Not so long ago, most home users only had one or two computers connected to the Internet through their router. Today, however, there are often several smart phones, tablets, printers, laptops and desktop computers, plus home electronics such as Blu-ray players, HDTVs and game consoles.
As the number of connected devices in our homes continues to increase, the limitations of many consumer broadband routers are becoming increasingly apparent. When a typical home broadband router has to juggle so many devices at once, the load can result in poor performance or instability. This can be due both to the hardware not being sufficient and to the so-called fixed program (firmware) not being up to par.
Newer routers are usually much better at handling this, but if you’re experiencing problems, a drastic upgrade to an open-source Linux-based firmware might be a possible solution. It can improve both performance and stability in many routers and also add lots of new features that are missing in simpler routers. Some examples are adjustable antenna strength to increase the wireless range, support for so-called frame bursting for higher speeds and advanced qos (quality of service) control for bandwidth allocation between different computers in the network. You also get the option to configure the router as a Wi-Fi hotspot with a special login page.
This school must be considered advanced and for those who know a little more, because you risk damaging your equipment. It’s not very difficult though, but it’s important that you prepare carefully by checking that your router is supported, reading up on what applies to it and downloading the right files beforehand, as you won’t have access to the internet once you start.
There are several firmwares to choose from, but the three biggest ones are DD-WRT, Openwrt and Tomato. All three are free. Which one you choose depends partly on the type of product you want, but also on the limitations of your hardware (see below).
We use DD-WRT for the simple reason that the router we have available for the purpose cannot be handled by the other two.
In the guide we use a Belkin router. Note that all routers differ in terms of settings and other things. You must adapt the instructions to your own router.
Which firmware should I choose?
Which variant of alternative firmware for your router you should choose is partly controlled by whether your hardware can use it or not. However, if you have several choices, it can be helpful to know what differentiates them.
DD-WRT. This is by far the most well-known and tested of the alternative firmwares for routers. It has been in development for a number of years, is very stable and can be used in most routers. The program is easy to install, although several steps are often required, and includes all functions from the start, but lacks some professional capabilities.
Openwrt. Openwrt is launched as the open router platform. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, they have made a platform that others can then build packages for. Openwrt has a package management system that allows you to expand your router with features that you need. It suits you who want the most advanced, but it also means that the interface is a little more complicated. The foundation itself is easy to install, usually just one file.
Tomato. Tomato has a lot in common with DD-WRT, but doesn’t have quite as many features as the others. However, this makes it the most user-friendly choice, while giving you a lot of advanced features. Tomato is not available for as many routers, but is often easy to install.
Rich in finesse. In DD-WRT there are tons of advanced and nifty features and capabilities that you probably don’t have in your default router.
Needs tested. We also tried installing Openwrt in a TP-Link router. Here the interface is more boring and difficult than in DD-WRT. But it is possible to download and install additional packages according to your own needs.
Here you can see if your particular router can be upgraded with new firmware
There are hundreds of router models where the built-in firmware can be replaced. What is required is a certain amount of flash memory and some special circuits (Atheros or Broadcom). The amount of memory determines whether you can install a standard version, a stripped down version, or an extended version of the alternative program.
DD-WRT. You can find a complete router list here: www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Supported_Devices#TP-Link. An alternative is to go to www.dd-wrt.com/site/support/router-database and search for your router.
It is at the latter address that you download the files you need. Click on your model and download the files listed. Usually two are needed, the first to install a basic version and the second to then upgrade to the main version. In some cases, there are also links to files that can be used to restore the router to its original state.
OpenWRT. For Openwrt there is a router list here: wiki.openwrt.org/toh/start. Click on the desired router to get to a new page with additional information and download links.
Tomato. Tomato does not fit as many routers as the other two, the program only works for routers based on circuits from Broadcom. On www.polarcloud.com/tomato there is a simple list and download links.
In all three cases, check carefully that you download the version that fits your router!
If you try to install the wrong version in a router that it doesn’t support or make a mistake in some other way, it can result in a can that will only serve as a bookend in the future. The process can be compared to upgrading the bios in the computer. Don’t go into this with a brand new router that you are not willing to sacrifice unless you are very sure of what you are doing.
The warranty also expires if you replace the original firmware. If the router stops working, whether it’s due to the software change or some hardware error that shows up later, you can’t count on getting it fixed – unless you manage to switch back to the original software first.
PC for All takes no responsibility if your device becomes unusable.
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The preparations are a and o
Carefully study the information on the web pages of the alternative fixed program (see the text above). Note that the version number of the router can be decisive. You will usually find this on the label on the underside.
Find out which files you need and if there are any special instructions or conditions that apply to your particular router. Also read the forum threads that apply to your model.
Download the required files for your device. There are usually several, for example a basic version and an extension, make sure to bring everything and note the order in which they are to be used. It’s about files with the extension bees. Sometimes download links are also available in the forums.
Preparations. Download the necessary files and save them on the computer you will use for the upgrade.
Connect your router with a cable directly to a computer. Trying to do the upgrade wirelessly involves too much risk. Use one of the network (lan) ports, not the internet (wan) port. Disconnect all other connections to the router, including the Internet connection.
Reset the router to factory settings. This is usually done by pressing a small button that sits in a hole on the back. For example, use a straightened paperclip and hold the button down for ten seconds. The power must be on during this time and an indication that the reset is complete is often that all the lights start flashing.
Then proceed to the step by step guide below.
Step by step: Change firmware in your router
1. Log in. Use your web browser to navigate to the router’s settings page. Which web address and which username/password applies after reset is in the instruction manual and sometimes on the underside of the device. Often it is 192.168.1.1 and admin/admin.
2. Update. Go to the page Firmware update. It is usually found under some system menu. Browse to the first of the files with which the router is to be updated (usually mini in the case of DD-WRT) and start the upgrade by clicking the button Update.
3. Wait a while. Answer the confirmation question and wait. The process takes a while and it is very important that it is not interrupted. When everything looks clear and the lights have calmed down on the router, wait a little longer just to be safe.
4. New interface. Now you have a new fixed program. The router’s address is now always 192.168.1.1, then the browser directs you there. You may need to reset your router or clear your browser’s temporary files to get there. Enter a new username and password and click Change Password.
5. Update again. Now you can scroll around and check out all the new features, which, however, are the minimal ones. If you want more and the memory is enough, go toFirmware Upgrade in the menu Administration. Choose Reset to Default settings in the scroll list. Browse to the second file you downloaded (big) and click on Upgrade.
6. Wait again. Again you have to wait while the new program is written to the flash memory. Once the process is complete, the router will reboot and the entire upgrade is complete.
Now all that remains is to browse around and learn what’s new. Instructions can be found on the respective website.
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Recovery – if everything goes wrong
As long as everything works as it should, you can always go back to the original program. Just download the correct version from the router manufacturer’s website and upgrade according to steps 5 and 6 in the guide above.
If something goes wrong and the router becomes as unusable as a brick (“bricked”, as it is called), there are still some possibilities to save it. This belongs to the higher school, but you can find problem solving tips on the various websites.
It also talks about something called a 30/30/30 reset, a reset of the router that can help with lockups and other issues if the usual just holding down the button isn’t enough:
1. With the router powered on, hold the reset button (the small one on the back) for 30 seconds.
2. Continue to hold the button and unplug the power cord. Wait 30 seconds.
3. With the button still pressed, plug the power cord back in. Wait 30 seconds.
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