Bigfoot’s Killer Wireless-N 1102: Living up to Its Name

This is one of the few times I’ve tested a product that surprised me. I figured all wireless adapters were pretty much the same, but my experience with the Killer Wireless-N 1102 card has been excellent. I can’t say I’ve ever felt wireless networking was something to worry about, but now I’ll need to reconsider. Wading through the notebooks I have on hand, I’m actually surprised at how many of them use cheap 1x1:1 2.4GHz adapters, even on $1500+ notebooks. No wonder I haven’t been impressed with wireless throughput in the past!

Going into this review, I felt that the wireless world had largely stagnated, but it turns out that I’m probably the one falling behind. I have felt on occasion that my Netgear WNR3500L router was holding me back, but I didn’t realize how much. (Before that, I had a TrendNET TEW-633GR 3x3:3 2.4GHz router that I thought was “good enough”…except for the occasional crashes and restarts. Yuck!) Testing with the Linksys E4200 router on a 5GHz radio has opened my eyes to the source of my problems: the 2.4GHz spectrum is just too crowded, so you almost never get 40MHz channels and higher connection rates. With the right router, suddenly the difference between budget WiFi adapters and expensive 3x3:3 solutions starts to make sense. Wireless networking has improved in other ways as well. For one, size matters. My oldest laptops have comparatively huge mini-PCIe adapters, and most of those aren’t even 802.11n capable. Now you can get a highly integrated 3x3:3 chip in a half-height, with the potential for Bluetooth in some cases as well.

That brings us to the star of today’s review, the Killer Wireless-N 1102. Throughput is generally equal to or better than equivalent solutions, and it can even outperform Intel’s top Ultimate-N 6300 is many tests, despite having one less spatial stream available. That’s not the real selling point, though; it’s the software, drivers, and optimizations to improve latency that allows the 1102 stand out. If the latency only helped in gaming, that might be enough, but the small file copy times show that it’s useful for non-gamers as well. I routinely copy large amounts of files and data between PCs, and in the past I’ve always felt the need to do that over a wired connection. I’m still inclined to go that route if I’m moving more than a couple gigabytes, because even the best wireless networks still fall short of Gigabit Ethernet. However, copying lots of smaller files ends up being faster than 100Mb Ethernet for a change, and if I’m not in a hurry 15-25MiB/s will get most transfers done fast enough to make hassling with wires unnecessary.

Something else that surprised me is the pricing; the Killer 1102 is roughly a $15 upgrade from Intel’s 6230, and if you’re looking at a gaming laptop, $15 is chump change. Given their earlier $200+ Killer NICs, I was afraid when Bigfoot first approached me that we’d see a repeat of such prices, but I’m happy to say that’s not the case. The Killer 1102 (and 1103) might cost a bit more than other wireless solutions, but if you care about wireless performance and latency, a $15 to $20 upgrade is reasonable.

My biggest concern is that, as good as the Killer Wireless-N is, many users will likely never notice. Faster UDP throughput generally isn’t a problem, and with most broadband connections pushing less than 20Mbps, the difference between a 144Mbps 1x1:1 connection and a 450Mbps 3x3:3 connection for Internet use is negligible. Even the lower ping times won’t matter all that much for online gaming, since a good 40ms connection between your router and a game server means the Killer Wireless-N might get 41ms average latency compared to 45-50ms on competing solutions. The removal of jitter will be a bigger benefit, but only hardcore gamers are likely to notice. Ironically, for gaming purposes Realtek’s 1x1:1 RTL8188CE is right up there with the Killer 1102 in terms of latency, and unlike the Intel and Atheros chipsets I didn’t see any large spikes during testing. (Broadcom’s BCM94322 is another 2x2:2 device that appears to have good latency in some initial testing, and it’s available with dual-band and Bluetooth support; I didn’t have time to run the full suite of tests on that card yet, unfortunately.) If you regularly use Bluetooth, you don’t do much network gaming, and/or you don’t routinely copy lots of small files, the upsell to an 1102 probably won’t be that enticing.

