by Alexey Stepin
02/20/2010 | 03:37 PM
The games we play today are generally very heavy applications with high system requirements, especially regarding the graphics subsystem. Some of them, like Crysis Warhead, are so merciless in their demands that you can only play them comfortably at the highest graphics quality settings if you purchase a flagship card from AMD or Nvidia for a few hundred dollars! Of course, there are trends that limit these insatiable appetites of 3D applications. Particularly, there are more and more multiplatform projects whose developers have to make allowances for the hardware capabilities of today’s gaming consoles which are far inferior to those of the latest PCs. Code optimizations bringing their fruit, a multiplatform game can smoothly run even on mainstream GPUs, but at the expense of some visual luxuries that might be implemented if it were developed specifically for the latest generation of graphics cards.
However, not everything depends on the graphics card in today’s games. Sometimes you need an advanced CPU or an extra couple of gigabytes of system memory. A fast hard disk would also be appreciated by any game. And there is also a category of games that need a reliable network connection. The latter requirement refers to multiplayer shooters and real-time strategies, MMORPGs, and any other game that can be played over a network. Here, you can have top-end hardware but lose to an opponent with weaker configuration just because your network connection fails. The lag or delay between a player’s action and the reaction of the game character to it is the plague of all gamers who want to play against each other. This lag is largely determined by the server’s response time or ping, which is calculated in milliseconds. For example, a ping of 200 milliseconds means that there is a delay of 0.2 seconds between the player’s action and the game character’s response. That’s quite a lot, actually. The enemy you are aiming at may have taken this time to move aside, and your shot goes wide of the target. Or you may ruin a whole raid in your MMORPG by failing to hit the enemy or casting a friendly spell on your teammate at the right time. You think that’s not serious? Well, there are lots of reports of frustrated gamers breaking to pieces their keyboards, mice and even monitors when let down by a poor network connection.
So, minimizing the lag is the primary goal for a serious network gamer, but that’s not an easy thing to do. On one hand, a network game’s response time depends on such Internet connection parameters as the type of connection, physical condition of the data transmission channel, the current load on the ISP’s servers, and many others. On the other hand, game servers themselves affect the performance of the game, too. Of course, none of these factors is within your control. You can only try to lower your response time by unloading everything unnecessary from your computer’s memory such as your web-browser, torrent client and other programs making use of your network connection. And here is where the third problem comes in. It is the Windows network architecture and the specifics of network adapters that most modern PCs are equipped with. We will discuss the technicalities shortly. For now, let’s assume that the problem does exist and you can really try to solve it.
The first attempt was undertaken by Bigfoot Networks. In 2006 they released the network adapter Killer NIC M1 designed to minimize any lags on the user system’s part in network games. The technology did work but its effect was far from outstanding. The product itself was too expensive (nearly $300), targeted a very narrow audience and used the outdated PCI bus. All these reasons explain why it never really took off among devoted gamers. A cheaper version, Killer NIC K1, was released later on, but it was still too expensive to become a bestseller.
If you want to learn more about these all-hardware NICs for the PC, you can visit the developer’s website. In this review we are going to discuss the new model that uses the modern PCI Express bus and costs far less than its predecessor, which makes it potentially far more appealing for network gaming. Bigfoot Networks has partnered with EVGA to market their new solution. It is called EVGA Killer Xeno Pro.
The point of the Killer NIC technologies is simple. If the software processing of network protocols implemented in the Windows OS family is not very effective in terms of minimizing game latencies, especially in a multitasking environment, and also consumes some of the CPU’s resources, why not offload the CPU by introducing an individual processor (Network Processing Unit in Bigfoot Networks’ terms) to handle all network-related issues.
By the way, a similar concept is implemented in hardware RAID controllers, each of which is in fact an individual specialized computer equipped with PCI-X or PCI Express interface. Software RAID controllers come with large and sophisticated drivers that put a high load on the CPU and often have stability issues since they depend on the operation of the mainboard and CPU. As opposed to them, a full-featured hardware RAID controller does all disk array related operations on the hardware and thus has a simple and compact driver that only serves as an interface for the specialized and host computers to interact and exchange data. This is roughly how the Killer NIC platform from Bigfoot Networks does its job.
Here are simplified flowcharts of an ordinary network adapter and a Killer Xeno Pro.
