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Shopping Guide for Best Modems

The unsung hero of your tech life is your modem. This device is the key to your household’s internet connectivity, and has taken on increasing responsibility with the advent of mobile devices. In the old days of the internet, when most people connected via AOL, we only got online when we really needed to, and our connection time was always prefaced with that telltale screeching of the modem.

Now our modems work silently, and they usually stay online all the time. Additionally, the wi-fi provides internet to not only our computers, but also our smartphones, tablets, watches, Echos, and even our TVs.

All this has made choosing and buying a new modem a much more important process. To help guide you in your buying decision, BestReviews has studied several top modems. None of the devices analyzed were given to us by manufacturers; we bought our products the same way you do. And when we were done evaluating them, they were donated.

If you’re ready to purchase a modem, check out our top recommendations in the matrix, above.

If you’d like to learn more about comparing modems, read on for our full guide.

Modem is an acronym that stands for modulator/demodulator. There are two common types of modems: DSL and cable. A DSL modem provides internet access over a single, dedicated telephone line. A cable modem provides internet access over a shared cable TV line.

What Is a Modem?

Just to make sure that you’re searching for the right device, let's discuss what a modem is. It's not the same thing as a router. While a router sets up the network of computers and devices you use inside your home, a modem connects your network to your internet service provider (ISP).

You might not even need to purchase your own modem and/or router. Sometimes ISPs provide you with these devices for a rental fee, and completely set up your Internet connection for you. So, before purchasing a modem, decide whether you want to rent one from your ISP or whether you want to purchase one outright.

If you decide you want to purchase your own modem, follow along through this guide to determine how to choose the best one for your household.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

ARRIS SURFboard 3.0 Cable Modem

Performance

The ARRIS SURFboard 3.0 Cable Modem is one of the best-value modems on the market. It boasts download speeds of up to 1.4 Gbps and 262 Mbps uploads. While you don't get WiFi from the ARRIS cable modem, the manufacturer points out that the modem's superior downstream speed makes it ideal for office as well as home. Some owners report that the Arris has issues with Cox Cable during setup – you may have to call Cox technical support to provision the modem from their end, once you have it physically installed. In most areas, the ARRIS is as good as any other on our shortlist, but when it comes to download speed, the ARRIS is clearly ahead of the competition.

What to Look For in a Modem

With a device as technical as a modem, it's hard to know what to look for as you study the choices on the store shelf. Some of the terms might not mean much to you initially, and may be kind of confusing. The following list should help you sort it out.

Considerations

Compatibility

There are two areas of compatibility to consider. The first is with the operating system of your computer. Many modems are compatible with both Mac and Windows. Linux can be a different story, however. It's always a good idea to make sure that your modem will be compatible with your operating system.

You also need to be sure your modem is compatible with your ISP. As mentioned above, modems can be certified for different ISPs, but such certification isn’t required. Before purchasing a modem, ask your service provider whether they support all modems or if they have a list of recommendations or restrictions.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sometimes modems are classified by how quickly they can send data (bytes per second or bps) and sometimes they are classified by baud, which is the number of times per second it sends a new signal.

Considerations

Performance

Above all else, your modem needs to perform. It needs to provide you with a data signal at an adequate speed that allows you to Google for information, post about your daily life on Facebook, and check your work email.

DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications) is a telecommunications term indicating that a modem will allow high-bandwidth transfer to a cable TV system. This standard has gone through a few revisions, so be sure the modem you choose supports a recent version, to be sure your cable service isn't interrupted or slowed.

IPv4 and IPv6 provide the IP addresses that allow devices to communicate with each other. IPv6 is the successor to IPv4. If your model supports both, you should be covered.

Another performance factor to consider is speed. Speed is represented by a number followed by "bps." Each modem usually has two maximum speeds: one for upload and one for download. The difference between the speeds has to do with the number of channels it has. The more channels that a modem boasts, the faster it will perform downloads and uploads.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Motorola 16 x 4 High-Speed Cable Gateway

Technology

The Motorola 16x4 High-Speed Cable Gateway is simple and fuss-free. It’s pricier than competitors, but the added price actually brings extra value. This model includes a high-quality, built-in router, which means you’ll have one less device to buy separately. In terms of overall performance, the Motorola Gateway wins hands down. It has four 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet ports, providing lightning-fast wired connections to computers, gaming consoles, and smart TVs. Owner feedback is overwhelmingly positive, focusing particularly on the fast signals and consistent performance provided by this model.

