When it comes to routers, consumers mostly care about two things, speed and wireless range – I know I sure do. Staying current with the latest hardware changes is hard work, especially concerning wireless routers that are capable of connecting to a VPN tunnel.
Fortunately, if you’re looking for the best of the best, we have done the hard work already, by compiling a list of the best VPN routers of 2017. And we’re going to show you how to flash them with custom firmware as well!
Why, you ask?
Well, manufacturers realize the average customer doesn’t want to configure complicated settings, so companies usually don’t waste time and energy improving their firmware.
To fill the gaps created by poor firmware, users can install either DD-WRT or Tomato software.
A user can unlock a lot of extra features and capabilities by upgrading the OEM software on a router– such as the ability to terminate a VPN tunnel.
What Makes a Good VPN Router?
SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) wireless routers will usually support at least wireless-n, but not all of them support the newest 802.11ac standard, even though it was ratified by the IEEE in 2013.
There are two main reasons why 802.11ac is superior to its predecessor, 802.11n — speed, and wireless signal strength. Often people say 802.11ac has a maximum transmission rate of 1.3 Gigabits per second.
However, this figure can be a little misleading. Understand the numbers here are merely a theoretical maximum, as technicians try to push speeds to the max within a lab environment.
In the real world, typical speeds will be much less because of signal attenuation and loss caused by distance and obstructions. The data rates of an 802.11ac connection are likely going to be closer to the range of 100Mbps to 200Mbps, on a single connection.
Another advantage of this standard is the much higher total throughput when connecting to multiple clients, and it’s still a lot faster than 802.11-n, even for a single wireless connection.
Also, the best VPN routers of 2017 are going to have more antennas than lower-market alternatives.
802.11ac supports more antennas than 802.11n, allowing it to produce a stronger signal strength.
802.11ac has a new wireless technology called beamforming. Older wireless technologies essentially transmitted a wireless signal equally, in all directions, with omnidirectional antennas.
However, beamforming allows a VPN router to choose more intelligently where to send its signal, it can detect where a wireless client is physically located, and adjust itself accordingly to boost connectivity in that particular vector.
Last but not least, it’s important to consider the hardware’s memory and processing speeds. If you’re going to use a router as a VPN endpoint, it’s necessary to have a fast processor which can handle the demands of encryption.
The Main Advantages of 802.11ac Over 802.11n
Supports up to eight antennas
Faster speed and throughput
Stronger wireless signal
Buying a Pre-configured Router Versus Building One
Now, we find ourselves in a familiar dilemma, should you build or purchase a ready-made solution? This dilemma creates a monetary cost versus time trade-off, and it depends on how technologically literate a user is and how well they can follow a set of technical instructions.
In my opinion, it isn’t that difficult to flash a router to use DD-WRT or Tomato.
As long as the steps mentioned in a later section are followed, users don’t need to have a background in information technology to be successful. However, if the steps aren’t met, then you run the risk of bricking a router, as I did to an old Linksys model.
That said, people who feel intimidated by flashing a router may want to buy a ready-made solution from Flashrouters — they’ll do all of the “hard work” for you. However, note that purchasing a flashed router costs more money because preparing the router takes up their time.
Also, hardware warranties cost extra with Flashrouters, but are usually included for free with OEM devices.
Business Versus Personal Use of VPN Routers
Flashed routers are so powerful that some people may be tempted to use them in a business environment. And it’s true – VPN routers are packed with security features such as:
That they are sometimes appropriate to use in an office environment. Nevertheless, I should mention it’s only feasible to use a flashed SOHO router in a small business environment.
Medium-to-large sized businesses likely have technology departments that employ the latest VPN solutions from Cisco, Juniper, Fortigate, and other similar products.
Conversely, for a small business that lacks an I.T. department, a VPN router could be just what the doctor ordered. The routers we have compiled have the advantage of being at the very top end of the consumer market.
For small business owners, there aren’t many professional options as cheap as SOHO solutions, which are easy to configure and flash friendly towards DD-WRT or Tomato.
