Finding the Best Router for OpenWrt, DD-WRT, and LEDE
OpenWrt, DD-WRT and LEDE are all Linux-based, custom firmware for your router. They give you a whole lot more features than your average stock router firmware, and they are more often than not better maintained than the firmware provided by the router vendor. From what I can see, OpenWrt, DD-WRT, and LEDE have enough in common that if one of them works well on a router, it’s a fair chance it’ll also work on the other two. OpenWrt and LEDE, in particular, have a lot in common. LEDE is an OpenWrt fork that was started because of internal disagreements among the OpenWrt members. Now they’re all friends again, and LEDE and OpenWrt will merge again soonTM, using the more actively maintained LEDE code base, and keeping the well-known OpenWrt brand.
But what router works best with third party firmware? It’s not easy to figure out. All three projects support, to various degree, a large number of routers, from a wide range of vendors. But some routers are better supported than others, in particular when it comes to WiFi support. The reason for this is that router vendors use different WLAN chipsets in their routers. How easy it is to obtain drivers for the different hardware varies, with Broadcom in particular being a hard nut to crack.
Also, what is considered “best” is very subjective. Personally, I have four criteria: 1) The router should pack enough punch to keep a small home network going. A little streaming, a little gaming, a little surfing. Nothing terribly demanding. 2) I have to be able to flash the router without resolving to picking it apart and physically rewiring anything. 3) It can’t cost a fortune since I need to buy a spare router. Can’t risk any downtime on this site! 4) The majority, preferably all, of the custom firmware’s features must be supported.
The Netgear R7800 is a beast, with a dual-core 1.7 GHz processor, and 512 MB RAM. It uses WLAN chipsets from Qualcomm, but the router seems to only be officially supported by LEDE. Unofficial support by DD-WRT is possible, but be prepared to bang your head against the wall for a while before you manage to get everything installed. But it wouldn’t matter much if the router was supported. At $230 it’s over my current budget.
The Netgear R7000 is more affordable, and it’s currently $80 less than the R7800 on Amazon. Naturally, a lower price means less juicy hardware. The R7000 sports a 1 GHz dual core processor, and 256 MB RAM. But my current router, the ASUS RT-N66U, uses a 600 MHz single-core processor. That router handles our daily needs, which means that 1 GHz will be plenty of juice. Unfortunately, the Netgear R7000 uses a Broadcom WLAN chipset that is only partly supported by LEDE. Like with the R7800, there is no official DD-WRT support for the R7000, but it might be possible to get it to work. Wireless support for the Netgear R7000 is non-existent in OpenWrt.
With an expensive router that may or may not work as expected, and an affordable router with spotty (at best) WiFi support, Netgear is a no-go.
In discussions I came across on the world wide web about the best router for LEDE, the TP-Link Archer C7 came up. A lot. It’s a budget router, currently available for $80 at Amazon. It also contains budget hardware: A single-core CPU running at 720 MHz (or 750 Mhz on the more recent v4), and only 128 MB RAM. The Archer C7 is supported by LEDE, OpenWrt, and DD-WRT.
A better alternative from TP-Link might be the Archer C2600. With a dual-core 1.4 GHz CPU and 512 MB RAM, it leaves the C7 in the dust. It’s not too pricey either, retailing for $180 directly from TP-Link. Buying directly from the manufacturer is usually the most expensive option, and camelcamelcamel.com reports that it’s available for as low as $105. At that price, the Archer C2600 is a bargain. The router is supported by OpenWrt, and LEDE, but there’s no DD-WRT support.
There’s one big problem with the TP-Link Archer C2600, though. Availability. It’s a fairly old router, no longer actually promoted by TP-Link, and not a single Norwegian online store I’ve checked has it in stock.
Traditionally, Linksys was the router vendor to go to whenever you wanted a sturdy, hackable router to play with. Case-in-point: DD-WRT was originally designed for the Linksys WRT54G series of routers.
Linksys has three routers that, based on hardware specifications, should cover my routing needs: WRT1900AC, WRT1900ASC, and WRT3200ACM. At $200+, the WRT3200ACM is out of my budget. Neither does it appear in the OpenWrt table of hardware. That leaves us with the two WRT1900 series of routers.
The main difference between these two routers are the hardware, but what the difference isn’t that huge, really. The RT1900AC (v1) has a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, and 256 MB RAM. The WRT1900AC (v2) ups the ante with a 1.33 GHz dual-core processor, and 512 MB RAM. The WRT1900ACS contains a 1,6 GHz dual-core CPU and 512 MB RAM.
So the WRT1900ACS comes out on top in terms of hardware, and the cost is barely inside my budget. But how well is the router supported by the Big Three? All of them claim support, but it’s not entirely clear to me how well they are supported. A few random searches on the internet, however, shows that wireless support might be spotty because the WLAN chip manufacturer, Marvell, isn’t that open-source friendly. Also, installing custom firmware on WRT routers might not be as easy as it once was.
So the WRT1900ACS goes into the “maybe” pile.
One thing is for sure: Finding a perfect router for any of the three custom firmwares is hard, if not impossible. By just looking at three different vendor, my options are very limited. But considering even more vendors would take even more time, and I feel I know enough now to make a fairly qualified decisions.
If it wasn’t for the lack of availability, the TP-Link Archer C2600 would have been the obvious choice. It delivers a lot of bang for the buck. But that doesn’t matter when it’s not possible to purchase anywhere. The next best option is the router we stuck in the “maybe” pile: Linksys WRT1900ACS. Possibly spotty WiFi aside, the hardware package is impressive, and is quite enough to cover my hardware needs. It’s possibly any WiFi problems can be handled with creative placement of the router, and hopefully better drivers will become available in the future.
So, a Linksys WRT1900ACS it is, then. Stay tuned for the next episode, where I brick a router.
Update: I didn’t brick the router, I successfully installed LEDE on it. I even wrote a guide.