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DD-WRT vs. Tomato vs. OpenWRT: Which Router Firmware Is the Best?


Choosing a custom router firmware can be daunting. There are several options that are recommended all over the Internet, and the documentation on the actual process of installing the firmware tends to be sparse. Throw in the terms and acronyms that get tossed around, and before long, you’re happy to stick with your router’s stock firmware.

It doesn’t need to be that difficult. Each of the three major open-source firmware – DD-WRT, Tomato, and OpenWRT – has its own strengths and weaknesses that make it ideal for one situation or another. You’ll need to consider which features you need for your network and whether your router is even supported by the firmware.

Good to know: before you get a new router, it is best to know about the differences between access point and repeater modes.

Benefits of Custom Router Firmware

Before diving into the best router firmware options, let’s break down what a custom firmware actually is. After all, all routers have firmware, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with the default.

Routers include what’s essentially a mini operating system embedded in the router’s memory: ROM. The purpose is to tell the router what to do and how to respond to all the various settings. Think of it as a smaller operating system that’s capable of doing incredible things, such as Raspberry Pi OS for Raspberry Pi devices.

The default is enough for many users, but if you want additional features, you have to change the firmware. This is where custom firmware is a must-have. Just a few of the things a custom option can help with include:

  • Improving your router’s overall performance. This is especially true if manufacturers aren’t updating to the latest performance enhancements.
  • Better security. Sadly, many router manufacturers don’t really care about updating firmware. Just as with a computer OS, an outdated system opens you up to security threats. Custom router firmware is usually updated often, and if it ever stops being updated, you can switch to something else.
  • Get a better interface. Outside of changing passwords, many users don’t dig around in their router’s settings. If you have, though, you know it’s not always the prettiest interface to deal with. Custom options are made with the user experience in mind.
  • Enjoy more features. Just because your router doesn’t say it supports a feature doesn’t mean it can’t support it. All you need is the right firmware. This can include support for things like dynamic DNS, IPV6 support, and built-in VPNs.
  • Set up Quality of Service (QoS). This lets the router give certain types of traffic priority over others so that you get the speeds you need with what’s most important.

While many custom router firmware solutions are open source, you’ll occasionally find one that isn’t. However, with open source options, you also get the benefit of an entire community helping support it – including finding and fixing bugs.

Note: don’t mix up a modem with a router. They are not the same.

Before You Install New Firmware

Before you pick a favorite from the options below, please note that not all firmware is compatible with all routers. Think of it as trying to install software that’s only compatible with macOS on a Windows PC. It won’t work.

Every firmware has a list of compatible hardware. A good rule to follow is if you’re not sure, don’t install it. It could cause problems with functionality and even damage your router permanently.

Also, only download router firmware from the official website. Downloading it elsewhere could result in malware or a corrupted file. Plus, you’ll always get the latest, most secure version of the firmware. It’s a good idea to check back a few times a year for any updates. Also, all firmware on this list is free, so don’t be scammed into paying for it from a suspicious site.

DD-WRT

DD-WRT is easily the biggest player when it comes to open-source router firmware. It’s been around for long enough to establish itself, and it supports more routers than any other company, including lower-priced routers. There are even people selling routers with DD-WRT already flashed on them. It’s pretty safe to say that flashing DD-WRT on most routers is a good idea.

DD-WRT is a complete toolkit. It comes with nearly everything you could want in a router firmware as well as much more that you’ll probably never even see. That’s simultaneously one of DD-WRT’s biggest strengths and weaknesses. For people looking for maximum control, DD-WRT’s plethora of options is a welcome breath of fresh air. If you’re looking for simple and direct, though, you’re going to have a hard time navigating DD-WRT.

A few extra features DD-WRT supports include Wake on LAN for remote PC access and QoS (quality of service) built-in. The latter helps better manage network traffic.

DD-WRT supports more routers than anyone else. As a result, they also have the largest community, so finding support for DD-WRT tends to be easier than other custom router firmware. Even routers that aren’t officially supported tend to get community builds that are actively supported in the DD-WRT forums.

Pros

  • Supports tons of routers
  • Huge community
  • Built-in OpenVPN support
  • QoS support
  • Robust array of options
  • Easy-to-use interface

Cons

  • Can be overwhelming for new users
  • Can be hard to find new versions for some routers

Tip: having an issue with your router? Learn how to troubleshoot your router here.

Tomato

Tomato is easily the most streamlined and user-friendly of the firmware on this list. Tomato’s been around for a while, and it’s earned a reputation for being a direct and no-nonsense firmware that gets you the features you want and need without a ton of extra junk. It’s also earned a reputation for speeding up routers.

Dd Wrt Vs Tomato Vs Openwrt Best Custom Router Firmware Tomato

The AdvancedTomato project has taken the classic Tomato firmware by Shibby and created a sleek and modern GUI that allows real-time monitoring of vital stats through animated graphs. The AdvancedTomato interface is one of its best selling points, making network management simpler and providing a more visually pleasing experience.

Tomato doesn’t support as many routers as its competitors, and up until the AdvancedTomato project, development was a bit scattered. If your router is supported, it may be the option you’re looking for, but you’ll need to check first.

Shibby announced in 2021 that they left the project. Despite other developers taking up the reigns, there haven’t been any new project updates listed since. FreshTomato was recommended by Shibby as an alternative, which is still actively updated.

