Difference between a network hub, switch, and router?

Updated: 04/26/2017 by Computer Hope

Access pointThere are three main devices that work to connect one computer to another computer. A network hub, switch, and router can all perform this function. It can sometimes be confusing when trying to figure out what device is currently being used on a computer network, without knowing what each device does.

Network Hub

A network hub is designed to connect computers to each other with no real understanding of what it is transferring. Typically, a network hub is used for a private network, one that does not have any connections to sources other than local computers (meaning, no Internet access). When a hub receives a packet of data from a connected device, it broadcasts that data packet to all other connected devices regardless of which one ends up being the final destination. Additionally, network bandwidth is split between all of the connected computers. So, the more computer that are connected, the less bandwidth that is available for each computer, which means slower connection speeds.

In the past, network switches and routers were expensive, confusing, and hard to use for most users and most opted for network hubs. Today, home network switches and routers are much easier to use and cheaper, which is why network hubs are rarely used or found anymore.

Network Switch

NETGEAR network switchA network switch also connects computers to each other, like a hub. Where the switch differs from a hub is in the way it handles packets of data. When a switch receives a packet of data, it determines what computer or device the packet is intended for and sends it to that computer only. It does not broadcast the packet to all computers as a hub does which means bandwidth is not shared and makes the network much more efficient. For this reason alone, switches are usually preferred over a hub.

Network Router

A network router is quite different from a switch or hub since its primary function is to route data packets to other networks, instead of just the local computers. A router is quite common to find in homes and businesses since it allows your network to communicate with other networks including the Internet. Essentially, a router bridges the gap between other networks and gives your network access to more features, e.g. a firewall, QoS, traffic monitoring, VPN, and more.

Ok, but what should I buy a network hub, switch, or router?

This question really depends on how you plan on using your network. For most users, a wireless network router is our recommendation. A wireless router allows wireless devices (e.g. your smartphone, tablet, wireless laptop) to connect to your network and to the Internet.

If cost is a concern and you only want to connect a few computer to each other, a switch is the ideal solution since they are cheaper than a router.

In some situations, you may need more than one router or switch. In a big area such as an office you may need a router to connect all computers to the Internet or other network. Using other routers, switches, and access points allows you to connect other parts of a building to the same network.

Additional information

  • See our network hub, router, and switch definitions for further information and related links on these terms.