If you’re not what the internet would call tech-savvy, you’re probably cringing and motivating yourself. Why? Because on a normal day, you certainly wouldn’t want to be hearing about custom firmware for your router, and no one can hold that against you. However, the concept is far easy and closer to you than you know. Huawei, for instance, has been making headlines these past few weeks, and the one important thing you may have gathered is that your brand-new Huawei P30 (the current flagship smartphone) won’t be getting any support from Google in the next couple of months. Well, that’s where custom firmware comes in.
Custom Firmware or Not? What’s the Hype?
The Huawei example may be a bit overkill, but it does lay down the foundation for scenarios where custom firmware could be a deal breaker. Ideally, custom firmware gives you access to some features that you wouldn’t easily get from your device, and yes, your router may be capable of supporting custom firmware. Why? You ask. Well, think of your router just like your iPhone XS with an IP68 rating. Apple promises you it can survive 6.5 ft under water for 30 minutes, but what if you want to go 10 ft for just 5 minutes? Will it break? Long story short, it is highly unlikely.
Your router is a tech marvel in itself. Most of the ratings and specifications written on its box are on the lower end of the scale, and this means it can go to much greater heights than you think. Naturally, you cannot go to these heights when you are depending on the stock firmware because that’s usually the first layer that prevents you from messing up your device.
Only custom firmware lets you do that, and in the case of routers, some of the potential benefits to expect include:
- Increased speeds
- Increased control
- Improved flexibility
- The Shortcomings of OEM Firmware
“Disadvantages” is such a strong word to be tied down to stock firmware or Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) firmware mainly because it highlights it in a negative way. That’s why labeling it as “shortcomings” makes more sense. Below are some of them.
Modern routers are able to control bandwidth automatically, but they rely on a set of algorithms that dictate what is “best” for you. In as much as computers have gotten smarter over the decades, you’d still be better off controlling your bandwidth in other ways, and Quality-of-Service can let you do that, but most router firmware lack this.
Unavailability of Bandwidth Consumption Tracking
We’ll be honest here too. Not all routers lack this feature. Modern ones do have them and they do a good job of telling you how much bandwidth you’ve consumed over a specific period of time so that you don’t exceed your quota. However, a good number of routers lack this feature too, and manufacturers are too lazy to release a new firmware.
Remember the iPhone XS water-resistance inference? Your routers are also capable of going the extra mile, but the stock firmware won’t let you do that because most people wouldn’t know how far to go. The short coverage radius you get from your router might simply be because the OEM firmware set a predefined limit.
Only a Spoonful of Security Features
Routers receive updates in a rather sluggish way when compared to smartphones and PCs, but they are the ones that relay all your information to the cloud. Bear in mind that hackers are also looking for ways of stealing your information.
The Benefits of Custom Firmware for Your Router
Custom firmware addresses all the shortcomings of your router’s OEM firmware and gives you much more than you had asked for. Some of the benefits include:
Optimization of Select Features
Whereas OEM firmware takes care of optimization from a general viewpoint, custom firmware lets you narrow down to the very intricate features and optimize them for your own needs.
Capability of Port Mapping
Custom firmware equally lets you configure a device in such a way that only certain external devices can be able to “see” what you’ve allowed them to see. OEM firmware, on the other hand, works by hiding your Local Area Network (LAN). It does increase security, but it locks you out of very many things as well.
Rather than spending extra bucks on a repeater to boost your coverage, custom firmware unleashes your router’s full potential. This allows you to cover a larger area without breaking a sweat.
You also get to keep everyone connected to your router happy thanks to the superior bandwidth optimization that custom firmware lets you have. You will be able to give users the bandwidth that they need so that bandwidth-hungry devices can be allocated more.
Improved LAN Security
Security, in general, is better when you have custom firmware installed on your router. Not only is it because of the fact that custom firmware gets updated much often than OEM firmware, but because it focuses on the small features like LAN security that manufacturers didn’t go too deep to consider.
Battle of The Custom Firmware: DD-WRT vs OpenWRT vs Tomato
Now that we’ve grasped what custom firmware is and how you’d benefit from it, a new challenge presents itself: Which custom firmware should I install on my router? There are a handful of considerations to be made, but we’ll start with the basics. First off, there are three main and popular third-party firmware on the web:
While they do help you achieve most of the features that were discussed earlier, the processes are different, and they all have their own perks and disadvantages. This means that you have to carefully select the one that meets your needs adequately.
DD-WRT happens to be the most popular custom firmware of the three that have been mentioned so far. If you’re wondering what the letters stand for, you’d be surprised to know how far-fetched the name is. DD was coined from German license plates for automobiles from Dresden where the developers resided. WRT, on the other hand, came from the Linksys WRT54G model which was the first router to receive DD-WRT.
As it is the godfather of custom router firmware, its reputation online is quite strong especially with regard to:
Ease of installation and operation
Number of features
Despite this, it does not support as many routers as the other two, and that may be a bummer for people who already own routers that they wish to re-configure. However, it is worth mentioning that it does have a decent user interface especially when we compare the rest.
