Networking compare

Review: Free DD-WRT network router firmware

Most network routers have fairly basic firmware that limits the hardware's full potential. You can change that.

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In most situations, a network router's normal purpose is to facilitate in connecting computers together to form a network, either for internal use or for granting access to the World Wide Web. Admittedly, if you actually want to do anything interesting with the hardware, most routers have fairly basic firmware that limits the hardware's full potential.

I know this first hand, as I picked up an ASUS RT-N12 router from a good friend of mine recently to replace my underwhelming Belkin branded one. Although ASUS hardware is mostly of high quality, the firmware felt rather raw and unpolished. With that in mind, I did some research online and found that custom router firmware was available and I decided to give it a try.

DD-WRT

Product Information

Eventually, I settled on DD-WRT, which is quite honestly one of the best router firmware packages I've ever used. For those who are unfamiliar with it, DD-WRT can be flashed on any compatible router in order to grant the user extra functionality, which hardware manufacturers seem reluctant to include in stock software. Once you flash your router, you probably won't want to go back. You quite literally get everything but the kitchen sink at your fingertips.

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DD-WRT is filled with numerous tweaks and options

For an idea of what DD-WRT can do for you, I will highlight some of my favorite features included with the firmware.

If you wanted to set up an OpenVPN gateway for all systems that connect through the router, you can add your VPN cert and private key, flip a few switches to determine the encryption and tunnel type, and voila! Every computer that connects to the router will pass right into the VPN. No client end VPN software is necessary.

I also like how DD-WRT is extremely verbose on stats, showing you total inbound and outbound traffic to date, as well as router performance information, including free memory and CPU activity. Having access to this panel will give you insights into what kind of traffic you are dealing with and if you need additional hardware down the road.

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An example of some of the available router stats

Finally, DD-WRT just seems to improve network performance by a decent margin. For instance, after switching the firmware from stock to custom, surfing web pages and downloads seemed a bit snappier than before. Not to mention, I could be more discriminatory of what protocols (i.e. Bittorrent) could do what it needed to do with the network to improve balance.

Installing takes some research

Now, when it comes to getting DD-WRT installed to the router, there really is no one-size-fits-all method, as hardware from different manufacturers is handled on a case by case basis. There are some routers that are unable to be flashed too, so if you are shopping around for a new router, it would be advisable to refer to the DD-WRT hardware compatibility database first before committing to a purchase.

Fortunately, for my router, installation was as simple as dropping into the firmware upgrade menu, selecting the custom-tailored ROM file for my hardware make and model, and then uploading it over the network. After a several minute upload process, followed by a mandatory router reboot, I was up and running in DD-WRT. In the unfortunate event of an endless reboot or other strange issue that might arise in the process of flashing, I also have the option to boot into the router's low-level recovery mode in order to roll back to the stock firmware and try again.

With all this interest surrounding router modifications, it goes without saying that flashing with un-official custom firmware could invalidate your warranty coverage and cause other problems. If this all sounds too risky, companies like Buffalo actually offer routers with DD-WRT firmware already flashed and ready to go with full warranty coverage. This way, you won't have to worry about accidentally bricking any hardware if you don't feel adventurous.

DD-WRT is available to everyone as freeware under the GNU GPLv2 license. So long as your router make, model, and revision are all listed, you should be good to go. One thing to note: if you have less than 8MB of flash storage space on your router, you won't be able to take advantage of every feature available. Therefore, you will need to choose the mini firmware "edition" that best suits your needs for the hardware.

About

An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Cus...

6 comments
badpuppyjock
badpuppyjock

I flashed my Netgear router with dd-wrt, and, although I'm pretty fluent in speaking and dealing with computer equipment, I nonetheless found a lot of the configuration options to be over my head.  And since I couldn't be sure if I had set it up properly, I gave it up.  Is there a good site to reference appropriate configuration options for this firmware?

cheryloftexas
cheryloftexas

I've used dd-wrt for years.  I even got one of the Buffalo routers that had it installed.  I'm surprised more people don't use it.  

rjanke
rjanke

I've been using DD-WRT v24-sp2 (VPN Edition) on my Linksys WRT150N router for years.  It may be small and only have 16MB, but with this firmware it has never let me down.  If I ever need to upgrade or replace my router, this firmware will be installed as soon as the hardware comes out of the box.

whattheheckIT
whattheheckIT

DD-WRT is an excellent firmware. I have installed it for some of my friends and family. Although for Asus models, especially the RT-N16 and the RT-N66U, TomatoUSB shibby is definitely a better option. DD-WRT has major dual band stability issues in newer routers especially the RT-N66U which I think is the best Wireless-N device out there.

The issue for newer users with DD-WRT is finding the right build as the recommendations of what build to use, how to find them, and making sure they properly flash it without bricking it happens can be frustrating. I helped some friends but for others I pointed them at http://www.flashrouters.com/ which offers top end routers with DD-WRT and Tomato already installed and tech support. 

Open source firmware is definitely a great feature set to open up and really allows you better performance for routers but definitely do your research before proceeding or it can lead to more headaches that its worth.


brian
brian

I use the ASUS wireless routers for my company, so we stick 40 or more devices on each unit.  With that many though, I found DD-WRT to act funny and occasionally crash.  Then I stumbled upon Shibby's version of Tomato, and it seems pretty solid.

What I would really like over either of these is OpenWRT, because I feel it is extremely well written, with plug in modules that you can install for just about anything you can imagine (such as turning your router into an Asterisk phone server!).  But OpenWRT doesn't support most of the chipsets in the ASUS wireless routers yet.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin moderator

Is the default firmware on your router adequate for your needs? Have you looked into changing it?