The router is the most important computer in your home but most consumer routers are junk hardware with terrible software. For years my Linksys WRT54GL + Tomato firmware has been doing me well but Tomato hasn’t had an update in two years and the WRT54GL doesn’t do 802.11n.
The modern equivalent is an ASUS RT-N16 running Toastman’s Tomato build. Good stuff. The RT-N16 does 802.11n well and is overpowered hardware. The Toastman builds have all the goodness of stock Tomato along with nice features like USB drives and file serving. And my favorite feature, per-device network monitoring; perfect for figuring out what the heck is using all your bandwidth.
The stock ASUS firmware is garbage. Replacing it is a bit tricky; your choices are using their weird Windows software, installing a signed DD-WRT build first, or doing it by hand with tftp. I did the tftp trick and it worked fine. Unfortunately Toastman distributes his builds on a server that requires a login, but it does actually work. I used build tomato-K26USB 1.28.7500 4MIPSR2Toastman-RT-Ext.
Some alternatives.. The ASUS RT-N66U is fancier hardware that does 5GHz 802.11n for more wireless speed. But it’s about twice the price. The Shibby Tomato builds are also under active development and popular. And some people like OpenWRT or DD-WRT firmware; I prefer Tomato’s simplicity.
This recommendation mostly comes from Jeff Atwood
For our recent trip Ken and I took our iPhones. It's nice to stay in touch back home and I've become pretty reliant on my iPhone for getting around. Here's some tips on using an iPhone internationally for Americans stuck with AT&T. (There's a whole alternative of unlocking the phone and using a European SIM; not discussed here). See also AT&T's iPhone travel tips, they're pretty useful.
AT&T's roaming is pretty unreliable. Half the incoming phone calls I know about never arrived, not even to voicemail. Caller ID doesn't work. SMS messages disappear. Rates are outrageous, something like $2/minute. It's a bit cheaper if you set up "AT&T World Connect" on your account for $4/month before you leave. But who cares about the phone, you really want your iPhone as an Internet terminal. And it works pretty well for that in Europe, provided you either find free WiFi or else you don't mind paying through the nose.
If you don't buy the "Data Global Add-On" you will be paying $10/mb for data from the cell network (EDGE or 3G). That's absolutely hideous pricing. You can pre-order a chunk of 20, 50, 100, or 200 mb/month at roughly $1 / megabyte. That's still outrageous but bearable. Note: you can order the data for just a few weeks and cancel. Overage is $5/mb.
How much bandwidth do you need? If I was being careful, it was 2 mb/day. That was enough bandwidth to catch up on email and Twitter twice a day, maybe get a couple of web pages or upload a photo. Then I had one bad day where I looked up a few maps and restaurants and blew through 10 megabytes. You really have to be careful.
How do you be careful? #1 way is to find free WiFi. There's a lot of free WiFi in Europe, more-so than the US. Public town squares, train stations, and busy cafes are good bets. Sometimes the cafe WiFi is password protected, just ask and they'll give you a password. Hotels are hit and miss. A lot of my rooms only had wired Internet, I regretted not bringing a little WiFi router.
If you're stuck with using cell for data, the #1 option for being careful is to turn off "Data Roaming" in Settings. If you do that, you'll use no bandwidth. You'll also not be able to use the Internet. Geolocation won't work well either. I found it really irritating to have Data Roaming off all the time. So instead I configured the phone to be lean by turning off Notifications and "Mail / Fetch New Data" in Settings. I also reset my Usage counters to track what I was using in Europe.
iPhone apps will still use a lot of bandwidth when you launch them. The real killer is Google Maps, a total hog. OffMaps is a nice alternative with cached maps in offline mode. Expect to pre-load 500-1000mb of maps for a long trip, you really want the finest grain detail when walking around. Apple's Mail app is reasonably network efficient, particularly compared to Gmail in Safari. The New York Times app is great for caching a bunch of news articles on WiFi then reading them later. And Twitter is a great low bandwidth way to keep in touch with people, although apps like Tweetie are not particularly network efficient.
AT&T's data roaming charges are ridiculous and it's a real pain watching your bandwidth. But it's totally worth it, the iPhone makes a great little companion while travelling. I particularly liked being able to use Twitter as a travel diary complete with photos, it was a lot of fun seeing responses from people to what I was doing that day.
Every network port on your computer has a MAC address, a unique 48 bit identifier. It's a bit like an IP address but lower level; your wireless or ethernet delivers Internet packets to you by knowing your MAC address.
It's very important that every computer on a network has a unique MAC address. So important, that all network hardware has a unique ID burned into its firmware (one of only two sources of standard unique bits on a typical PC). However, it's common for routers to support "MAC address cloning", where your router impersonates your computer when talking to your ISP. That feature was placed there to work around inflexible ISP networks and network policies, and it's mostly useful.
But MAC address cloning can be quite harmful, as I learned today. See, I cloned my laptop's MAC address to my router. Then two years ltaer I cloned my laptop's MAC address to my new router, too, in my new house three miles away. Miraculously this worked fine for a year, until this morning. When my network connection would go down at random intervals. I'm guessing the layer 2 stuff wasn't broken by the duplicate MAC address but rather it confused some DHCP housekeeping in my ISP's network management back office.