- It is one of the easiest custom router firmware to install and even configure. This makes it an excellent choice for newbies
- It has a Wake-on-LAN feature that allows your devices to be “woken up” from a remote location
- It is stable, thanks to the many years of development that went towards the project
- It comes packed with a comprehensive QoS
- It allows you to configure Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) with ease
- Its access control features are slightly more advanced than what you would ordinarily get from stock firmware
- It has a powerful firewall which means your connections are highly secure (when you implement other security features)
- While it has a nice UI, users that are not adept with router firmware may find it a bit challenging to use
- Not so many routers support it
How to Flash DD-WRT Firmware on a Router
- Find and download the correct DD-WRT firmware for your router
- While your router is powered on, type your router’s IP address on your web browser’s address bar (If you did not change the default setting, this should either be 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1)
- Login to your router using the credentials you were given. You can check beneath the router for the login details if you did not change anything.
- Navigate to the Advanced Settings tab and find a section touching on uploading firmware. Once you’ve found it, upload the file you downloaded from step 1 and then upload the firmware.
- Give the router some time to upload and install the firmware then restart it.
Note that these are the general steps since most router interfaces are different.
Ideal DD-WRT Router – NETGEAR Nighthawk R7000
While you’re here, it is worth mentioning at least one router that will bode well with the DD-WRT firmware. NETGEAR’s Nighthawk R7000 is one such router. It comes packed with all the essential features that will give you the most with a custom firmware. They include:
- A 1GHz dual-core processor
- Dynamic QoS for bandwidth prioritization
- Sync feature (great for Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant)
Tomato is more ideal for the kind of person who doesn’t need to have control over all the fancy features that both OpenWRT and DD-WRT have to offer. This makes it the easiest to operate and the easiest to configure too. However, that does not mean that it has crappy features. The advanced firewall features it has ensure your network stays secure. It equally boasts with a few other features such as P2P and the ability to run custom scripts on it.
- Super easy to setup and operate
- It has few bugs
- It has a real-time monitoring feature that let’s you know what is happening to your router at any specific time
- It has options for configuration of QoS and VPN
- It isn’t supported on many popular routers
- It lacks many customization features that are common with both OpenWRT and DD-WRT
How to Flash Tomato Firmware on a Router
The process for flashing the Tomato firmware on a router is ideally similar to that of OpenWRT and DD-WRT. However, Tomato has a neat platform where you can find and download the correct firmware for your router directly from their website. It also provides a link to a detailed flashing guide for each.
Ideal Tomato Router – ASUS RT-N18U
It might not be as fast as the Nighthawk R7000, but we featured it mainly to show you that you don’t always need a high-end router for you to enjoy the benefits of custom firmware. The RT-N18U packs a 256MB RAM along with 128MB of flash storage. It has an 800MHz Cortex A9 processor that is just enough for a fast and reliable performance. Collectively, its three adjustable antennas give you a Wi-Fi speed of about 600Mbps which is still faster than wireless N. You also get five gigabit LAN ports with Turbo NAT technology for faster internet performance. This makes it ideal as a mid-range gaming router.
Coming in from DD-WRT, many people would say that OpenWRT is rather harsh compared because its interface is basic This is a bit odd especially when you consider the fact that OpenWRT was released almost around the same time that DD-WRT was released (15 years ago). This instantly pushes OpenWRT from a free-for-all to an “ideal-for-the-tech-savvy”. If you thought navigation was the only thing that would be challenging, you would be partly disappointed to know that even configuring some elements is not in plain black and white. However, since OpenWRT is the older one of the 3, it has done a good job of ironing out known issues which has increased its stability. While we’ve mentioned that its UI can be a bit challenging, it would be worth mentioning that its current outlook is a big improvement from what it was before because it once lacked a Graphical User Interface (GUI).
- It supports a wide variety of routers thus squashing the DD-WRT firmware
- It is the perfect firmware for advanced users who would want to squeeze every feature out of their routers
- It is one of the most stable custom firmware on the web because of how long it has been around. It equally gets regular updates because of the large number of users that contribute towards it
- It has plenty of customization features. The inclusion of a command-line interface is a dead giveaway
- It supports QoS and some not-so-common VPN features
- It is not beginner-friendly
- It is difficult to navigate because of its UI
- Configuration can take time because of the many features it comes packed with
How to Flash OpenWRT Firmware on a Router
Just as with the DD-WRT procedure, this too is a generic instruction on how to go about flashing your router with this custom firmware. You should look up the exact procedure for your router.
