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Ethernet Switch vs. Router: How to Choose

What is an Ethernet switch? How does it work? What is the difference between an Ethernet switch and a network switch, hub and router? Find out how to decide which is best for your needs.
  • November 30, 2018

You'll hear network technicians toss around the terms Ethernet switch, network switch, hub and router almost interchangeably; however, each of these devices performs a specific function on the network. If you’ve ever wondered "How does an Ethernet switch work?", this guide will give you an overview of how of these devices perform on a network so you can determine the best fit for your home or business needs. 

What is an Ethernet Switch?    

First, let's talk about the function an Ethernet switch performs on your network. This type of switch is also referred to as a network switch. It works as a central place for computers, printers and every other wired network device on the network to communicate with each other. The Ethernet switch can also be wired to the router via a cable that plugs into an Ethernet port, which allows you to access the internet through the modem. While some routers are manufactured as a network switch and router combo, a router on its own performs a separate function from the switch even though sometimes they are found in a single device. For a modular setup, the switch, hub and router will all be separate devices on the local network. 
 

Comparing an Ethernet Switch vs. Hub

A hub works similarly to an Ethernet switch in that the devices on the office or home network will be wired to it. A switch will keep track of the plugged-in devices accessing the network by their Media Access Control addresses (MAC addresses) and will send received frames (packets of data transmitted as a single unit) to the designated port without causing lag on the network. A hub will share its bandwidth equally among all ports. It's not a big deal when only a single PC or a few devices are broadcasting on the network; however, when multiple devices are active on the network on a 10/100Mbps hub, this can degrade performance. 

NETGEAR 5-Port Gigabit Ethernet Unmanaged Switch
Comparing a Network Switch vs. Router

A router works by connecting a network to another network via a modem. The most common connections involve LANs (Local Area Networks) or WANs (Wide Area Networks). The router will normally be found at the gateway to the network and perform the function of routing or passing on data packets along the network. Since data packets contain the destinationIP addresses of where they are headed, this enables routers and modems to communicate with each other using ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) to determine the most efficient path for transmitting data packets over the network to their destination point. A switch will allow users on a network to share files or have printer-sharing services among wired and wireless devices signed into the network. While switches don't have inherent network protection built in, a router will often have hardware-based firewall protection that is individually configurable to your individual office or home network to give optimum connectivity.


Comparing an Ethernet Switch vs. Router 

While a network switch can connect multiple devices and networks to expand the LAN, a router will allow you to share a single IP address among multiple network devices. In simpler terms, the Ethernet switch creates networks and the router allows for connections between networks. The majority of routers have a single LAN port and single WAN port, while a switch will have multiple ports for different devices to communicate within the LAN such as PCs and printers. The router will allow PCs and and other connected devices to access the internet and other networks. A wireless router can also transmit a Wi-Fi signal that wireless devices may connect to. This is especially convenient for allowing laptops and mobile devices onto to the Wi-Fi network for internet access or giving accessibility to a printer with Wi-Fi capabilities that anyone logged into the network may utilize. An Ethernet switch is limited to the devices that may be wired into it via an Ethernet cable plugged into the device's Ethernet port. . 

As you can see, you can integrate different combinations of hubs, routers and switches on your wired or wireless network. If you have only a few devices on your LAN, a hub may be a good choice for a central connection for your devices. If you have the need for more connections, an Ethernet switch may be a better option over a hub. The reason is that there is less lag when you use the switch with multiple devices on a hub since received frames will only be directed to devices active on the network.

Now that you know how an Ethernet switch works along with the functions of a hub and router, you can use this information to drill down to the perfect setup for your home or office network for the  the fastest
internet connections and Wi-Fi speeds. 

NETGEAR AC1900 Nighthawk Smart WiFi Router


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