Hardware / Popular

Alternative Router Firmware: What are DD-WRT, OpenWrt, Tomato, and ASUSwrt Merlin?

  • Learn what open-source router firmware projects are, which are the best ones and why you may want to give them a try.
  • Updating the firmware of your devices is never 100% risk-free, but it can improve the experience.
  • Flashing an alternative router firmware is pure madness for some or the only way to go for enthusiasts.
home wireless router

The firmware of a device, that little piece of software that controls the communication between the hardware and software, can make or break a device. A lot of the times we say “this product is bad” has something to do with the rushed buggy firmware, not the actual components used by the manufacturer.

The good thing is that firmware updates can improve a product significantly in time if the manufacturer puts the effort into fixing it. The can also boost WiFi speeds of an older router, not supported by manufacturer anymore.

When it comes to routers something interesting is happening: there are tons of open-source projects for alternative router firmware. These firmwares are not built by the manufacturer, but by enthusiasts. Let’s see what the fuss is all about.

Why Would You Install an Alternative Router Firmware?

One way manufacturers segment their devices is by cutting back on features on the lower models, even if the hardware is technically capable of handling functions available only on more expensive models.

That’s valid for pretty much any kind of tech product out there. So routers are definitely seeing the same treatment.

This is where open-source alternative router firmwares come to the rescue. These independent projects are packed with features, with anything that comes to mind, things such as bandwidth quotas, parental controls, WiFi roaming, boosted WiFi signal strength, password Internet access plus tons of enterprise-grade features.

Besides features, one other reason to flash your router with an alternative firmware is to get security updates, something you don’t normally get if you own an older router that doesn’t receive manufacturer firmware updates anymore. This usually happens after a few years.

Since all firmwares offered by open-source firmware projects use the same core feature set you can prolong the life of older devices for a few more years until the open-source project stops supporting your router. Yes, that happens, but it takes much longer.

Important Questions about Open-Source Firmwares

What Are the Risks if You Flash a Custom Router Firmware?

As with any firmware flash, you run the risk of bricking a device if you (1) flash the wrong firmware version for your model, (2) the firmware file is corrupted (always check the file integrity), or (3) the power gets cut during the update process. Recovery is not always impossible, but it’s best to avoid this scenario if you can.

Can You Flash Back to the Original Router Firmware?

The answer is “it depends”. Some open-source alternative router firmware projects allow you to just do a manual update using the original firmware file. Others need a more complicated approach, but generally, it is possible.

Always check first, while you still have the original device firmware installed. This is especially true if you’re using a device still under warranty and worry you will not be able to RMA or fix it for free in case something goes wrong.

Can I Install an Alternative Firmware on Any Router?

No, that’s the short answer. Each project supports a limited number of models. If your model is not on their list you will not be able to flash your router. Under no circumstance flash your router with the wrong firmware file. It will brick your router completely!

Is a Custom Router Firmware Easy to Set up?

Since we’re talking about custom firmware projects built by enthusiasts the interface is never as friendly and intuitive as the one provided by your router manufacturer. If you have problems with the original firmware you’re most likely to feel more confused when using an alternative firmware. Your mileage may vary though.

How Do You Flash a Custom Firmware on Your Router?

There is no single method. You will need to follow the flashing procedure according to each open-source project documentation. The procedure may vary with firmware versions and router models.

List of Some of the Best Custom Router Firmware Projects

I’ve highlighted only a few alternative route firmware projects, but there are tons of projects and derivates out there. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list if you’re interested in that.

DD-WRT, Everything You Want, and a Lot More

This is probably the best know custom router firmware project, and one of the older ones. They support a large list of router models, including cheaper ones, so you might be lucky. Also, there’s a huge community of users who can help you when you hit a dead end.

I’ve used DD-WRT on a very old (Draft N version) Belkin router to make it act as a wireless bridge for my bedroom TV, which has a crappy WiFi card that loses connectivity each time I try to stream something.

It works great, but I did need to do some reading to figure out how to set up the interface properly.

dd wrt firmware running on belkin router
DD-WRT running on an older Belkin Router

OpenWRT is the Oldest Open-Source Router Firmware Project

This is the custom firmware project that started this frenzy. It’s still a very powerful option with tons of features. The current version was once merged with another independent project, LEDE.

The major downside of OpenWRT is the fact it’s truly an open-source project, which means it doesn’t include any non-free drives. So, if your router uses custom-licensed code for some functions, it will not be supported by OpenWRT.

Also, in a truly open-source fashion, there are routers that are supported by this project, without the features covered by the licensed code, such as WiFi functionality! So, yeah, double-check before you flash.

If you think DD-WRT is complex, then you will be completely overwhelmed by what OpenWRT offers. It’s not a friendly alternative firmware by any means, but it’s a gold mine for enthusiasts due to the granularity of settings offered.

Advanced Tomato Firmware for Broadcom-based Routers

This is an alternative router project that works only with routers that are using Broadcom chipsets. Don’t worry, this is just a tiny bit limiting since a lot of routers are using Broadcom chips.

Tomato comes with a significantly more friendly user interface, while not sacrificing the functionality you would expect from custom firmware. If your router is supported you’re in luck.

ASUSwrt Merlin Alternative Firmware for ASUS Routers

As the name suggests, this is a project that extends the functionality of ASUS routers, by using the same user-friendly interface, with added features. The list of supported devices is not that long. For example, my newer ASUS router mesh system is not supported, but that’s OK for now, as I don’t expect to need more than the router offers very soon. Plus, I still get constant manufacturer updates.

The official ASUS router firmware interface and features are based on ASUSwrt Merlin. That’s why it looks familiar

asus router admin web interface

If you plan on playing with alternative router firmwares I suggest you do it on an older model, not on your main router. Even if those who like to thinker think these are the best router firmware options available I believe it’s not fun to get no Internet access and not have a backup router. Your family may not be happy.

If your router is not supported by any of the projects out here, it might be a good idea to invest in a second-hand model. This way you minimize the damage to your budget if anything goes wrong and you can’t recover your router in any way.

In the end, I ask you to share your experience with alternative router projects, if you’ve tried them. Which project did you choose? What made you switch? What features do you like most?

Avatar for Ionuț-Alexandru Popa
I'm a writer and Editor-in-Chief at BinaryFork. I am passionate about technology, science, space exploration, and movies. I started writing about tech more than 20 years ago, after graduating in Computer Science.
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