Hub, switch or router: Which do you need?

This article was originally an answer to a member of Quora, the Q&A site at which I am a columnist. I am active in bitcoin and computer networks.

The question:

I have a 2nd computer in a room with one network outlet. I prefer to use a network cable and not WiFi. I think that I need a“splitter”.

I realize that each device gets unique data. So it’s not as simple as adding a power strip with extra sockets. I have heard of hubs, switches and routers, but don’t know the difference. Which do I need. Will it cost an arm and a leg?

Answer

All you need is a very inexpensive switch. In fact, the best consumer model discounts for less than $15. I recommend one at the end of this answer, which also addresses your more general question.

So, what is the difference between a hub, switch and router? Let’s dig in…

1. Hub

A “hub” is a relic from the 1990s. Someone using that term today is probably referring to a switch.

In past decades, it was cheaper to use a single communications amplifier without dedicated circuit paths for each internal and external connection.

For example, if your maximum Ethernet speed is 100 Mbps, than this is all that is available to ALL conversations. So, even if someone wanted to backup to a local network device or stream from a disk drive attached to the router, they would be slowing down everyone — even the devices that are accessing the Internet.

2. Switch

But a switch is much better. It supports the maximum negotiated speed of each 2-way connection without slowing down any other connection. So, for example, if port 5 is connected to port 2, it does not impact port 7 which is connected to the WAN/Internet port.

Large models, like the 48-port unit shown here are typically managed switches and support Power-over-Ethernet. These costly enterprise features are not needed in a home or small office. In my opinion, the more important operational features have all become inexpensive and mainstream: auto-sense, auto negotiate, auto-fall back, jumbo frame, power save, and more.

3. Router

A “router” refers to the function that keeps track of packets entering and leaving your home or office. It ensures that returning packets get to the proper device. Some routers have only one WAN/Internet port and one LAN (local port). If the router has 4 or 8 ports, then it is really a router with an integrated switch.

If you have just one computer in your home and no wireless devices, the router connects directly between your cable modem (or fiber ONT) and the PC. If you have more than one computer, then you must either (a) have a switch (built-into the router or connected to the one LAN port), or (b) use the WiFi feature or add a Wireless Access Point (WAP).

Bonus Term: WAP

A WAP (wireless access point) is simply a WiFi radio. It’s just like an extra broadcast tower in your home. But, because it is wired directly to your router, it is *much* better than adding a WiFi or powerline repeater. It is also very inexpensive…

Popular consumer brands, like Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, Asus, TP-Link and Belkin, have all but abandoned this product segment. That’s because you can easily turn any old WiFi router into a WAP by turning off the DHCP feature. This allows the ‘main’ router to assign local IP addresses and handle packet routing. The 2nd router simply adds another radio spot to your home or office. Since the router function is much less expensive than the WiFi function, using a router does not add to the cost.

About Speed

In the early 1980s, there was a market war between various network standards and topologies. Most buyers realized that the once mighty Arcnet (created by Datapoint Corporation) was dying and that the winner would be either Token Ring (IBM) or Ethernet (created by Intel, Xerox & Digital Equipment).

Ethernet won that war with its hub-and-spoke topology and a speed of 10 Mbps.

It wan’t long until the speed was bumped up to 100 Mbps (called Fast Ethernet or “100base T”. Today, the sweet spot of price and performance is 1 Gbps. It’s 100 times faster than the original! There are still faster implementations at 10 or 100 Gbps, but these require professional cable installation, expensive gear and some very strict configuration requirements.

If your network might ever be used by multiple users or for video streaming (especially at 4K), be sure that you don’t accidentally purchase the older Fast Ethernet switch or router (or—heaven forbid—an old fashioned hub!). Just 3 or 4 years ago, you might have saved cash on the slower standard, but today, you can find gigabit switches and routers without paying a significant premium. In fact, reputable companies are not making 100 Mbps switches today. That would be like selling a 512 GB USB drive with USB 1 or 2. It just doesn’t make sense.


Now you know the difference between all three terms: Router, Hub (outdated) and Switch (often included with a router). And just for fun, you even know about another related device: WAP.

Incidentally, even if your router already has a 4 or 8-port switch, you may still need an additional switch. Consider these scenarios:

  • You have more than 4 wired devices
  • One of your cables goes from the cellar to an upstairs office. But, you have a few devices in that office. You can simply add a tiny switch. This is exactly what you need as your ‘splitter’.*
  • You wish to create a subnet to isolates your network devices and activities from another segment. This requires 2nd router instead of just a switch. Not to worry. Decent 4-port routers are available for under $30. In this case, you may not even care about the WiFi feature, which is the most expensive component of routers costing above $50.
* Switch Cost & Reputation

« I just purchased this Netgear GS305 for just $12.50. It’s a gigabit 5-port switch with terrific specs and reliability wrapped into a solid metal box. It sips very little electricity and the footprint is smaller than a slice of bread. I often see larger 8-port switches by Netgear and TP-Link discounted to $17. These are both very good consumer brands.

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