Of course, if all networking is processed on board the Killer Xeno Pro using a dedicated NPU, Windows’ network protocol stack does not do anything. Theoretically, this should not only offload the CPU but also lower the ping time because the CPU won’t introduce any delays. Besides that, an ordinary network adapter, which is usually represented by a mainboard-integrated chip from Marvell or Realtek, does not have any means of traffic shaping and prioritization or such features are implemented on the software level and in a limited way. And even if you take an expensive server network adapter, which can offload the CPU, you will find that it works for TCP whereas most games use the UDP protocol. Besides, such NICs are optimized to maximize bandwidth rather than to minimize latencies and response time.
Here is a practical example. If you try to use an ordinary network adapter to download a large file from the Internet and also play an online game that requires a low response time (e.g. any multiplayer shooter), you will most likely find that the file download process has occupied the entire Internet channel, loading the network adapter and increasing the game’s response time to huge numbers. The game will be practically unplayable. But when you have a hardware NPU, you can use the advanced traffic prioritization and shaping features to allot a certain amount of Internet bandwidth to each application. This is implemented in Bigfoot Networks’ solutions, including the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro.
One more benefit of a dedicated NPU is that it can be used to process voice communications since many gamers rely on them for joint action in such games as Eve Online and World of Warcraft. In this case, an NPU can serve not only as one more sound card, like a USB headset, but also perform all the compressing and decompressing of audio. Theoretically, this guarantees both high voice messaging quality and low response time, which may not be the case if you use ordinary network and sound cards. Bigfoot Networks’ previous-generation solutions, the Killer NIC K1 and M1, did not support that functionality, but the new EVGA Killer Xeno Pro is endowed with it. Capping all that, the Killer NIC platform is a full-featured Linux machine you can launch various applications on, including a firewall or a torrent-client. And such applications will be running without using any of the host computer’s resources, relying only on the computing capacity and memory of the Killer NIC/Xeno Pro itself.
The Killer NIC developer calls this Flexible Network Architecture and offers a set of developer’s tools called FNApps you can download from the Bigfoot Networks website.
Now we can have a closer look at the new generation of smart network adapters from Bigfoot Networks marketed by EVGA under the name of Killer Xeno Pro. At a recommended price of $100, this solution may be quite appealing if it can really improve our network gaming experience.
Although not a graphics card, this product’s packaging resembles those of EVGA’s graphics solutions. It is a black box with silvery captions at the top. A gray line with a texture of polished metal goes across the box, serving as the background for the product name. There are four blood-red icons touting the product’s advantages that we are yet to check out in practice.
There is only one piece of useful information on the face side of the box: you can learn that the card supports PCI Express. The older Killer NIC K1 and M1 supported the older PCI interface. The PCI slot has become a rare guest on modern mainboards and is likely to be occupied by some sound card like a SoundBlaster X-Fi XtremeGamer. The bus configuration is not specified, but the picture on the back side of the box shows the card and you can see that it supports PCIe x1. So, there should be no problems installing the Killer Xeno Pro into any modern computer. You can also see a TeamSpeak Certified logo that guarantees that this product is compatible with the voice communication system that is highly popular among online gamers. The card also supports the open-source Mumble system that serves the same purpose. There is a warning on one side of the box that the 64-bit version of Windows XP is not supported, but this OS is rather old and far from popular. It is mostly installed on workstations rather than on gaming computers.
Besides the Killer Xeno Pro adapter, we found the following accessories on the cardboard tray inside the box:
Oddly enough, there is no USB cable in the kit. You can use any standard cable of appropriate length, but it’s strange that the manufacturer does not include it. We don’t think it would increase the cost of the product much.
So, the packaging and accessories of the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro are all high quality. The card looks stylish and comes with everything necessary for using it. EVGA carries on its tradition of style and quality, which deserves our praise.
The adapter is compact but has a full-size PCB, so you cannot install it into a low-profile system case.
Well, we don’t think that anyone would want to do that since the Xeno Pro is meant for top-end gaming configurations which are usually assembled in roomy and massive system enclosures of the midi/full-tower format like the Chieftec LCX-01, Cooler Master Cosmos or Zalman GS1000.
Being compact, the card is densely populated. On the reverse side of the PCB we can spot a Marvell 88E1118R-NNC2 chip located right above the PCIe x1 connector.
This is Marvell’s Alaska series PHY Gigabit Ethernet controller servicing one 10/100/1000Base-T port. The chip is connected to an integrated module Bel MagJack 0826-1X1T-43-F that includes a Gigabit Ethernet port, matching transformers, decoupling transformers and LED indicators of connection and data transmission modes.
The central part of the face side of the PCB is occupied by a rather large chip sporting a K sticker – the official logotype of the Killer NIC series. It resembles the logo of the famous network shooter series Unreal Tournament.
