How to Use Pi-hole to Block All Ads (Ultimate Guide)

Online advertising has become ubiquitous on the internet. While ads fund free online content and services, many find ads annoying, intrusive, and a threat to privacy. Ads can also consume data and slow down web browsing.

Pi-hole is an open source software that blocks ads at the network level. By installing Pi-hole on a Raspberry Pi or other Linux device, you can block ads for all devices connected to your home network.

This comprehensive guide will explain what Pi-hole is, its benefits and downsides, how to install and configure it, tips for optimizing it, and troubleshooting advice. Follow these steps and you’ll have an ad-free internet experience on all your devices.

What is Pi-hole?

Pi-hole is a DNS sinkhole that blocks unwanted content like ads for all devices on your home network. It acts as a DNS server, analyzing domain name requests from devices and blocking lookups of ad domains. This prevents ads from even reaching your devices.

Pi-hole works by blocking ad-serving domains at the DNS level. When your device requests the IP address for an ad domain, Pi-hole intervenes and provides a fake IP that doesn’t load the content.

It can block ads from websites, YouTube videos, mobile apps, smart TVs, and more. Unlike browser ad blockers, Pi-hole blocks ads network-wide for all connected devices.

Pi-hole is free and open source software developed by the Pi-hole community. It runs on Linux and is typically installed on single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi. However, it can also be installed on Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, Fedora, and more.

Benefits of Pi-hole

Here are some key benefits of using Pi-hole over traditional browser ad blockers:

  • Blocks ads on all devices on your network including smart TVs, media streaming devices, mobiles, tablets, games consoles, etc. A single Pi-hole installation protects your whole home network.
  • Frees up bandwidth since ads are not downloaded. This can make web browsing noticeably faster.
  • Reduces data consumption on metered cellular connections.
  • Works across all mobile and desktop apps. No need to configure each app.
  • Open source software with an active community providing updates and blocklists.
  • Lightweight and low powered. Runs great on Raspberry Pi.
  • Can block other unwanted content like malware domains, tracking sites, etc.
  • Provides informative metrics about all domain requests on your network.

Limitations of Pi-hole

While Pi-hole is highly effective, it has some limitations:

  • Cannot block ads served over HTTPS. However, many ads are served over regular HTTP.
  • Some sites detect and block users with ad blockers enabled. This may cause issues with certain sites.
  • Only filters domain name lookups. Cannot block ads already cached or served from same domains.
  • May occasionally block legitimate content if blocklists are too aggressive.
  • Requires installing and maintaining another device on your home network.

Overall though, Pi-hole’s advantages far outweigh its limitations for most users. The reduction in ads, faster speeds, lower data usage, and network-wide coverage make it a very compelling ad blocking solution.

Hardware requirements

Pi-hole itself has minimal hardware requirements and can even run on old single-board computers collecting dust. Here are the official minimum system requirements:

  • Processor: Any ARM or x86 based processor
  • RAM: 512 MB (1 GB recommended)
  • Storage: 512 MB
  • Network: Ethernet or WiFi adapter

Obviously, the less resources required for base OS overhead, the more remain available for Pi-hole. The most common and recommended hardware platform is the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi.

Any Raspberry Pi model will suffice, but newer and faster models like the 3 or 4 provide plenty of performance with minimal power draw. The Raspberry Pi Zero and Zero W work great for dedicated Pi-hole use.

Here are some other single-board computers that work well with Pi-hole:

Desktop PCs and servers can also run Pi-hole, but are overkill. If installing on an existing Linux machine, at least 512MB RAM is recommended to avoid starving other processes when under load.

Ideally use a wired Ethernet connection, but WiFi works if the signal strength is good. Powerline adapters can provide wired connectivity in locations without Ethernet ports.

Always use a high quality power supply to avoid stability issues. For the Raspberry Pi, the official Raspberry Pi USB-C power supply is recommended.

Software requirements

The Pi-hole host requires a supported Linux based operating system. Most users run Raspbian on a Raspberry Pi. Here are the officially supported OSes:

  • Raspbian – The Raspberry Pi OS. Recommended for most users due to widespread support. Based on Debian.
  • Debian or Ubuntu – Popular Linux distributions. Ubuntu Server works well.
  • Fedora – Community supported but not officially supported by the Pi-hole team.
  • CentOS – Community supported. CentOS 8 is recommended over 7.

