Choosing custom firmware for your router can be daunting. Several options are recommended on the internet, and the documentation on the actual firmware installation process tends to be sparse. Add the scrambling terms and acronyms, and before long, you’ll be happy to stick with your router’s stock firmware.
It doesn’t have to be that hard. Each of the three major open source firmware – DD-WRT, Tomato, and OpenWRT – has its own strengths and weaknesses that make it ideal for one situation or another. You will need to determine what features you need for your network and if your router is even supported by firmware. These should be the most important factors to consider when making your choice.
DD-WRT is by far the biggest player in open source router firmware. They’ve been around long enough to establish themselves, and they support more routers than anyone, including cheaper routers. There is even people selling routers with DD-WRT already flashed on them. It’s pretty safe to say that DD-WRT flash on most routers is a good idea.
DD-WRT is a comprehensive toolkit. It comes with almost everything you could possibly want in a router as well as a lot more that you probably will never even look at. This is simultaneously one of DD-WRT’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. For those looking for maximum control, the DD-WRT’s plethora of options is a welcome breath of fresh air. If you’re looking for simple, straightforward language, you’ll have a hard time navigating DD-WRT.
Some additional features supported by DD-WRT include Wake on LAN for remote PC access and built-in QoS (Quality of Service). The latter allows better management of network traffic.
DD-WRT supports more routers than anyone else. As a result, they also have the largest community, so finding support for DD-WRT tends to be easier than other custom router firmware. Even routers that aren’t officially supported tend to get actively supported community versions in the DD-WRT forums.
- Supports tons of routers
- Huge community
- Built-in OpenVPN support
- Support for quality of service
- Wide range of options
- Can be overwhelming for new users
- May be difficult to find new versions for some routers
Tomato is by far the simplest and most user-friendly firmware on this list. Tomato has been around for a while, and it has a reputation for being straightforward, convenient firmware that gives you the features you want and need without a ton of extra junk. It has also gained a reputation for speeding up routers.
More recently, the AdvancedTomato project took the classic Tomato firmware from Shibby and created a sleek and modern graphical interface that allows real-time monitoring of vital statistics via animated graphics. The AdvancedTomato interface is one of its best selling points, simplifying network management and providing a more visually pleasing experience.
Tomato doesn’t support as many routers as its competitors, and until the AdvancedTomato project, development was a bit scattered. If your router is supported, this might be exactly the option you’re looking for, but you’ll definitely need to check first.
- Modern interface
- Fast speeds
- Minimum footprint
- Integrated OpenVPN
- Real-time monitoring
- Small community
- Limited router support
OpenWRT is the oldest open source router firmware project. It’s the forerunner of both DD-WRT and tomato, and it has earned its reputation as a potent choice with a ton of options. OpenWRT, as it is now, is actually a fusion of the classics OpenWRT and LEDE.
OpenWRT might be the best option for free software enthusiasts. It’s the only one on this list that doesn’t include non-free binary blobs. While all three of these firmwares are based on Linux, OpenWRT most closely resembles a traditional distribution.
However, this openness comes at a cost. There are many routers that OpenWRT simply cannot support because they require nonfree drivers to function. The project’s hardware table contains more than a few entries with partial support and no working Wi-Fi due to it.
OpenWRT offers even finer control than DD-WRT, but it also comes at the cost of simplicity. This firmware requires some knowledge to be used properly and a little more to be worth it. OpenWRT is best for more technical people who know exactly what they want.
- Tons of options
- Integrated OpenVPN
- Support for quality of service
- Ability to dig in lower levels
- Not as user-friendly
- More time to run
- Supports fewer routers
Consider other options
For most users, one of the router firmware options above is fine. However, you might be looking for something more specific, like something for an old router or a certain feature. If so, you may want to consider one of the following firmware:
- Gargoyle – It is based on OpenWRT and offers both a graphical interface and a command line interface. It is primarily designed for older routers with Atheros and Broadcom chipsets. You’ll also find a built-in VPN, QoS, ad blocker, Tor client, and network file sharing capabilities.
- Wireless concussion – If you want to create your own mesh network using existing routers, try this router firmware. It’s also based on OpenWRT, giving you many of the same benefits, but with a built-in mesh network.
- HyperWRT – This is specially designed for Linksys WRT54G and WRT54GS routers. It gives a power boost while keeping much of the original firmware.
- Sabai operating system – This router firmware is based on Tomato and is pre-flashed on Sabai VPN routers. It includes all the main features, such as QoS, DMZ, port forwarding, bridging, etc. It can be one of the more manageable firmware, but only on certain routers.
Before choosing a firmware, make sure it is compatible with your current router. Also make a note of what firmware you currently have so that you can roll it back if something doesn’t work the way you want it to.
Overall, DD-WRT is the best choice for compatibility and functionality. However, Tomato and OpenWRT are still worth using, especially with easier to use interfaces and configuration.
Whichever one you choose, you’ll likely see a noticeable improvement over your router’s stock firmware. You will also get additional features, such as support for the OpenVPN client, which will allow you to do more with your network.
As a bonus, all of these tend to be more secure than the manufacturer’s firmware and receive more regular updates, should you choose to install them. Of course, when installing custom firmware, be sure to follow the developers’ instructions carefully to reduce the risk of damaging your router.
Setting up a router for the first time? Learn how to do it, including updating the firmware. If you bought a new router, find out what you can do with your old one.
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