD players were mentioned. Not only are VCRs essentially extinct, but even DVD players are becoming obsolete. The point is that you will need to upgrade your equipment fairly regularly in order to enjoy the full potential of the internet. The reason that this is important to this discussion is that modem technology doesn’t usually change very often. 
Although its function is fairly complicated from a technical standpoint, the equipment is about as advanced as it can be. On the other hand, the technology for routers changes pretty frequently. By using two separate devices, you will be able to upgrade your router and continue using your perfectly acceptable modem. Combining the two would mean replacing both in order to upgrade just one. 

They Perform Better When Separated

Having two separate pieces of equipment will provide better control over each of them. You will be able to alter and adjust the various settings of each in order to tailor them precisely to meet your needs. With a gateway, you will have fewer options for customization from both a software and firmware perspective. Furthermore, you would lose your ability to even move the equipment to a better location. 
For example, the modem will require a coaxial cable connection that is typically set by your internet service provider. If you use a gateway, your router will have to stay connected to this coaxial cable. However, if the two devices are separated then the router can be moved into a more central location of your home as long as it stays connected to the modem. The Wi-Fi network that a router creates kind of looks like an invisible giant circle. The more central a location in your home, the more coverage will be provided. 

Why You Should Use a Gateway 

Now that we’ve covered the benefits of using the equipment separated, we can get into why you should use a combination. There are quite a few solid reasons why you should use a gateway, especially if you aren’t very technologically inclined.

It’s Easier To Setup 

Obviously, it’s common sense that setting up one device is much easier than setting up two of them. By opting for a gateway unit, you will eliminate the need for two power sources and reduce the number of cables by half. The ability to troubleshoot and diagnose problems will be much easier since your network and internet connection is in one place. 
Another benefit is that by using a gateway, your internet service provider will generally create the settings for you. One potential issue with this arrangement is that you won’t be able to access the more advanced features of your equipment or customize the settings very much. However, unless you are fairly knowledgeable on technology then this shouldn’t be too much of a drawback. 

It’s Cheaper

Buying one unit versus two is an obvious way to save money. Despite performing two different functions, some gateways are available for around the same price as an individual router or modem. Naturally, the exact price differences will depend on the models that you select, but you can usually find a gateway that’s a little bit cheaper than a modem and router with the same capabilities. Due to the easier setup and more control, more internet service providers are offering their customers the option to rent gateways. Although they will charge a small fee in order to use the equipment, it may take a few years to reach the cost of buying your own modem, router, or gateway.

The Takeaway

In order to access the internet, you will need to use certain equipment. Although this is unavoidable, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have options. Modems are required to connect to the internet and routers will create a Wi-Fi network allowing your devices to access the internet. Most of the time these two units are sold and used separately, but it’s becoming more common for people to use a combination of the two pieces of equipment. 
While these gateways are typically more convenient and slightly cheaper, they don’t allow much in terms of customization and upgrading can be very difficult. There are plenty of incredible features available when using a high-quality router and it’s much easier to upgrade your equipment in order to get the best features currently possible. Although it might require a little extra work to set up, you shouldn’t sacrifice the quality and performance of separate routers and modems for the convenience of a gateway.  
Modem vs. Router: What's the Difference? | Wirecutter
Difference Between Gateway and Modem | Difference Between
If Your Wi-Fi Is Terrible, Check Your Router (Published 2015) | NY Times).
Here's What Wi-Fi Would Look Like If We Could See It | Vice