Which of Amazon’s best-rated cable modems is best for me? Should I rent or buy? HSI investigates.
Looking to purchase your own cable modem or upgrade existing hardware? If you want increased affordability and speeds from your broadband connection, purchasing your own modem can be an easy, cost-effective way to optimize your home network. For those without a tech background, however, the equipment landscape can be a confusing wilderness of foreign terminology. We’ll attempt to breakdown some of that technology jargon and discuss the main factors you should consider when purchasing your own cable modem. Once we’re through, you’ll have your own home network up and running with confidence of an IT pro.
Modem? Router? Modem Router? What’s the difference?
Modems are the units that receive the internet signal from your provider and turn it into a data signal that devices like your computer can read. Their function is quite different from that of routers, which are responsible for connecting multiple devices to that data signal and are the backbone of your Wi-Fi home network.
You might be wondering why it’s preferable to have two devices. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have a router that is also a modem? Yes and no. There are units that combine the functionality of a modem with a router, but most experts don’t recommend them for two reasons. If you decide to change the type of internet service you have (DSL to cable or vice versa), you’ll have to buy a new modem. Some portions of the equipment are prone to malfunction and it’s much costlier to replace a combined modem/router than it is to purchase each separately. In general, unless clutter and space is a major concern, we recommend separate units. Our guidance in this article is specifically for cable modems and does not apply to routers or other types of modems like DSL, etc.
Will my provider let me buy my own modem?
Absolutely. Federal law mandates that ISPs allow you to purchase and use your own equipment. But some cable companies skirt this mandate with strict requirements that exclude many of the more popular, cost-effective models. Before you purchase anything, please visit your provider’s website and determine which modems are allowed and considered compatible with your internet service. We’ve detailed below that major cable companies that each modem complies with, but this information is always subject to change and should be confirmed before you buy.
Should I buy or rent my own modem?
If you’re planning on sticking with the same provider for a while, it makes sense to purchase a modem in most situations. Rental fees vary by internet service provider but usually fall between $5-$15 per month. Depending on the model, modems will cost between $60-$150, so buying even higher-end equipment will recover your investment in a year or less.
There are a few providers that give you a modem for free, but pay attention to hidden costs that might be labeled as “service fees”. If your ISP does give you a modem with your plan and it accommodates your speed package nicely, you’re in the lucky minority.
Before You Buy
There are a few key considerations you’ll need to evaluate before purchasing a modem. We’ve attempted to capture the most important ones here.
Whatever brand or model you choose, the modem needs to be on your internet service provider’s list of approved equipment. As we previously stated, don’t rely on third party reviews or Amazon to determine compatibility. Go straight to the source and visit your provider’s website to confirm that the specific model number is approved for use on your internet service plan.
We’re going to get technical here for a minute, but it’ll be worth it. Your modem needs to be able to support the speeds your internet plan provides. This is determined by something called DOCSIS (data over cable service internet specifications). DOCSIS refers to the technology iteration that the modem is based on. All of the cable modems on our list are DOCSIS 3, the latest version available, so they can keep up with the higher speeds cable broadband internet service delivers.
Want to know more? Here’s a quick synopsis of the history of DOCSIS:
DOCSIS1: Had only one channel and supported speeds from 10-31 Mbps. These modems are mostly obsolete.
DOCSIS2: Still only one channel but with speeds of up to 43 Mbps download and 31 Mbps upload. Some may still be kicking around in rural areas with slower speeds.
DOCSIS3: 4-8 channels. No speed increases but because of the combined channels, these modems can support speeds up to 314 Mbps download and 172 Mbps upload. This is considered the preferred specifications to support modern broadband speeds.
Once you compare the cost of rental versus that of purchasing your own modem, you’ll probably conclude that it’s worth it to buy. As long as you’ll have the same provider or type of internet service for a while, it’s a cost-effective way to optimize your network and get the speeds you’re paying for without the fees. Here’s a breakdown of modem rental fees across the major providers. We’ve also linked in to the provider’s page that specifies approved modems for your convenience.
We’ve taken a close look at the top rated cable modems on Amazon and identified five pieces of equipment we think are worth investing in based on compatibility, cost, and customer reviews. Check out our comparison chart to see which ones made the cut.