Trying to configure a Cisco or Juniper security appliance requires a degree or certification, but flashed routers are simple enough to setup.
Even though they are technically consumer grade routers, once they are running advanced firmware that supercharges their capabilities, flashed VPN routers are appropriate for both homes and small businesses.
The Drawbacks of Standard OEM Firmware
When first hearing about DD-WRT and Tomato, consumers often ask the same question — why not use the router’s original software?
The problem is that OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) firmware is notoriously watered down, usually due to:
Lacking file server capabilities
Lacking VPN server/client capabilities
Lacking file servers
Lacking remote access
Lacking advanced network services
Lacking port forwarding
Lacking advanced firewall functionality
Unfortunately, it’s remarkably rare to find a consumer-grade router that can establish a VPN tunnel. Users don’t have a high degree of control over an OEM router’s hardware, and even with a fast processor and advanced hardware, the OEM firmware can’t take advantage of them.
Advantages of Flashing VPN Router Firmware
The good folks at DD-WRT and Tomato saw a gap in the market and decided to solve it with an entirely free firmware package, which will supercharge a standard consumer router into a business class router.
To take full advantage of their high-end router, customers need to flash the firmware. A router is only as good as its firmware, hence DD-WRT and Tomato have a lot of features that you’ll almost never see in a consumer grade device.
Here are some of the features and advantages offered by DD-WRT/Tomato that surpass standard OEM firmware:
Stronger wireless security protocols (EAP)
MMC/SD card support
OpenVPN client and server capabilities
PPTP client and server
Advanced QoS bandwidth management features
vSamba file server
SSH/Telnet client and server
Extends the range of other wireless devices
DD-WRT VS. Tomato
Though both DD-WRT and Tomato are free to use, understand each firmware brand has different features. First, I’d like to point out that DD-WRT seems to be more modern and a little better developed. Hence, DD-WRT also supports more router models than Tomato.
However, both will provide you with the ability to setup a VPN connection on a router.
Features and Abilities:
Supports More Router Models
More Difficult to Setup
Free to Use
More Feature Rich
Real-Time Traffic Monitoring
Though setting up a VPN router is easy, there are a few basic requirements you need to know beforehand. First and foremost, ensure the router model is capable of running DD-WRT or Tomato firmware.
Next, the actual software needs to be downloaded from either website. Alternatively, go the easier, though more expensive way, and just buy a preloaded router from Flashrouters.
Also, it’s necessary to have an Ethernet cable on hand, to plug into the router being upgraded.
Lastly, users need to have a pre-existing VPN service provider account so that they can connect their newly flashed DD-WRT/Tomato router to a VPN server.
How to Flash a Router Using DD-WRT
After having downloaded the appropriate version of DD-WRT firmware, use the following steps to flash a supported router.
Perform a 30/30/30 reset on the router:
Find the tiny “reset” button on the wireless router’s back, and press the button for 30 seconds and don’t let go!
After the first 30 seconds are up, unplug the router and keep the button pressed down for another 30 seconds.
Make sure to keep the reset button pressed down, and plug the router in for a final 30 seconds.
Connect a computer and router using an Ethernet cable, and open the router’s administration and configuration interface:
This interface is most typically found by opening a web browser and typing the router’s IP address in the URL bar (most often the address is 192.168.1.1, but sometimes it is an address on the 10.10.10.X subnet).
If using a Linksys router, browse to the Admin section and select the Firmware Upgrade option:
Each router has a different interface, but most OEM firmware interfaces put the upgrade option under the Admin section.
Upload the DD-WRT firmware file (which should have been downloaded previously) to your router:
Ensure the router remains plugged in and powered on until the file upload completes.
After the upgrade procedure has finished, it may be necessary to close your browser window that accessed the administration page:
Try logging into the router’s HTTP page yet again, and note the default user name is root and the default password is admin. I’d highly recommend changing the user name and password as the first order of business.
Also, note that each VPN provider may have slightly different steps to setting up a VPN tunnel, using your DD-WRT flashed router, so it’s worth visiting their website to check out the guide.
