3rd party firmware roundup Over the years I’ve noticed a change in attitude of posters over here. It used to be that you were a geek if you used a third party firmware, nowadays it’s just the opposite. Lots of people who have no knowledge whatsoever decided that if you want to make your router batter you should use DD-WRT while people who actually do know a thing or two pay a lot more attention to quality of the stock firmware while not discrediting the use of 3rd party soft where additional settings or services are needed. Having bought a new router myself I’ve decided to give’em a go on my new unit and see what’s what. Router in question is a TP-Link TL-WR1043ND v 1.8 unit based on Atheros AR9132 400MHz CPU with 32MB RAM and 8MB flash supplemented by a Gigabit switch, USB port and Atheros AR9103 radio chip capable of 300mbps. My tests do not actually include routing performance, wireless range etc. Such tests have been conducted by other people and are occasionally used here as a reference. It was meant to be a test of “what do you get and how to live with it?” rather than “firmware A offers 8% higher throughput compared to firmware B”. Due to the fact my router is based on Atheros chip Tomato firmware is missing from the comparison. All this is relevant mostly to Atheros based devices based on similar hardware (Netgear WNDR3700, Buffalo WZR-HP-AG300H, Linksys WRT160NL etc) but not necessarily for Broadcom-based devices. Mind you lots of things apply to both. Stock TP-Link firmware (110429) Web interface is fast and well organized. In a recent update TP-Link included new features like FTP server & media server on USB. Drive connected to USB port can be formatted in NTFS which is a nice feature. Linux based routers do not like NTFS very much but since most of us use Windows it’s quite impractical to use EXT3 as a file system. Stock firmware has no issues with 40MHz Wi-Fi but even though the router transmits in 40MHz and notebook is connected @300mbps actual transfer values are more in the range of 20MHz channels- i.e. closer to what 150mbps should offer. The good: -fast -well organized and stable -USB sharing & media server -NTFS support The bad: -no firewall rules can be created -no print server on USB -Wi-Fi is deceptive- shows 300mbps but works as fast as 150mbps should EDIT: TP-Link 120210 improves Wi-Fi speed dramatically. Instead of being significantly slower than Gargoyle it's not 15% faster. DD-WRT preSP2 14896 Go-to firmware for all those that think they know better. It has a very nice interface and everything is well organized and easy to find. There are lots of features- most of which you’ll never use/understand. Contrary to popular belief it’s pretty heavy- it has lots of features and you end up with less than a third of the RAM free after boot (out of 32MB)- that’s before you start to enable additional services. It seems these days you don’t get micro/mini/standard/VPN editions- each having more features than the other- so you can’t really decide. WYSIWYG. Interface is slower compared to default TP-Link firmware. On top of that updates are rarely released- the most recent firmware for TP-Link in question has a time-stamp of August 2010 compared to TP-Link’s own latest & greatest released in May 2011. Some units still get micro/mini/VPN releases i.e. Netgear WNR3500L but updates are as scarce (again August 2010). On top of that DD-WRT cannot hold on to a 40MHz channel. It defaults back to 20MHz after a few seconds or minutes- no matter if there are any networks in neighborhood or not. This issue has been known for over a year and has not been fixed yet. It has been mentioned by lots of people including Tim Higgins of smallnetbuilder (in this review). It affects not only my TP-Link unit but also said Buffalo WZR-HP-AG300H that comes with DD-WRT as standard and Netgear WNDR3700 among others. On top of that wiki states that on Atheros radio: DD-WRT is also known to have a reduced WAN-LAN throughput compared to other 3rd party firmwares and stock firmwares. It may not concern you if your WAN connection is not very fast (over 100mbps easily) but it’s still a bug that has not been fixed. The good: +easy to set up +good interface +lots of additional features and settings (prinserver on USB works fine too) The bad: -Wireless for Atheros is crap- no 40MHz, channels 1,3,5 and 11 are virtually unusable which results in poor transfers -Uses a lot of RAM -Bugs are here to stay and no one cares -New versions released once in a blue moon -Web interface is rather slow -Reduced network throughput OpenWRT Backfire 10.03.x (+LuCI) First things first- it’s not for beginners. If you know nothing about Linux commands you are doomed. If you end up flashing it without LuCI you’ll be in trouble too. Standard firmware is geek-friendly. There’s nothing on-board and everything has to be installed as a package. The good thing about it is you get only what you want- the bad one is you’re in for a ride. If you use a modem and a router, your modem