In search of a wireless router that doesn't suck

Consumer wireless routers all suck. I don’t care if they’re by Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, or Belkin. Recommendations online are useless: everyone has had a $40 router die from one of these companies, so they switched to a rival’s $40 router that hasn’t died yet in the 2 weeks that they’ve had it, so they think it’s great, until it dies 8 months later and they switch to the next rival’s $40 router. And so on. (Even Apple’s $150 routers seem no more reliable, on average, based on user reviews after more than a few months — except that they cost more to replace.)

Routers suck because they’re extremely commoditized devices that need to bring nontechnical people very impressive capabilities and shield them from from the complex networking problems behind the scenes, yet still sell at Wal-Mart for $40 and include enough of a margin to offer tech support over the phone to your crazy great aunt with all of the cats who plugged a phone cable between the WAN and LAN1 ports and pushed the standby button on the DSL modem and can’t figure out where its USB cable plugs into the router because you set up the last one for her but you now live 1200 miles away and would really rather spend your Friday night having fun instead of talking her through it for 4 hours before finally giving up because her “screen’s half blue” and telling her to call Best Buy sometime before 8 months from now when this router dies and she has to repeat the process.

So I understand why the $40 routers suck.

I’m willing to pay more for better equipment. An ideal router for a heavy internet user should:

  • Never overheat or require arbitrary resets
  • Be able to saturate the bandwidth of the fastest modern home broadband connections (up to 50 Mbit down with FiOS)
  • Include an 802.11g or 802.11n access point
  • Have enough CPU power to maintain reasonable wireless throughput even when using encryption
  • Support modern conveniences such as UPnP, NAT-PnP, DDNS updates, and a high number of port-forwarding rules
  • Have a web configuration interface that makes common tasks relatively straightforward (Cisco fails this one miserably)
  • Not be ridiculously large, draw a lot of power, or require a fan (this rules out most Linux/BSD router distributions that run on old computers)

After a night of research so far, I can’t find such a device available at any price, although I’d like to keep it below around $350 (seems like a lot of routers that almost do this are around that price or less). But there are a few options that might come close.

Business-class routers

Also called SOHO routers or VPN routers, these are higher-end routers (that usually don’t include a wireless access point), usually for $200-400. But many of them are just the same awful consumer-level hardware with a few business-friendly features added, such as advanced VPN capabilities.


  • Cisco 851 (or 851W with wireless). Seems almost perfect, except that the Cisco configuration process is an absolute nightmare for even simple arrangements.
  • Linksys RV042. Just a router, so it needs a separate wireless AP. User reviews indicate that it has a pretty high dud rate and it needs a factory-performed battery replacement after about a year.
  • Netgear ProSafe VPN line. Very mixed reviews indicate that this probably isn’t any more reliable than their consumer ruter line.

Pros: Low power consumption. Reasonable cost.
Cons: Configuration complexity. Often requires separate wireless AP. Those with built-in APs almost never support 802.11n. Potentially no more reliable than $40 routers.

Using internet-connection sharing on my computer

My computer has two Ethernet ports and an 802.11n card, so it can be the router for the rest of the network. (This is what I’m doing in the meantime while I figure out what to replace my awful Linksys router with.)

Pros: Never overheats or crashes. Excellent performance. Easy setup.
Cons: Requires my high-power computer to be running constantly. Limited configuration options. Drops the entire network’s connection when I reboot or want to use Boot Camp. Entire security burden rests on my computer, which is fairly exposed to the world.

Linux/BSD router on an old PC

Many special distributions offer nice router functionality if you have a spare PC lying around, including m0n0wall, pfSense, and SmoothWall.

Pros: Never overheats or crashes. Excellent performance. Excellent configuration interfaces and capabilities. Cheap if you already have an old PC.
Cons: Requires an old PC, which I don’t have. Needs a lot more power and space than any other option. Fan noise.

Linux/BSD router on an embedded computer

You can install those same packages on special embedded PC boards optimized for small size and low power usage, such as those by Soekris and PC Engines.

Pros: High performance. Shouldn’t overheat or crash. Excellent configuration interfaces and capabilities once the OS is installed. Small. Low power. Bonus geek points.
Cons: Not very cheap. Too many choices with little guidance — hard to choose the right hardware. Requires a lot of time to build it yourself and install the software. Unknown long-term reliability.

Just keep buying $40 routers

Certainly the most economical option: just keep buying new $40 routers whenever they die. This is the option I’ve chosen for the last few years, and is what I’ve recommended to friends.

Pros: Cheapest, even over a reasonably long term. Smallest. Lowest power.
Cons: Unreliable. Having to crawl under my desk every few days to reset them. Bad wireless performance with encryption. Usually very ugly and full of unnecessary LEDs.

Now what?

I’m leaning toward the embedded-computer-m0n0wall option, but not very strongly. Having to set up port forwarding and UPnP on the Cisco 851W scares me. I could keep buying $40 routers, but then the problem is never really solved.

Is there anything I missed here? Email me.

Update 1

  • I mentioned the Apple Airport Extreme in the first paragraph. I appreciate the recommendations, but user reviews (and my own personal experience in an office full of them) seem to indicate a pretty average failure rate compared to every $40 router out there.
  • I know about the Linksys WRT54GL, the version of the popular WRT54G capable of being flashed with third-party firmwares such as DD-WRT. I had one of these a while ago, and while it did have plenty of great additional features, it didn’t help the unreliable hardware at all — it overheated and crashed just as frequently as the stock firmware.

Update 2

I got a lot more strong recommendations for the Apple Airport Extreme from many tech experts, including Ars Technica’s David Chartier. It was tempting, but there are just too many people reporting the same crash/require-reset problems that plague the $40 routers. If it were anywhere near that price, I might be willing to take the risk — but not for $180, a price approaching the far-more-reliable options.

After considering everyone’s (excellent) feedback on this and weighing a few decent options, I’ve decided to go with this embedded system with pfSense. (I learned that m0n0wall doesn’t support UPnP.) I may regret the complexity of the initial configuration process — I’m hoping that it comes with reasonable defaults and I won’t actually ever need to connect a null-modem cable — but after the basic setup, it looks like everything’s available in the (very nice looking) web GUI. This probably isn’t an option that non-geeks should ever consider, unfortunately. (But I really doubt that any non-geeks are still reading by this point.)

In a week or two, once I’ve had time to set it up and use it for a while, I’ll update again with my experiences so far.