Bigfoot Networks’ Killer NIC

Manufacturer Bigfoot Networks
Model Killer NIC
Price (Street)
Availability Now

FOR YEARS, GAMERS, enthusiasts, and even mainstream users have been getting their networking for free. Whether integrated into core logic chipsets or deployed in third-party chips, Gigabit Ethernet controllers have become a staple of modern motherboards, from high-end offerings all the way down to the budget fare. In fact, apart from a couple of cards we keep around for testing purposes, I haven’t seen a discrete network card inside even a halfway-modern PC for a very long time.

The scarcity of network cards isn’t entirely surprising. Onboard options offer more than adequate performance for most, especially considering that the majority are stuck behind Internet connections that can at best muster only a few megabits per second—hardly a challenge for Fast Ethernet controllers, let alone today’s GigE chips. With freebie onboard networking failing to limit performance, not even picky enthusiasts have been able to support a market for high-end consumer networking controllers.

Bigfoot Networks thinks it can change that with the Killer NIC, a network card the company claims reduces lag and improves overall responsiveness in online games. Lag is the scourge of online gaming—a very real impediment to serious players and an almost universal excuse for the poor performance of the rest of us. Surely, the promise of eliminating a problem so widespread would have gamers lined up ready to open their wallets. But the Killer NIC costs around $250, and that’s a big ask for a component we’ve grown accustomed to getting for free.

I’ve spent the last few weeks exploring the Killer NIC’s impact on lag and game responsiveness, and I’ve come away rather surprised by the results. Are those results, combined with the Killer’s other unique capabilities, worth $250? Read on to find out.

Lag and what can be done about it
Anyone who has played an online multiplayer game—and that’s just about every enthusiast—knows what lag is: stuttering, jerky gameplay, and an overall lack of the creamy smoothness we’ve come to expect from modern PCs. Lag’s origins can be traced back to issues with the game server, the client, or problems with the network that connects the two.

The most persistent and thorniest source of lag, of course, is the public Internet, a collection of networks that may or may not have the capacity to transfer packets between your PC and the game server in quick, consistent fashion. If any point in the path between the client and server becomes congested, the flow of packets carrying game updates may be delayed or interrupted—and in a real-time application like a game, a long delay is just as good as a lost packet. There’s no sense in using outdated data or in negotiating to have it sent again. Instead, most games just work around lost or stale packets.

If packet loss or delays become too great, you’re suddenly knee-deep in lag—frantically keying in control inputs while the display stutters or freezes. Moments later, when the lag resides, you get to watch your character responding to those commands by firing rockets off into oblivion in a whirling dervish of virtual futility, shortly before being blasted into a fountain of meaty gibs by a quad-damage-enhanced shotgun volley.

How embarrassing.

Unfortunately, the Killer NIC is simply a client-side device, so it’s very limited in its ability to affect what happens in the wilds of the Internet. Clients can mark packets as important and request priority for them, but—you may be shocked to hear this—even the best ISPs probably don’t consider transporting your Battlefield 2142 packets promptly their most urgent custodial duty. As a result, even the best client-side NIC-fu will likely have little effect on network-induced lag.

Interestingly enough, Bigfoot’s own whitepaper claims the biggest cause of lag in gaming is “server congestion/slowness whether by CPU limit or bandwidth limit.” If you’ve ever peered at a long screenful of options in a server browser and found yourself thinking that there’s really no good place to play, you’re probably familiar with this problem. The Killer NIC can’t solve this one, either, although Bigfoot says it is working with game developers to deploy solutions that combine the company’s hardware with tighter game-engine integration to reduce server-side lag.

So the Killer NIC can’t do everything, but it can address one source of lag: the kind caused by the client, your PC. This more limited sphere of influence is where a device like the Killer NIC will have to earn its keep.

The client side of lag
Bigfoot claims client-side lag can be attributed to several things, including optimizations that favor throughput at the expense of latency, limited system resources, and a lack of packet prioritization. The Killer NIC deals with them all under the umbrella of its so-called Lag and Latency Reduction (LLR) technologies.

