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A router is a device that route packets between different devices and networks.
Modern routers don't only route packets, but also offer several advanced features, like a firewall, QoS, packet filtering, DHCP and more. It's also common for routers to incorporate an access point, to provide wireless connectivity.
A modem is a simple device that connect a digital signal to an analog one, and vice versa. One is usually needed to connect to the Internet.
It's hard to find a modem by itself nowadays, most are sold as a modem/router combo. While those combos are nice, since you only need to run a single devices, they aren't usually supported by third party firmwares (the only exception being some router/modem combo using a Lantiq chipset, which are supported by OpenWRT), and are overpriced compared to standalone routers.
"Bridge mode" is used to "disable" the router part in those, and use them as standalone modems with a separate, standalone router.
For ADSL, modem using recent Broadcom chipset usually give the most stable/faster connection.
Many Internet Service Providers in the US provide a modem with their service, but it is usually shit. You may want to ask them for a list of approved modems before buying your own, but bear in mind that this list may just include companies that pay in order to get on that list.
Changing the antennas in your router is a quick way to improve the strength of the wireless connection. Note that while it usually help, it depends on a lot of factors. Changing the antennas could double your signal strength, or it might not improve anything. The only way to know for sure it's to try.
Routers usually come with 3db antennas. Aftermarket ones go up to 12db, and even more.
Routers also usually comes with omnidirectional antennas. Those are great since they send the signal in every direction, but if you need to reach only some specific point, mono/bidirectional antennas are better for that.
To change your antennas, you need to know what connector your router is using. The most common one is RP-SMA, but doublecheck on the router specification page too. If that page doesn't say anything, here's a great cheatsheet with the most common adapter.
When replacing the antennas, remember that you need to change every antennas your router has. Not changing them all will not provide any benefit, and might lower your signal strength.
When shopping for an aftermarket antenna, don't go too cheap. Cheap ones are "up to Xdb", which mean that it might go up to Xdb, but it probably will not.
Another solution to consider for improving signal strength is to get a better adapter. Sometimes you can't just do anything from your router, but you need a good adapter with a good external antenna.
Third party firmwares
Tomato is a custom firmware known for it's simple and user friendly interface.
There are several forks of Tomato, the most famous are:
- Tomato by Shibby it's the most featureful one. The major features include a Torrent client (Transmission), Tor support, DNSCrypt support and miniDLNA.
- AdvancedTomato based on Tomato by Shibby, but uses a new interface.
- Tomato by Toastman Barebone version, if you think that your router should only route packets, and do that the best it can.
- Tomato RAF It's the version that supports more routers than everyone else. If your router is not supported by any other version, check this one.
While there are many forks, their developers constantly share code. Because of this, it's hard to find a feature that it's supported by only a specific version of Tomato.
The OpenWRT wiki is not always updated, so when checking if your router is supported, always search in the forum too.
http://desipro.de/ddwrt/K3-AC-Arm/ DD-WRT fork(?) that support the latest ARM routers (Netgear R6250/R6300v2/R7000, Asus AC56U/AC68U, D-Link DIR-868R)
It supports the following models: RT-N16, RT-AC56U, RT-N66U, RT-AC66U, RT-AC68U.
Since it's based on Asuswrt, it uses the official webui, while adding several useful features, like SSH access, Cron jobs, customizable user scripts and several minor tweak/enchantments (full list here).
Use a computer as a router
If you have a spare computer around, or you need more power than a small arm/mips cpu can give you, then you can turn your computer into a router.
The advantages of running a computer as your router are:
- More powerful CPU, useful to run various services on it (normal routers choke when running a torrent client at high-speed, or a full webserver).
- Price, it's free or almost if you already have a spare computer around
The disadvantages are:
- Noise. Unless you build a passive-cooled system, you'll have fans running all the time.
- Power consumption. Routers use around 5-10W, while a full computer can use much more. If you have a pentium4 around, you can double that as a free heather.
- Price. If you don't have a spare computer, then building one can be more expansive than just getting a router.