Many of us have heard of the terms switch and router applied to network devices, but what is the actual difference between the two and when is each type of device more appropriate for a home network?
In this article, we’ll try to answer this question in simple, layman’s terms, so there is no need to be a networking professional to understand the difference between the two.
In general, a switch is designed to connect devices together within a single local network, whereas a router connects multiple different networks together. Switches can be used to extend or strengthen connectivity in local area networks (LANs) such as in homes, whereas routers connect local networks to broader networks such as the wider internet.
Routers can be seen as core or central devices on a local network which connect dissimilar networks together, whereas switches can be seen as bridging or intermediary devices within a local network to help add more devices to it.
In this sense, all home networks do need a router to work properly and get set up, but if you want to expand connectivity on this network and add more access points once it is up and running, then a switch is the device you need.
Routers and Switches can look kind of similar but are technically different devices and perform different functions on a home or other network
Routers vs Switches – A Brief Comparison
In terms of routers, a simple down to earth example of this is the wireless router on your home network, the one supplied by your ISP. This is the central hub of your home network, which all of your devices in the house, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets and games consoles connect to.
This then connects your local network to the broader network of the internet at large, allowing you to send and receive the data needed from the wider internet to browse, stream, game and so on.
The router also does other things, like assign unique identifiers or IP addresses and manages other network settings like data flow and quality of service, to ensure the best experience for all users on the network. It is a tool which can be used to manage local networks and get them connected to the wider internet so the exchange of data can take place.
Switches by contrast tend not to do these more complex things, more acting as intermediary “middlemen” within the local network, connecting up more devices and acting as a bridge between devices and the main router.
Switches do not assign IP addresses; they merely forward the IPs already assigned by the router, direct traffic back and forth over a network and supply wired network connections to more devices.
Routers vs Switches video guide
Here are some different ways of expressing the difference between routers and switches:
- Routers are network configuration devices (assigning IP addresses etc); switches are forwarding devices only and do not assign IPs or do anything else. “Smart” switches with more complex functions are now available but this distinction generally holds true in most cases.
- Routers provide ports but are also used to manage networks; switches are merely port multipliers – they provide more wired access points within a local network but do not change any settings on a network as such or communicate with the wider internet.
- Routers deal with data both within and between networks (LAN and WAN); switches deal with data only within a local network (LAN only).
- Routers connect local devices to the wider internet; switches transfer data back and forward between the local devices (ie. between your main router and phone/PC/laptop/games console etc).
- The standard 4 ports on the back of most ISP supplied wireless routers are actually a built in switch on the router – only the differently colored WAN port technically deals with outside traffic in the way of a router. When 4 ports is not enough, additional switches can be used to extend the network.
- Routers are the more “intelligent” and advanced devices; switches are simpler extension devices that do much the same job as a power strip in simply providing more connections. In analogous terms, your router is your main wall socket and your switch is a power strip plugged into the wall socket.
Switches add more ports and forward data within the LAN (left hand side); routers transfer data within the LAN but also with other external networks or WANs/wider internet (left AND right hand side)
Using Routers and Switches on a Home Network
In the vast majority of scenarios on a home network, switches should not really be necessary. The ethernet ports on your main wireless router, plus Wi-Fi itself should see most users fine for their connectivity needs in standard houses.
You have four standard ethernet ports on the back of most routers for high speed connections, plus Wi-Fi to cover any other devices which need to connect.
If you do want to extend your home network to allow for more than 4 wired connections, then switches can be a useful way to do this.
You simply buy a multi-port ethernet switch – they are readily available online – and connect this to one of the ports on your main router.
Models with anything from 4 to 32 or more ethernet ports are available. For most home networks, adding between 4 and 8 extra ports is usually fine.
Here are links to a few switches on Amazon:
- Click here for the TP Link 5 port Gigabit Desktop Switch.
- Click here for the Netgear GS108 8 port Gigabit Ethernet Switch.
You can then connect additional devices to this switch, which will direct traffic back and forward between the devices and the router. You may need some extra ethernet cables to do this, which are again easily available on Amazon.
However, one important thing to note is that is that it is not advised to ever use more than one router on a home network, since doing this can lead to networking conflicts, as you now have more than one device assigning IP addresses and this can lead to connectivity problems with conflicting IPs, double NAT type and so on.
Unless you are well qualified and competent in networking, it is best to use one router only on a home network, and either leave it on it’s own or use additional switches (not routers) to extend the network if necessary.
In this way routers and switches complement each other nicely, and it is best to do routers to switches only and not routers to routers (however, for advanced users, see here for connecting routers to routers).
When Might A Switch Be Useful on a Home Network?
There are some cases when it might make sense to use a switch on a home network. Here are some instances we could think of:
- You have a lot of high bandwidth consuming devices in the house that you want on wired connections to deliver the best possible bandwidth. eg. streaming/Netflix devices in multiple rooms.
- Switches can also be useful for gamers who are in a different room to the main router and want to connect one or more gaming devices up through an ethernet connection. A switch can act as a middleman and provide a solid wired connection which has clear benefits over Wi-Fi in reducing latency or ping for gamers.
- More generally, if you have a lot of devices you want on a wired connection but there are only 4 ports on most standard routers, so you run out of ports. Switches are a clever way of adding more ethernet ports to your home network to connect up more devices. See our article on this.
- Switches may also come in handy in very large residences, where standard Wi-Fi may not reach to all parts of the home. Powerline adapters and Wi-Fi mesh systems are two other alternatives here – see also our article on creating a wired home network.
- Switches are also very useful for larger networking environments, like schools or businesses, where you need to connect up a lot of PCs on wired connections.