The performance of the Bigfoot Networks Killer NIC was a mixed bag in our testing; both Day of Defeat: Source and FEAR showed little to no increase in frame rates and little to no decrease in latency. Both games are very fast paced first person shooters that probably have had their networking code incredibly optimized (we know Valve has done so) so the possibility that the Killer NIC couldn’t make up for any in-game latency issues is pretty likely. At least we didn’t see the drop in frame rates that we saw when we first tested the AGEIA PhysX card though. And even though my game play experiences felt noticeably “faster” and more responsive in Day of Defeat: Source, I am hesitant to put too much weight on that claim as it is such a vague and hard to verify point. Another person reported the same type of advantage for the Killer NIC on FEAR multiplayer as well.
MMO games like World of Warcraft, however, are notorious for being playable even with higher latencies. Pings of 180ms or higher are pretty normal in WoW even with a high speed DSL or cable connection, as you can see in my testing. This can cause a lot of “hitching” where the screen will seem to freeze for a split second when lots of new players load up when you turn around or enter a new area. The frame rate doesn’t really go down, as the GPU is still rendering the same number of frames, these freezes are caused by the game waiting on networking data from the server — something the Killer NIC can help with. Even on the faster Core 2 Duo system, these “hitches” were much fewer and nearly gone completely. In my tests, these benefits showed up as a latency decrease of 35%!
This benefit was doubled up on the slower system we tested WoW on as we saw the same decrement in those “hitches” as well as a much faster frame rate. World of Warcraft saw a 28% increase in frame rate and a 20% decrease in latency! This card could be a big hit for gamers on these types of systems playing these types of games. The problem though: users with gaming systems like that don’t tend to spend $250 on ANY component let alone a network card that most high end enthusiasts would question. If this card were cheaper, my guess is that the 7 million gamers on WoW would be a great place to gather some user base for the Killer NIC.
The Killer NIC has a lot of interesting features to go along with the performance advantages its hoping to offer as well. PingThrottle is something that many users may take interest in if they are often the host of their clan’s training games or just host a lot of FPS games online.
The most interesting “feature” on the Killer NIC really is the FNapps that hopefully will be coming soon! The ability to have a small, yet powerful embedded Linux system in one of your PCI slots is compelling, and if VOIP, file sharing or even a web server program would be released it would just be another feather in Bigfoot Networks’ cap.
I am sure that many users are going to ask why the Killer NIC would run on a PCI bus, that can’t physically handle the full Gigabit Ethernet bandwidth, instead of the new, faster PCI Express bus. The answer of course is the sellable market. Without using a PCI bus interface, users with older systems like the one I tested with the Athlon XP processor wouldn’t be able to use the card without a complete system rebuild. It all comes down to marketshare — the majority of users still have PCI bus and not PCIe bus motherboards, and Bigfoot Networks would like to sell more cards. The only area users might miss the full PCIe bandwidth on the Gigabit Ethernet connection is in system LAN data transfers as we all know ISP connections and online games can’t come close to saturating that kind of speed.
Pricing and Availability
The good news: the Killer NIC is widely available at some major online etailers including Newegg. The bad news: it’s priced at $249 just about every where. Most users will find the idea of spending $250 for a network card pretty crazy, but I think Bigfoot Networks expected that (at least they better have!). That doesn’t mean there aren’t users that will be interested in such a network card; to the contrary many have been sold already. The benefits to MMO games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2 and City of Villians are much more noticeable than in the first person shooters that we typically think of for high end enthusiast gaming. If even a small fraction of the over 7 million WoW gamers decide to buy a Killer NIC, that becomes quite an install base for Bigfoot Networks to work with.
For the Killer NIC to be successful, they need a few things to happen. First, the performance benefits of the card need to be clarified in ways like we showed here today. Which games actually see a benefit from the Killer NIC’s technology and which are just marketing lines? If the card doesn’t work well with the Call of Duty 2 engine, thats fine, as long as no one tries to tell gamers other wise. Getting the drivers and firmware tweaked to benefit gaming titles will help the card reach more enthusiast systems.
Bigfoot Networks also needs to push the FNapps feature of the card more — this means creating programs themselves and giving them away to users. If someone told me the card could handle VOIP with Skype, BitTorrent downloads and run a dedicated Apache server while I game, then I think $250 would be a steal for a product like this. Sure, some coders and hackers are going to love playing around with the embedded Linux, but to sell cards you’re going to have to get some FNapps on the driver CD ready to roll.
It is obvious that the Killer NIC is not for everyone, but the potential for the card is actually quite compelling. And unlike some other recent additions to the gaming add-in card market, you can get some real-world benefits with this card right out of the box. World of Warcraft and other MMO games will see a drop in latency and a possible frame rate increase, not to mention an overall “faster” feel to the game. Before getting a card in to test, I was a Killer NIC non-believer; I am still not completely convinced, but I’m definitely on the edge now.
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