Bigfoot’s most important efforts involve rebalancing the tradeoff between latency and throughput. Generally speaking, if all other things remain equal, networking performance can be optimized to favor either throughput or latency. Many NICs these days use a technique known as interrupt moderation to increase throughput and lower CPU utilization by queuing packets and issuing fewer interrupts. For instance, both Marvell’s Yukon and Nvidia’s nForce Ethernet controllers offer this feature and enable it by default (though it can be disabled in the NIC control panel for both products) The more packets are queued before an interrupt to deliver them, the higher your throughput becomes, and the less CPU overhead is required to handle a given amount of data. However, the more packets you queue, the longer the delay until they’re delivered.

Most users want fast file transfers and smooth streaming media—tasks more dependent on throughput than latency—so these optimizations tend to make sense for the majority. That doesn’t help gamers, though, because higher latency can lead to lag in online multiplayer games. Today’s games don’t really require a lot of bandwidth, but what they do need is constant updates on the state of the game world. You want those updates to be delivered to the game right away rather than languishing in a queue while precious cycles pass by.

To facilitate the quick delivery of important game data, Bigfoot has taken a default “one packet, one interrupt” approach. Every time a packet hits the network card, an interrupt is issued and that packet is delivered—no caching, no queuing, no waiting.

Bigfoot mitigates the CPU overhead associated with frequent interrupts by using its own custom hardware to offload much of the math involved in network processing—and by bypassing the layers of abstraction built into the Windows networking stack. When the Killer NIC is switched into “game” mode, Bigfoot’s own networking stack replaces the Windows networking stack, saving what Bigfoot claims is as much as three to five milliseconds of latency per packet.

Via Bigfoot’s replacement networking stack, the Killer NIC performs hardware offload for not only TCP calculations, but UDP as well. Games typically use UDP rather than TCP, and offloading related calculations can pay dividends by freeing up CPU cycles for the game engine. Since the entire network stack is running on the card, every step of the process is done in the Killer NIC’s hardware. Bigfoot says that gives it an edge over other networking controllers with offload engines because they don’t handle as much of the work themselves. (That’s a plausible claim, since full TCP chimney offload hasn’t yet made it into consumer-level NICs.)

Since its own hardware-driven network stack communicates directly with the application, the Killer NIC is uniquely positioned to serve games well. The degree to which the Killer NIC’s custom network stack can reduce lag depends very much on how games actually ask for network data. In some cases with well-designed multithreaded games, claims Bigfoot, the Killer NIC can receive a buffer address from a game and perform a DMA operation to populate the buffer directly—without involving the host CPU and without making additional copies of the data in main memory. The company concedes that some games will see more gains than others based on how their engines interact with the network stack. Some games, or even genres, may be more effective at masking the effects of lag, as well. Bigfoot has produced a white paper with some interesting information about how its NIC interacts with several common types of networking implementations in games, if you’d like to read more.

The final ingredient in Bigfoot’s LLR technology is a packet prioritization scheme. Nvidia’s nForce GigE controllers offer a similar scheme called FirstPacket, but it can only affect outbound packets. Bigfoot claims its GameFirst feature can affect both inbound and outbound packets. Packet prioritization can’t shape how data is delivered to and from your PC once it leaves the network card, but from your RJ-45 jack in, the Killer NIC juggles packets to ensure that games always have priority over other applications. This behavior could help to ensure smooth gameplay while network-intensive tasks are running in the background.

 
The Killer NIC
With Bigfoot catering to gamers, it’s no surprise that the Killer NIC comes with a little visual flair. The card is dyed black and equipped with a massive heatsink that bears the admittedly clever Killer NIC insignia.

Clever or not, when that insignia is cast in metal and stretching nearly the entire length of the card, it looks more than just a little vulgar. I suppose these gargantuan proportions allow for greater surface area, and with the heatsink completely devoid of thinner cooling fins, that’s the only place you’re going to get it. Still, since PCI slots are located at the bottom of most new motherboards, it’s unlikely you’ll actually see the heatsink once the Killer NIC is installed in a system. The card bears a smattering of red LEDs that blink in one of several user-defined patterns that one should be able to see through a case window, though.