- Search for and download the correct firmware for your particular router
- While the router is powered on and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal, go to your PC and type in 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.0.1 on you web browser’s address bar. Note that your PC has to be connected to your router’s Wi-Fi network
- Login to the router using the default logins if you hadn’t changed them
- Navigate to the Advanced Settings section and locate where you can upgrade your current firmware
- Upload the file you had downloaded earlier then reboot your router after the process is complete
Ideal OpenWRT Router – Turris Omnia
Turris Omnia is one of the many routers that perfectly complements the OpenWRT firmware. This is because it comes with a powerful ARM dual-core CPU running at a frequency of 1.6GHz and either 1GB or 2GB of RAM. Since you’d probably be greeted with Omnia’s UI first, you will find it easy to navigate to the Advanced Settings section where you can upload the OpenWRT firmware for your router. Apart from having impressive hardware specifications, it also has some great security features such as automatic security updates and default security configurations that keep you and your network safe from malware.
DD-WRT vs Tomato
DD-WRT may be older than Tomato, but Tomato outperforms DD-WRT in a number of areas. For one, you get better Open VPN support with Tomato compared to DD-WRT, and this means that you can push anonymity to new heights with Tomato as your custom firmware. As Tomato lets you easily connect to VPNs much easily, it wins the battle when it comes to VPN. Tomato also has a neat peer-to-peer feature that works well with most torrent clients like BitTorrent. It equally ranks better in UI. So, if ease of use is a big thing for you, you might want to go with Tomato.
Tomato easily wins the battle when it’s a matter of DD-WRT vs Tomato, and not just because it gives you more features but because it serves your needs better in the modern-day world. Tomato’s real-time bandwidth monitoring, for instance, lets you record your bandwidth usage on either an hourly basis, weekly basis, or monthly basis. In addition, because its VPN features are far superior, you can use your Wi-Fi router in a dual setup. This means you can have two network connections in your home, one that is directly from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and another one from your VPN. However, due to popularity of DD-WRT over Tomato, you are more likely to find more support for DD-WRT than Tomato.
DD-WRT vs OpenWRT
DD-WRT and OpenWRT seem like two siblings with almost equal rights, and this makes things a bit challenging. This is especially true when you consider the fact that both of them have been around for almost the same number of years. The most significant difference between the two top contenders lies in how tech-savvy you are and how deep you want to go with your configurations. OpenWRT, for example, takes the lead because:
It’s widely supported by many routers
It’s QoS and superior VPN settings are in most cases unmatched
You get more control over your router with OpenWRT
It gets updated more frequently compared to DD-WRT
Its GUI interface may not be the best in the market, but it does allow for easy configuration
Beyond its struggle for a user-friendly UI, OpenWRT is the preferable choice for the tech savvy who don’t mind getting their hands dirty with a command-line interface. One thing that people don’t realize is that with most of the emphasis being put on the functionality of the firmware, it really doesn’t matter if the UI is pleasant to your eyes or not. In fact, you’d be happy to know that since OpenWRT emphasizes the command-line interface, it makes it lighter in size and less resource-intensive.
Tomato vs OpenWRT
Determining which of these two is the winner also isn’t easy because they are tuned for two different types of users. For one, OpenWRT may be a bit more technical than Tomato, and this makes it favored more by tech-savvy users. However, when we consider Tomato’s VPN features, we find that users who are keen on their privacy would find it more ideal. Of course, this is not to say that OpenWRT’s VPN features are not up to par, but it only indicates that the choice will boil down to what’s important to you as a user. While deciding on these two, you also need to remember that not all routers offer support for both Tomato and OpenWRT.
Thus, before purchasing your router, you’d be wise to find out exactly which one will allow you to run the custom firmware of choice. However, if UI and ease of use is anything to go by, most users would probably go for Tomato here. This is because OpenWRT’s love for command-lines might not be something that excites everyone equally.
Best Overall Router Firmware
The best firmware will depend on your specific needs as a user, but there are certain features that you should definitely look for. With regards to user interface, DD-WRT and Tomato are in the lead. For DD-WRT, this may be because it has forever been the godfather of custom router firmware. Tomato, on the other hand, has proven to be a perfect balance between great UI and functionality, and this is something you shouldn’t take lightly. However, since it is slightly archaic, the chances that your new router supports DD-WRT may be minimal. OpenWRT may come in to the rescue, but it also comes with a command-line interface. It’s not such a bad thing, but if that scares you, then you might want to go for Tomato.
Conclusion and Word of Caution
As you might now know, there are tons of things to consider before you purchase your router and especially if you need to install a custom firmware on the router. In all honesty, DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato are all great, but you would have to weigh in what’s important to you before settling for one particular firmware. Another thing that you might not have known is that when you start dealing with custom firmware, your router’s warranty will also be at risk. Why? Because manufacturers wouldn’t want you complaining about your router when you went ahead and installed custom firmware then applied the wrong settings. This can get pretty scary if you are totally clueless when it comes to custom firmware installation. Luckily, there exist pre-configured flashed routers that could be ideal for you. They’ll save you a lot of time and have you enjoying all the features of custom firmware without having to do all the work yourself. They are thus great for newbies, but not just any kind of newbie since you still need to know which custom firmware is installed in the router and how it benefits you.