My apprentice and A&D regular Ian Bruene had bad experiences with a cheap home router/WiFi recently, and ranted about it on a channel where I and several other comparatively expert people hang out. He wanted to know how to get a replacement solid enough to leave with non-techie relatives.
The ensuing conversation was very productive, so I’m summarizing it here as a public-service announcement. I’ve put the year in the title because some of the information in it could go stale quickly. I will try to mark each element of the advice with an expected-lifetime estimate.
Even before seeing any of the comments on this post I’m going to say you should read them too. Some of my regulars are more expert than I am about this area.
First, a couple of rules that will not age:
For each candidate product, use a search engine to find out (a) what Wi-Fi chipset it is using and (b) whether the firmware is vendor-proprietary or a port of OpenWRT. (OpenWRT has a sibling, dd-wrt, that is also acceptable but in less active development.)
1. If the chipset was made by Broadcom, stay the hell away. Their Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet chips are notoriously shitty and have been for decades – I remember trouble with them as far back as early Linux days in the 1990s.
2. If the firmware is not OpenWRT/dd-wrt, assume that you will need to re-flash the device. The quality of vendor proprietary firmware is, in general, abysmal – not just worse than you imagine, but worse than you probably can imagine. Don’t rely on it unless you like the idea of being pwned by a Bulgarian botnet.
UPDATE: Some routers contain proprietary chips with closed-source drivers that OpenWRT/dd-wrt can’t drive. This is usually not an issue unless you have an unusually fast Internet connection, like well above 15MB/sec. If you do, check on the OpenWRT site and elsewhere for reviews confirming that OpenWRT will support your speed.
An increasing number of vendors do the right thing and ship OpenWRT/dd-wrt from the factory. Read this excellent post by Jim Gettys for some candidates. Specific product recommendation in it may age, but a vendor that is not crappy will probably continue to be not-crappy.
Any current OpenWRT/dd-wrt device will be fully de-bufferbloated. You can’t rely on this from closed-source vendor firmware.
If you want to go cheaper than the $150 or so you’ll pay for a device with preinstalled OpenWRT, you probably can’t do better than buying an N600 on eBay and flashing it with OpenWRT yourself.
I call out this particular platform because:
(a) It’s cheap and easy to get, and probably has all the features you want except Gigabit Ethernet in some older revisions; check for that, the changeover seems to have been between the 3400 and 3800 revisions.
(b) I use one (a 3800) myself and can certify that it’s rock-solid stable; my last service interruption was 381 days ago and that was due to a power outage that outlasted my UPS’s dwell time.
(c) It’s based on a MIPS chipset that was Tier 1 for OpenWRT for a long time and got a lot of love from the core developers.
UPDATE: Note that the 3800 rev of the N600 is out of production but you can find it on eBay, the 3700v4 is also known good and actually has more flash capacity than the 3800.
In conclusion, my thanks and praise go out to Dave Taht and the OpenWRT team in general. They’ve fully fulfilled the promise of open source – best quality, best practices and best reliability.