Three cheers to my wonderful ISP, sonic.net, for helping me figure out this bizarre problem. I love that when I call them I get a tech who will happily discuss DHCP leases, MAC addresses, and non-standard router firmware wtih me. They were as mystified as I was at first, but talking it over at the phone we figured out something was going bad with address assignment. No way either of us could have figured this out without working together.
A few weeks ago I asked for advice on Vista or XP for a new computer. Responses were mixed, but most of the people I talked to who actually use Vista are fine with it. So I got a new Vista 64 box and after 24 hours it seems to be working great. Sure is nice having fast new hardware.
I'm long past the point where new computers are fun; it's just a chore to set one up. But I spend all day in front of a computer, so fast hardware is nice. And the software experience is like a home to me, my environment. So I care a fair amount about the details. Here they are.
The Tomato firmware for routers seems to be good software. It's a simple replacement firmware for the Linksys WRT54GL and a few other Broadcom based routers. It's tightly focussed on being a good router, nothing more. And it has decent documentation.
The main feature it has over most routers is Quality of Service routing. The default configuration once you turn it on gives priority to DNS requests, small Web requests, and outbound ACKs. That last feature is really important; it should solve problem that a single upload totally kills all downloads on an asynchronous connection like residential DSL. I also tweaked it to give ssh and ntp priority.
Tomato isn't going to solve my problem of flaky router hardware, but at least the software may work sensibly. The QoS feature should be a significant improvement. Hopefully some day a consumer router manufacturer will get smart and build QoS in to their products.
My Netgear FWG114P router has failed three times in the last two days, requiring a reboot. Last time was locked up dead, couldn't even ping the router over the LAN. It's working now, but in my experience once these things start failing they have a week before they die entirely.
My friends now make fun of me for how often I complain about routers on my blog. But WTF? Why do all my routers die in a few months? I'm not doing anything that strange with them. My only thought is that the 80° server closet they're in is causing heat problems. But that's nowhere near out of the 104° spec.
I'd thought paying extra for Netgear blue box hardware would help, but I guess not. My next option is to either go with a Draytek 2800G at $200, hoping for reliability, or else go back to a junky Linksys router with the hopes that Tomato firmware will make it work reliably.
The iPhone has a pretty nifty WiFi implementation. It worked great in my house with my cheap Belkin router for about 15 minutes, then never worked again. The iPhone thought it had a connection but nothing would load. Then I switched routers at home to the Netgear FWG114P and now the iPhone Wifi is fine.
Was the problem Apple's or Belkin's? Was it the ARP implementation, or the DHCP lease maintenance, or the WEP-128 implementation, or the 802.11g switching magic? How could I possibly know? Wifi is more voodoo than science and the complexity of Internet protocols is so high I'd never be able to figure out the specific problem. And if I did, I couldn't fix it anyway; all the firmware is closed. So I just keep going through routers until I find one that works.
I'm not the only one with home router woes; I've gotten lots of sympathy and some requests for advice. My new Belkin router is mostly working now, but at $40 I don't have a lot of faith it will last. That, and its implementation of UPnP isn't compatible with uTorrent's. Yay.
I've gone ahead and also bought a Netgear FWG114P. It's one of the blue metal box Netgear devices for business use; I've had great luck with this line of hardware before. At $120 the big feature you get is VPN support, but I'm hoping it's got better electronics too.
Another option is to buy a $65 Linksys WRT54GL; the L makes all the difference. That means it runs the old Linux based firmware that you can flash upgrade with 3rd party open source. So the software won't have stupid bugs but the hardware is still a gamble. I had a first generation WRT54G crap out on me after about a year.
One last option recommended by a reader is a Draytek router like the 2900G. They're a European brand with a reputation for high quality and extra features. I like the 2910G; two outgoing WAN ports with load balancing and failover. They're a bit spendy at around $200.
In the early days of US home broadband you had a static IP address and a live real TCP/IP connection. Because of the demands of security and customer support that's been whittled away. Now we have the hassle of dynamic IP addresses and abominations like PPPoE.
I just upgraded my home connection to sonic.net, a small California ISP where the person who answers the support line actually knows what they're doing and respects you might, too. So far so good, except sadly I find they're blocking all traffic on port 25. So much for running a mail server at home. I can't exactly blame them, but it's a nuisance.
I'm on my fourth home router in twelve months; the junky Buffalo router didn't turn back on after I unplugged it today. No blinky lights = no internet. This time I'm trying a Belkin router. At $40 they're essentially disposable, but I'd still gladly pay more for one that actually worked.
Today's project in France was buying a wireless router so that Ken and I can share the wired Internet connection in our hotel and, later, our apartment in Paris. Surprisingly the guy at the computer store didn't speak any English, but routeur was easy to figure out and if you look at the pictures on the box, you know what you have. I ended up with an WRT54GC, a nice small size. Glad I already know the Linksys firmware; the router's in French and I'm afraid to flash a non-European micrologiciel into it.
I sewed a button onto a shirt today, too. All I have to do now is bleed a pig and I've got all of life's basic skills under control.