Last Updated: July 9, 2019
A common question asked by gamers building or upgrading a new computer is what's the best option for online gaming: buying a modem, buying a modem and a router, or getting a modem router combo. Wait, what? May sound confusing, but it's really not. In this layman-friendly guide we'll cut through any of the complicated stuff and explain what you need to know about this little dilemma so you can easily choose the right gaming networking setup for your needs and get back to gaming sooner rather than later. We'll cover the difference between modems vs routers vs modem routers, and the pros and cons of each.
Let's start with the absolute basics of basics for anyone who has perhaps lived under a rock for the past decade and is just connecting to this thing called the internet for the first time. No, modems and routers are different devices altogether. A modem connects directly to your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and a router connects to a modem to extend the internet connection to multiple devices and/or to enable a wireless signal throughout your home/office/gaming dungeon.
However, modems and routers can be combined into a convenient (yet not without its downsides) 2-in-1 device called, surprise surprise, a modem router (or modem router combo). Whether you get just a modem, a modem AND a router, or a modem router (combo) will depend on your situation and either option has its pros and cons. Speaking of which, let's talk a bit about them.
A modem is a device that communicates with your ISP and plugs into whichever type of internet infrastructure you have at your location such as cable, telephone, satellite, or fiber. It has a standard Ethernet (wired) connection which you can either plug directly in the single computer, or into a router to spread the connection wirelessly across your house or to split up the connection over multiple devices.
If you're only connecting your internet to the one computer and you want a wired connection (ie an Ethernet cable) for the fastest and most reliable online gaming connection - a (hopefully decent) modem is all you need. Although since the modem communicates with your chosen ISP, you must ensure that any particular modem you buy is fully compatible with your chosen ISP.
ISPs will offer you their own modem to use with their service, and sometimes it'll be good enough to get maximum speeds, but other times you may want to buy your own modem if you desire the fastest, most reliable online gaming experience. Plus, getting your own modem is also a way to save money on your internet bill over the long haul as you can avoid paying any monthly rental fees for leasing it. You can then also keep your modem if you switch to another ISP later, because modem technology doesn't really change over the years (wired is wired is wired).
A typical modem. Technically all you need if you just need wired, but most will need a router too
As mentioned, a router is a device that plugs into a modem and "routes" the internet connection to other devices, and enables wireless connections if it's a wireless router. A router basically sits in-between your devices and your modem, but a router doesn't connect directly to the internet/ISP so you'll be needing a modem as well (unless you get an all-in-one modem router combo). Most routers are wireless routers, but there is such a thing as a wired-only router. But wireless routers pretty much all have wired (Ethernet) ports as well (usually 4 or more), so they're suitable whether you're connecting multiple devices wirelessly or via a wired connection.
Also, routers offer some protection for your devices, meaning they're not directly exposed to the big bad world wide web. To the internet, all the activity in your home looks like it's coming all from the one single device, so all the information about what traffic goes to what device stays within your router. Some of the better routers out there also come with more advanced security features. Like with modems, sometimes your ISP will offer you a router (or a modem router combo) for you to use but chances are it won't be the best option to use if you want the best network speed and reliability as a gamer.
If it looks like something that's just landed from a faraway Alien planet - it's a router
Some ISPs will offer a modem router which is both a modem and router in a single 2-in-1 device, which is something you could also buy yourself too. The upside of using a modem router is convenience, and usually lower overall cost, but the downside is less flexibility. Using a separate modem and router allows you to pick the best devices with the right features for your needs, instead of being stuck with whatever modem router your ISP gives you. Although if you buy your own modem router, there are plenty of great ones to choose from that won't really have any downsides.
Just keep in mind that you should typically avoid renting your ISP's modem router, because just like with buying your own modem vs using an ISP's modem, you can save money on monthly fees, but also because using a default-provided modem router can cause other issues. For example, if your ISP automatically does a firmware update on the modem router, it can reset your customized router settings without you even knowing about it.
A modem router (combo) means you only need one device overall, but at a cost of less flexibility
If you only need to connect the one desktop computer with a wired connection, a good modem that is compatible with your ISP and that gives you the fastest speed possible is all you need. However, it's 2019 after all and you'll probably be wanting wireless for your home as well to connect your other devices such as a laptop, phone, tablet, or other smart devices, even if you'll be connecting your desktop with a wired connection for the fastest, most reliable online gaming experience (good choice, friend).
So that leaves you with the choice of either getting a separate router to connect to your modem, or getting a modem router. Generally speaking, as a gamer or other fairly demanding computer user (yes, you could say modern day gaming is considered fairly demanding compared to the average computer user) who wants the highest quality, most reliable, and fastest connections possible, you'll want to steer clear of modem routers and hand-pick a good router.
Why? A dedicated router, whilst perhaps a little more expensive in the short-term as you have to buy a router and a modem (although a good modem router could cost about the same) is going give you the most flexibility.
Instead of being stuck with whatever modem router your ISP dishes out, or being limited to picking your own modem router (there are way more quality options for dedicated routers compared to modem routers), you can choose the perfect router that'll provide the fastest speeds, best quality and reliability/stability, and other handy features such as placing network priority with your online gaming sessions (as it should be, right?) 'cause every millisecond counts in battle.
You'll also have more control with your own separate router, and can apply any settings to it you want without your ISP getting in the way or without them updating your router and removing your custom settings with automatic updates with you even knowing (which can happen with modem routers 'cause it's tied to your ISP0.
With a modem router, if you're ever dissatisfied with the routing aspect, wish to upgrade to better wireless features, want to move service providers, or your modem is compromised for some reason...you must replace the whole thing. With your own router you can likely reuse it with a new provider, and you most importantly you can pick one with the latest and greatest wireless standards and features from the get-go.
Plus, another benefit to buying a stand alone router over using a modem router combo is more flexibility with the placement of your router. If you want to move a stand alone router to a better location for the best signal, you can easily do this using Ethernet cable extensions as opposed to trying to move a modem router with its annoying cable/Coaxial/phone connection.
So yeah, for the best online gaming experience, if you're deciding to connect with a wireless connection then a good router is a must - especially if you're a hardcore/serious gamer or power user. However, if you're connecting with wired Ethernet only, or you're using wireless aswell but don't need the absolute best of the best and don't care about the best features/flexibility/range that top routers provide, the whole debate of modem routers vs a separate modem and router isn't as important.
You could simply plug into a basic modem (if just wired and just using one PC), or a modem router (for both wired and wireless and/or multiple wired) and be just fine and dandy - even if it's the basic equipment provided to you by your ISP. As always, everyone is different, but as an avid gamer the winner is most definitely always going to be getting your own setup.
See Also: WiFi vs Ethernet for Online Gaming