Considerations

Features

The following are some useful features you want to look for when purchasing a modem.

  • Ethernet Ports: This connects the internet service to other devices, such as a router,  meaning you want a fast one.

  • USB Ports: These can be used to connect a hard drive to the network, but they aren't a necessity.

  • Firewall: The firewall helps block unauthorized access to your system, keeping your network safe.

  • Built-in Router: Separate routers are often more powerful, but a router built into the modem minimizes the number of devices you need.

  • ISP Certification: Different internet service providers will certify some modems for use with their service.

  • Internet Access for Wireless Devices: This will allow you to connect to wireless devices, such as a smartphone, tablet, and smart home products. If your modem has a built-in router, this will be part of that combo.

DID YOU KNOW?

Dial-up modems are being used less and less. In 2000, 74% of all U.S. residential connections were through dial-up. In 2003 that dropped to 60%, and in 2006 it was at 36%. By 2013 dial-up users were a mere 3% of internet users.

Considerations

Modem Setup

Ideally, your new modem offers a setup procedure that’s "plug and play." It means exactly what it sounds like. You plug the modem in and use it right away, without having to do a lot of configuring.

Choose a good spot for your modem. It should have good air circulation and be away from windows, water, and other electronics, specifically microwaves. If it's a wireless modem, you should place it in a central, high spot to allow for better coverage.

You will also need cords and cables to connect your modem to a router if you have one and to your computer. Check with the modem manufacturer or your cable system to be sure you get the right cords for your devices. The modem may or may not come with the cables and cords that you need.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

NETGEAR N300 (8 x 4) WiFi DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem Router

Features

The NETGEAR N300 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem boasts compatibility with all the major internet service providers, though does not work with bundled voice services. For a two-in-one modem/router combination, it’s one of the more affordable models available. With DOCSIS 3.0, it should provide plenty of signal strength to your smart TV. Setup is easy – the Push ‘N’ Connect technology allows you to connect a device simply by pushing a button on the modem. Though the data speeds are quite fast, some owners report that the WiFi signal can be week, and NETGEAR does recommend this model for use in smaller houses, with less coverage area.

Modem Price

You don't need to spend a lot of money to get a good modem. You can find many modems under $100 that are adequate, and even some that have some fantastic extras.

You can get great ones for just a little over $40.

There are also some over that range, even over the $100 mark, but you won't necessarily be getting your money's worth by spending that much.

Before you sink a lot of money into a modem, be sure to comparison shop and see if you can get the same features for much less.

Modems can last a very long time. Often people are replacing them not because they are no longer working, but because they are out of date.

FAQ

Q. What do the lights mean?

A. All modems are different, but generally they will indicate if you are getting internet service, if there is currently activity on the line, and if it's powered on.

Q. Should I turn my modem off when I'm not using it?

A. It's not necessary, but if you are trying to make sure you are extra secure, you could do it as a precaution. While turning off your computer should suffice, there is malware that can set your computer to turn on overnight and receive undesirable downloads. Overall, virus and malware protection are more key to your computer’s safety than unplugging the modem.

Q. How do I know when it's time to buy a new modem?

A. Like most technology, modems need to be replaced every few years as features increase, such as download speeds. Your ISP should be able to tell you whether your modem is sufficient or not.

Q. How can I tell if I need a wired or a wireless modem?

A. This is entirely a matter of choice, based on the physical locations and wireless capabilities of your devices. If you don't want your computer to be hooked up via a cable to a modem or router, you need a wireless connection. If you have a computer that doesn't work with WiFi, you'll need a wired connection.

Q. If my surfing has slowed down on my computer, does that mean my modem is too slow?

A. There are many reasons why your surfing has slowed down. A modem could be behind it, but it could also be a slower computer, a full hard drive, or the presence of malware. You will need to do more investigating to isolate the problem.

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