Pros

  • Modern interface
  • Fast speeds
  • Minimal footprint
  • Built-in OpenVPN
  • Real-time monitoring

Cons

  • Smaller community
  • Limited router support

OpenWRT

OpenWRT is the oldest open-source router firmware project. It’s the precursor to both DD-WRT and Tomato and has earned its reputation as a powerful choice with many options. OpenWRT, as it is now, is actually a merger of the classic OpenWRT and LEDE.

OpenWRT might be the best option for free software enthusiasts. It’s the only one on this list that doesn’t include non-free binary blobs. While all three of these custom router firmware are based on Linux, OpenWRT is the most like a traditional distribution.

Dd Wrt Vs Tomato Vs Openwrt Best Custom Router Firmware Openwrt

That openness comes at a cost, though. There are plenty of routers that OpenWRT simply can’t fully support because they require non-free drivers to run. The project’s hardware table contains more than a few entries with partial support and no functional Wi-Fi, thanks to this. The detailed Table of Hardware lists exactly what isn’t supported on specific routers.

OpenWRT offers even more fine-grained control than DD-WRT, but that also comes at the price of simplicity. This firmware requires some knowledge to use properly and quite a bit more to make it worthwhile. OpenWRT is best for more technical people who know exactly what they want.

Pros

  • Tons of options
  • Built-in OpenVPN
  • QoS Support
  • Ability to dig into lower levels

Cons

  • Not as user-friendly
  • More time to get running
  • Supports fewer routers

Considering Other Options

For most users, one of the above router firmware options is fine. However, you might be looking for something more specific, such as something for an older router or a certain feature. If so, you may want to consider one of the following firmware:

  • Gargoyle – It’s based on OpenWRT and offers both a GUI and a command line interface. It’s designed mainly for older routers with Atheros and Broadcom-based chipsets. You’ll also find a built-in VPN, QoS, adblocker, Tor client, and network file-sharing capabilities.
  • Commotion Wireless – If you want to create your own mesh network using existing routers, give this router firmware a try. It’s based on OpenWRT as well, giving you many of the same benefits but with mesh networking built in.
  • HyperWRT – This is designed specifically for Linksys WRT54G and WRT54GS routers. It gives a power boost while still maintaining much of the original firmware.
  • Sabai OS – This router firmware is based on Tomato and comes pre-flashed on Sabai’s VPN routers. It includes all the major features, such as QoS, DMZ, port forwarding, bridging, and more. It can be one of the easier firmware to manage but only on certain routers.
  • Freetz – This is a Linux-based firmware designed for Fritz! Box and similar devices. It offers a variety of customization features, along with an integrated VPN. It doesn’t work with as many routers as some other options.
  • ROOter – If you use a USB cellular modem, ROOter might be the best option for you. Many routers don’t support this type of modem by default, but ROOter adds this functionality. It also helps you get the full speed from your provider’s network.
  • libreCMC – This router firmware is actually a set of free embedded operating systems. Not only does it work with a large number of routers to give you more control over your settings and functionality, but it even works with some single-board computers as well.

Before you choose any firmware, make sure it’s compatible with your current router. Also, make note of the firmware you currently have so that you can restore it if something doesn’t work out the way you want. You can re-download the manufacturer’s firmware from their website.

The Best Custom Router Firmware

When it comes down to DD-WRT vs. Tomato vs. OpenWRT, all three are winners. Overall, DD-WRT is the best choice for compatibility and features. However, Tomato and OpenWRT are still worth using, especially with easier-to-use interfaces and setup.

Whichever one you choose, you’re more than likely to see a noticeable improvement over your router’s stock firmware. You’ll also get the added functions, like OpenVPN client support, that will enable you to do more with your network.

As an added bonus, all of these tend to be more secure than manufacturer firmware and receive more regular updates, should you choose to install them. Of course, when installing custom firmware, be sure to carefully follow the instructions from the developers to reduce the risk of damaging your router.

Tip: managing the ports on your router is an important skill for running your own home server.

Remember, sometimes connection issues aren’t the router’s issue. For instance, learn how to fix Mac Wi-Fi problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to install custom firmware on my router?

The most important thing to know before you flash new firmware is whether it will void your router’s warranty. If it’s a brand new router, and you want any chance of using the warranty should something stop working, don’t use custom firmware.

If you don’t do it correctly, you can brick your router, leaving you with no other choice but to buy a new one. If you don’t want to take the risk on a new router, buy a cheap one from a thrift shop or one that’s deeply discounted to practice on. It’s better to spend another $10 to $15 to practice with than ruin a new one.

How can I install new firmware?

First, download the correct firmware for your specific router. It’s vital that you use the right version, or it won’t work. If you’re not sure about your router model, log in to your router’s interface.

Some routers let you log in via your browser. Open a command prompt and type ipconfig /all. Use the IP address of your router in your browser to access the interface. Other routers require you to install an app to access the interface.

Once you have the model details, download the correct firmware. Then, log back into your router. Search for the “upgrade firmware” setting. The exact location varies greatly based on the router.

Will custom firmware help me get more use out of an old router?

Just like a computer, an older router is still only capable of so much. If you have an older router, and your desired custom firmware is compatible, then yes, it may let you use the router longer.

However, performance is only improved based on your router’s maximum capabilities, so it may still be slower than you’d like. There’s no harm in trying it, though.

Image credit: a wireless router on living room at home with a window by 123RF

Crystal Crowder
Crystal Crowder

Crystal Crowder has spent over 15 years working in the tech industry, first as an IT technician and then as a writer. She works to help teach others how to get the most from their devices, systems, and apps. She stays on top of the latest trends and is always finding solutions to common tech problems.

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