Into all gamer's lives, a little lag must fall. Into MMORPG gamer's lives, lag seems to fall like rain in Seattle. Enter Bigfoot Networks, the Killer NIC card, and their crusade against lag.
CEO Harlan Beverly is a former Intel network chip architect, and a hardcore gamer*, who was tired of being defeated due to lag. Unlike most of us, Harlan had the expertise to do something about it. Together with Bob Grim and Mike Cubbage, he formed Bigfoot Networks to fight the good fight and save us all from certain, horrible deaths due to lag.
"Wait!" I hear you cry, "Lag is bad, but is it evil enough to require a card that costs almost as much as a high end video card?" Well friends, this is the question we are here to answer: Will this card benefit MMORPG players and, if so, are those benefits worth 280 hard earned American dollars?
The Hardware - What the heck is it?
The Killer NIC - or Network Interface Card - is a PCI card designed to replace the built-in network port found on most modern motherboards. Unlike built-in network ports or other NIC cards, Killer has its very own Linux operating system running on a 400 Mhz Network Processing Unit (NPU) and 64MB of RAM. This is important, as it is what powers Bigfoot's Lag and Latency Reduction technology (LLR).
LLR is a set of features designed to increase your Frames Per Second (FPS) in game, and reduce your ping. FPS and ping are commonly combined when referring to lag. A drop in FPS or a rise in ping causes your game to visibly slow down, or even pause. As anyone who has ever played an MMORPG can attest - this sucks.
The Technology - How does this thing work, anyway?
Let's start with a simple description of how your built-in network connection works in regards to an MMORPG. Information comes from your server to your NIC. (Built in or separate card.) Your NIC then passes this to the Windows Networking Stack, which then passes it to the game, which shows you that you just got stabbed in the back by that sneaky little Hobbit burglar. Sounds pretty fast, right? Sure, it is, except your NIC and the Networking Stack are both using your processor and slowing down your game.
Now, this is how Killer is supposed to speed it up: Information comes from the server to Killer. Killer passes it directly on to the game, which shows you punting that hairy-footed little jerk like a football. Killer has its own NPU to process the information, so it doesn't need to steal processing time from the game, which leaves your CPU free to kick up the performance a bit.
There are four components of LLR that concern MMORPG players:
MaxFPS - Offloads network processing on to Killers NPU, instead of your CPU. This helps by eliminating any CPU time that was taken up running the onboard NIC.
UltimatePing - Allows Killer to bypass the Windows networking stack and deliver information directly to your game. Bypassing Windows means less time for the information to reach your game, and it also means Windows isn't sucking up processor time for networking.
GameFirst - Prioritizes inbound and outbound network traffic so that gaming information is the first to be delivered. This means your World of Warcraft stuff comes before that new Britney Spears album you bought from iTunes. (You thought we didn't know about that, didn't you?)
FNA - Killer runs a Linux OS on its 400 Mhz NPU. You didn't think all that power went to networking, did you? FNA stands for Flexible Networking Applications, and it basically means that programs can be written to run on Killer instead of your CPU. That USB connection on the Killer? Yeah, someday soon that will allow you to plug your headset in and run Ventrilo or Teamspeak on Killer, freeing up even more of your CPU time for the game. Bigfoot Networks already has a firewall client available, so you can turn off that wonderful Windows firewall and still be protected from those big bad internets.
Appearance - What's it look like, man?
The Killer NIC is a standard PCI card with a pretty unusual appearance. The most outstanding physical feature of this card is the big - we're talking huge - K-shaped heatsink. It is styled like some sort of deadly K sword, all edges and points. It really emphasizes the point that Bigfoot Networks considers this its front-line weapon in the fight against lag. Aside from the heatsink, the card itself consists of an ethernet port, a USB 2.0 port, an attractive black PCB, and a few small but bright red LEDs that flash with the ebb and flow of your network connection.
Size-wise, the Killer NIC is about the same size as Creative Lab's X-Fi sound cards - much shorter than an average PCI-E video card. The card is thin enough to fit between two other PCI cards or between a PCI card and a single slot PCI-E video card.
Speaking of fitting between cards: Modern motherboards are starting to become stingy with PCI slots. If you have a dual-slot PCI-E video card or an SLI video setup and already have a sound card or physics card, you may want to make sure you have room to install another card before ordering one of these. If you have room, but it needs to be installed between cards, don't sweat it - Killer seems to run very cool.
Disclaimers - Obvious things I feel the need to point out.
First, let me start off by saying that we are not a hardware review site, and I am not going to be picking this thing apart with flow charts, bar graphs, and indecipherable techno-babble. We are an MMORPG site, and I want to know if this thing makes the games we love the most any better. We are Farscape to your Star Trek, so if you want those things, there are plenty of reviews of the Killer NIC that provide them. A quick Google will let you set a course for all the über-geek you can stand. The rest of you, follow me through the wormhole, and watch out for Peace Keepers along the way.**
Secondly, I don't expect you all to just accept my "gut feeling" about the card without any sort of proof. Consequently, the little proof that can be offered will follow the performance section in the form of some FRAPS benchmarks. Of course, it can be argued that these also mean nothing, since they could have been completely fabricated, but this leads me to my...
Lastly, it always comes up, without fail, following any sort of review of a product on a site which accepts advertising dollars from the manufacturer of said product: "Well, I don't trust whatever you say, because your site takes their money, so you are obviously going to say good things about them." People, let me clear this up before we go any further: At no point in time have Bigfoot Networks, MMORPG.com, or anybody else on this planet asked me to bias this review. Having said that, I will admit that the Martians have been telepathically asking me to say bad things about it. But, then again, they always do that.