It is showtime for OpenWRT routers and open source firmware. After rumblings that the FCC was moving to ban custom-flashing of wireless routers, the feds backed off.
Credit the Blufferbloat Project, a group of old-school FOSS networking pioneers. They drew up a plan to “save the Internet” as it were, prompting an about-face from the agency. Blufferbloat schooled the FCC on the security benefits of source code transparency, and the government now encourages hardware manufacturers to support firmware modifications.
Networking vendors already know the value of that FOSS niche. Even Cisco lets open source slide on a few products (Cisco WRVS4400N 802.11n), a lesson it learned after its Linksys buyout in 2003—the earliest days of flashing router firmware. Cisco sold Linksys to Belkin in 2013, and the custom router firmware push has since come back to life for the brand.
Linksys back at it again with the open firmware
It all began on a little blue 4-by-1 residential router, the venerable Linksys WRT54G. You probably had one; practically everyone did.
Released in 2002, it shipped with Linux-based firmware and a Broadcom 125 MHz MIPS processor and 16 MB of RAM—enough horsepower to run applications and a saddle for programming it.
Starting in 2004, developers using uClibc Linux to “hack” the GNU firmware came up with the first “stable release” of OpenWrt.
The devs eventually figured out how to tarball OpenWrt onto embedded flash memory in routers from other vendors. The project continued to evolve the kernel, naming it after their favorite cocktails: White Russian, Kamikaze, Backfire, and Chaos Calmer—that is Gin, triple sec, lime juice, grenadine, orange juice; shaken, not stirred.
OpenWrt, DD-WRT, Tomato, pfSense
Now there are dozens of strains of open source firmware for routers. Easy-manage variants like DD-WRT and Tomato grew popular with home users tweaking Wi-Fi throughput.
Professional network engineers recognize OpenWrt as the go-to for organizational use. They like a proper Linux GNU and stable versioning to work into existing Linux environments. Built-in packet management features, and other business-specific functionality make sense for this user set.
802.11ac OpenWRT routers
Before we get into the best routers for OpenWRT, a caveat from their Wiki page:
“There is no ‘best hardware,’ so stop asking. Purchase something that meets your requirements. Inform yourself about the current hardware support on the Internet and ask other users/developers for a personal recommendation in the forum. Avoid overhyped, overpriced products—embedded hardware can be VERY inexpensive! OpenWrt is what does the magic!”
This is the ultimate pro tip, and it applies to all technology hardware.
That said, here are five 802.11ac OpenWRT routers with strong user recommendations on Newegg, and forums for firmware networking enthusiasts.
Linksys WRT1200AC and its big brother WRT1900AC (extra antenna for multi-story Wi-Fi) carried on tradition of the original Linksys blue router. Now that Linksys AC3200 Wave 2 802.011AC models are available, vendors are clearing inventory for these open firmware stalwarts. Check for deals on routers.
Linksys AC3200 is OpenWrt ready, though it is not yet on the master list of supported OpenWrt routers. Imre Kaloz, a long-time developer with OpenWrt and the forum moderator, released a custom Chaos Calmer AC3200 build on October 13, which appears to be good to go.
TP-LINK Archer C7 AC1750 – Customers call this the most cost-efficient AC router on available. No frills, no problem when you run custom firmware, but a USB 3.0 would be nice. With the next gen TP-LINK C7 C5400 in stock (no OpenWrt support yet as of this writing) watch for deals here as well. A good bet for under $100.
ASUS RT-AC68U – Dual CPUs for each wireless channel is the defining feature here, and it may add a wrinkle to installing OpenWRT. Make sure to check their forum for guidance. It has similar specs to Netgear R6250, which indicates the hardware should be compatible as listed by OpenWRT.
Linksys EA6200 – Designed for Wi-Fi media streaming with DLNA certification and the latest 802.11ac smart Wi-Fi features like beamforming, plus USB 3.0 for print, share and store functionality.
General router hardware recommendations to take into account:
- Router CPUs drive automation functions in multi-device networks, which is the purpose of 802.11ac routers that the latest OpenWRT kernel (“Chaos Calmer”) is built to support.
- Router CPUs drives VPN session performance in the absence of a server-based VPN solution
- Feature-heavy OpenWRT should have more RAM for smooth running.
- If you reach a 1 Gbps wireless connection, take screenshot and paste in the comments.
What did I miss? Let me know your picks for best OpenWRT router in the comments.