The Ultimate Guide to Home Internet Hardware
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Streaming video and games. Video chats. Social media. Research and educational reference material. Blogs like this one. There's more information - and more ways to connect - on the internet than ever before.
But navigating your home internet hookup can be tricky. With so many terms thrown around for the various devices and pieces of hardware, it's easy to get confused. Do you need a router or a modem? Is there a difference? What is it?
This guide aims to answer those questions and help you keep everything straight.
What is a modem?
A modem is the basic gateway device that makes home internet possible.
Why do you need one? Because information on the internet needs a translator before it can be sent or received.
Your computer and other internet-connected devices send digital signals, but these need to be converted to and from an analog signal before they can be connected back to all the other servers and devices that make up the internet. So a modem's job is to "modulate" those signals from digital to analog and back so every device can talk to each other.
If you have a home internet hookup, you have a modem. As simply put as possible, it's the box with the blinking lights that plugs into the cable hookup from the wall.
Do I need a modem in my home? In short, yes - it's the only way to access the internet.
What is a router?
Once you’re connected to the internet with a modem, a router splits the signal so you can send and receive internet from multiple devices.
In the case of the more specific "wireless router" term, it's also the device that makes WiFi possible. Whenever you're connected to the internet through WiFi on any device, no matter where you are, there's a wireless router somewhere nearby. And that router is also connected to a modem to talk to the rest of the internet.
For most home internet hookups, the router and modem are connected to each other inside of a single “modem and wireless router” combined device - that blinking box that plugs into the wall.
That's why people often use the terms "modem," "router," and "wireless router" interchangeably. While they're not the same thing, it's usually no big deal to get them mixed up since a modem and wireless router are often two parts of one device.
Do I need a router? Probably, although there's a good chance your home modem includes a router feature for wireless internet transmission. It doesn't hurt to ask!
What’s the difference between cable internet, fiber internet, and ethernet?
Put simply, these are all different types of wires.
Cable and fiber internet describe types of wires that bring the internet to you from outside of the home.
"Cable" means that internet signals are sent to and from your house through the same coaxial cable used for your TV. You're probably familiar with this type of cord - it's the one with the screw and the one pointy wire sticking out of the end. Coaxial cables usually connect from a nearby telephone pole into the side of your house, and they're why your cable TV "goes out" when a tree limb falls and disconnects the line.
"Fiber" is short for fiber optic, a wire type that you usually don't see. That's because it's often buried in the ground, or strung along telephone poles in a thick plastic coating. Generally, a signal box outside of your home translates signals from your coaxial wire hookup into signals that can then transmit at the speed of light through a fiber optic wire. Most cable internet wire networks involve some amount of fiber optic cable, but you usually won't see this wire unless it's in a larger office with a fiber-ready hookup.
You can also connect to the internet through a telephone line, which can be called a "DSL" or "dial up" internet connection. These options are famously slower than cable and fiber, but they are the only connections available in many places.
Finally, "ethernet" is a kind of wire that connects home internet devices directly to a router and modem. This cord looks like a phone line but wider and thicker, with a similar plastic clip at the end.
Do I need cable internet, fiber internet, or ethernet? If you have home internet, there's a very good chance it's run through cable and fiber optic provider already. You may want to ask about speed and bandwidth upgrades that can come from different available provider and network options.
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How is WiFi different from Bluetooth?
These are two different types of wireless signal between devices.
WiFi connects devices to the internet through a router.
Bluetooth is a wireless connection that sends audio signals from one device to another, generally speakers or headphones of some kind. This transmission doesn't even have to involve the internet. As long as both devices in a pairing have power, they should be able to transmit audio signals between them. Even in the bottom of a cave.
Most computers and smart phones have built-in Bluetooth and WiFi capability. Bluetooth is also a key component of smart speaker systems like the Amazon Echo or Google Home that use both WiFi and Bluetooth for a fully connected home entertainment experience.
