LAST UPDATE: March 2016
High performing routers have several perks and configuration options often left out from standard consumer grade models. The only trouble is the high cost attached to them, some going as high as thousands of dollars, and that’s to be expected for corporate grade security firewalls and all. However, when compared to consumer grade routers, the difference is astonishingly disappointing. For many years, there were lots of custom firmware (e.g. Lede or Gargoyle) developed for popular home routers, such as D-Link, Linksys, Netgear and even ASUS, often left much to desire.
From buggy features, limited options, and even slow performance, the downsides are varied from one model to another. Very importantly, routers lack the possibility of using OpenVPN protocols, in order to setup VPN server or client services directly from the network router. Additionally, it can be argued that there is no such thing as secure firmware from any network router maker. Even Juniper has admitted having a backdoor vulnerability in their firewalls for years. In 2014, a security flaw in ASUS models allowed attackers to access the devices from anywhere online, while more recently, the Wi-Fi security was also compromised. The list goes on, and this is where open-source firmware shines.
The way to drastically improve your router, is by installing one of the third-party open source firmware options available. These alternatives can instantly improve performance, and unlock a multitude of features previously unavailable, instantly turning your cheap router into a powerhouse. There are way too many features and capabilities gained to list them all, but the main ones range from bandwidth monitoring, advanced QoS, Wi-Fi power and performance boost, and built-in OpenVPN clients.
But installing different firmware on your router, referred to as ‘flashing firmware’ is not always easily done, and picking the right firmware for your needs, router and budget should all be assessed first.
There’s always new developments and updates that provide more options to consumers, so in order to help you choose the right option, let’s have a look at the most current firmware developments, as well as pre-configured options available for those who feel way over their heads when it comes to flashing their own routers.
Many people don’t feel tech-savvy enough to start tinkering and flashing firmware, but all popular options have rich step by step tutorial guides and compatibility lists to facilitate the process. But there are some very important things to know before you even start. Flashing firmware or installing different software to run your router is usually against the manufacturer’s terms of service, and will automatically void any support/warranty on the hardware. There is also always the risk of damaging the router in an irreversible manner, especially if you don’t follow the steps correctly.
With that said, I am not suggesting that you give up, if you have a rather inexpensive router at home to play around with, it can be a fun project, and learning experience, so don’t be scared to try.
What if flashing firmware on your router is really not for you?
There’s a few options to consider. The first one being professionally pre-configured routers with the firmware of your choice.
FlashRouters offers a huge selection of pre-configured routers running DD-WRT or Tomato, and optional specialized options such as dual router setups, wireless extenders, and even the option to add pre-paid, pre-configured VPN services! Apple Airport lovers rejoice, they even offer specialized dual-router setups to link with your Airport Extreme. Their team of pros configure and test your router, as well as provide stellar after-sale support, to help you get going every step of the way.
RouterSource also offer a variety of flashed routers, but in this case, they offer DD-WRT or Sabai OS, which is a fairly new firmware developed by Sabai Technology. The Sabai OS was specifically designed for consumer VPN setups, which means its’ features are entirely designed around VPN use, facilitating the whole process, while aiming for the best possible speeds. There are very little advanced options when compared to DD-WRT or Tomato. Another great choice for quality and service, you won’t be left disappointed.
And finally, if you decide to go with DD-WRT – Buffalo now offers 3 DD-WRT Routers. They provide the simplest solution of all, and best value for your money, coming in at a comparable cost of traditional routers with similar specs. The second-gen models now offer better performance and stability. With a 3 year warranty, Buffalo really makes it hard to pass by these DD-WRT configured routers.
Some of Asus’s latest routers have also upgraded to high performance firmware based off DD-WRT called Asuswrt. It is essentially a stripped down version in terms of features and functionality, but a great boost on performance, while still allowing you to tweak and configure the most important details.
What firmware is the best choice for you?
DD-WRT was known as the most feature rich firmware of them all until Openwrt came along. Since this particular Linux based firmware has been in development for several years, stability is not usually a problem, but having a multitude of configuration options that are often left unused does come at a price. Compared to Tomato, DD-WRT is reported to have more bugs. Additionally, the interface, being cluttered with options, can be intimidating and harder to navigate. Overall, it provides immense improvement to consumer routers, turning them into a network geek’s dream. In addition to having the most options, DD-WRT is also the most compatible of the bunch. It should also be noted that DD-WRT is not the easiest to flash to, and can sometimes become frustrating for beginners. Below I included links to our DD-WRT guides to help navigate the waters. To find out if you can install in on your network device, note down the proper model number of your router and check compatibility using their updated master list here.
- Offers the a multitude features and configurations.
- Compatible with more routers than any other third-party firmware.
- Bit more difficult to Setup. Advanced features make it harder to use.
- Stability can fluctuate, multiple builds for various router makers and models.
Multiple DD-WRT builds exist, adding an additional layer of difficulty in making a choice! For those starting out, using the default version is perfectly fine. But, if you happen to be using an Asus router, the Asuswrt can also be upgraded to Asuswrt-merlin FW, ultimately a third-party enhanced version of Asus’s firmware, that fixed many known bugs while improving speed, performance and stability.