Much has been made of the fact that the Killer NIC is only available with a PCI interface. Even now, Bigfoot says it has no plans for a PCI Express version of the card. PCI offers plenty of bandwidth for the throughput demands of today’s games, they argue, and considering most of us play those games on Internet connections worth only a couple of megabits per second, we’re inclined to agree. Bigfoot also says it wants the Killer NIC to be available to a wide range of gamers, including those with older systems that don’t have PCIe slots. I wonder, though: what are the odds that gamers running PCs old enough to lack PCI Express slots will want to drop $250 on a network card?

Even with all its optimization for latency over throughput, the Killer NIC is still a network card. Throughput still matters when you’re not playing games, and we’ve yet to see a PCI-based networking controller match the speed of PCIe-based GigE chips. PCI Express simply has more bandwidth to spare, and unlike PCI’s shared bus, PCIe devices don’t have to divvy up bandwidth amongst themselves.

Prying off the hunk of metal masquerading as the Killer NIC’s heatsink reveals a collection of chips responsible for making the card tick. The chip over to the right is what Bigfoot calls the NPU, or Network Processor Unit. This Freescale system-on-a-chip runs at 400MHz and integrates a DDR memory interface along with Gigabit Ethernet, USB, and PCI controllers. Bigfoot complements it with a Xilinx Spartan XC3S250E Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) that houses much of the mojo behind the Killer NIC’s lag-busting features. The card also features a Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet PHY and 64MB of DDR memory for its Freescale core.

The onboard memory allows the Killer NIC to run an embedded version of Linux, which Bigfoot has opened up to third-party developers under the banner of its Flexible Network Architecture (FNA). You can actually write your own applications that run entirely on the Killer NIC. We’ll dive into software in a moment, but first, let’s swing around the rear of the card to have a look.

Here we find an Ethernet jack with a couple of status LEDs, which should come as no surprise. There’s also a USB port hooked into the Freescale chip’s USB controller. This USB port introduces some intriguing potential for FNA applications.

The Killer NIC pictured here was the first network card Bigfoot introduced, and it’s still the company’s flagship model. However, Bigfoot also makes a cheaper Killer K1 version that forgoes the heatsink and lowers the speed of the NPU from 400MHz to 333MHz. Bigfoot says this drop in clock speed doesn’t impact the card’s gaming performance, but it does slow applications designed to run on the card. This limitation wasn’t a big deal when the K1 was introduced because, at the time, it lacked support for FNA applications—FNApps, for short. Bigfoot then added FNApp support to the K1 as a limited-time offer, and all currently shipping K1 boards support FNApps.

As a result, the only differences between the Killer NIC and the K1 now appear to be the heatsink and about a 20% gap in clock speed that Bigfoot says doesn’t affect game performance. Oh, and a fistful of cash: the Killer NIC starts at $250 online, but the K1 can be had for as little as $171. The Killer NIC also comes with a full copy of F.E.A.R., whose value will depend entirely on how much you actually want the game, if you don’t have it already.

 
The softer side of a Killer
In addition to a copy of F.E.A.R.—on DVD, I might add—the Killer NIC comes with little more than a driver CD. The latest drivers are available via Bigfoot’s website, and we’re pleased to report that there appears to be no, er, lag between releases for Windows XP and Vista in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. Bigfoot even offers drivers for 64-bit versions of Windows XP for the half-dozen or so enthusiasts who are running the OS.

There isn’t much to the driver itself, although users do have access to a control panel that can manipulate the onboard LEDs, GameFirst packet prioritization, and a few other variables. An auto-optimization option is available as well, so you don’t have to mess with the sliders yourself.

The most important element of the control panel is the LLR mode switch. In app mode, the Killer NIC uses the standard Windows network stack, while game mode switches to Bigfoot’s own. Obviously, you’ll want to opt for the latter with games.

