|Introduction, Specifications, and Bundle|
There has been a lot of talk within the industry of consolidation as of late. AMD's acquisition of ATI has been a hot topic ever since it was announced. And that acquisition has spurred rumors of an unlikely merger between Intel and NVIDIA. Both AMD and Intel have talked about integrating a GPU on to the CPU in one form or another, Seagate bought Maxtor, Asus and Gigabyte entered into a strategic partnership, and the list goes on and on. Despite all the talk about consolidation, however, there are still quite a few companies that are pushing for more dedicated co-processing processing elements in the PC architecture.
By now, we're all familiar with Creative Lab's Audigy and X-Fi audio processors. A startup known as AISeek is working on an Artificial Intelligence accelerator for the PC. Ageia's PhysX processor is already on store shelves, and the product we'll be looking at today, the Killer NIC, is designed to offload some network functions from the CPU. Bigfoot Networks' Killer NIC is more than just a beefed up network card though. In fact, the Killer is more of a "system on a card" than a NIC. The company claims their product can improve ping times and frame-rates in many on-line games, and its unique design opens up the possibility of running dedicated network apps with the help of its on-board processor and RAM. Take a look...
The Killer NIC is targeted strictly at hardcore on-line gamers, and its accessory bundle is clearly geared to such an audience. Along with the card itself, Big Networks includes a complete user's manual with the Killer, in addition to a couple of decals, a driver and utility CD, and a copy of the popular game F.E.A.R. F.E.A.R. is one of the games that reportedly benefits greatly from the Killer NIC, so its inclusion with the card is obviously a nice complement to the bundle that will show you its immediate benefits.
|Inspecting the Killer NIC|
As soon as you lay eyes on the Killer, you know this is no ordinary network interface card. Other than the RJ45 jack accessible on its mounting plate, there is nothing about the Killer that says it's a standard NIC.
The card is built upon a dark colored PCB and is adorned with a massive, jagged "K" heatspreader. The heatspreader is attached to the card with four screws, and when tight, it makes contact with the on-board processor and custom FPGA. Throughout our testing, we found that the headspreader doesn't get all that hot, and we suspect its large size is more of a decoration than a necessity. Something not clearly visible in these pictures are a handful of red LEDs that blink when the card is receiving power.
On the surface, the card seems relatively complex, especially compared to an ordinary run-of-the-mill NIC. There are multitude of traces and surface mounted components visible just by quickly inspecting the card. The backside in particular is especially dense. And when disassembled, it become clear why.
The Killer NIC does not have a typical network controller on-board that sends a majority of the network processing to the host CPU. Instead, the card is equipped with a Freescale MPC8347E communications processor, a Xilinx Spartan FPGA, a Broadcom GigE PHY, 64MB of RAM, an embedded Linux distro and USB controller / port. The 400MHz Freescale processor used is part of the company's PowerQUICC II Pro family, which is designed for a multitude of communications applications like ethernet routers, switches, wireless LAN (WLAN) equipment, network storage, and network appliances, among others. The Xilinx Spartan FPGA is a low-cost, programmable gate array that contains Bigfoot Networks' proprietary technology. At this point, there are no plans for a custom ASIC. The 64MB of RAM on the card works in conjunction with the processor and FPGA for caching and for running specialized applications, dubbed "FNApps". FNApps can be executed by the card's processor, and can read and write data to a flash drive or external HD connected to the card's USB port.
The combination of an on-board processor and RAM, in conjunction with the Killer's ability to run applications on its embedded version of Linux independent of the host system is why we referred to the Killer as more of a "system on a card" than a beefed up NIC in our introduction. The complexity of its design and wealth of integrated components is also why this card is relatively expensive when compared to most other NICs however.
|The Software and Technology|
Despite its relative complexity, installing the Killer NIC and enjoying the benefits offered by the technology is no different than installing any other PCI-based expansion card.
All that a user is required to do to get a Killer NIC up and running is insert the card into an available PCI slot, power up the system, and install the drivers using the included CD once Windows XP has fully booted. For now, the Killer NIC is compatible only with 32-bit Windows XP, but 64-Bit support is on the way too. Drivers will hopefully be available by mid-month according to the company's website. Vista and Linux support is planned is well, but Linux users may not get all of the same benefits. The Killer NIC is able to work its magic in part because it bypasses the Windows Network Stack in favor of its own. That's actually what happens when LLR (or Game Mode in newer drivers) is enabled. Since the Windows Network Stack is obviously not used in Linux, the benefit of having the card installed would be minimized. And at this point, there are no plans for a PCI Express version of the Killer.
We should note that we installed the Killer in a number of motherboards and did have some trouble with one. On the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe, which is powered by the CrossFire Xpress 3200 Northbridge and ULi 1575 Southbridge, the card would not power up. We contacted Bigfoot about the problem and received a new card that was supposed to resolve the issue, but unfortunately the second card didn't work in that motherboard either. It appears that some early cards needed a slight re-work to deal with chipsets that don't completely adhere to PCI standards. The good news is that Bigfoot is aware of the issue and is offering RMAs to users who need one of the re-worked cards. More information is available on the company's support page.
We snapped of a few screenshots of the Killer's control panels to show exactly what settings can be manually manipulated by end users. In addition to being able to tweak, enable or disable some of the card's features, like GameFirst and PingThrottle, a number of buffers and descriptors can be altered as well. The drivers and the card's firmware can be automatically updated too, should the need arise.