Tomato firmware is similar to DD-WRT,and also based off Linux, but opts for a better balance between performance and features, and does so very efficiently. Tomato has a simple, graphically rich interface, making it easy for even beginners to pickup. If your router is not supported by the DD-WRT firmware, your best alternative is undoubtedly Tomato. It might not be as featured rich as the DD-WRT firmware, but it will still open up the best config options required to supercharge your router. Tomato also offers certain capabilities not found on DD-WRT, specifically live ‘visual’ traffic monitoring, allowing easy visibility on inbound/outbound traffic in real-time. Being that its’ lighter in features, it is also often said to be more stable and offer better overall performance. If you’re a beginner, or simply want better firmware with no bells and whistles, Tomato probably still scores as the best option when available.
- Offers better stability and performance than DD-WRT.
- Unique features for real-time traffic monitoring, with graphic charts.
- Easiest to setup and use.
- Less features available than DD-WRT.
- Smaller router compatibility list.
Multiple Tomato builds also exist, and once again, picking the basic original firmware is a great choice, but lately, I have tested the Tomato Shibby build and can firmly stand by both performance and stability it offers. But once more, opting for the official build is fine.
OpenWRT is very different from the previous two router firmware options because rather than providing all the features in a single package, they provide an in-built platform where others can then build packages onto. It’s the latest open-source network router firmware of the bunch and at first I was reluctant to suggest it to beginners and even intermediate users, unless customizing your firmware was something that interested you. With that said, my latest revision of this article could not ignore how much OpenWRT has grown in the lat couple of years, and it was time to no longer ignore the comments below this post. OpenWRT has steadily become the most regularly updated and capable option of the bunch. Not only does it have more functionality made available at your fingertips, the performance is there and bugs are regularly patched, all while newly developed modules allow endless integration and growth in capabilities for many target specific tasks you may need along the way.
The open platform is also welcoming for the coding types and those that wish to have very custom functions built. If you’re looking to code your own network router firmware, this may be a good place to start, and at a minimum, you can connect with and meet other like-minded individuals.
Completely customizable, include or exclude packages to build firmware tailored to your needs. With time a multitude of add-ons has been made available to OpenWRT, including existing network software apps, allowing for full integration all in a single place.
Cons: Not always user-friendly, best reserved for software developers, network admins, or advanced users. With my latest revision, this is no longer entirely true. The platform has come a long way in making itself more accessible to all user levels.
So, you might still be asking yourself which one you should use, so I will try to finalize this guide by summarizing the three as simply but as accurately as possible, including Asuswrt options. On my first edition of this post, I was hesitant to favor one firmware option over all the others. Reason being that I actually do like them all without much fault, but more importantly because DD-WRT and Tomato are still both excellent choices. The truth is, any open-source firmware is better, safer, and way more secure than all the compromised stock options, and I rather highly suggest to flash and change your firmware, regardless which open-sourced option you choose.
I have used most of them (DD-WRT, Tomato and OpenWRT to be exact) for extended periods of time over various home and personal grade network routers I have owned over the years, but after having more time to spend on OpenWRT, I do feel a little more sold on crowning OpenWRT the best firmware platform of them all. But as advised, if you have a knack for Tomato or DD-WRT, they still make a good choice, and notably provide increased security to your network. I guess what I am saying is, above all the most important step is to change firmware in the first place.
The community feedback on this post also weighed in heavy on OpenWRT having become the better option of the three major players, with regular updates, and new modules and compatible ports of existing software solutions. I still stand by my statement that OpenWRT is the most advanced option, and will always make a better option for advanced network geeks, administrators and devs. Additionally, depending on how many advanced modules and features you wish to incorporate, you need to run a router with a good amount of RAM memory for optimal performance. Overall, it provides you a well rounded suite of functions and an OpenVPN protocol add-on that works wel. You can really target specific functions and tasks without cluttering the device with stuff you don’t need. Some home based users have insanely advanced server setups in their houses, and there is nothing OpenWRT cannot do with added modules. User accessibility and ease of use have also improved drastically, meaning that using OpenWRT should not be so difficult that you would shy away from it. Give it a shot, and you’ll probably be sold too.
- DD-WRT = Most options and features, and network techy’s dream – fun to play with and learn, and not too difficult to install.
- Tomato = Less features available, but still very rich in important options, and offers better stability, speed and overall performance. Often said to have better WiFi performance. Easy to install and easier to use than DD-WRT.
- OpenWRT = Most customizable with add-ons, opening up way more customizing and functions not available otherwise.
- Asuswrt = Asus developed firmware for their newer routers, originally based off Tomato. Note: Vulnerabilities have been found with ASUS routers, similar to all other stock firmware options out there, and I would now highly suggest to flash these routers.
- Asuswrt-merlin = Third-party version by merlin of Asuswrt. Improved version that focuses primarily on performance. Corrects many known bugs with Asuswrt’s stock firmware. *Only compatible with limited list of Asus models.*
To summarize them a final time;
- DD-WRT = Features
- Asuswrt-Merlin = Performance
- Tomato = Mix of both
- OpenWRT = All of the above
- Asuswrt = Not open source, and compromised, do not use.