Hubs, switches, routers, and access points are all used to connect computers together on a network, but each of them has different capabilities.

Hubs

Hubs enable computers on a network to communicate. Each computer plugs into the hub with an Ethernet cable, and information sent from one computer to another passes through the hub. A hub can't identify the source or intended destination of the information it receives, so it sends the information to all of the computers connected to it, including the one that sent it. A hub can send or receive information, but it can't do both at the same time. This makes hubs slower than switches. Hubs are the least complex and the least expensive of these devices.

Illustration of a network with a hub
Network with a hub

Switches

Switches work the same way as hubs, but they can identify the intended destination of the information that they receive, so they send that information to only the computers that are supposed to receive it. Switches can send and receive information at the same time, so they can send information faster than hubs can. If your home network has four or more computers, or you want to use your network for activities that require passing a lot of information between computers (such as playing network games or sharing music), you should probably use a switch instead of a hub. Switches cost a little more than hubs.

Routers

Routers enable computers to communicate and they can pass information between two networks—such as between your home network and the Internet. This capability to direct network traffic is what gives the router its name. Routers can be wired (using Ethernet cables) or wireless. If you just want to connect your computers, hubs and switches work well; however, if you want to give all of your computers access to the Internet using one modem, use a router or a modem with a built-in router. Routers also typically provide built-in security, such as a firewall. Routers are more expensive than hubs and switches.

Illustration of a network with a wired router
Network with a wired router

Access points

Access points (also called base stations) provide wireless access to a wired Ethernet network. An access point plugs into a hub, switch, or wired router and sends out wireless signals. This enables computers and devices to connect to a wired network wirelessly. Access points act a lot like cellular phone towers: you can move from one location to another and continue to have wireless access to a network. When you connect to the Internet wirelessly using a public wireless network in an airport, coffee shop, or hotel, you are usually connecting through an access point. If you want to connect your computers wirelessly and you have a router that provides wireless capability, you don't need an access point. Access points don't have built-in technology for sharing Internet connections. To share an Internet connection, you must plug an access point into a router or a modem with a built-in router.

Illustration of a network with a wired router and access point
Network with a wired router and access point