There are five main features and benefits offered by the Killer NIC and its software. Bigfoot does a good job of summarizing each in their marketing materials, so before we elaborate, lets see that the company had to say...
MaxFPS, GameFirst, PingThrottle and UltimatePing are all intertwined, and work by bypassing the Windows Network Stack to reduce latency, prioritize packets, and offload the network processing the host CPU. When we heard the Killer bypasses the Windows Network Stack, we wondered if this could lead to some security vulnerabilities or if the card would "break" software firewalls, and were told there shouldn't be any issues. If a security vulnerability was found in the Killer's custom stack, Bigfoot said they'd be able to patch it quickly via a driver or firmware update, and most software firewalls should function properly. Here's what Bigfoot had to say specifically about these issues:
"A lot of gamers turn off firewalls when gaming, because they want the performance benefits that can be achieved by turning everything else off other than the game. But for those that choose to run them while gaming, we expect most firewalls will work fine when bypassing the network stack using Killer. For any that don't, we have recently introduced LLR App Mode (with the latest patch that went out on Friday). LLR App Mode is still highly optimized for low latency networking, but without having to bypass the network stack. When a gamer wants to play games, they can switch to LLR Game Mode (without having to reboot) and when not gaming can switch back. We expect that most gamers will stay in LLR Game Mode all the time.
We also have not found any additional security vulnerabilities thus far: but if we ever do, our frequent driver updates and the new LLR App Mode feature will help get the word out and hopefully fill any potential holes."
The FNA (Flexible Network Architecture) is a standalone feature that's unique to the Killer NIC. FNA can use the embedded version of Linux for a number of different tasks. By developing FNApps the Killer can essentially function as computer within a computer. As of now, Bigfoot plans to release some applications themselves, but ultimately they want to encourage the community to create more. Bigfoot is working on a Firewall, BitTorrent client, and VOIP application currently.
What's interesting about the FNApps is that they can completely reside on a flash drive or external hard drive plugged into the card's USB port and run independent of the host computer. The BitTorrent client, for example, can download in the background and write to the external HD without using any resources in Windows.
|FPS and Ping Performance|
How We Tested: We tested the Killer NIC on an Athlon 64 FX-60 powered system, equipped with 2GB of RAM and a GeForce 7950 GX2 graphics card. The motherboard used was an Asus A8N32-SLI Deluxe. The Killer NIC's performance was compared to the integrated nForce network controller that is integrated into the A8N32-SLI's nForce 4 SLIX16 chipset. Our network components consisted of a Netgear WNR854T broadband router with integrated Gigabit switch and the ISP used was Optimum Online (cable). All tests were run on the same game server, with the same map and players. Framerates were recorded using FRAPS. And Ping times were reported by the game engines. LLR (Game mode) was enabled throughout.
In three of the of the four games we tested, the Killer NIC offered a measurable increase in framerate, in the neighborhood of 5-12%. World of Warcraft and F.E.A.R benefited the most, but Quake 4 actually showed a slight decrease in performance. We should note that it is basically impossible to get a true apples-to-apples comparison between the Killer and another NIC because they can't both be used at the exact same time to duplicate the exact same on-line gaming scenario.
Improvement to Ping were mixed. WoW and F.E.A.R. showed slight benefits, whereas CounterStrike and Quake actually got a bit worse. Please keep in mind though, that once a packet leaves the host PC, there's nothing the Killer can do to affect it, so internet traffic or any number of issues can affect ping.
Although Bigfoot makes no claims that the Killer superior to any another NIC in normal day-to-day, non-gaming use, we thought we'd experiment with it anyway. For this test, we monitored CPU utilization while performing few network-related tasks. What we did here was manually copy a the SpecViewPERF 8.01 installer from a NAS device, and while it was copying we opened Internet Explorer, browsed through a five-page HotHardware article, and then launched and played Internet Checkers until the file copy was complete. Overall there was very little different between the nForce integrated NIC and Killer. The Killer's CPU utilization averaged of 8.7%, while the nForce averages 10.2%. The majority of the CPU resources consumed here though, were likely due to other web browsing workloads, and not actual network processes.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: The Killer NIC generally offered better performance overall than an integrated nForce NIC. In three of the four games we tested, installing the Killer NIC resulted in higher framerates, and in two of the four games ping times decreased. Where the Killer did not offer better performance than the integrated NIC, however, performance deltas were quite small.
The Killer NIC does everything Bigfoot Networks claims it will do. The card's dedicated NPU offloads network processing from the host CPU, freeing it up to perform other duties. And with its advanced traffic shaping capabilities, prioritizing gaming packets and bypassing the built in Windows Network Stack, the Killer can reduce lag and ping times in many games. Both of these things amount to a better overall gaming experience. But despite the fact that the Killer seems to do just what it is designed to, justifying the $279 price tag will be difficult for all but the most hardcore on-line gamers. If you've got a high-end system and the funds, and a PCI slot available, installing a Killer will likely enhance your experience with many on-line games and it will do so right out of the box. If you can't justify the investment though, your integrated NIC will still do the same job just fine.
Depending on how the FNApp situation plays out, however, the Killer still has a lot more potential. If at some point in the future, new FNApps are released that give users the ability to run an IM client and VoIP application on the Killer, all the while downloading a Torrent and prioritizing game packets, without using any host CPU or system resources, we can see some users clambering over one of these cards just for those features alone. For now, we're going to give the Killer NIC an 8 on the Heat Meter for improving game performance and working as advertised without having to alter any games in any way. But the Killer could become infinitely more attractive if innovative FNApps are released that unlock hidden potential.