is most likely in bridge mode which means you need to use PPoE to connect. PPoE is not a part of standard edition- you need to install if from repository. To do that you need to download it which is hard since you’re not connected to the net. On top of that you’re probably missing LuCi (graphical interface) so you’re gonna have to do it manually. If you don’t know how or don’t have the packages ready (or winscp to copy them) you’ll have to un-bridge your modem, bypass the router, learn how to do it and then bridge it again and try to do it right. You will succeed eventually but “eventually” may mean hours of your life lost. On top of that if you install LuCi (which you will) and several tiny things you end up with even more RAM used than on DD-WRT (in my case 13% free at boot). That said interface is very nice and easy to understand and this firmware has no significant wireless issues. It does hold on to 40MHz fine and provides transfer rate of almost twice what DD-WRT and stock firmware did. The good: +good performance (wireless and routing) +nice and understandable LuCI interface +lots of settings +frequent updates +customizable The bad: -too complicated for beginners and people not familiar with Linux -lots of things have to be set up in console mode even if you use LuCI -uses too much RAM with LuCI (ignore this remark if you have 64MB or more RAM in your router) -does allow wireless settings to be chosen in LuCI that are impossible to actually be applied, which results in radio not working until you figure it out on your own. -mysteriously disconnects once in a while (Wi-Fi only) and reconnects on its own (known bug) Gargoyle 1.4.2/1.5.x OpenWRT r28226 Last but not least- OpenWRT for people who do actually have some friends. While you still need to set things up from the console occasionally, you don’t have to be Kevin Mitnick to get this thing to work. Interface is questionable where it comes too looks (default skin would have been ugly in 1997 let alone today) but there are few skins to choose from. While it may not be desperately pretty it’s very light and fast (apart from saving settings which takes- on average- a thousand years). Under the bonnet it’s OpenWRT but the GUI is very light which results in the lowest RAM usage of all firmwares tested (60% free on boot). All the advantages of OpenWRT meet an interface that works. You can get a version that supports PPoE, USB and other thing out of the box- you just flash it, type in your password and- voila- you’re on the net. The good: +not a resource hog +available in complete packages that give you most of what you want from the start. +good wireless and routing throughput +nice data transfer monitor for those with capped connections- functional yet not too complicated. +frequent updates The bad: - mysteriously disconnects once in a while (Wi-Fi only) and reconnects on its own (known bug) -no firewall rule creator in GUI -no release IP for PPoE button (although using save settings button work) -the way some settings are organized seems counter-intuitive to me (you’ll get used to this though) EDIT: Since Gargoyle 1.5.x doesn't officially exist I've reverted to 1.4.2 which is the most recent English version and will check if wireless disconnections persist. <strike>OVERALL WINNER for ATHEROS based devices: Gargoyle OpenWRT for routers with 16 and 32MB RAM. People with units sporting 64MB or more- who are still a minority- can choose OpenWRT + LuCi or Gargoyle.</strike> For Broadcom based devices situation may be different- DD-WRT doesn’t have certain bugs and crucially Tomato enters the competition. Since I have no Broadcom based device ready for testing we’ll have to leave it at that for the moment. EDIT: Having suffered from OpenWRT wireless disconnection issue with another release I decided to change my recommendation. OpenWRT and all firmwares based on it do not provide stability and reliability (which is even more important than speed), DD-WRT is to heavy has crappy support and is not able to sustain 40MHz channels, Gargoyle and other firmwares based on OpenWRT share the same issues. Final summary- If you bought a proper router from a reputable manufacturer your stock firmware should be stable and fast. You should therefore stick with it unless you really need some additional features (or if you bought a router from a crappy company that hires actual monkeys to write the code- which makes it your fault though). EDIT 2: The wireless bug has vanished on its own on Gargoyle 1.4.2 and I don't have it on 1.5.0 either. Mind you there are still users that do have the problem with both firmwares. From where I'm sitting Gargoyle is the best but if I had to live with the wireless-disconnection bug I'd say it was the worst. EDIT 3: The bug is still there- more or less visible depending on a firmware. 1.5.2 was pretty good while 1.5.4 simply terrible. The thing is if you transfer a lot of data over Wi-Fi (~200GB/day) the bug is visible in basically all OpenWRT/Gargoyle versions.