You may hear the terms router, switch and hub used interchangeably. They look alike on the outside, but they’re very different on the inside. Hubs are dumb devices that simply repeat everything they hear. When one computer sends a signal to the hub, the hub sends the identical signal back out to all of the other ports on the hub.
Hubs enable computers on a network to communicate. Each computer plugs into the hub with an Ethernet cable, and information sent from one computer to another passes through the hub. A hub can’t identify the source or intended destination of the information it receives, so it sends the information to all of the computers connected to it, including the one that sent it.
A hub can send or receive information, but it can’t do both at the same time. This makes hubs slower than switches. Hubs are the least complex and the least expensive of these devices.
Switches work the same way as hubs, but they can identify the intended destination of the information that they receive, so they send that information to only the computers that are supposed to receive it. Switches can send and receive information at the same time, so they can send information faster than hubs can.
If your home network has four or more computers or you want to use your network for activities that require passing a lot of information between computers (such as playing network games or sharing music), you should probably use a switch instead of a hub. Switches cost a little more than hubs.
Switches are much more intelligent devices that analyze each packet coming in. The switch determines where the traffic needs to go and transmits it only on the port connected to the destination computer. This is a much more efficient use of the network’s bandwidth, and it also prevents unauthorized users from intercepting traffic on the network. Until recently, switches were much more expensive than hubs, but recent advances in switch technology have made hubs all but obsolete.
Routers enable computers to communicate and they can pass information between two networks—such as between your home network and the Internet. This capability to direct network traffic is what gives the router its name. Routers can be wired (using Ethernet cables) or wireless.
If you just want to connect your computers, hubs and switches work well; however, if you want to give all of your computers access to the Internet using one modem, use a router or a modem with a built-in router. Routers also typically provide built-in security, such as a firewall. Routers are more expensive than hubs and switches.
If you’re building a new LAN from scratch, an all-in-one unit that combines a router, Ethernet switch, and wireless access point is your best value. It is also the most compact and simplest to install, since all of the cables will connect to a single, centrally located unit.
Ben Carigtan shows you how it’s one!