Introducing Bigfoot’s Killer Wireless-N 1102

Let me preface this review with a simple statement that may or may not be something you’ve considered: testing wireless networking devices is hard. I don’t mean that it’s difficult to come up with testing scenarios; rather, it’s difficult to get consistent results that I feel confident in publishing. When you think about how wireless networking works that may not be too surprising. It’s amazing how even minor differences in the testing environment—moving a laptop a few feet, changing the screen orientation, using a different laptop chassis or antennae, switching routers, the weather and humidity, whether one of my neighbors happens to be using their microwave or a cordless phone, where human bodies happen to be, and dozens of other variables—can and will affect performance between benchmark runs. This is not an indictment of the technology, but rather a disclaimer about the difficulties involved in getting representative performance results.

At the end of the day, all of the laptops and wireless devices I’ve used in this article work, and some of them work better than others; however, while I’m confident with my overall conclusions, there’s no guarantee that devices will always perform as shown in this article. If you need some more detail on why that might be, I suggest you start with our recent look at the Apple Airport Extreme (and Time Capsule) routers. Bigfoot is looking to provide better wireless networking performance with their Killer Wireless-N line, but perhaps they should start by making a Killer-branded router instead. We’ll have more to say on this subject in the conclusion.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss what Bigfoot brings to the table, specifically with their Killer 1102 part. Note that there is a faster Killer 1103 part now shipping with 3x3:3 MIMO support; we will try to get a sample for future testing, but for now we’ll confine our benchmarks to the 1102. The core hardware actually comes from a well-known wireless networking company, Atheros. The 1102 uses the AR9382 wireless chipset, but Bigfoot has added their own “special sauce” to improve performance. Just what goes into their sauce? It’s a combination of customized firmware and drivers, with Bigfoot’s own Killer Network Manager application to help set the priority of different applications and manage QoS (Quality of Service) among other things. The Bigfoot wireless cards aren’t at the same level of complexity as their earlier wired networking cards (which included additional hardware and a Linux-based OS to handle QoS, load balancing, etc.), but as we will see shortly, the end result is indeed improved performance compared to competing networking solutions.

As part of this review, Bigfoot shipped us several items so that we could provide the best overview of wireless networking performance. First off, there is of course a laptop equipped with the Killer Wireless-N 1102. This particular laptop comes from Mythlogic, a company that we haven’t personally reviewed in the past, but they’re one of several vendors shipping customized notebooks using Clevo (and potentially other) ODM whitebooks. The Mythlogic laptop for this article is the Pollux 1400 (Clevo W150HR), loaded up with an i7-2720QM CPU, 8GB DDR3 memory, a 120GB Intel 510 SSD, and Optimus-enabled GeForce GT 555M graphics. This is essentially the Optimus version of the Clevo P150/P151 we’ve already reviewed with the Eurocom Racer and CyberPower Xplorer. Here are the specs of the Mythlogic notebook.

Mythlogic Pollux 1400 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i7-2720QM
(4x2.20GHz + HTT, 3.3GHz Max Turbo, 32nm, 6MB L3, 45W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 2x4GB DDR3-1333 CL9 (Max 8GB)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 Graphics (Sandy Bridge)
NVIDIA GeForce GT 555M 2GB GDDR3 Optimus
144 SPs, 590/1180/1800MHz Core/Shader/RAM clocks
Display 15.6" Matte 95% Gamut 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
Hard Drive(s) 120GB Intel 510 SSD
Optical Drive DVD-RW
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (JMicron JMC250)
802.11n + Bluetooth (Intel Advanced-N 6230)
802.11n (Bigfoot Killer Wireless-N 1102)
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 14.72” x 9.84” x 0.98-1.46” (WxDxH)
Weight 5.7 lbs (with 8-cell battery)
Extras 2MP Webcam
Flash reader (SD, MMC, MS)
Fingerprint Scanner
98-Key keyboard with 10-key
Warranty 1-year parts warranty
4-year labor warranty
Pricing As Configured: $1637

As if one such notebook wasn’t enough, Bigfoot arranged to ship us an identical notebook, the only difference being the wireless networking card. One has Bigfoot’s new Killer Wireless-N 1102 while the other has Intel’s Advanced-N 6230 Bluetooth + WiFi card. Both cards are 2x2:2 MIMO devices, capable of connection speeds up to 300Mbps. While we’re on the subject, let’s clarify what the MIMO numbers mean. When we’re talking about a 2x2:2 part, the first digit is the number of transmit chains, the second is the total number of receive chains, and the third is the total number of data streams supported. It’s possible to have a 3x3:2 device, for example, which would use the extra transmit and receive chains to improve SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio), but the number of streams cannot be more than the larger of the transmit/receive chains (so 2x2:3 isn’t possible, but 2x3:3 is).