Do I need WiFi and Bluetooth? If you have home internet and are connected through devices manufactured within the last ten years or so, you probably already have both.
What does “IoT” mean, and what is an IoT device?
“IoT” stands for “Internet of Things,” and it’s a blanket term for any device that can send or receive an limited internet signal.
It’s called the “internet of things” because these devices use the internet to be smarter versions of themselves, rather than to connect you to the whole internet the same way a computer or smart phone could.
For example, an IoT-enabled refrigerator can use the internet to scan product barcodes, keep track of everything that's inside it, and list all this information on a display screen. You wouldn't use an IoT fridge to stream movies or browse websites, but the internet connectivity helps it be more energy efficient by making it unnecessary to open the door for longer than absolutely necessary.
IoT devices are also interchangeably called "smart" or "connected" home devices. You can find the IoT enabled in thermostats that can heat or cool your home using a command from a mobile device, video doorbells, or other appliances that can send timer alerts and turn on or off with control from anywhere.
Do I need IoT devices? While nice to have and an added convenience, especially in busy households, IoT-enabled devices aren't strictly necessary. Most IoT devices have the option to disable IoT features if they're unwanted.
What about digital assistant devices?
Some home devices use a WiFi connection to communicate between other devices or the internet at large through a digital assistant feature.
Digital assistants are often found as a feature of audio-only devices such as Google Home and Amazon Echo, or those with a video component as well, such as the Facebook Portal. They can also be a virtual program that runs on multiple devices at once, such as Apple's Siri feature or Amazon's Alexa.
Basically, the voice that answers when you say “Hey Google” or “Alexa” or “Hey Siri” is a digital assistant.
Once connected to a digital assistant, you can program various IoT devices to be controlled through voice commands such as “Hey Siri, turn on TV and play mega dog bloopers on YouTube.”
Do I need a digital assistant? They can be very helpful, and even a lifesaver in some cases, but they are not "must have" in homes that don't have a ton of connected devices.
What are the different kinds of smart TV and streaming hardware?
You can stream video from the internet in a number of ways and through a lot of different devices.
Some are standalone boxes, such as a Roku, that connect to internet streaming services via WiFi and connect to a TV screen through an ordinary HDMI or RCA cable, the same way a BluRay player would. WiFi-enabled video game consoles such as XBox and Playstation can function this way as well.
There are also devices that transmit video signals from a WiFi connected device such as a laptop, phone, or table similarly to the way Bluetooth transmits audio between two devices. These products include AppleTV, Google Chromecast, or an Amazon Fire stick. When using these, the host device ends up functioning like a digital remote control.
Television manufacturers have also gotten in on the game, with Smart TV options that have WiFi enabled through the TV itself so no additional hardware is necessary for streaming.
Do I need a Smart TV or streaming hardware? These are both very popular options at the moment, as consumers move to "cord cutting" with cable television providers in favor of more a la carte streaming video service options. Unless you still have a large library of physical videos, such as DVDs or BluRays, streaming video services on a TV-sized screen (as opposed to a smaller laptop, phone, or tablet) are a very nice home entertainment option.
What about Hotspots or WiFi amplifiers?
These are two different devices that either change or boost your internet signal.
A "hotspot" is a device that can convert a typical WiFi internet connection into cellular data. Essentially, it turns computers into cell phones when WiFi isn't available. Most smart phones have a built-in hotspot feature, although there are standalone hotspot devices available that can tap into a longer range and more bandwidth.
WiFi amplifiers are basically additional wireless routers that you can plug in around your house to make sure you have a clear WiFi connection. They boost the wireless signal connection to and from your modem.
Do I need a hotspot or WiFi amplifier? If you often have trouble connecting through your regular home WiFi, these are both potential solutions. WiFi amplifiers work great in large homes, where WiFi signals may be weaker in distant rooms. A hotspot should probably be regarded as a last resort option. You'll want to check the terms of your cellular network's data usage before relying on a hotspot, for example - many plans charge for the amount of data you use, and this can add up quickly.
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