Mode switching is the least of what you can do with the Killer NIC’s software. The card’s embedded Linux implementation opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for applications that can run entirely on the card. Bigfoot has created several of these FNApps itself, and has also made a free development kit available for those who want to roll their own.

One of Bigfoot’s more useful FNApps is a firewall, which seems like the most logical application to run on a network card.

Bigfoot has also released an FNApp that automatically downloads game patches when they become available. This is a handy app to have, but one that may not gain much from running on the network card. Apps better suited to the NIC include a beta Filezilla implementation that runs the FTP client on the Killer NIC and a custom BitTorrent tracker that downloads torrents to external hard drives connected to the card’s USB port.

This BitTorrent client is probably the most intriguing FNApp. The client runs entirely on the Killer NIC, and Bigfoot claims that with packet prioritization in effect, it shouldn’t impede game performance or responsiveness. Bigfoot makes a big deal about the fact that the torrent FNApp won’t steal CPU cycles, either. To be fair, though, good BitTorrent clients like µTorrent are pretty frugal with system resources.

Mature BitTorrent clients like µTorrent also illustrate just how basic Bigfoot’s torrent offering is. The BitTorrent FNApp offers little in the way of configuration options and doesn’t give users much indication of what’s going on with the client and active torrents. It works, of course, but the limited functionality would prevent me from recommending it over standard Windows clients, at least for now.

In their current form, FNApps strike me as having great potential, but none are, er, killer apps. Whether Bigfoot can garner enough of a following to inspire community FNApp development remains to be seen.

 

Our testing methods
Those considering picking up a Killer NIC will almost certainly be looking to replace an onboard networking solution, so we’ve compared the card against a couple of popular options. The first comes to us via Nvidia’s nForce 680i SLI chipset, which features a couple of integrated Gigabit Ethernet controllers with hardware TCP offload engines. Our second contender is a PCI Express GigE card based on Marvell’s Yukon 88E8052 Gigabit chip—a popular choice for integrated motherboard networking.

Since the Killer NIC isn’t cheap, we’ve put together a reasonably powerful gaming system for testing

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged, using the following test systems.

Processor Core 2 Duo E6400 2.13GHz
System bus 1066MHz (266MHz quad-pumped)
Motherboard EVGA 122-CK-NF68
Bios revision P24
North bridge Nvidia nForce 680i SLI SPP
South bridge Nvidia nForce 680i SLI MCP
Chipset drivers ForceWare 15.00
Memory size 2GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type Corsair TWIN2X2048-8500C5 DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz
CAS latency (CL) 4
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD) 4
RAS precharge (tRP) 4
Cycle time (tRAS) 12
Audio Integrated nForce 680i SLI MCP/ALC885 with Realtek HD 1.67 drivers
Graphics EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB PCIe
Graphics driver ForceWare 158.18 drivers
Networking Bigfoot Killer NIC with 3.1.2.4 drivers
Marvell Yukon 88E8052 with 10.14.6.3 drivers
Integrated nForce 680i SLI MCP with Forceware 15.00 drivers
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB
OS Windows Vista Ultimate x64

Thanks to Corsair for providing us with memory for our testing. 2GB of RAM seems to be the new standard for most folks, and Corsair hooked us up with some of its 1GB DIMMs for testing.

Also, all of our test systems were powered by OCZ GameXStream 700W power supply units. Thanks to OCZ for providing these units for our use in testing.

We used the following versions of our test applications:

The test systems’ Windows desktop was set at 1280×1024 in 32-bit color at an 85Hz screen refresh rate. Vertical refresh sync (vsync) was disabled for all tests.

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

 

Ethernet throughput
Despite its gaming focus, we want to see how the Killer NIC performs as a network card, so we’ll kick things off with a simple throughput test. We evaluated Ethernet performance using the NTttcp tool from Microsoft’s Windows DDK. The docs say this program “provides the customer with a multi-threaded, asynchronous performance benchmark for measuring achievable data transfer rate.”