Other community supported distros include Arch Linux, Gentoo, OpenELEC, Slackware. See the FAQ for the full list.

For DIY purposes, Raspbian is strongly recommended as the base OS since it is optimized for Raspberry Pi hardware.

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Pi-hole officially supports 32-bit and 64-bit architectures for the supported distros above.

Any modern OS from the last few years should work fine. Just ensure it is updated to the latest version before installing Pi-hole.

Some key software dependencies include:

  • FTL – The Pi-hole FTL engine requires Linux kernel 3.10+ and glibc 2.22+. FTL stands for Faster-Than-Light, which is the high speed DNS resolution engine.
  • Netfilter/iptables – Pi-hole blocks ads using Linux’s Netfilter iptables firewall. Any modern Linux kernel includes the required modules.
  • dnsmasq – The DNS and DHCP server. This is included with supported distros.
  • lighttpd – A lightweight webserver to serve the admin interface. Also included with Linux distros.
  • PHP – The Pi-hole admin interface is written in PHP. Make sure PHP 7.0 or newer is installed.

As long as you stick to a supported mainstream Linux distribution from the last few years, all required dependencies should be met. The Pi-hole install script will check for any missing requirements.

Hardware setup

Once you have obtained a compatible single-board computer or Linux machine, the first step is the physical hardware setup:

  1. Insert the microSD card for Raspberry Pi OS or flash the OS image onto the SSD/HDD using Etcher, Rufus, or a similar imaging tool.
  2. For Raspberry Pi, connect the power supply, HDMI display, keyboard, and mouse. For headless setups, enable SSH networking. Attach the Ethernet cable or configure WiFi.
  3. For boards like ODROID or Pine64, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for accessing the board and enabling SSH.
  4. Turn on the device and install the base operating system by following the onboarding steps.
  5. Once the OS is installed, run sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade to install all updates. Reboot.
  6. Verify an IP address is assigned to the board using ip addr show. Take note of this IP for the Pi-hole web admin.
  7. Enable a static IP address (optional). Consult your router documentation to give the device a static local IP. This prevents the IP changing in the future which would break the Pi-hole install.

With the Linux environment ready, you can now install the Pi-hole software.

Installing Pi-hole

Pi-hole provides an automated installer to handle the installation and basic setup. Here are the steps:

  1. Log into your device and open a terminal if not already open.
  2. Download and run the Pi-hole automated install script:
curl -sSL https://install.pi-hole.net | bash
  1. The script will detect your platform, install dependencies, download Pi-hole files, and configure the system. The Basic Install is recommended for most users.
  2. Specify options like your static IP, upstream DNS providers, web admin password etc. You can stick with defaults for basic setups.
  3. Once installed, take note of the IP address and web admin login shown.

That’s it! Pi-hole is now ready to block ads. The install takes around 5-10 minutes depending on platform and internet speed.

Installing on Ubuntu

To install Pi-hole on Ubuntu or Debian, simply run the install command above. Here are some tips for Ubuntu:

  • Use Ubuntu Server minimal for improved performance over Ubuntu Desktop.
  • During guided setup, do not enable unattended upgrades to avoid future conflicts with Pi-hole.
  • Assign a static IP to ensure the address doesn’t change on reboots.
  • Enable the ufw firewall and allow only ports for SSH, DNS (53), and HTTP (80).

Installing on Docker

Pi-hole can also be run in a Docker container on supported Linux distributions. This allows you to install Pi-hole without modifying the base OS.

Use these general steps to deploy Pi-hole on Docker:

  1. Install base OS (like Raspbian) with Docker CE installed.
  2. Create Pi-hole Docker container:
docker pull pihole/pihole

docker run -d \
    --name pihole \
    -p 53:53/tcp -p 53:53/udp \
    -p 80:80 \
    -p 443:443 \ 
    -v ./etc-pihole:/etc/pihole \
    -v ./etc-dnsmasq.d:/etc/dnsmasq.d \  
    --restart=unless-stopped \
    --cap-add=NET_ADMIN \
    --dns=127.0.0.1 --dns=1.1.1.1 \
    -e TZ="America/Chicago" \
    -e WEBPASSWORD="set_password_here" \ 
    --hostname pi.hole \
    pihole/pihole:latest
  1. The Pi-hole admin interface will be available on the Docker host IP.

Docker allows flexibility in customizing Pi-hole deployments.

