802.11ac wireless routers, with their multi-spatial MIMO antennae, high-power transmitters and blazing fast data throughput rates, are rapidly attracting SOHO and prosumer customers who want the ultimate in Wi-Fi speed for the most demanding home entertainment and content creating applications, such as immersive video games, high-definition video streaming and large file transfers.
Many, if not all of the folks in this target market really want to get the most out of their network hardware, so there's been market demand for combining the raw tech of the latest and greatest wireless chipsets along with Open Source, Linux-based firmware such as DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato.
Why Open Source firmware? DD-WRT is able to utilize a lot of the advanced features that the latest and greatest wireless chipsets have, as well as the additional functionality built into the latest Linux kernels, which might not be exploitable using out-of-the box manufacturer firmware. It's also a great way to breathe new life into older routers as well.
However, installing DD-WRT is not for the average person. Not all routers are supported, and there's also a chance that a glitch or human error during the flash process will "brick" the device, rendering it e-waste. So now router companies are offering devices with variants of DD-WRT preloaded.
There are a few companies who are currently offering, or will soon be offering, 802.11ac products with integrated or manufacturer-supported Open Source firmware. Most notably is ASUS which has a line of routers that support their ASUSWRT Open Source firmware, and Belkin, which will soon be offering a high-end Open Source-capable router with the Linksys WRT1900AC.
Buffalo Tech has been on the forefront of 802.11ac, being the first company to ship products using the draft of the protocol specification in May of 2012. It is also one of the few companies that ships routers that use the Open Source DD-WRT firmware out of the box.
Buffalo is also a sponsor of the DD-WRT project and actively develops its own derivatives of the firmware for its own products.
The latest and greatest Buffalo router, the WZR-1750DHPD, features a Broadcom BCM4331/BCM4360 based chipset, 3x3 MIMO spatial streams, USB 3.0 for integrated NAS capability, four gigabit LAN ports and a gigabit ethernet port.
It is definitely a high-end prosumer product and, as a DD-WRT router, it's quite a good one.
My entire five-bedroom home is now utterly saturated with 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz signal and, for the few devices I have that can use 802.11ac, I'm definitely getting very high throughput. It's also making the very best of my anemic 18Mbps/1.5Mbps U-verse broadband connection, as I've never encountered such decent wire-line speeds with the various router products I've had at my current Florida residence.
However, as to be expected of a high-end device, it also has a high-end price tag: $189.00 street.
Aside from the high-spec parts, the greatest strength of the product is the stable (October 2013) and powerful DD-WRT v24SP2 firmware.
However, the greatest weakness of the product is also the highly complicated DD-WRT v24SP2 firmware. Let me explain.
I'm far from a neophyte when it comes to DD-WRT. I've probably successfully flashed at least half a dozen routers with it over the years to experiment with. I've also bricked my share as well. When DD-WRT is working properly, it is a glorious thing.
But my particular networking setup is complicated, and I'm pretty sure it isn't unique given the target customer base for this product. Because I use AT&T U-verse, I have a residential gateway (RG) that acts as the master router on my network and also is the demarc for the VDSL line coming into the house that carries not just my broadband but also my digital TV service. U-verse also maintains its own CISCO wireless access point plugged into the RG for my wireless TV boxes.
Fiber to the Home (FTTH) providers like Verizon FIOS and even U-Verse in some markets also use residental gateways as well. So many of us with these kinds of setups like having a separate access point just for our own wireless stuff and leave the RG alone to do its thing.
To do this, it is ideal to run your own wireless equipment in "Bridged" mode or Wireless Access Point mode, which is to say that all it does is broadcast wireless signals on your existing network being managed by the RG; it doesn't do DHCP, resolve DNS, act as a firewall or route anything.
You can also run a secondary router behind the existing RG NAT with another NAT in its default configuration (a.k.a. "double NAT") but that gets very ugly and overly complicated to deal with. Ain't nobody got time for that.
Most consumer/prosumer router products have a relatively easy way to turn on WAP or Bridge mode. On DD-WRT, because of the dizzying array of things you can configure, even someone who actually knows what he's doing with network equipment can get fouled up.
It tool me the better part of the day, probably half a dozen tries with factory resets until I actually found good instructions, none of which were provided on Buffalo's website. To be fair, these are straight from DD-WRT's wiki pages, and Buffalo's DD-WRT is more or less vanilla DD-WRT, sans branding.
Still, it would be helpful even if Buffalo mirrored DD-WRT's pages or had a few sample configuration documents for common setups like this.
I also had some initial wireless authentication and network visibility issues with my iOS 7.1 devices when using my wife's iPhone 5, my iPhone 5s and my iPad Air. These were fixed when I changed some settings for the type of encryption method used and also the channel width on the 2.4Ghz band.
I also had a bunch of connectivity issues with my SONOS components that required additional settings tweaks for the 2.4Ghz frequency band as well as some SPI firewall settings.
Now, you could argue that you might encounter the same issues with router firmware that is not as flexible as DD-WRT. However, if you are looking for a "It just works" solution, DD-WRT-based routers are probably not for you. You'd be better off looking at Buffalo's "stock" 802.11ac router which is almost identical, firmware excepted.
I like this router. But I am a geek and a professional technologist who used to consolidate datacenters for a living who runs enterprise-class servers just for kicks in his spare bedroom. If you're adventurous, give it a spin. If complex SOHO networking stuff frightens you or you didn't understand half of what I said in this article, go for a consumer solution.
Do you use a DD-WRT based router or are in the market for one with Open Source firmware preloaded? Talk back and let me know.