We used the following command line options on the server machine:

ntttcps -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a

..and the same basic thing on each of our test systems acting as clients:

ntttcpr -m 4,0,192.168.1.25 -a

Our server was a Windows XP Pro system based on Asus’ P5WD2 Premium motherboard with a Pentium 4 3.4GHz Extreme Edition (800MHz front-side bus, Hyper-Threading enabled) and PCI Express-attached Gigabit Ethernet. A crossover CAT6 cable was used to connect the server to each system.

The nForce and Yukon GigE controllers were tested with jumbo frames disabled. The Killer NIC doesn’t actually support larger frame sizes.

That’s not a good start. Regardless of whether it’s running in app or game modes, the Killer NIC delivers dismal throughput in NTttcp. At least the Killer’s CPU utilization is lower than that of the Yukon and nForce controllers. Interestingly enough, Marvell’s GigE controller actually consumes fewer CPU cycles than Nvidia’s nForce 680i SLI, despite the fact that the latter boasts a TCP/IP checksum offload engine.

Network file transfer performance
So the Killer NIC doesn’t fare well in the synthetic NTttcp throughput test, but does that affect file transfer performance? To find out, we moved two sets of files between our NTttcp server and our test system using a crossover cable and standard Windows file sharing. The “small” file batch was made up of 1.8GB of high-bitrate MP3s, while the “big” batch contained 4.1GB of movie files. This should give us a better idea of how the Killer’s throughput stacks up in the real world.

With these file transfers, the Killer NIC doesn’t fare nearly as poorly as it did in NTttcp. Interestingly, app mode appears to be faster for larger files, while game mode seems to work better with smaller ones. Bigfoot doesn’t take top honors with either file set, but it’s right in the mix with the nForce and Yukon alternatives.

During our file transfer tests, the Yukon GigE chip managed the lowest CPU utilization of the lot. That puts the Killer NIC in second place, using a little less CPU time than the nForce 680i SLI. App mode appears to use ever-so-slightly fewer CPU resources than game mode here.

 

Game performance
When we sat down to start testing the Killer NIC, we had grand plans for glorious graphs that would illustrate what—if any—impact the card had on in-game frame rates and ping times. Unfortunately, getting reliable data proved problematic. Online multiplayer games have a high degree of variability, which does wonders for replay value, but also makes gathering consistent data difficult. To get consistent data, you need to play the same games in the same way multiple times with multiple configurations. Despite repeated efforts, most of the games we tried would only produce consistent frame rates for two or three out of five test runs. The results that didn’t match tended to be all over the map, leaving us with little confidence in the results overall.

Gathering reasonable ping data was even more difficult. The ping data had to come from inside of a game in order to be relevant. When trying to capture frame rate data, we had FRAPS doing most of the work, but we had no such tool for recording in-game ping times. Collecting ping data required manually recording ping times displayed in the games themselves. This job would be easy if all games had ping or latency counters in their HUD. Most don’t, and some that do—I’m looking at you, Counter-Strike: Source—display different ping data in the HUD than they do in the scoreboard. We wanted to pull ping data every 10 to 15 seconds, but having to bring up a scoreboard that often was so disruptive to gameplay that we scuttled the idea.

So instead of presenting all sorts of objective measures of the Killer NIC’s impact on game performance, I’m going to talk about my subjective perceptions: how gaming with the Killer NIC feels different than gaming with alternatives from Marvell and Nvidia. That is, after all, the $250 question about the Killer NIC.

I should note up front that it was very difficult to discern differences in game performance, lag, and overall responsiveness between the nForce and Yukon network controllers. Both use the standard Windows network stack and neither are highly optimized to reduce latency, so that isn’t an unexpected result. The Killer NIC is something of a different story.

Battlefield 2
I’m probably more familiar with this game than any other recent multiplayer title, so it’s a good place to start. Battlefield 2 is full of frantic gameplay, particularly on servers packed with 64 players, so there’s no shortage of action at any given time. With so much going on, lag is easy to spot, and it often gets you killed.