First time setup

After installation, you’ll be given some tips for the initial configuration:

  1. Log into the admin interface at http://<ip>/admin using the set password.
  2. Complete the setup wizard for basic configuration like setting an admin password and configuring upstream DNS.
  3. Update gravity to force an update of domains lists:
pihole -g
  1. Optionally enable IPv6 blocking and other advanced settings if needed.
  2. Configure your router’s DHCP settings to advertise Pi-hole as the DNS server. This enables ad blocking for all connected clients.
  3. If using Pi-hole as the DHCP server, enable it in Settings > DHCP and configure router DHCP appropriately.
  4. The default blocklists are fairly conservative. You can add additional lists if needed.

Once setup is complete, you can administer and monitor the Pi-hole system using the web interface.

Web admin interface

The Pi-hole web admin interface lets you configure settings and view stats about all DNS traffic on your network:

Pi-hole Dashboard

Image credit: Pi-hole docs

Key sections include:

  • Dashboard – View stats on domains blocked, top clients, top blocked domains etc. Provides awareness of overall ad blocking activity.
  • Query Log – Live feed showing the most recent DNS queries on your network. Lets you see what domains are being allowed or blocked in real time.
  • Whitelist and Blacklist – Manually whitelist or blacklist specific domains. Whitelists bypass blocking for a domain.
  • Settings – Configure blocking settings like using Pi-hole as DHCP server, DNS privacy options, web interface settings, etc.
  • Groups – Assign client devices into groups for configuring specific blocking behavior per group.
  • Tools – Utilities like tailing log files, updating gravity lists, rebooting the system, etc.
  • Add Blocklists – Add additional blocklists to block more unwanted domains.
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In most cases, the default settings and lists are enough to start blocking ads network-wide with no further configuration needed.

Blocking ads

Now that your Pi-hole is installed and configured, ads will automatically begin being blocked network-wide.

Try loading some ad-heavy sites on your devices to test it out. Here are some tips for getting the most effective ad blocking:

  • Reconfigure devices – Set Pi-hole as the primary DNS server on your router if using DHCP, or in the network adapter settings of individual devices. This will ensure all DNS queries go through Pi-hole first before any other DNS servers.
  • Run pihole -g – Update gravity to force an update of all blocking lists. Run this periodically or whenever you add a new blocklist.
  • Add more lists – The default lists are limited. Add additional lists from these sources to block more ads:
  • Firebog recommended lists
  • StevenBlack curated lists
  • ** Whitelist sites** – Some sites may break due to overly-aggressive blocking. Add exceptions to the Whitelist for any sites that have issues.
  • Enable logging – Enable Query Logging in Settings to watch live DNS queries and see what’s being blocked. Very informative for troubleshooting.
  • Check Top Blocked Domains – View the Dashboard for the top blocked ad domains on your network. Remove any that shouldn’t be blocked.
  • Update regularly – Make sure Pi-hole’s OS and software is kept updated to benefit from latest ad lists and security fixes.

Here are some example log entries showing ads being blocked by domain:

192.168.0.15 - - [03/Oct/2023:12:34:21 -0500] "A IN _sip._tcp.svr.nuris.com" Blocked (gravity)

192.168.0.15 - - [03/Oct/2023:12:34:21 -0500] "A IN api.ad.gt" Blocked (gravity) 

192.168.0.15 - - [03/Oct/2023:12:34:21 -0500] "A IN collector.githubapp.com" Blocked (gravity)

192.168.0.15 - - [03/Oct/2023:12:34:21 -0500] "A IN analytics.query.yahoo.com" Blocked (gravity)

You’ll immediately notice sites load faster without all the ads!

Using Pi-hole with cloud and mobile devices

By default, Pi-hole blocks ads for local network clients that have it configured as their DNS server.

However, Pi-hole can also be used to block ads on the go when connected to public WiFi or cellular networks. There are a couple methods:

VPN into home network

The most effective and private method is to run a VPN server like Wireguard on your home network. Clients can connect via VPN on cellular or public WiFi networks.

This tunnels internet traffic through your home network, where Pi-hole filters DNS as normal. No client configuration is needed.

See the Pi-hole docs for details on setup up a Wireguard VPN along with Pi-hole for mobile ad blocking.

Forwarding DNS with Cloudflared

For filtering DNS on the go without a VPN, you can use Cloudflared DNS caching and forwarding.