Okay, now we move onto the main event, let’s check out the best VPN routers of 2017!
The Asus RT-AC88U is a great option for people who want a lot of wired connections and support for a large number of wireless clients.
Not only does it have eight Gigabit Ethernet ports, but it is capable of running DD-WRT firmware.
Because of its speed and power, it’s an excellent choice for users who want to stream HD videos. USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports are supported, which can use flash drives for easy file server storage with DD-WRT firmware.
Though it doesn’t have as many wireless antennas as the Asus AC5300, the RT-AC88U has the advantage of possessing a much larger work group. You’ll notice it has more memory and processing power than the AC5300.
The Netgear R7000 model, codenamed the Nighthawk (I’m not joking), was frequently seen as one of the best VPN routers of 2015.
While it isn’t as powerful as the RT-AC88U, this router consistently outperforms lower grade routers. And while its hardware and transfer rates aren’t the latest or the greatest, it does cost a little less than newer models.
The largest differences between this router and the previous one are outlined below:
Fewer Ethernet ports
Half as much RAM
The following is a list of its physical specifications:
This Netgear model is very comparable to its cousin, the R7000, albeit there are some minor differences.
Firstly, all antennas are internal, furthermore, though both models have the same amount of flash memory and RAM — the processor in this model is slightly slower. I recommend considering the AC1450 if a lot of extra processing power and a stronger wireless signal isn’t necessary; it’s an excellent solution for individuals on a budget.
Also, because the AC1450 is cheap, customers may find this router pretty affordable when purchased from Flashrouters, with the DD-WRT software already installed.
All in all, it’s a router with above average hardware, that costs less than the latest and greatest models.
Here’s a breakdown of its specs:
800MHz dual-core CPU
128MB flash memory
USB 2.0 and 3.0 compatible
3 internal antennas
Netgear AC1450 Pros and Cons:
Affordable yet high quality
Small and compact
Good for users who don’t need ultra-high performance
The Asus AC5300 is an extremely powerful VPN router capable of running flashed firmware.
Though a little less powerful than the Asus RT-AC88U, it still packs a lot of punch. In fact, the AC5300 outshines its big brother regarding wireless connectivity, thanks to the eight external antennas. The default configuration makes four of them receive, while the other four transmit.
Because it has MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input/Multiple Output), it can accommodate a large number of users, and be configured with two separate 5GHz networks.
One of the great things about the AC56U is its complete lack of external antennas.
While that isn’t ideal for an improved wireless range, lacking external antennas makes the router a lot more compact, attractive, and easy to hide in a corner. It has 2 USB slots that work with flash drives or an external HDD — so you can setup a file server. One of the RT-AC56U’s real advantages is the machine’s small price tag.
It still offers hardware that is on par the high end of the market but costs considerably less than the latest and greatest hardware; striking an even balance between cutting edge functionality and price, providing excellent value.
Check out its specifications:
800MHz dual-core CPU
128MB flash memory
USB 2.0 and 3.0 compatible
3 internal antennas
No external antennas
Asus RT-AC56U Pros and Cons:
Small and compact
Highly functional yet moderately priced
Supports USB 3.0
Decreased range due to lack of external antennas
Lacks the fastest processor on the market
Not the best ultra-fast router option
A little slower with lower throughput
These five machines are certainly among the best VPN routers of 2017.
However, the Asus RT-AC88U clearly has the rawest processing power and hardware resources out of the five. If you’re just a single user or sharing an Internet connection with another person, I recommend one of the cheaper models.
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Sure, pricier VPN routers have more hardware and faster connections, but do you need all that power? It’s my opinion that an advanced router deserves to deal with the demands of a family with a medium/large sized house — to shine honestly.
Lastly, consider whether flashing your home router or buying one with the firmware already installed is a better option. Choosing a router with inexpensive hardware will help offset the cost of purchasing a pre-flashed router.
Once the VPN router is setup with DD-WRT, it can finally be connected to a VPN server, allowing you to start browsing the web quickly, safely, and securely.