Here, the Killer NIC felt right at home. Lag wasn’t completely eliminated, particularly on 64-player servers, but episodes of stuttering and jerkiness were definitely reduced. In particular, the Killer NIC seemed to deal with artillery strikes and multiple explosions (thanks, grenade spammers) better than the other networking solutions. That made the game feel more fluid overall, if only because there were fewer interruptions to its normal level of responsiveness. The difference wasn’t night and day, though. Battlefield 2 is perfectly playable with the nForce and Yukon GigE controllers; the Killer NIC just suffered from fewer lag episodes, and those that did strike felt less severe.

Counter-Strike: Source
Lag has probably been blamed for more deaths and poor performances in Counter-Strike than any other game, making this title ripe for the Killer NIC. I used to be a regular CS player back in the day—well, it was up until around Beta 5, so make that way back in the day—so I was in somewhat unfamiliar territory with the latest Source incarnation. There seems to be a lot more rushing these days, and in those rushes, the Killer NIC showed the most promise.

Perhaps because it’s largely confined to less expansive environments where less is going on in one’s immediate vicinity, there wasn’t as much lag in Counter-Strike as in Battlefield 2. Still, when charging guns blazing into a large group with grenades and furniture flying left and right, lag would occasionally rear its ugly head. And it’s there that the Killer NIC suffered from less jerkiness and stuttering than the nForce or Yukon network controllers. Not much less, but enough that I noticed.

There was another effect here that was more subtle than a reduction in the frequency and severity of stuttering or jerky gameplay. At times when playing on the Killer NIC, typically in large crowds or with lots of action on the screen, the controls felt just a smidge more connected and responsive, even when there was no obvious lag. This reminded me a little of the difference in control responsiveness between early Quake and Unreal titles. Quake’s controls always felt just that little bit tighter.

F.E.A.R.
I haven’t played a lot of F.E.A.R. multiplayer, and judging by the number of servers online, neither have most folks. Still, I was curious to see how the Killer NIC fared, and somewhat surprised when it seemed to have little impact on what very little lag I experienced in the game. Of all the games I played, F.E.A.R. suffered from the least amount of stuttering and lag-induced annoyances, likely in part because game servers tend to have fewer players overall. With less lag to combat, the Killer NIC’s effects were muted at best. If anything, the NIC contributed a slight veneer of overall smoothness, but one that was difficult to detect.

Guild Wars
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are quite a bit different from first-person shooters, so I fired up Guild Wars to see whether the Killer might be able to flex its muscles in Old Ascalon. The admittedly feeble character I created for testing doesn’t have access to much of the Guild Wars world, but between roaming the countryside and wandering crowded city areas, I started noticing a pattern in the Killer NIC’s behavior.

In open country, with little going on around me, there wasn’t much lag for the Killer NIC to correct. Here, I didn’t feel any real difference between Bigfoot’s network controller and those offered by Marvell and Nvidia. However, in crowded city areas with loads of characters moving about, lag was more prevalent, and the Killer NIC suffered from less hitching and stuttering. It didn’t eliminate every instance of lag, but it smoothed more of the bumps than the nForce and Yukon network controllers.

Multitasking with Battlefield 2
A key component of Bigfoot’s Lag and Latency Reduction tech is a packet prioritization scheme that gives game packets preference over all else. In theory, the Killer NIC should allow you to play games while transferring files or downloading via BitTorrent with no impact on actual gameplay. Nvidia does packet prioritization, too, but unfortunately it isn’t yet supported in the company’s Vista x64 drivers.

To put packet prioritization to the test, we first played a few rounds of Battlefield 2 on our test system with a network file transfer in progress. The Nvidia and Marvell NICs faltered heavily here, experiencing intermittent but severe lag that—hand to my heart—actually got me killed a few times. The Killer NIC reduced both the severity and frequency of those lag episodes, but gameplay was still noticeably more jerky than without the file transfer running in the background. It was easily playable, but annoying enough to be unpleasant.