This securely forwards DNS queries from your mobile device to your home Pi-hole instance using Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 DNS over HTTPS (DoH) service:

  1. Install and configure Cloudflared proxy on your home server or Pi-hole device.
  2. Create a tunnel and take note of the unique hostname string.
  3. On your mobile device, configure a DNS over HTTPS profile with Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 IP address and set the DNS hostname/SNI field to your unique Cloudflared hostname.
  4. DNS queries will now be proxied through Cloudflare to your Pi-hole and filtered.

This allows ad blocking on mobile without having to run a VPN or changing local network settings. However, performance may be slower than a direct VPN connection.

Tips for optimizing Pi-hole

Pi-hole works great out of the box, but here are some optimization tips:

  • Install Pi-hole on a device with a fast processor and wired Ethernet connection for maximum throughput.

Here are some additional tips for optimizing Pi-hole:

  • Use a static IP address assigned outside of your DHCP range to prevent any IP conflicts.
  • Enable DNS caching in the settings for faster performance. This reduces duplicate queries to upstream servers.
  • Set conditional forwarding under DNS settings if you have an internal DNS server that should receive LAN queries. This forwards queries for your domain to your internal DNS.
  • Add local domain overrides if you want to force specific behavior for certain domain requests. For example, forcing ad domains to an internal IP.
  • Adjust logging levels in the settings to limit logging only to useful queries. Verbose logging causes unneeded disk I/O.
  • Enable block list aggregation in the DNS settings. This significantly reduces memory usage by combining multiple lists into one table.
  • Flush the DNS cache periodically through the web admin or via pihole -f. This clears out stale data and memory.
  • Use modern hardware like a Pi 4 if struggling with performance on older Pi models. The Pi 4 has much better throughput.
  • Limit the number of blocklists added if the total size is very large. Too many large lists slow down gravity updates.
  • Check configs of other DNS servers/filters on your network to ensure no conflicts with Pi-hole filtering logic.
  • Set the interface listening behavior based on your specific network configuration in the DNS settings. This ensures Pi-hole binds correctly.
  • If using Pi-hole as your DHCP server, enable DHCP server isolation to prevent clients from bypassing Pi-hole DNS.
  • If you prefer Pi-hole not receive any direct queries, enable the only-servers blocking mode. This still allows Pi-hole to filter clients via upstream servers.
  • Monitor resource usage and network throughput in the web admin to check if hardware upgrades are needed for your network size.
  • Keep Pi-hole software and OS updated automatically or notify for updates in the admin settings. Updates contain security and bug fixes.
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Following these best practices will help maximize the stability and effectiveness of Pi-hole for your network. Check stats over time to validate performance.

Common problems and troubleshooting

Pi-hole is generally very stable, but you may occasionally run into issues. Here are some troubleshooting tips for common problems:

Web admin interface inaccessible

  • Try connecting via IP directly in browser and triple check IP
  • Check firewall rules on server and router for port 80/443 access
  • Disable any client-side firewall/security software temporarily
  • Ensure no other software using port 80/443 like Apache or Nginx
  • Try restarting the lighttpd web server using sudo service lighttpd restart

Blocking not working for all clients

  • Verify Pi-hole IP set as DNS server for DHCP clients on router
  • Check individual device network settings has Pi-hole set for DNS
  • Flush DNS cache on clients using ipconfig /flushdns on Windows
  • Some smart TVs/media devices hardcode DNS – manually set DNS in device settings
  • If using conditional forwarding, ensure local zones are properly configured

Slow network performance

  • Check for high CPU usage indicating underpowered hardware
  • Disable logging or verbose logging levels
  • Flush DNS cache if memory usage is very high pihole -f
  • Add upstream servers to balance DNS requests
  • Enable DNS caching and prefetching in Pi-hole settings
  • Upgrade to Pi 4 or higher spec device instead or Pi Zero

Hostname resolution not working

  • Add local domain overrides in Pi-hole for local DNS names
  • Set conditional forwarding with local domain specified
  • Flush DNS cache on clients and Pi-hole

In most cases, enabling full query logging and Executive Debug Logging in the settings can help diagnose problems when troubleshooting. Examine log files for any obvious errors.

For crashes, grab debug logs via pihole debug and check sudo journalctl -u pihole-FTL for related errors. Share debug logs when seeking help.

If all else fails, reconfigure networking and settings from scratch or reproduce on a fresh Pi-hole install.

