How to turn a $50 wireless router into a $500 router

Replace your wireless router's firmware to gain powerful features

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Have you ever wondered what sets apart the super expensive routers from the relatively cheap ones? A good portion of the cost is in the hardware where more powerful processors and higher quality components allow for a larger numbers of concurrent sessions and greater throughput. However, another significant portion is in the firmware, the control program stored on the hardware device. The firmware gives the device its brains and determines what software functions it can perform. Cheaper routers are often loaded with un-sophisticated firmware that does not allow for the advanced features found in the more expensive models, giving you further reason to upgrade.

Some of today's inexpensive routers now have hardware that far surpasses the mightiest routers of old, but the software on them is still purposely crippled to add value to the more expensive devices. The good news is that you are not helpless in the matter. Open source firmware has been created which unlocks the true potential of your hardware and gives you enterprise grade features on the cheap. The most popular firmware distributions are DD-WRT, OpenWRT, and Tomato.

As indicated by the distribution names, this open source firmware revolution started around the once ubiquitous Linksys WRT54G series of routers that are immediately familiar to anyone over the age of 25. The open source firmware runs on the broadcom chipset that is used in many (but not all) of the Linksys WRT54G routers, as well as several other brand models from Buffalo, Asus, NetGear, and more. By far the most popular router used in this overhaul is the Linksys WRT54GL due to its low price, reliability, and compatibility. In fact, the thing is even advertised as Open Source firmware ready these days.

First off, you might be wondering why you would want to do this. Here are some benefits to replacing the routers stock firmware with Tomato:

  • Ability to increase the WiFi signal strength

  • Advanced QoS (Quality of Service)

  • Real-time bandwidth monitoring

  • Improved web interface

  • Improved access restrictions

  • Adds additional Wireless modes (extend an existing wireless signal)

For the more technically advanced households, the QoS features are the primary selling point. QoS gives you the ability to set priorities for different types of traffic such as VOIP or Skype calls vs. streaming a Hulu show. When you're on a call, that data will be automatically prioritized to give you better quality while the less important streaming video has its bandwidth reduced until you're done. If that isn't enough for you, the ability to boost the wireless signal strength at will to cover more of your home is appealing to just about everyone.

Step 1: Choose your firmware and router

If you're sold on the idea, here is how to get started. First you need to decide on a firmware distribution. For most people, Tomato will be the right choice because it provides a friendly interface and nearly all the features of DD-WRT and OpenWRT. Next, you need to buy a compatible router, or confirm that your current router is compatible.

If you already have a wireless router, check the Tomato list of compatible devices to see if yours is on there.

If you're buying a router, here are the 3 options I would recommend from lowest price / power to highest:

  1. Linksys WRT54GL - $50

  2. ASUS RT-N16 - $85 after rebate

  3. ASUS RT-N66U* - $165

*Special instructions are required for this model but it is fully supported. See the detailed steps at Shadow Andy's TomatoUSB firmware flashing guide.

Step 2: Update your router's firmware

Now you'll need to download your new firmware. Grab the latest release of Tomato from their site (1.28 as of this writing) and save the zip file to your computer. Extract the file to get access to the firmware images and the help documentation.

With a compatible router in hand, it's time to prepare for the firmware update. To start, you'll want your router to be in its factory state. If it's brand new, it's already there. If you've already been using it, then you'll need to power it on and hold down the reset button on the back (use a paperclip or a mechanical pencil) for a few seconds until the lights on the front start flashing.

Next, log into your router's web administration program. The process for doing this is different for each router brand but generally you want to connect to the router by plugging an ethernet cable from one of the ports on the router (but not the WAN port) to your computer. Then open a web browser and navigate to http://192.168.1.1 most commonly. If you're not prompted for a username and password, check your router's manual for the correct address and login info. Typically the username is ‘admin' and the password is either ‘admin' or ‘password' without the quotes. Again, if that doesn't work, check the router's manual for the defaults.

Once you've logged in, you want to find the menu option to update the router's firmware. This can say something like ‘Router Upgrade' under a maintenance section, or ‘Firmware Upgrade' under an Administration section, or similar. Use the file uploader to select the proper tomato firmware that you identified earlier and start the process. It will probably take a couple of minutes but be patient.

Step 3: Log back in and configure

When the process is complete, navigate to http://192.168.1.1 and log in, this time using ‘admin'  without the quotes for both the username and password. If for some reason you are unable to login, perform another hard reset by holding the reset button down until the lights flash again. When the router comes back online you should be good to go.

You're now ready to start enjoying your fantastic new routing capabilities like:

Quality of Service classification

Real-Time bandwidth monitoring

and Signal Strength Boosting

For details on how to configure your new enterprise grade features, refer to the Tomato Configuration Guide.

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