Besides the laptops with their two wireless cards, Bigfoot also shipped us a Linksys E4200 wireless router (also known as the Cisco 4200), one of the few routers to support up to 3x3:3 MIMO, along with providing dual-band 2.4GHz or 5GHz support. There’s a catch with the 4200, however, in that it only supports 2x3:2 (maximum connection rates of 300Mbps) on 2.4GHz connections while the 5GHz connections offer the full 3x3:3 (450Mbps). Why have an extra receive chain if it’s not used on 2.4GHz? The reason is Maximal Ratio Combining, which as noted earlier can improve SNR. The Linksys E4200 is an important addition, as my own wireless router is a Netgear 3500L 2x2:2 solution that only supports 2.4GHz connections. With two different routers, one representing a “basic” wireless setup and the other being one of the fastest wireless routers available (Apple’s Airport Extreme actually wins out over the Linksys in many situations), we’re almost ready to begin testing.

We’ve got Bigfoot’s 2x2:2 Killer 1102 and Intel’s equivalent 2x2:2 Advanced-N 6230 with identical laptops, but what about other competing wireless solutions? Rather than trying to swap out mini PCIe cards and deal with potential BIOS and compatibility issues, we decided we’d throw in a variety of other laptops with other wireless adapters. (Brian explained the issues with doing this on his Lenovo X300; other OEMs are generally more forgiving but there’s no guarantee, sadly.) In no particular order, we used the ASUS K53E (a second Intel 6230 solution), Acer 5551G (Atheros AR9283/AR5B93 2x2:2 2.4GHz), Dell E6410 (Intel Ultimate-N 6300 3x3:3 2.4/5GHz), Toshiba L645D (Realtek 8188CE 1x2:1 2.4GHz), and an Intel Sandy Bridge test notebook (Intel Wireless-N 1030 1x2:1,2 2.4GHz—this generally functions as a 1x2:1, as the second receive stream didn’t ever work in our testing). All of the laptops were equipped with SSDs for the testing, though in nearly all of the tests we are limited by network bandwidth rather than read/write performance on the SSDs. We also conducted wired networking tests using 100Mbit and Gigabit (on an Atheros GbE chipset), which we will look at later in the article.

Before we get to the test results, there’s one more piece of equipment we used for testing: the “server” for files and other data connections. The test server has an i7-965 CPU, 12GB RAM, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet chip (on a Gigabyte motherboard), and it sports an OCZ Vertex 2 120GB SSD. We tested with jumbo frames disabled, which could potentially reduce CPU usage and increase throughput by a small amount if enabled, but for these tests the GbE networking performance shouldn’t pose a problem.

With the test equipment out of the way, let’s discuss testing procedures.

Testing Overview
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  • Aikouka - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Jarred, if you asked me about a year ago... I never thought I'd recommend a Netgear product. My past encounters with their networking devices has been less than stellar. Even with that, I decided to take the plunge, and I purchased a WNDR3700 a few months back. It has treated me rather well so far and that's on stock firmware. It is DD-WRT compatible; so if you prefer their firmware, you're good to flash.

    Compared to the Airport Extreme, it is a bit weaker on the wireless front as it only supports MIMO 2x2, but its newer sibling, the WNDR4000, supports MIMO 3x3.

    The one feature I'd definitely argue for though is simultaneous dual-band. I don't think most people have homes with only 5Ghz devices. So with just a dual-band router, you'd be limited to 2.4Ghz anyway.
    Reply
  • xand42 - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Any idea why the (default parameter) netperf tcp transmit results are so horrible across the board? I just ran netperf on my Advanced-N 6200 notebook and got 190Mbit/s to my Cisco E3000 router, basically the same value as with iperf and netcat and every other benchmark. Reply
  • Rick83 - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    It would be fairly interesting to see the difference between the Killer NIC, server NICs, laptop NICs and desktop NIC's from different vendors (and in different implementations).
    As I run only a SSD in my desktop, and have my user profile residing on a NAS (Intel i5 powered NAS, though, not limited by the available cycles and RAM) on a RAID 5, with reasonable linear throughput, network performance is quite important for me, as it accelerates such tasks as generating thumbnails of files, listing large directories, local decompression (that's probably the worst offender, and with large archives I do this on the NAS directly) and many tasks that access my user profile that may be latency or throughput limited.

