Your small, home-office router has the potential to be as powerful as an enterprise device, it's just a question of getting the power out of it.
So how can you harness that power? Replace your router's firmware with the free, open-source DD-WRT firmware. You'll get all kinds of new capabilities, including boosting your router's signal, improving network performance and far more.
One word of warning, though: There's a chance you could do serious damage to your router if things go wrong during the firmware upgrade. You could even "brick" your router -- break it so badly it will no longer work. The great odds are that won't happen, of course, so read on if you want to get started.
Step One: Get the right router The first step is to make sure your router can be upgraded, or else buy one that does. Not all routers can have their firmware upgraded to DD-WRT. Many, in fact, can't.
Also, some routers from the same manufacturer can be upgraded, and some can't. To make things even more confusing, even the same models of routers from some manufacturers can be upgraded while others can't, depending on the firmware and hardware version and the underlying operating system.
For example, some versions of the Linksys WRT54G can use DD-WRT, while others can't because of changes to the firmware and underlying hardware.
So how to know which router can handle it? The best source of information about everything to do with DD-WRT is the exceedingly helpful and detailed DD-WRT Wiki. Head to the Supported Devices page to see if it will work with your router. Make sure to click the link on your model number for more details. That will be the only way for you to make sure your model really is supported; the page you link to will explain how you can find out your model's hardware version, firmware and capabilities, and it will explain whether the device will work with DD-WRT.
Step 2: Install the firmware Once you've confirmed that your model can handle DD-WRT, it's time to install the firmware. The instructions for installing firmware vary from router to router, and even from firmware version to firmware version of the same router – again use the DD-WRT Wiki site. For this article, I'll use the Linksys WRT54GL router, hardware Version 1.1.
Set up your router, connect it to the Internet, and connect your PC to the router. Make sure that you connect your PC to it via an Ethernet port, not wirelessly. If you try to upgrade the firmware wirelessly, you could brick your router.
Download the latest edition of the DD-WRT firmware from the DD-WRT site. In some instances, you'll have to download two versions of DD-WRT - a "mini" firmware version and then the standard firmware version. In that case, you'd first install the mini firmware, and once that is installed, install the standard version over it.
After you download the firmware and install the firmware, reset your router to its factory defaults. First, log into the administrator screen at 192.168.1.1. Then go to Administration -->
Next, do a hard reset of your router by holding down its reset button, which you can find on the back of the router. Hold it down for 30 seconds.
Now you're ready to flash the firmware. Before you do it, though, turn off any anti-virus software. If anti-virus software interrupts the firmware flash for any reason, you could damage your router.
Log into the administrator screen and select Administration --> Firmware Upgrade. Click the Browse button, and select the firmware you downloaded. The firmware will end with a .bin extension. For my router, I selected the generic version of the firmware, dd-wrt.v23_generic.bin, because that's what is required by this router and hardware version.
Click Upgrade, and then don't do anything. If you do anything at all while the firmware is being upgraded, you could damage your router. It will take several minutes. Next, you should see a screen like the one shown, telling you that the firmware upgrade was successful. Click Continue.
You'll be asked to log in again. Your username and password will be reset. The username will be "root," and the password "admin." However, you may not be able to log in yet. Reset your router by holding down its reset button for 30 seconds. You should now be able to log in to your router, and when you do, the new firmware will be there.
Step 3: Troubleshoot the firmware upgrade In the ideal world, your firmware should now be upgraded. Most of us, though, don't live in the ideal world. And so you may run into problems when you upgrade your firmware. For example, when I upgraded my WRT54GL, a screen appeared telling me that the upgrade was successful. But I couldn't log into the router, even after resetting it.
Following advice on the Recover From a Bad Flash page on the DD-WRT Wiki, I unplugged the router's power cord, held down the reset button, then while holding it down plugged the power cord back in and held the reset button for five seconds. I then released the button and waited a minute. Then I logged into the router, and the DD-WRT screen appeared.
Step 4: Give your router enterprise-level features When you log into the router now using "root" as the username and "admin" as the password, you'll see a completely different screen, and you'll be using your new firmware, as shown in the nearby figure.
As you can see, you're not in the world of your old router firmware. For starters, there's a great deal more detail here about your router and network. Look toward the bottom of the screen. You'll see a list of all the wired and wireless PCs on your network, including their IP addresses.