Ultimately, given the choice between two laptops, one with a Killer wireless adapter and one with a competing adapter, I’d prefer to get the Killer—especially on higher end notebooks. Budget and mainstream laptops can likely make do with whatever wireless adapter comes preinstalled, or look at upgrading the graphics and/or CPU before worrying about things like wireless performance. Nevertheless, if you are interested in improved wireless performance, go ahead and spend the extra money. Just don’t try using a Killer Wireless-N adapter in a crowded apartment complex with dozens of wireless routers on the 2.4GHz spectrum and then wonder why it doesn’t seem any better than your old wireless adapter.

That brings us to the final recommendation. Before buying a new laptop with the Killer Wireless-N, make sure you have a high quality router. The Linksys E4200 generally works well, but I’d be more inclined to go with Apple’s Airport Extreme. The Linksys and Airport extreme cost the same and the Airport Extreme has 3x3:3 2.4GHz support and arguably better overall performance. Then again, long-term if you’re a fan of DD-WRT you might be better off with the Cisco 4200/Linksys E4200, as the DD-WRT project has plans to add support for the 4200 but not the Airport Extreme. Once you have the router side under control, then by all means look at getting Bigfoot’s speedy Killer Wireless-N for your laptop(s).

Thanks also to Mythlogic for providing us with the test laptops. We’ll have a full review of their Pollux 1400 (Clevo W150HR) in the near future.

Update: Interestingly, Mythlogic just emailed me to inform me that they're also selling the Bigfoot 1102 and 1103 adapters via Amazon. You can grab the 1102 for $40, or go whole hog with the 1103 for $60. By comparison, Intel's 6200 goes for $24 and their 6300 costs $35 (though the latter is currently out of stock). So, if you have an laptop with poor wireless that you'd like to upgrade, you can take the plunge.

Killer Network Manager and Other Thoughts
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  • zephon85 - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Any words on the impact of the different wifi adapters on notebook battery life? Would be quite good to know how much (if any) time you gain by using different wireless cards... Reply
  • Gigantopithecus - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    I could be wrong but given the upper limit on mini-PCI and mini-PCIe power capacity, I'd assume differences between cards on the same interface would be negligible in the real world. You might be able to demonstrate small statistically significant differences between cards using large sample sizes and very rigorous, controlled testing, but that's an enormous amount of time and effort to show that card X yields 5-6 more minutes of battery runtime than card Y. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    I'll cover the battery life question in the laptop review; I didn't actually take the time to perform those tests yet. I don't expect much of a difference, as WiFi adapters are usually pulling less than 250mW, but we'll see. Reply
  • Souka - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    I'll put my $.02 in.

    Different cards have different drivers....each with their own defaul power settings.

    Unless all the various options are taken into account, it can be really hard to get a apples-2-apples comparison of power needs.

    But I agree to a point, the wi-fi power draw is really low compared to drive, memory, cpu, gpu, and LCD power needs.

    Kinda think of driving a car with the antenna up vs down.... yes it does make a difference, but not much.

    My $.02
    :)
    Reply
  • SquattingDog - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Just to post on this - Wireless being on or off can make a huge difference to battery life on notebooks - so some testing between cards could definitely be good. Eg on a Netbook I have (Asus n10jc), I typically get around 30 - 45min more battery life with wifi OFF.

    In saying that, since upgrading from a 54mbps wifi network to a 300mbps wifi network, I have seen no difference in battery usage on the machine (connects at 300Mbps now).
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    True, but you're looking at a netbook that idles at around 7W. A reduction in power draw of .25W would be a lot more noticeable on that than on a full laptop that's drawing 12-15W minimum. Reply
  • Souka - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    with wi-fi on you may have a fair amount of network activity going on...which also increases the draw by the cpu/drive/mb/etc

    anyhow...good points all! :)
    Reply
  • philosofool - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Wireless networking isn't something I really keep up on, so I don't know much past the various 802.11 names. What, forexample, does 3x3:3 mean and why might I like that more than some other configuration? Reply
  • A5 - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    From Page 1 of the review:

    "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)."

    Theoretically, a 3x3:3 device offers 3x the bandwidth of a 1x1:1 device.
    Reply
  • GeorgeH - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review, it looks like my bias against everything "killer" will have to be adjusted a bit. While I'm still not sure that the performance difference is terribly meaningful, neither is $20 in most laptops. Reply

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