When it comes to cable modems, you have two choices: Pay up each month to rent a beat-up, ancient model from your internet service provider, or buy your own brand-new device for a fraction of the cost over time. It’s not a very difficult decision.
What’s tougher, however, is picking the right modem. I recently bought a new cable modem (a Netgear CM700-100NAS, which is thoroughly decent, albeit somewhat expensive), and I realized that modem manufacturers often highlight terrific features — 32 x 8! DOCSIS 3.1! Gigabit speeds! — without ever actually explaining what these features mean, or why they might be beneficial to your home setup.
With that in mind, here’s a guide that can (hopefully) demystify modem specs. I can’t tell you which modem is right for your home, since that depends on your cable provider, your internet service package and your budget. But once you understand what all the arcane terminology means, you’ll find that there are probably a handful, rather than dozens, of choices worth considering.
First things first: How happy are you with your router? If, like me, you upgraded your router recently but bought your modem sometime around the signing of the Declaration of Independence, you probably just need a stand-alone cable modem. Modern routers are compatible with just about every modem on the market, so just make sure your firmware is upgraded, and you’ll be all set.
If, however, your router is also looking a bit long in the digital tooth, a cable modem/router combo, also called a gateway, is one possible way to go. These devices are exactly what they sound like: digital receivers that can pick up a signal via a coaxial cable and then transmit the wireless signal across an entire house.
For small homes and apartments, they can get the job done, although Tom’s Guide doesn’t usually recommend them. If something goes wrong, your entire internet setup is shot, and it’s easier — and cheaper — to upgrade modems and routers separately.
That’s really all you need to know to buy a modem: design, DOCSIS, channels, speed and compatibility. With those specs in mind, all you need to do is pick a budget and a brand, and you’ll be able to find at least a few models that match your specifications.