Privacy and security

Using Pi-hole provides significant privacy protections against online trackers and analytics services. By blocking access to tracking domains, your browsing habits stay private.

However, no ad blocker is 100% effective so always practice good security hygiene:

  • Don’t click on ads or popups that do get through – install uBlock Origin as a secondary protection.
  • Browse via HTTPS as much as possible to encrypt connections.
  • Use a VPN service when on public WiFi to encrypt traffic.
  • Enable DoH or DNSCrypt servers for encrypted DNS queries.
  • Monitor Pi-hole query logs to check for leaks.
  • Frequently update Pi-hole to benefit from latest security fixes.
  • Secure the web admin with username/password and SSL (HTTPS).
  • Restrict web admin access via firewall rules.

A properly configured and updated Pi-hole is very secure. The simple codebase and open source nature means bugs get found and fixed quickly.

You can also use Pi-hole alongside VPN and firewalls for layered privacy and security. Pi-hole with HTTPS encryption blocks visibility from the local network of your browsing traffic metadata.

Pi-hole alternatives

While Pi-hole is the most full-featured and popular self-hosted ad blocker, here are some alternatives:

  • AdGuard Home – Similar ad blocking DNS server with UX focus. No CLI management. More resource intensive.
  • dnsmasq – Lightweight DNS and DHCP server. Pi-hole uses dnsmasq but lacks web UI.
  • pfBlockerNG – Advanced ad blocker for pfSense firewalls. Very configurable but complex.
  • Pi-hole Cloud – Hosted Pi-hole instance running on cloud infrastructure. $5/mo. No self-hosting required.
  • NextDNS – Freemium cloud-based filtering DNS service with 300k free queries per month. Easy to enable anywhere.
  • Host file blocking – Manual editing of hosts file to redirect to 0.0.0.0 or 127.0.0.1. Time consuming to maintain.
  • Browser plugins – Client-side ad blockers like uBlock Origin. Limited to that browser and not network-wide.

For most home users, the simplicity and effectiveness of Pi-hole makes it the best network-wide blocking option. The ability to self-host and customize keeps your data private.

Getting help and contributing

Pi-hole has a very active community forum where volunteer users provide support and discuss features. Post any issues you can’t resolve for help.

Bug reports and feature requests should be posted on the GitHub repo. Pull requests are welcomed for new features and fixes.

You can also chat live in the Pi-hole Discord or Reddit for quick help.

Pi-hole is free open source software relying on community contributions. Donations help fund development and are appreciated.

For beta testing and advanced features, check out the Pi-hole Patreon.

Conclusion

Pi-hole is a fantastic ad and network-wide content blocking solution. With cheap hardware like a Raspberry Pi and a simple install, you can reduce ads and trackers across your home or office network.

Once configured, Pi-hole requires minimal maintenance while seamlessly speeding up and securing browsing across all your devices. The stats provided into DNS queries help identify unwanted traffic.

Blocking ads at the network layer using Pi-hole helps regain privacy and control from invasive marketing companies. Combined with encrypted DNS and a VPN, you can browse the web comfortably knowing exactly what leaves your network.

So deploy Pi-hole today on a spare device and enjoy an ad-free, faster, and more private internet experience!

References

  • https://pi-hole.net/ – Official Pi-hole site
  • https://docs.pi-hole.net/ – Pi-hole documentation
  • https://discourse.pi-hole.net/ – Community support forum
  • https://firebog.net/ – Comprehensive block lists
  • https://github.com/StevenBlack/hosts – Extensive consolidated hosts file
  • https://github.com/pi-hole – Pi-hole GitHub organization
  • https://www.reddit.com/r/pihole/ – Pi-hole subreddit
  • https://www.raspberrypi.com/ – Raspberry Pi home page
  • https://docs.pi-hole.net/guides/vpn/overview/ – VPN and Pi-hole guide
  • https://developers.cloudflare.com/1.1.1.1/dns-over-https/cloudflared-proxy/ – Cloudflared DNS proxy
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Mohamed SAKHRI

I am Mohamed SAKHRI, the creator and editor-in-chief of Tech To Geek, where I've demonstrated my passion for technology through extensive blogging. My expertise spans various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, macOS, and Android, with a focus on providing practical and valuable guides. Additionally, I delve into WordPress-related subjects. You can find more about me on my Linkedin!, Twitter!, Reddit

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