This may come as a surprise, but your router has an operating system and software running on it. This is known as firmware, software designed for specific hardware.
And just like the operating system on your computer, you can change the software running on your router. Custom router firmware can be installed that delivers extra features not previously available on the device. This could be anything from running a paid hotspot to connecting via your VPN.
Keep reading to learn more about router software and discover what is the best router firmware.
Why Use Custom Router Firmware?
The first and main reason you might want to install alternative firmware is to add features. Often, extra features are possible on the consumer-grade hardware but not featured for various reasons.
It’s understandable—manufacturers want to keep the device simple and easy to configure. In most cases, they sell much more expensive hardware to people who want those features. Luckily for you, people have been working on ways to get the fancy software on this plain hardware!
Some features that alternative firmware offer are:
- QoS (Quality of Service) allows some types of traffic to take priority over others
- Wireless bridging
- Ability to turn into a hotspot
- Adding SNMP (monitoring protocol)
- Detailed diagnostic tools
But will your router work with custom software? And is it even something you should do?
Is Installing Custom Router Firmware Safe?
Installing custom firmware on your router delivers new features. But it’s not an option everyone should take.
If you are not comfortable with voiding warranties, installing new software on your router should be avoided.
Installing custom firmware will cancel the device warranty. If you have splashed out on a new $150 router, it might be safer to stick with the manufacturer’s firmware.
Otherwise, there is also a chance you might brick your router. This will render the device useless.
If you are still reading this, I’ll assume you are cool with that and are willing to roll up your sleeves.
Which Routers Will Work With Custom Router Software?
This question greatly depends on the make and model of your router. Typically, the devices from the most popular router manufacturers are targeted by firmware developers.
This is simply because more of them out in the wild than others. However, the chipsets which are the brains behind the routers are also used in other models. As such, you’ll sometimes find some unusual brands have custom router firmware available.
Whatever the case, you’re safest with models that have been tested with each alternative firmware.
Nevertheless, before proceeding, always remember that you should check with each firmware to see which models it supports.
Ready to learn more? Let’s move on to the different firmware that is available.
1. DD-WRT Firmware
DD-WRT is by and far the most well-known, distributed, and tested alternative firmware. It has been in development for several years now and is considered stable. It is easy to install from your firmware upgrade page and includes all the features listed above.
Once installed, you’ll find you’re able to do things with your router that simply weren’t possible before. Even if the features were included previously, you’ve upgraded to a firmware that is secure and reliable. Say goodbye to default router configuration vulnerabilities.
DD-WRT is free and available for a few routers—in fact probably more than any other custom router firmware.
You can check to see if your router is supported by visiting their router database.
Based on the respected Tomato firmware, Fresh Tomato is an improvement, based on DD-WRT. It’s easy to install, under active development, but isn’t as feature-rich. Fresh Tomato makes up for this by being user friendly and giving you advanced features like QoS and a shell.
However, Fresh Tomato is not available on as many routers as DD-WRT. Check their homepage to see if your router (and version number, also important) is listed as being compatible.
Like Fresh Tomato, Advanced Tomato is an improvement over the original Tomato firmware. If you’re looking for an improved UI, it’s time to move onto AdvancedTomato.
Featuring a flat, contemporary design, AdvancedTomato’s GUI is intuitive. This works to super-charge the underlying Tomato firmware, providing a strong alternative to DD-WRT.
The result is a router management experience that will completely change how you use your wireless router.
OpenWRT is known as the open source router firmware. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, they have built a platform that others can build packages onto. OpenWRT has a package management system that allows you to expand your router in any way you can think of.
Of course, you’ll need the knowledge and time to program it.
However, a firmware images are also available for downloading and installing on your router hardware.
OpenWRT itself does not have a GUI (Graphical User Interface) built in. Instead, X-WRT adds this functionality and includes the ability to monitor and manage your router remotely via the web interface.
If you want to run a hotspot, Chilifire is the firmware of choice. This professional firmware allows you to offer for-pay or free hotspot access from your consumer router.
The downside? They have a free version which supports limited methods of access and up to 10 users per month. If you want to offer more than that, or charge for access, they take a percentage of your revenue.
In return, you get a very professional firmware which will take the headache out of managing such an enterprise. Their firmware is available on many different routers, so check their website for full compatibility information.
Based on OpenWRT, Gargoyle is another firmware which adds bandwidth management quotas and network access rules to routers. It mostly supports TPLink devices, along with some Buffalo, Netgear and Linksys routers. However, as it’s based on OpenWRT, the list of compatible routers should be the same (with some variations).
Updated every few months, Gargoyle applies upstream fixes from OpenWRT, keeping your router secure and stable.
Gargoyle is a good alternative if you are looking for something different.
What Is the Best Router Firmware?
By now you should have a good idea of which firmware is suitable to update your router software.
If you’re looking for the best router firmware, consider:
Each package has its pros and cons. Obviously you are limited to what hardware you have or can buy, but beyond that the choice is yours. If you are looking for firmware that is easy to use, check out Tomato.
DD-WRT has the most features and the most community support so is a great choice as well.
Want to set up a VPN but don’t have a router you can install one of these firmware examples on? Try a dedicated VPN router instead.