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Michael Horowitz 
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Router Firmware Updates

Updating the firmware on a router is a major pain the neck. While every article about routers says to regularly update the firmware, none talk about the problems. Here is my list of "issues" with firmware updates:

  1. It's dangerous: The new firmware may cause a problem and there is, typically, no fallback option
  2. It's dangerous: If the firmware update fails halfway through, it may brick the router
  3. It's dangerous: The new firmware may reset some settings, settings that very few people are likely to notice or understand. When I updated the firmware on a TP-LINK TL-WR841N, I lost all the settings that I had changed. It went back to factory fresh state.
  4. It is often not done because router owners don't know it needs to be done (see below for various update notification schemes).
  5. It is often not done because firmware issues don't scream at you, they fly under the radar by and large
  6. The update process varies, techies have to deal with different upgrade procedures for different routers
  7. The update process is never correctly or fully documented
  8. Even when you update the firmware, you may still not have the latest firmware. Routers don't always update to the latest firmware. You may have to update the firmware multiple times.

For an example of an Asus router update process that confused me (no documentation on what to expect) see A router firmware update goes bad. Not to pick on Asus, but in an August 2014 review of the Asus RT-AC68U router in PC Magazine Samara Lynn wrote "I was able to manually upgrade the newer router without a hitch ... This is an improvement over the quirky behavior I experienced when trying to upgrade the RT-AC66U's software." Quirky?

OK, maybe I will pick on Asus. This page How to update the firmware on an ASUS networking product says "After updating the firmware, we recommend that you restore the factory default settings by pressing the reset button of the device for 5 seconds." This is horrible, it means that you lose all the customizations you made to the router. Last verified May 8, 2017.

Firmware Update Notification

There are a number of ways that the owner of a router can learn about the availability of new firmware.

  1. Look for themselves. That is, the router may do nothing on its own.
  2. Logon to the router and click a button to check for firmware updates. Still a manual process.
  3. Logon to the router and see an indication of new firmware right off the bat. As an example, Asus uses a blinking yellow exclamation point on the router home page.
  4. The router manufacturer or the router itself may send you an email when new firmware is available.
  5. The smartphone app from the router manufacturer may notify you of new firmware. It have read that Netgear's Genie app does this.

Manual Firmware Updates

I have seen two different approaches for manually updating router firmware.

The worst approach requires you to download a file to your computer, and then upload it to the router. I call this is the worst approach because it requires the most work. I have also seen instances where the downloaded file was compressed and needed to be uncompressed, a fact not explained by the vendor. I have also seen the download include multiple files, only one of which was supposed to be uploaded to the router. Needless to say, this wasn't explained either.

A far better approach is where the router completely handles the update. The router owner says to upgrade from version x to version y and the router does so without the need for files to be manually downloaded to your computing device and then uploaded. Click a button and let it go.

Automatically Updating Firmware

As routers are evolving, more and more can self-update. The owner of the router can remain blissfully ignorant of the need to update the firmware or even that firmware exists. But, self-updating can be done well or poorly. For one, the router may not backup the current settings before upgrading the firmware. Then too, you have scheduling issues. It can be quite inconvenient for the router to reboot itself whenever it feels like it. And, if something all of a sudden goes wrong, you may not realize that the router just recently upgraded the firmware which may explain the new problem.

There is a list of self-updating routers on the Resources page. The Security Checklist page has details on what separates the men from the boys when it comes to self-updating firmware. Finally, the Firmware Self-Updating page has details on how some vendors respond to this checklist.

Safely Updating Firmware

What to do?

On a new router, I would do the firmware upgrade pretty much first thing to minimize the danger. See the New Router page for more. For an existing router:

Moving on up

When it comes to firmware updates, Peplink is the Rolls Royce of routers. You get the first taste of this, when you update the firmware. Before it does anything it reminds you that its a good idea to save the current configuration. I have seen this on their Balance line and the Surf SOHO. Their travel router however, does not have this automated reminder.

What really separates the men from the boys however, is that Peplink/Pepwave routers maintain two copies of the firmware. The screen shot above illustrates that my preferred router, the Pepwave Surf SOHO can be rebooted to run either firmware version 6.2.1 or 6.2.0. I have also seen that their Balance line (high end) and their travel router (bottom of the line) also keep two copies of the firmware.

This eliminates almost all the risk involved in firmware upgrades. It's great Defensive Computing. If new firmware causes a problem, just re-boot to fall back to the prior release. The only downside is that when you download new firmware, the router reboots into it immediately. If you don't want to use the new firmware, however, just reboot back to the tried and true older version.

I have seen a Linksys Smart WiFi router (the EA6200) that also offered to reboot into the prior firmware. It didn't say what the prior version was, but still, it's a nice option to have. I have also been told that the Linksys WRT1900ACS supports two installed copies of the firmware, but that it is not documented. The secret handshake for the WRT1900ACS to switch firmwares is to turn it on and off three times. Or, if you can get into terminal, the fw_setenv command can switch the boot firmware. I can't confirm this.

If you know of other routers that maintain two copies of the firmware, please let me know.



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This page was last updated: May 8, 2017 6PM CT     
Created: August 19, 2015
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