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Wireless Access Point vs Router: What Are the Differences?

Updated on Jul 13, 2021 by
135.6k

At 9:00 AM: you're having a video conference via your laptop at your office. At 9:00 PM: you're watching a live show with your phone at home. Wait half a jiff, have you ever thought about what wireless equipment is working for your unimpeded network? Surely, you've heard people around talking about "routers" from time to time. Then what about the wireless AP (access point)? Is it the SAME thing with the router? Absolutely not! Despite being used interchangeably at times, wireless access points vs routers serve distinct purposes within a network. It is critical to understand their functions, differences, and applications, especially when you consider whether to buy a wireless access point or to buy a router for your specific needs.

What Is a Wireless Router?

A router is a network device that can transfer data in a wired or wireless way. As an intelligent device, the router is enabled to direct incoming and outgoing traffic on the network in an efficient way. Traditionally, a router was connected to other LAN (local area network) devices through Ethernet cables for wired networking. Over time, wireless routers, providing a user-friendly installation without cabling, are increasingly becoming the "darling" for many homes and small offices.

A wireless router, also called a Wi-Fi router, is a vital network device that acts as a central hub, connecting a variety of wired and wireless devices to the internet and managing a LAN. It typically includes a built-in modem, firewall, and a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server that assigns IP addresses to devices, allowing them to communicate with each other and access the internet. Wireless routers enable Wi-Fi connectivity for devices such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. In enterprise settings, they also support IPTV/digital TV services and Voice over IP (VoIP) communication. Moreover, they come equipped with firewalls and password protection to guard against external threats to the LAN.

Wireless Router Network Connection Scenario

Figure 1: Wireless Router Network Connection Scenario

What Is a Wireless Access Point?

A wireless access point, also known as wireless AP or WAP, stands for a networking hardware appliance that adds Wi-Fi capability to the existing wired network by bridging traffic from wireless stations into wired LAN. This Wi-Fi access point can act as a stand-alone device or can be a component of a router.

Additional Learning Resource: Distinguishing Fat APs & Fit APs Before Networking

Generally speaking, a wireless AP enables devices that don't have an inbuilt Wi-Fi connection to access a wireless network with the aid of an Ethernet cable. That is to say, the signals that run from a router to an access point are transformed from wired to wireless. Additionally, a WAP can also be used for extending the wireless coverage of the existing network in case of the future increasing access requirements.

Wireless Access Point Network Connection Scenario

Figure 2: Wireless Access Point Network Connection Scenario

Wireless Access Point vs Router: What Are the Differences?

Wireless access point and router, both support Wi-Fi network connectivity and perform similar roles. The confusion arises accordingly. Actually, these two network devices are more like cousins than twins. The differences between the two will be illustrated in the following.

Wireless Router vs Wireless Access Point

Figure 3: AP vs Router

Function

In General, most Wi-Fi routers combine the functionality of a wireless AP, an Ethernet router, a basic firewall, and a small Ethernet switch. While a wireless access point usually comes as an inbuilt component of devices like routers, or Wi-Fi network extenders. In a word, wireless routers can function as access points, but not all access points can work as routers.

Unambiguously speaking, a wireless router, playing the role of an "Ethernet hub," helps in establishing a local area network by linking and managing all the devices connected to it. An access point, however, is a sub-device within the local area network that only provides access to the router's established network. Therefore, wireless AP simply extends the existing wired network wirelessly. It does not have routing capabilities or the ability to manage traffic between different networks.

Connection & Coverage

Routers and wireless APs have divergent connection methods. Usually, the wireless router can offer Wi-Fi signals for devices directly, or connect to a PoE switch which can add wireless APs to extend the Wi-Fi coverage. They often have built-in antennas to disperse a Wi-Fi signal throughout the space. Wireless access points, however, are generally added to an existing network to extend coverage to an area where the main router's signal cannot reach effectively. Wi-Fi access points can be daisy-chained to cover larger spaces, with each AP being connected back to the main router using Ethernet cables.

Sometimes the Wi-Fi signals will be weak and have some dead spots if the wireless router can't reach the expected coverage area. Instead, a wireless AP can be added in locations that have bad network conditions, eliminating dead spots and extending the wireless network. For SMB networks, the enterprise wireless APs need to be connected with a PoE switch and then connected to the gateway to expand the wireless signal coverage.

Application

Typically, network routers serve residential homes, SOHO working environments, and small offices or organizations, which can effortlessly meet fixed and moderate access demands. However, this type of router can't scale to reflect the climbing growth in network needs in the predictable future.

As for wireless APs, they are mostly used in medium to large enterprises and organizations. More than one wireless AP is involved in supporting multiple users. Unlike the previous situation, network managers can add additional APs as the demand grows, to cover a more extensive physical area.

Additional Learning Resource: Wireless AP vs Range Extender: Which Wi-Fi Solution Is Better?

Wireless Router vs Access Point: How to Make a Wise Choice?

Wireless access point and router, it all depends on your needs. If you just want a wireless network at home to cover your family members' needs, a Wi-Fi router is sufficient. But if you want to build a more reliable wireless network that benefits a large number of users, a wireless access point is more appropriate.

Before purchasing a wireless access point and router, there are some key factors to consider: the physical size of the venue, the coverage of the network, the current number of Wi-Fi users, and even the anticipated access demands. As a go-to choice for many users, wireless routers are almost indispensable for every household and small business. After the wireless APs come onto the scene, today's large enterprises tend to adopt them to cover a bigger area or to support more users in larger LANs.

How to Choose AP And Router

Figure 4: How to Choose AP And Router

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