    For this reason I recently specifically got a mainboard with Intel network adapter, hoping for enhanced performance, but only realizing, that I'd have to hack the .inf to get driver support under my OS.

    On the NAS, I am currently using the RTL 8111D chips, one connected to the switch and the other to the modem. If using a decent chip increases my samba/nfs performance, I'd put down the 50 euros for the intel pro chip in a blink.

    Also you could test supported cable length, jumbo frame support, documentation (with some cards the maximum MTU is not properly documented, and it takes ages of non-fragmented pinging to discover the correct MTU) and performance of teaming and fail-over mechanisms.

    Also, 5Ghz was something that I tried in my parent's home, but we couldn't even connect a machine that was one ceiling and wall away, at less than 10 meters distance. Might have been just a spectacularly bad router (Linksys 320N) or maybe 5GHz is really just for line-of-sight applications.
    Reply
  • pityme - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Jarred,

    I think it would be nice to run tests of multiple wireless network interference like the kind observed in apartment/townhouse/condo situations. This is a big problem that no one seems to ever test/talk about.
    Reply
  • ckryan - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    True that. I live in a condo building in uptown Charlotte, NC and every unit has a wireless router of one kind or another. To make matters worse, the elevators seem to interfere somehow -- along with every wireless phone and microwave, the acres of glass and the steel structure. To top it off, there's an office building right next door which has many wireless systems on its own. Reply
  • ckryan - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Sometimes it seems like someone has cast some manner of evil voodoo on WiFi as a whole.

    I bought a Killer 2100 NIC because I thought it was a good idea -- and it was on sale. It is better than Intel's on-board Ethernet (and better still than Realtek) if only just barely. In reality, I just liked the idea of dedicated hardware for my networking needs. It really did make a difference, and really is some good stuff, but probably not worth the substantial premium over garden variety PCIe NICs (for most people). I'm glad I bought it... but only because it was on sale.

    The Killer product line is in the position of having a product family which does perform mostly as advertised, but becomes a tough sell when you already have onboard ethernet or wifi. It has to be difficult to sell a consumer NIC that costs as much as a 80GB SSD or mid range video card. For $65 or $70 it's great. At $140, not so much. As such, I'm glad to see them trying to put their hardware inside other hardware, like networking cordon bleu. Shoving their "NPU" onto the PCBs of video and sound cards, motherboards, and laptops is a good idea and if nothing else add a little variety to the mix. It would easily be worth an extra $25 -$35 premium for a motherboard in any price range to get their NIC over the bog standard Realtek. It can't possibly cost more than the NF200 or Hydra chips on mid and high end mainboards and is surely worth an extra $20 on top of a laptop as well. Whether they can sell this particular device sans lappy at a reasonable price or even at all remains to be seen.
    Reply
  • honvl - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    I'm on a wireless card and want to test my latency. Where can I find this GaNE tool? Reply
  • Flunk - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    This result really surprised me, I was expecting results like their wired products (no difference). My guess is that the biggest factor is the support for more channels but the performance really does seem markably better. I'm gearing up to by a new Alienware laptop near the end of the year and I may very well check the box for a Killer-N upgrade. Reply
  • StormyParis - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Isn't there a wide gap between what tech sites review, and what users use ? I know it's part of the purview of a tech site to go for the 0.001%-of-users, bleeding-edge stuff, but... has anyone ever seen a review of mainstream Wifi adapters/laptop anywhere ? As one of the 99.999%, I'd be interested ! Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Bigfoot offered, so I thought, "Hey, this could be fun." Well, it wasn't. WiFi testing is a real pain in the butt I've decided. Still, it would be good to look at some other products. We might come back to the subject in the near future; I'm going to see about soliciting a bunch of different WiFi adapters and see what turns up. Obviously, I have at least the 6230 and 6300 from Intel. I want to add the Killer 1103, some Broadcom stuff, etc. Really, I'd want to focus on just dual-band cards, though -- anything that can't do 5GHz becomes less interesting after playing with the Linksys E4200. Reply

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