What Is a Wi-Fi Router?

And what Wi-Fi routers do

Wi-Fi routers are among the most common networking devices used in homes and offices. Technically, you don't need a Wi-Fi router to access the internet, but a Wi-Fi router is essential if you want to do it wirelessly.

What Does a Wi-Fi Router Actually Do?

To understand what a Wi-Fi router is, it's essential to understand what a traditional, non-Wi-Fi router is. In simplest terms, a router is a networking device that connects your home or office devices to the internet.

When your internet service provider (ISP) provides an internet connection to your home or office, it installs a modem. In most cases, you don't connect your computer, game console, streaming TV box, or another internet-enabled device to the modem (you can, but most people don't). Instead, you connect the modem to a router and connect other devices to the router (some devices combine a modem and router into a single box). The router shares the internet connection from the modem with all devices connected to it. They also offer crucial security features like firewalls.

All of this is true of both traditional wired and Wi-Fi routers. The difference between those two devices is a conventional router only works when a device is plugged into it using an Ethernet networking cable. On the other hand, Wi-Fi routers let you connect to the internet over Wi-Fi (you can also connect networking cables to Wi-Fi routers if you want).

Think of a Wi-Fi router like a radio. When you connect a Wi-Fi router to a modem, the modem sends the internet connection to the Wi-Fi router, which then broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal.

Do I Just Need a Router for Wi-Fi?

To have Wi-Fi in your home or office, you'll need a few things:

  • An active monthly plan with an ISP, such as a cable or phone company.
  • A modem provided by the ISP (that is installed, activated, and communicating with the ISP's network).
  • A Wi-Fi router. You don't need a traditional router and a Wi-Fi router. A Wi-Fi router provides all of the features of a conventional router and adds on wireless capabilities.
  • The Wi-Fi router is connected to the modem and configured to create a wireless network.

When you've got all of those things, you'll have a Wi-Fi signal any compatible device can connect to and get online.

a wi-fi router

What Is the Difference Between a Router and Wi-Fi?

As mentioned above, the most critical difference between a traditional router and a Wi-Fi router is you can only access a standard router by plugging a cable into it. In contrast, a Wi-Fi router allows wireless connections (specific models may have some features that further differentiate the two types of routers). Other differences between the two types of devices include:

  • Speed: You'll generally get faster speeds with a physical connection to a router using Ethernet than wirelessly connecting to a Wi-Fi router.
  • Reliability/Signal Interference: All kinds of things can interfere with Wi-Fi signals, including other devices, materials used to build houses or offices, and other nearby Wi-Fi networks. Interference can cause slower speeds. Typically this isn't an issue, however.
  • Mobility: If you need internet access from more than one fixed location at home (or work), Wi-Fi is the best option. You can only go as far as your Ethernet cable reaches with a traditional router.
  • Sharing: It's much easier to have guests get online over Wi-Fi than a physical connection. All you have to do is share the Wi-Fi password instead of running a networking cable from the router to their device (and not all devices—smartphones, for instance—have Ethernet ports).

Is There a Monthly Fee for a Wi-Fi Router?

Whether there's a monthly fee for your Wi-Fi router depends on how you get it. In most cases, people buy the Wi-Fi router they prefer and pay once for the device. It's the option we recommend in the vast majority of cases.

If you get your Wi-Fi router from your ISP, you will probably pay a monthly fee to rent it the same way you do your modem. You can also buy your modem, too.

Some ISPs provide modems with Wi-Fi features. We recommend you use a separate modem and Wi-Fi router in most cases. Using two devices generally provides better networking performance, lets you choose the Wi-Fi router best for you, and lets you keep your Wi-Fi router when you switch ISPs.

  • What is a mesh Wi-Fi router?

    A mesh Wi-Fi network uses multiple routers to distribute the wireless network more uniformly over a wider range. They help eliminate Wi-Fi dead spots in large buildings.

  • What is a smart Wi-Fi router?

    Smart routers automatically monitor your Wi-Fi connection to ensure the strongest possible signal. They also help identify and eliminate security risks to your network.

  • How do I change the Wi-Fi password for my wireless router?

    To change your Wi-Fi key, log in to the router as an administrator and look for the Wi-Fi Password Settings. Your Wi-Fi password is not the same thing as your router password.

  • How do I reset my Wi-Fi router?

    To reset your router and restore the default settings, look for a reset button on the back or bottom of the device. You may need to use a straightened paperclip to press the button for 30 seconds. After resetting your router, you should restart both your router and modem.

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