For nearly a decade I have been holding onto my ancient WRT54G simply because it runs an open source firmware called Tomato and offers me a few simple yet powerful features. Even after testing a speedy Belkin router earlier this year I demoted it to the role of access point and put the WRT back in front.
So when Asus contacted me about testing out their RT-N66U router I couldn’t refuse. The promise of a modern radio with the power of an open source firmware was an offer I couldn’t refuse. The router promises speeds up to 450 Mbps on 802.11n with the flexibility of the open source firmware packages that I have been using.
This was definitely the easiest router I’ve set up. I plugged it in, connected to the unsecured WiFi it provided and followed the “Quick Internet Setup” link on the web user interface. Total time from plugging it in to securing the WiFi was under 5 minutes. I cheated and used my previous SID and WPA2 key so none of our 20-some devices had to be reconfigured.
Some would think that getting everyone online was the final step in setting up a router, but we are a well connected family so being online is only the first of many steps.
The stock firmware is packed with most of the features that prompted me to explore openWRT and Tomato in the first place. Asus appears to have encouraged the hacker community by leaving a lot of features open on the router, and even providing source code for a lot of their system.
Port forwarding allows you to connect to points inside your home from the internet. Many devices in your home already do this using a protocol called UPnP. The protocol allows devices to instruct the router on what ports should be forwarded to them. My Xbox and security camera both support UPnP and properly registered themselves. The Xbox needs it for multiplayer gaming, and I have a phone app that connects to my camera from anywhere. Setting up manual port forwards was also simple, with a port going to my son’s computer so he can host Minecraft servers, and a few to mine for Minecraft, dynamap, and ssh. The latter is protected by firewall rules to only allow a connection from my office.
Other than allowing ssh only from my office, I didn’t do much with the firewall settings. They are straightforward and really only needed if you want to block incoming or outgoing traffic. On previous routers I’ve used this feature to enforce a house-wide “grounding” from Minecraft. It was very effective, and the threat of reinstating the ban has been sufficient to keep them playing nice.
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much the basics of what a router should do. Connect everyone to the internet, direct special traffic as needed, and protect any sensitive ports that are exposed. The RT-N66U doesn’t stop there though. It sports two USB 2.0 ports for attaching and sharing storage. While I do not think it wise to connect sensitive data directly to a network border device, it is definitely safe enough for media storage and encrypted backups. I plugged a 1.5TB disk in and loaded it up with all my MP3s, some movies, and backed up my photos directory. I’m planning on using it for CrashPlan backups, but have not yet configured the clients to backup there.
One of the features I was eager to test was the AiCloud. This is an Asus service, and corresponding mobile app that gives you access to your files from anywhere on the net. I haven’t used it a lot, but it did prove useful last week when I forgot to copy some work to a thumb drive before going to the office. I haven’t really explored the security of AiCloud, but a quick glance at the network traffic shows it is using WebDAV for file transfers and is not sending passwords in the clear. Asus also recently announced a new addition to the AiCloud that allows two routers to keep disks in sync. This could be a very quick way to setup a shared media server or even offsite backups.
I’ve only done a few informal performance tests between my laptop on 802.11n and my desktop on 1Gbps ethernet, but so far this router is performing as well as the expensive business grade access points we have at the office. File transfers using ftp over ssh and SAMBA were approaching 200 Mbps on a 50 GB file, and appeared to be limited by the disk on my laptop. During the transfers I was also streaming Netflix on the Xbox and my daughter’s computer, plus an HD Amazon video on my Kindle. All but the Xbox were on WiFi and none of them experienced hiccups in the video. Range tests show it to be much better than the aged WRT54G and somewhat better than the Belkin N900. I can stream video to a handheld device from any room in the house, including the garage, and all four corners of the lot.
Asus took note of the opensource community surrounding OpenWRT and Tomato and determined there was a market for an easy to configure consumer router with enough power and features to satisfy the most demanding users. After nearly a month with the RT-N66U, I think it is safe to say they have created that router. I wouldn’t say that anyone could set this router up, but it is easy, and if you’re familiar enough with a computer, and can follow a simple wizard you’ll be online in no time.
There are many more features that I didn’t have time to cover here. I will plan in the near future to put together a series of quick posts about adding services using ipkg, how I’ve connected it to the EyeFi SD card in my camera, how remote backups can work, and more on the AiCloud.