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Ask HTG: Do You Need a Router for Simple Single-Computer Setups?

There’s a common misconception that if you have a simple setup, like only one home computer, you don’t need a router. Read on as we explain why even a lone desktop needs a buddy.

Dear How-To Geek,

A friend helped me move a new desk into my apartment the other day and, while we were putting everything on my new desk, he was surprised I didn’t have a router. I just plug my computer right into the cable modem my ISP gave me.

It got me thinking, do I need a router? I thought routers were for sharing internet connections and I’m just a guy in a tiny studio apartment with a single desktop computer. My internet works fine and my friend couldn’t explain why he was surprised beyond the fact that he had a router and he thought everyone did. Am I fine or am I missing out on something?

Sincerely,

Router Curious

As you’ve discovered, you can, in fact, just plug your computer directly into your broadband modem and start browsing the internet. You can also drive a car without insurance or a seat belt too, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best course of action.

Routers aren’t just for routing data between multiple computers. Let’s take a look at your current setup and the functions provided by your typical home router to highlight why you should get one. We’re going to borrow some diagrams we created for a previous article, HTG Explains: Understanding Routers, Switches, and Network Hardware (which we’d recommend you check out for a more in-depth look at what we’re discussing here).

Here’s what your simple home network looks like right now:

Your desktop computer is linked directly to the modem which is in turn connected directly to your ISP and the greater internet. From a connectivity standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with this design. Your internet connection will work fine, you’ll be able to browse the web, play games online, etc. From a security standpoint, however, this setup is terrible. Your cable modem is not a security device, it’s a data transfer device.

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As such, your computer is completely exposed to the internet. This means the IP assigned to your cable modem, your public facing IP address, resolves directly to your home PC. Anything vulnerable on your computer (a port left open, an exploit, a known vulnerability in your OS) is completely accessible to anyone on the internet poking and prodding your public IP. People like to think that they’re anonymous in the sea of IP addresses out there, but there are lots of people who have nothing but time and determination to compromise machines and install malicious software on them (and they use automated tools to poke and prod 24/7).

With that in mind, you can see how terrible a direct PC-to-broadband-modem setup is. You’re 100% relying on your computer operating system and any installed firewall software (which is usually pretty cruddy) to protect you from a veritable army of cyber criminals.

In the following diagram we see a home network with a router installed:

Even if you have no other devices to put on the network, no laptop, no tablet, no Chromecast, no game console, that router is still a valuable and important element of your network. In addition to providing multi-device routing, routers also include a firewall component that is significantly more sophisticated and stable than the firewall included in Windows (or third-party options).

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You could put the most out-of-date computer, riddled with security vulnerabilities, open ports, and easily exploited code behind a modern router and the router’s firewall would stop any attempt at probing the at-risk computer before they posed any threat.

Given that you can pick up a perfectly respectable router for $25 or so, and that your typical router consumes a tiny amount of power (barely more than a bright nightlight), it makes very little sense to not pick one up. Not only will you immediately enjoy improved security but you’ll be ready to add devices to your network without any headaches later.


Have a pressing tech question? Shoot us an email at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/5/14

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