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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.