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Tomato Firmware Turns Your Cheap Wireless Router Into a Powerhouse - page 2

Turn Your Cheap Wireless Router Into a Powerhouse

  • October 6, 2008
  • By Aaron Weiss

First look

While DD-WRT presents a veritable geek's paradise of menus and options, the Tomato interface is sleek almost to the point of minimalism. While form does not necessarily equal function, the aesthetic difference between Tomato and DD-WRT is representative of the differing philosophies of these two firmware: whereas DD-WRT packs in nearly every configuration option under the sun, Tomato is slimmed down and accessible, although still highly functional.

Like all router firmware, Tomato covers the basics�support for Internet access via DHCP/PPPoE/Static/PPTP/L2TP. You can configure wireless with security using WEP/WPA/WPA2 and Radius. Wireless mode supports 14 channels, although it should be noted that using channels higher than 11 may run afoul of regulations in some countries.

Tomato's wireless mode supports WDS, letting you connect it to additional wireless routers to increase your range. You can also flip the wireless radio into client mode to create a wireless client or bridge, in which case the router is not broadcasting wireless but receiving it, letting you attach cabled devices to another access point wirelessly.

Like some other firmware, Tomato supports dynamic DNS (DDNS) services. Most home broadband users do not enjoy a static IP address for external access to their LAN. Web services like No-IP and DynDNS let you create a public domain (like "joespc.dyndns.org") and update it with your current IP address. Tomato supports an extensive list of DDNS services.

Again, users of DD-WRT will find all this familiar. For Tomato enthusiasts, two major features that really set it apart are its bandwidth monitoring and Quality of Service (QoS) management.

tomato_qos.jpg

Tomato displays QoS traffic usage in pie chart form.

Tomato tracks all incoming and outgoing traffic and, using SVG (scalable vector graphics), generates a live map of bandwidth usage. You can view real-time bandwidth activity, or summaries from the past 24 hours, days, weeks, or months. The bandwidth monitor is both visually slick and easy to interpret. Why should you care? Increasingly, broadband providers are introducing transfer limits (or "caps") on customers. For many of us, it will soon be in our best interests to track our own usage, both to avoid incurring overage charges, and perhaps to contest potentially inaccurate tallies provided by the ISP.

Managing bandwidth goes beyond traffic totals. The fact is, some kinds of network traffic are more important than others�your VoIP calls and gaming action need to get through faster than, say, bittorrent transfers. QoS, or Quality of Service, is a system for classifying and discriminating traffic inside your own LAN for maximum performance.

Tomato offers a very comprehensive set of QoS tools, allowing you to define a large range of inbound and outbound classes, and assigning types of traffic to these classes. Although you can describe network traffic by parameters like port and protocol, Tomato also includes an extensive list of canned traffic, from Skype to World of Warcraft, for easy classification. Like overall bandwidth, QoS traffic can be viewed in graph form.

DD-WRT, too, offers QoS management. Tomato's version is, to some, easier to manage. And, although these reports are anecdotal, user sentiment suggests that Tomato's QoS may work better and more efficiently than that found in DD-WRT. No doubt there are happy DD-WRT users who will disagree, but since both firmware are free, if you have had difficulties wrangling DD-WRT's QoS then Tomato may be worth a try.

The Tomato interface can be customized through the choice of several templates ("Tomato," "Pumpkin," "Olive," etc.), or you can supply your own custom CSS file. But beyond mere looks, the neat thing about Tomato is that it relies on AJAX for most configuration changes, meaning that you hardly ever need to reboot the router after changing settings. Fact is, the same cannot be said of DD-WRT.

Getting advanced

It is easy to get the impression that Tomato is "dumbed down" compared to DD-WRT or other firmware, such as OpenWRT. Certainly, Tomato presents the most accessible face to sophisticated router management. But it's no slouch in the advanced configuration department, either.

For wireless performance, you will find controls for Afterburner support, manual selection of RX/TX antennas, and transmit power up to 251mW.

Advanced administration controls let you customize the behavior of the hardware reset button for intervals ranging from 0 to 12+ seconds, and you can even trigger custom scripts. A built-in CIFS client lets you share the router's internal file system across your LAN. You can schedule reboots or custom scripts to run on a configurable time/day basis.

Built-in network tools let you run pings, traceroutes, and wireless surveys from the router. You can also trigger wake-on-lan (WOL) packets from the router to specified PC's, causing them to resume from sleep.

Tomato vs. DD-WRT

One cannot help but compare the two, considering how they occupy such similar territory. Each has its supporters and there is no clear answer that one is intrinsically better than the other. Still, there are differences to consider.

DD-WRT supports a much wider range of router models. It is also available in several feature sets, from minimal to comprehensive, allowing for routers with differing amounts of flash memory. Tomato is available in one feature set, and so cannot be flashed onto routers with minimal amounts of memory.

DD-WRT is more thoroughly documented than Tomato and also enjoys an active support forum. Tomato also has a documentation wiki, but it is still in an early stage of maturity.

Tomato is light, efficient, and offers powerful features wrapped in friendly packaging, making it a very accessible firmware for both novices and most typical home networking scenarios. DD-WRT involves a higher learning curve.

Although there is no clear winner between Tomato and DD-WRT, it is easy to imagine that many users will find Tomato an attractive step up from stock firmware.

Aaron Weiss is a freelance writer, editor, and Wi-Fi enthusiast based in upstate New York. In addition to tutorials, Aaron writes a monthly Q&A column. To submit your questions, simply click on Aaron's byline (above) and put "Wi-Fi Guru" in the subject line. Click here to read a recent column.

 

Article courtesy of Wi-Fi Planet

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