Next, we moved to BitTorrent, returning to Battlefield 2 with µTorrent downloading a couple of Linux ISOs in the background. Here we experienced an incredible amount of stuttering with the Marvell and Nvidia network controllers, and pings were between four and five times higher than they were without the BitTorrent tracker running. Switching to the Killer NIC didn’t improve matters much, either; there was less stuttering than with the other NICs, but still enough to render the game unplayable.

µTorrent wasn’t designed with the Killer NIC in mind, but Bigfoot’s BitTorrent FNApp was, so we fired it up next. This dropped in-game ping times by about half compared to what we saw with µTorrent, and we’d consider the result playable. However, lag was definitely more frequent and severe than without the BitTorrent FNApp running, suggesting that it takes more than just client-side packet prioritization to combat the effects of background BitTorrent downloads.

 

Power consumption
System power consumption was tested, sans monitor and speakers, at the wall outlet using a Watts Up power meter. Since our test system’s nForce GigE controller is integrated into the chipset, there wasn’t much we could do to take it out of the equation. Our nForce results represent the power consumption of our test system sans auxiliary network cards. For the Yukon and Killer NIC, we took measurements with each card added to the system. Those results include the power consumption of the chipset-level nForce networking controller.

Power consumption was measured at idle and with a Gigabit Ethernet file transfer from our NTttcp server to the test system.

The Killer NIC consumes a little more power than the Yukon 88E8052, but not as much as one might expect. Overall, you’re looking at adding 5-10 watts to a system’s power consumption.

 

Conclusions
After spending several weeks playing games on the Killer NIC one thing is clear to me: it actually does work. However, the degree to which you’ll actually feel the difference depends very much on the game and your own sensitivity to lag-induced artifacts. The Killer NIC doesn’t completely eliminate lag, either; it can’t do anything to combat lag caused by overloaded servers or congested networks.

Where the Killer NIC feels most at home is in games with lots of action on the screen. This is where lag tends to be most prevalent, and where I felt the biggest difference with the NIC. That difference was most apparent with crowded Battlefield 2 and Counter-Strike: Source servers, with which I experienced fewer and less disruptive instances of lag. The games themselves also felt slightly more responsive when playing with the Killer NIC. This was more noticeable in Counter-Strike, where the controls felt just that little bit more connected to character actions.

When combined with other networking tasks, such as file transfers and BitTorrent downloads, the Killer also delivered much smoother gameplay than networking solutions from Nvidia and Marvell. Despite the NIC’s packet prioritization and latency-optimized network stack, though, background network utilization still increased in-game ping times and the frequency and severity of lag. If the whole point of buying a Killer NIC is to reduce lag, we just don’t see users multitasking with network-intensive tasks while they’re gaming—not until doing so has an imperceptible impact on gaming.

Overall then, the Killer NIC’s impact on lag varies from noticeable to subtle. I didn’t find it to be striking or obvious. That makes it difficult to swallow the $250 price tag associated with the card, especially since the alternatives you get for “free” on your motherboard perform reasonably well. However, if you play online multiplayer games competitively or professionally, you’re likely to be far more sensitive to lag, and probably place a higher value on responsiveness than the average gamer. In that case, $250 may be a good investment for what is no doubt a competitive advantage.

You don’t necessarily have to drop $250 to get your hands on Bigfoot’s Lag and Latency Reduction technology, though. The company’s cheaper Killer K1 sells for just $170 online, and despite a slightly lower clock speed, Bigfoot says it delivers similar game performance to its more expensive predecessor. All currently shipping K1 cards also support FNApps, making the Killer NIC’s $80 price premium a dubious value at best, even for hardcore gamers.

With the Killer’s effect on gameplay at the subtle end of the spectrum, FNApps may become the key to Bigfoot’s success. Much work needs to be done on that front. The BitTorrent client shows the most promise, and even it’s woefully inadequate compared with more mature Windows clients. 

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