Choosing a custom firmware for your router can be daunting. There are several options that are recommended all over the Internet, and the documentation on the actual process of installing the firmware tends to be sparse. Throw in the terms and acronyms that get tossed around, and before long, you’re happy to stick with your router’s stock firmware.
It doesn’t need to be that difficult. 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’ll need to consider which features you need for your network and whether your router is even supported by the firmware. Those should be the most important factors you take into account when making your choice.
DD-WRT is easily the biggest player when it comes to open-source router firmware. They’ve been around for long enough to establish themselves, and they support more routers than anyone else, including lower-priced routers. There are even people selling routers with DD-WRT already flashed on them. It’s pretty safe to say that flashing DD-WRT on most routers is a good idea.
DD-WRT is a complete toolkit. It comes with nearly everything you could want in a router as well as a whole lot more that you’ll probably never even look at. That’s simultaneously one of DD-WRT’s biggest strengths and weaknesses. For people looking for maximum control, DD-WRT’s plethora of options is a welcome breath of fresh air. If you’re looking for simple and direct, though, you’re going to have a hard time navigating DD-WRT.
A few extra features DD-WRT supports include Wake on LAN for remote PC access and QoS (quality of service) built in. The latter helps better manage 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 community builds that are actively supported in the DD-WRT forums.
- Supports tons of routers
- Huge community
- Built-in OpenVPN support
- QoS support
- Robust array of options
- Can be overwhelming for new users
- Can be hard to find new versions for some routers
Tomato is easily the most streamlined and user-friendly of the firmware on this list. Tomato’s been around for a while, and it’s earned a reputation for being a direct and no-nonsense firmware that gets you the features you want and need without a ton of extra junk. It’s also earned a reputation for speeding up routers.
More recently, the AdvancedTomato project has taken the classic Tomato firmware by Shibby and created a sleek and modern GUI that allows real-time monitoring of vital stats through animated graphs. The AdvancedTomato interface is one of its best selling points, making network management simpler and providing a more visually pleasing experience.
Tomato doesn’t support as many routers as its competitors, and up until the AdvancedTomato project, development was a bit scattered. If your router is supported, it might be exactly the option you’re looking for, but you’ll certainly need to check first.
- Modern interface
- Fast speeds
- Minimal footprint
- Built-in OpenVPN
- Real-time monitoring
- Smaller community
- Limited router support
OpenWRT is the oldest open-source router firmware project. It’s the precursor to both DD-WRT and Tomato, and it has earned its reputation as a powerful choice with a ton of options. OpenWRT, as it is now, is actually a merger of the classic 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 firmware are based on Linux, OpenWRT is the most like a traditional distribution.
That openness comes at a cost, though. There are plenty of routers that OpenWRT simply can’t fully support because they require non-free drivers to run. The project’s hardware table contains more than a few entries with partial support and no functional Wi-Fi thanks to this.
OpenWRT offers even more fine-grained control than DD-WRT, but that also comes at the price of simplicity. This firmware requires some knowledge to use properly and quite a bit more to make it worthwhile. OpenWRT is best for more technical people who know exactly what they want.
- Tons of options
- Built-in OpenVPN
- QoS Support
- Ability to dig into lower levels
- Not as user friendly
- More time to get running
- Supports fewer routers
Considering Other Options
For most users, one of the above router firmware options is fine. However, you might be looking for something more specific, such as something for an older router or a certain feature. If so, you may want to consider one of the following firmware:
- Gargoyle – It’s based on OpenWRT and offers both a GUI and a command line interface. It’s designed mainly for older routers with Atheros and Broadcom-based chipsets. You’ll also find a built-in VPN, QoS, adblocker, Tor client, and network file sharing capabilities.
- Commotion Wireless – If you want to create your own mesh network using existing routers, give this router firmware a try. It’s based on OpenWRT as well, giving you many of the same benefits but with mesh networking built-in.
- HyperWRT – This is designed specifically for Linksys WRT54G and WRT54GS routers. It gives a power boost while still maintaining much of the original firmware.
- Sabai OS – This router firmware is based on Tomato and comes pre-flashed on Sabai’s VPN routers. It includes all the major features, such as QoS, DMZ, port forwarding, bridging, and more. It can be one of the easier firmware to manage but only on certain routers.
Before you choose any firmware, make sure it’s compatible with your current router. Also, make a note of the firmware you currently have so you can restore it if something doesn’t work out the way you want.
Overall, DD-WRT is the best choice for compatibility and features. However, Tomato and OpenWRT are still worth using, especially with easier-to-use interfaces and setup.
Whichever one you choose, you’re more than likely to see a noticeable improvement over your router’s stock firmware. You’ll also get the added functions, like OpenVPN client support, that will enable you to do more with your network.
As an added bonus, all of these tend to be more secure than manufacturer firmware and receive more regular updates, should you choose to install them. Of course, when installing custom firmware, be sure to carefully follow the instructions from the developers to reduce the risk of damaging your router.
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