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Guide to internet equipment: understanding the basics

Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 3/27/23

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Setting up your internet equipment for your home network is simple enough—especially with how straightforward most internet service providers (ISPs) make the process these days. With Xfinity, for example, all you have to do is order your kit online and then follow the simple instructions through the app to set it up.

So, do you really need to understand your internet equipment if your goal is to just set it up and forget about it? The answer is yes, which is likely unfortunate news for any technophobes out there. Odds are you’ll need to fix or adjust something with your internet connection at some point (or maybe you’re trying to right now). And understanding the basics of internet equipment will go a long way in making your problems less painful.

Basic internet equipment

What is a router?

A router is the device that creates your Wi-Fi network within your home. It takes the signal from your modem and broadcasts it throughout your home as internet that can be connected to wirelessly. Without a router, you’d have to plug any devices you wanted to connect to the internet directly into your modem via Ethernet cable. The simplest way to remember what a router does is to think of it as the device that routes your internet information to and from the modem.

What is a modem?

A modem is the device that translates your provider’s internet signal into something usable for your home’s network. Like we mentioned before, you can plug your devices directly into your modem with an Ethernet cable to get internet, but you can’t create a Wi-Fi network with only a modem. You’ll need both a modem and router to create a home Wi-Fi network. Your internet provider will typically supply you with a modem, but you can also buy your own as long as it’s compatible with your provider.

Your modem will need to be plugged into wherever your internet signal comes from. If you have cable internet, for example, you’ll need to plug the other end of a coaxial cable into your modem from the wall so it can receive the signal.

What is a wireless modem?

A wireless modem is a modem that translates the internet signal from your ISP wirelessly. In other words, you won’t have to use a coaxial cable or any other type of cable to plug it into where your internet signal is coming from. A wireless modem will just connect to the signal through the air. These types of modems are typically used with internet types like 5G internet, where the provider is beaming a signal from a tower rather than sending it underground through fiber or cable.

What is a gateway?

Routers and modems used to be two separate devices, but nowadays most of them come together in one unit called a gateway. But you can still buy routers and modems separately—just make sure it’s compatible with your internet provider and that it’s one of the best routers you can get. You can either ask a representative or check the company’s website. If you want to use a gateway that’s compatible with your internet connection, you’ll likely have to buy it directly from your internet provider.

What is mesh Wi-Fi?

Mesh Wi-Fi is an increasingly popular option that you can create with small, non-intrusive routers from companies like Google and Orbi. Mesh Wi-Fi is essentially several internet routers that connect as one network. You can put one router in each room, for example, rather than relying solely on one router. Using a mesh Wi-Fi system as opposed to a traditional single router will make your network more consistent throughout your home, especially if you live in a large home or experience frequent dead zones. Learn more about mesh Wi-Fi and if it’s the right choice for you.

Internet equipment upgrades

What is a switch?

In the most basic terms, a switch is a device that you can use to essentially add more Ethernet ports to your router/modem if you want to plug in more devices directly to your internet connection. Plugging in devices directly via Ethernet is the best way to get the most out of your internet speed because the signal won’t degrade from being transferred across a wireless network. Wired internet connections also have less latency, which is especially important if you’re into online gaming.

What is a repeater?

A repeater is a device that connects to your router using Wi-Fi and then rebroadcasts, or repeats, your router’s Wi-Fi signal. You can use a repeater if you want a stronger signal, although it won’t make your speeds any faster than the max speed offered by your internet plan. A repeater is a good option if you feel like some areas of your home get slower internet service than others. That usually means that the Wi-Fi signal is degrading in certain areas, which a Wi-Fi repeater can help mitigate.

Why is my internet slow?

Understanding the root of your internet speed difficulties is important before you purchase products to speed it up. For example, if your internet is slow because of your plan or because you’re using an outdated router, no amount of repeaters or extenders will improve your service. Read more about why your internet is slow.

What is an extender?

An extender is easy to mix up with a repeater because they’re accomplishing very similar purposes with your home network. But, to put it simply, an extender is focused on extending the reach of your Wi-Fi network rather than strengthening the signal, like a repeater does.

Many Wi-Fi improvement products are also named interchangeably (called extenders, repeaters, and boosters), even though they technically have different purposes. You’ll encounter this especially if you shop on a site like Amazon where sellers will put whatever keywords they can into the product title to help it sell. Pay special attention to the actual functionality of the device and the technical specifications from the manufacturer to make sure you’re getting the device you want.

There are additional differences in use applications. An extender can be used if you want to take your Wi-Fi network out by your pool, for example. An extender will connect to your router and then create another network that extends farther than the reach of your router. That means that your devices can automatically switch between the two networks as they progress through your house or backyard. With a repeater, you’ll stay on the same network throughout your home.

Outdated internet equipment

What is a hub?

A hub serves the same function as an internet switch in your home network, but it just doesn’t do its job as well. A hub is less efficient because it will send every piece of information to every device in your network rather than sending just the relevant info for each device to that device. This will slow your connections and your devices down and ultimately lead to worse internet network performance. People used to use hubs as inexpensive alternatives to switches, but switches are now much more affordable.

What is a bridge?

A bridge is another older piece of equipment that has essentially been replaced in function by a switch, which does the same job as a bridge more efficiently. A bridge used to be a way to connect a device that lacked Wi-Fi (like a DVD player) to your internet connection by using an Ethernet cable. But now you can accomplish the same purpose using a switch. Most modern routers also now contain bridge mode, which essentially allows you to turn one router into a bridge if you have multiple routers in your home.

Know your network

Internet equipment can feel intimidating with the flashing lights and unfamiliar names. But the basic function of each piece of your home network is really pretty simple. Understanding the function of each piece of your home network will help you decide what would make a difference and what isn’t worth your money.

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Contributing researcher
Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer

Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.