Hackers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but the lousy stock firmware your routers shipped with.
Apart from smartphones, routers and wireless base stations are undoubtedly the most widely hacked and user-modded consumer devices. In many cases the benefits are major and concrete: a broader palette of features, better routing functions, tighter security, and the ability to configure details not normally allowed by the stock firmware (such as antenna output power).
The hard part is figuring out where to start. If you want to buy a router specifically to be modded, you might be best served by working backward. Start by looking at the available offerings, picking one of them based on the feature set, and selecting a suitable device from the hardware compatibility list for that offering.
In this piece we've rounded up five of the most common varieties of third-party operating systems, with emphasis on what they give you and who they're best for. Some of these are designed for embedded hardware or specific models of router only; some are designed as more hardware-agnostic solutions; and some are intended to serve as the backbone for x86-based appliances. To that end, we've presented them with the more embedded-oriented solutions first and the more generic-PC oriented solutions last.
DD-WRT is a popular router firmware choice not only with hobbyists and hackers, but router manufacturers as well. Buffalo, for instance, uses DD-WRT as the basis for many of its home and prosumer router offerings. The original product was created in 2005 for the Linksys WRT54G router, a device designed to accept Linux-based firmware, and the core software is available as a GPL offering. Note that there may be fairly major differences in implementation or presentation between the core version of DD-WRT and third-party, router-specific editions such as Buffalo's.
Supported hardware: DD-WRT supports Broadcom, ADM, Atheros, or Ralink chip sets, but be aware that not all devices using these chip sets are automatically compatible. Some may require unit-specific hackery to work; some may not work at all, period. The DD-WRT maintainers also keep a database of supported devices, along with a list in their wiki of both devices and features.
Features: DD-WRT provides a breadth of powerful features not normally found in consumer-grade routers, such as ChilliSpot (for creating commercial-grade Wi-Fi hotspots), the AnchorFree VPN system, and support for the NoCat wireless community network system. It also comes in a range of differently sized builds, from the 2MB "micro" build that supports only the most essential functions to the 8MB "mega" build that has, well, everything. This allows the firmware to be placed on devices of widely varying storage capacity.
Limitations: The core version of DD-WRT is updated very infrequently. If you want more frequent updates, you either must go with an interim beta or pick a manufacturer-supplied version with regular revisions.
Recommendation: DD-WRT is the best choice for most users. The fact that DD-WRT comes as a stock preload (albeit with mods) in many routers makes it easy to get your hands on a router with it both preloaded and tuned specifically to work with your hardware, as well as to keep it updated.
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