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Wireless access point vs. wireless router: What's the difference?

Understanding the functions of a wireless access point vs. wireless router will help you deploy the right device for the right circumstance.

Is there a difference between a wireless access point vs. wireless router?

There are significant differences between a wireless access point vs. wireless router. A wireless access point, or AP, adds Wi-Fi capability to a wired network by bridging traffic from workstations onto an Ethernet LAN. A wireless router combines broadband router capabilities -- such as acting as the gateway between the internet and a local area network -- as well as wireless AP features, inside a single device. In simple terms, a wireless router can be a wireless AP, but a wireless AP can't be a wireless router.

What is a wireless access point?

A wireless AP connects a group of wireless stations to an adjacent wired LAN. Conceptually, an AP is like an Ethernet hub, but instead of relaying LAN frames only to other 802.3 stations, an AP relays 802.11 frames to all other 802.11 or 802.3 stations in the same subnet.

What is a wireless router?

A wireless router connects a group of wireless stations to an adjacent wired network. Conceptually, a wireless router is a wireless AP combined with an Ethernet router. A wireless router forwards IP packets between your wireless subnet and any other subnet.

wireless AP vs. wireless router

Should you use a wireless access point vs. wireless router?

Typically, wireless routers are used in residential and small businesses, where all users can be supported by one combined AP and router. Wireless APs are used in larger businesses and venues, where many APs are required to provide service -- for example, to cover a bigger area or to support thousands of users. In larger WLANs, it usually makes sense to have several APs feeding into a single, separate router. Wireless stations can then be treated as one large subnet, which is helpful when roaming from one AP to another. Wireless access controls can also be concentrated at one router instead of spread across several independent routers.

Wireless routers also have basic firewall functionality, using network address translation to share one internet address across several wireless stations. Most wireless routers also include a four-port Ethernet switch, so you can connect a few wired PCs to your LAN and let them share internet access, too. In other words, most wireless routers combine the functionality of a wireless AP, an Ethernet router, a basic firewall and a small Ethernet switch.

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This was last published in January 2017

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When deciding between a wireless access point vs. router, what considerations are important to you?