When your home “Wi-Fi router” is not enough…

A bit of boring history… Part 1:

US. Robotics 8054Going back in time, my first Wi-Fi router was the US. Robotics USR8054 802.11g Wireless Turbo Router with its 4x 100Mbit LAN and turbo Wi-Fi nobody else could (125Mbit) use and if I had >3 Wi-Fi users, it often died instantly (first Wi-Fi than LAN). It was a good router at the time and if nobody run torrents… At the time it was fine (especially, when I replaced original firmware with DD-WRT).

Linksys WRT300N

Then… it was the Linksys WRT300N… Didn’t last very long due to a position by the window it occupied… Died of condensation poisoning ūüėČ very dangerous sickness for any electrical device. Don’t remember to have any problems with it, it was working when it was alive…

Belkin 54g

Next was Belkin 54G, luckily in¬†this version, I was¬†able to replace the firmware with DD-WRT. Here, I was actually starting to be able to kill it with high¬†demands. It was beginning of¬†time, where all those mobile devices start getting access to the internet over Wi-Fi and all my previous home routers start showing age-related illnesses. Running on 300MHz CPU and having few MB ram wasn’t enough for more than¬†5 devices at the same time. Of course, having my desktops running Gigabit Ethernet but running in Fast¬†mode didn’t help either. So, I bite the bullet and ordered from Korea (¬£68 vs ¬£110 in the UK) the Speed Deamon: D-Link DIR-825 B1.

DIR-825_B1

It was THE router: 64MB RAM, 680MHz MIPS CPU, worked with DD-WRT, OpenWRT, Gargoyle firmware, 4x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x Gigabit WAN. Originally, this model was “bashed”¬†on the internet about how bad it was (most of it true for A1 and B1 versions running standard firmware), but soon as I replaced it with alternative (Gargoyle v1.8.1¬†is still¬†running now), it was really good, but… The 5GHz range wasn’t as good as 2.4GHz, but I think it was due to D-Link trying to save few quid and didn’t fit it with good power amplifiers for higher frequency, also it was beginning of 5GHz for consumers and 11N in the draft2.0 on both bands, didn’t help either. Here, I was quite happy with it and it has been good for me for a long 4 years. I probably wouldn’t change it, but I came across something like Virgin Media cable and its 30Mbits, 50Mbits, then 100Mbits and 200Mbits eventually and my router start getting bog down… then I discovered that if I use VPN with encryption for the whole house it will kill speed to barely 3… 5Mbits… Disaster, when you do not have hardware AES encryption…

Archer-C5v1.20

Then I found TP-Link Archer C5 v1.20 (DD-WRT and OpenWrt capable, with the same hardware as C7 v2.0) for ¬£49.00.¬†I do not have to think twice… 128MB RAM, 720MHz Archeros with original firmware OK for more than basic setup, Gigabit Ethernets, 11AC, dual band. To run on Virgin Media (VM) 200Mbits more than I need it. Of course, I wanted to test it with the latest OpenWrt, but discovered that unfortunately, there are 2 major problems (not a problem as per se, but…): Firstly, because of not using hardware NAT (and thank you for that, seriously :-)), the WAN -> LAN speed was half of its original potential (but then even for my VM 200Mbits, it was still within its range of around 300Mbits). Secondly, the 11AC Wi-Fi part was proprietary and neither OpenWrt nor DD-WRT was able to get it right, there was always some problems, sooner or later.

So… I have¬†6 mobile devices, TV with Wi-Fi, NAS, Satellite box, AVR with internet radio, 2x Desktops, Media Player… not much, but what if I want to run OpenVPN for whole house? 6..8Mbits max on Archer C5 and Gargoyle firmware… Again, no hardware AES and what’s the point to have 200Mbits, but use 8??

