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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  • neothe0ne - Sunday, August 14, 2011 - link

    "And Dell, Asus, Acer, and Sony all do the same thing."

    Are you sure about that? I was under the impression HP and Lenovo were alone in the industry with the WLAN whitelist. And anyway, Dell does offer the Intel Centrino 6230 on the XPS 15 now, unlike HP's dv6 which is stuck in budget-tier Intel WiFi Link 1000 land.
    Reply
  • cjl - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - link

    Dell, at least in their Alienware products, definitely does not whitelist. After reading this article, I got one of the Killer 1102 cards for my M11xR2 (which comes with a rather terrible card by default, and there were no upgrade options offered), and it works just fine. I popped it in, installed the drivers, and everything has been working great since. Reply
  • Musafir_86 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Hello,

    -Thanks for the article, but did you tested those adapters with or without any security/encryption/password protection scheme? I mean WEP or WPA/WPA2 - I think encryption put some overhead in the throughput.

    Thanks.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    All testing was done with WPA2 AES. Most modern cards do fine with that, though a few years back it was sometimes slower IIRC. Reply
  • Musafir_86 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    -Okay, thanks for the clarification. :) Reply
  • Yummer72 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the informative review.

    I wonder if Bigfoot will continue to have an advantage if the "WLAN Optimizer" program was used with the other WiFi cards?

    http://www.martin-majowski.de/wlanoptimizer/

    I have personally seen significantly improved performance and the elimination of "lag spikes" (QuakeLive) with this software tweak.

    Any comments?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    I'll give that a try; it could very well remove the spikes, leaving the primary advantage as the lower base latency. Reply
  • bhima - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    You should review that 95% color gamut matte screen in that Mythlogic ;) Reply
  • loopingz - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    First of all thanks for highlighting that I can change my wifi adaptator on my laptop. Mine is always frozing during transfert in windows (linux is fine).

    Second thanks for helping me choosing the good one.

    I hesitate now between intel 6300 for range, correct performance and price, and the 110 2/3 for pure performance.
    May be best of two worlds intel 6300 in the eeepc that travel a lot and bigfoot in the main home laptop.

    Can I recycle a my old wifi card or a new one using an antenna and puting it in my desktop computer?

    I will give try to Wlanoptimizer too because watching movie from the raid5 nas still not perfect (router linksys e3k).

    Thanks for the good job.
    Reply
  • name99 - Thursday, August 11, 2011 - link

    "Wireless networking also tends to need more overhead for error checking and interference losses, and there’s a question of whether the streams are linearly independent enough to get higher throughput, orientation, directionality of signal, etc. Even though you might connect at 450Mbps or 300Mbps, you’ll never actually reach anywhere near that level of throughput. In our testing, the highest throughput we ever saw was around 75% utilization of the available bandwidth, and that was on a 300Mbps connection."

    This is not a useful description of the situation. The nominal speed of a connection (ie the MCS index) already includes error correction overhead --- that's why you see a range of bit-rates, with the same parameters (modulation, number of streams, bandwidth) --- these different bit-rates correspond to different levels of error correction, from the strongest (1/2 coding rate) to the weakest (5/6).

    It is also unlikely that corrupt packets and the retransmission (what you are calling "interference losses", though in your environment noise is likely more relevant than interference) are substantial --- both ends aggressively modify the MCS index to get the best throughput, and try to keep the number of corrupt packets low.

    The real issue is the MAC --- the negotiations over who next gets airtime. This used to be a big deal with wired ethernet as well, of course, but it went away with switches around the time we all moved to 100TX. The basic 802.11n MAC does not rely on any real co-ordination, just on timing windows and retries, and it wastes a phenomenal amount of time. 802.11e improves the situation somewhat (I expect all the systems that get 75% efficiency are using 802.11e, otherwise they'd see around 50% efficiency), but it's still not perfect.
    What one really wants is a central arbiter (like in a cell system) that hands out time slots, with very specific rules about who can talk when. For reasons I don't understand, 802.11 has been very resistant to adding such a MAC protocol (802.11e has elements of this, but does not go full-hog), but I would not be surprised if we finally see such as part of the 802.11n successor --- it's just such an obvious place to pick up some improvement. The real problem is that to do it right you have to give up backward compatibility, and no-one wants to do that. At least if we'd had it in 802.11n, then we'd be part way to a better world (people could switch it on once all their g equipment died, eg at home).
    Reply

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