For wireless PCs, you'll also see the signal strength of their wireless connections. There's far more information here as well, such as the number of wireless packets sent and received, and the number of errors.
There are countless things you'll now be able to do with DD-WRT firmware, and this article only has the space to touch the surface. So I'll cover some of the high points, but there's plenty else you can do as well, so take the time to poke around the DD-WRT Wiki.
The biggest problem that most people have with their wireless routers is that the signal is too weak in certain places at work or home. This is a particular problem if you live in a house. Your router might be downstairs, and the upstairs rooms may have weak signals. Not uncommonly, you'll find near dead spots in your house as well.
The DD-WRT solves the problem easily; it lets you bump up the power of your wireless signal.
To do it, log into the DD-WRT Control Panel and select Wireless --> Advanced Settings. Scroll down to Xmit Power, as shown on the screen.
In Linksys, the default is 28 milliwatts. You can crank it up well beyond that; the range you can use with DD-WRT is between 0 and 251 mW. But don't crank it up all the way, or even close to all the way. If you do, you could quickly burn out your router, because the higher the milliwatt rating you use, the more heat your radio chip set will generate, and you could quickly brick your router.
The DD-WRT documentation says that using up to 70 mW should be safe in most cases. You may want to start lower than that, and keep increasing it until you find that the wireless signal is strong throughout your house. Click Save Settings every time you make a change.
Improve network performance Several other settings on the Advanced Settings tab may help improve the performance of your wireless network. Changing the Beacon Interval setting can help if wireless clients are getting poor performance. The beacon is a wireless packet the router sends out as a way to synchronise the network. The default setting is 100 milliseconds. Change it to 50 milliseconds if you have wireless clients with poor reception.
If you have a network with from only one to three wireless PCs on it, you can also improve performance by allowing Frame Burst. This enables packet bursting, which can increase overall network speed. But if you have more than three clients, you can actually decrease throughput by doing this. By default it's turned off; select Enable if you want it on. When you're done, click Save Settings.
DD-WRT includes powerful quality-of-service (QoS) features that let you ensure that certain applications and PCs get the most bandwidth when they need it. This is particularly helpful for voice-over-IP applications like Skype that need all the bandwidth they can get in order to get as high a voice quality as possible. You have numerous options for QoS, and can prioritise network bandwidth not only by application, but by PC as well.
For the basic setup, select Applications and Gaming --> QoS, and select Enable next to Start QoS. Then select WAN from the Port drop-down list, if it's not already selected. See the figure of the QoS screen.
Next, fill in the uplink and downlink boxes. For each box, enter 85 percent of the bandwidth your Internet service provider gives you. For example, if you have a 1.5 megabit download speed and 256Kbit/s upload speed, enter 218 for uplink and 1306 for downlink. Make sure not to confuse the two.
The rest of the screen lets you optimise your bandwidth for certain applications, certain PCs on your network and by other criteria. To give a certain application, such as Skype, high priority, click Add, then select the application from the list that appears. Click Add, and it will be added to the Services Priority List. From the Priority drop-down box, select what kind of priority you want to give it. The highest priority is Exempt, and the lowest is bulk. You can also give applications low priority as well.
The QoS screen also lets you give certain PCs high priority. For PCs attached to the router via Ethernet, scroll down to Ethernet Port Priority, and make a selection from the Priority drop-down box to assign different levels to each PC. You can also specify maximum bandwidth rates for each, by selecting them from the Max Rate drop-down list.
You can also assign priorities to wireless PCs. Go to the MAC Priority section, and add the media access control address of any wireless adapter. When you're done, click Save Settings.
Restrict Internet use If you want to restrict certain PCs from using the Internet during certain hours, you can turn off Internet access for any PC on the network for certain hours. You can also block access to certain websites or services, either during certain hours, or all the time.
From the main DD-WRT screen, click Access Restrictions, and a screen like that shown nearby appears. Click Enable, and from the Policy drop-down menu, select a number. You can create up to 10 separate policies. Enter a name for your profile in the Policy Name box. Then click Edit List of PCs. From the list that appears, select PCs either by MAC address or by IP address or range. Click Deny, because you're going to deny access to the Internet or services during certain hours.
Now fill out the rest of the screen. You can restrict access by day of the week, for all day or within a certain time range, you can restrict specific services, such as ftp or certain games, you can block specific URLs, and so on. When you're done, click Save Settings.
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