Then, I moved away and there is no Virgin Media, but SKY with its fibre 39Mbits. Ok, much slower, but I didn’t feel¬†any difference, to be honest… Strange…

As you getting older and have kids, you start to see internet as place, where you need to take control of¬†what’s going in and out from your network and I got to the point after having experience with many different kinds of consumer routers, that Wi-Fi routers cost more and more, have many good features and hardware tricks, but they are 5 years behind everyone else. How? My Mobile phone has 1GB RAM¬†and dual-core 1.4GHz CPU and is from 2011, but I saw dual-core ARM 1.2GHz¬†on the Wi-Fi router at the end of 2015 with its 256MB (1/4 of my mobile’s) and there are (in 2016) about few devices with dual-core and >128MB RAM… Disgrace and¬†if you add to the insult, that firmware side of those devices, is often rushed and not complete or fully tested, where proprietary drivers making it unsuitable to change firmware, you will end up with a very expensive toy, all singing and dancing, but unusable for anything more complicated than manufacturer anticipated.

If I want to, let say use OpenVPN, block pages via keywords or IP address (yeah.. I¬†know, some of them can, but it’s usually limited to few words or web pages) or anything more… you are not looking at¬†the consumer router at all.

All the time, I am running ARM or MIPS router systems due to low power. That’s all. There is nothing else to it. Crappy software, proprietary drivers, not able to upgrade with time, require you to buy new router all the time…

Having Media Player build on¬†Intel CPU (in my case, it was Intel Celeron G1610) and fully featured ITX motherboard with full-width PCIe 3.0 x16 will give you something to think about. This whole setup as a media player was (including PICO PSU 150W, 2GB RAM, 2.5″ hard drive) doing¬†about 30W with full HD movie on. OK, my router Archer C5¬†is doing max 5W, so I’m at loss of 25W, but it cannot do what I wanted, next one will be Linksys WRT1200 based on Marvell (AES supported) but costing around ¬£120, if not more and pooling about 10W full on. It can run OpenWrt, but 11AC has its own problems. So… What’s next?

Answer: PFSense. Simple. Running on x86 CPU like your normal PC… It just blows your mind this thing can do. Will I want to get another router in the future? No. Way. In. My. Life. Why? Let’s get to it: Why we buy ¬£100-¬£300 Wi-Fi router?

  1. It looks cool
  2. It has many antennas
  3. It is the fastest
  4. It only sips power from 5W-15W (depends on model)
  5. Has latest features (most of them are vulnerabilities and NOT features, unfortunately)
  6. It has alternative firmware (let’s be honest, it’s getting more and more problematic to actually get one “fully” supported by DD-WRT or OpenWrt)

To be honest, after all my previous toys, I wanted something, that was actually working and has many features I need. So, let’s get why:

  1. Looking cool? Don’t care. I got my case passed from NAS to Media Player to my PFSense router. It’s fine.
  2. Antennas? Don’t need one, still have my Archer C5, I’m using as an external Wi-Fi AP. Why? Looks cool, works fine as AP, doesn’t route anything, just transferring data. Simple. Even 200MHz CPU can do that now and I got there 720MHz. Great.
  3. Whooa… Intel G1610 will blow all those MIPS or ARM CPUs out of ANY water few times in the row.
  4. Archer C5 does 5W max, Linksys WRT1200 will do 10W… my Router with Intel Pro 1000VT will do 40W… Probably. Who cares. Difference between power consumptions will be at max 35W and with my prices of 12 pence per KWh, will yield¬†around ¬£3.50 per month. This will not change much because¬†I have enough CPU power to overtake my network needs 5 times, so I will not buy any routers in near future unless something breaks, but then anything can happen.
  5. PFSense is updated every so often including latest security patches, will your router get that? No way. Not possible.
  6. I can run PFSense or IPFire or anything else I wanted… Even Windows Server if I had money for it.

In the end… the only problem is, that it is not a plug-and-play solution. You need to know more or less what you want from your network and what you want to do with it, but judging by the need to change your router, it is time to get another look at x86 systems.

That’s why, part 2 will deal with actual installation and simple configuration… we will get webs/IPs blocked,¬† online Antivirus, have tons of info what’s going on in our network and more…

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