As opposed to the Killer NIC M1, there is no heatsink here. It is not necessary since the chip does not heat up much. Of course, we could not be satisfied with the single letter K in our study, so we tore the sticker off to read the following marking:
The marking “PPC8315” refers to the PowerQUICC II Pro series developed by Freescale Semiconductor. The MPC8315E model is a SoC controller with a PowerPC core clocked at frequencies up to 400 MHz, which is quite enough to offload the CPU from any networking jobs.
Two PCI Express x1 channels are supported as the system interface. Interestingly, the MPC8315E also incorporates two Serial ATA II ports which might be output as eSATA connectors for external storage devices to use the latter as a FTP server or a place to store downloaded files into. Alas, this feature is not implemented in the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro. Instead of an eSATA port, there is a USB 2.0 connector on the PCB. As you know, USB 2.0 has much lower bandwidth than eSATA.
The Spansion flash memory chip above the processor stores the Killer Xeno Pro’s operating system. Again, this whole device works under control of a specialized version of Linux and is in fact a computer in its own right.
The processor has a 32-bit DDR2 memory interface with a frequency up to 266 (533) MHz. A couple of such memory chips are installed on the card. These are Qimonda HYB18T512160BF-3.7 (512 Mb capacity, 1.8V voltage). The 3.7 suffix denotes a rated frequency of 266 (533) MHz which seems to be the frequency the memory is indeed clocked at. The two chips provide a total of 128 megabytes which should be enough for any network applications you can launch on this processor. The previous-generation Killer NIC used to come with 64 megabytes of system memory, by the way.
Besides the Gigabit Ethernet and USB 2.0 ports, the card has 3.5mm connectors for a headset. You can use them directly by separating your voice communication from the in-game audio reproduced by the main sound card. Or you can connect the Xeno Pro’s line output to the sound card’s input with an internal or external cable whichever you find more expedient.
We put the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro into out testbed and installed its latest drivers and software. We’ll talk about the latter in the next section of the review.
We installed the latest version of the Killer Xeno Pro software (184.108.40.206-19) available on the EVGA website. According to the release notes, this version includes the following optimizations and corrections:
When installed, the Killer Xeno Pro appears in the Device Manager as an ordinary network adapter.
There is a system tray icon providing access to the adapter’s features.
As you may guess, the two top icons are responsible for quickly selecting the operation mode of the Killer Xeno Pro, but you can also access these options from the first tab of the Xeno Configuration item:
The settings are not numerous: speed and transmission mode. You can also choose between two operation modes: gaming and applications. In the former case, the Killer Xeno Pro does its best to offload the main system from networking jobs and to minimize the response time. This is the most interesting mode for a gamer. The second tab allows to set up a few TCP parameters.
We left all settings at their defaults here. The About tab is informational. You can learn the current driver version and the card’s serial number here. Automatic updates can also be enabled here.
The Bandwidth Control application is far more interesting.
The first tab allows to assign priorities to each running process and to mark them as gaming applications or not. The automatic identification of the application type does not yet work properly.
The second tab is for regulating the connection speed for each application. As you can see in the screenshot, some of the processes identified by the Killer Xeno Pro software as gaming ones have automatically been allotted unlimited bandwidth. The Google Chrome browser is mistakenly among them, too.
And finally, the last tab is where you can set up your Internet connection parameters. The developer recommends that you first test the connection speed with the shaping tools disabled. This sounds like good advice. Here you can also enable notifications about new applications being launched. Receiving such a notification, you can assign the priority and bandwidth for the application. A handy feature, yet it can get on your nerves if you are using lots of different programs.
The Xeno Firewall application doesn’t look sophisticated and it is indeed very easy to set up. When the firewall is turned on, all incoming connections on all ports will be blocked, save for user-defined exceptions. This is a simple but effective tool whose functionality should be quite enough for a gamer.
And finally, the XenoChat application is for voice communication. Its interface follows the fashionable design resembling the interface of Microsoft Office 2007.
We can only criticize the low-res icons that look angular. Otherwise, the application is functional and works as expected. It supports the popular voice communication systems Mumble and TeamSpeak, although not the Ventrilo system preferred by many gamers. Anyway, the traffic prioritization options implemented in the Xeno Pro should have a positive effect on any voice communication tools. At least, your speaking over the network should not affect the game’s response time and smoothness of gameplay.
Summing it up, the software tools accompanying the Killer Xeno Pro are simple and intuitive. Even inexperienced gamers should be able to easily make out what every setting does.
We are going to investigate the performance of EVGA Killer Xeno Pro using the following universal testbed:
In order to check out the effects of EVGA Killer Xeno Pro on the gaming performance we chose ATI Radeon HD 5850 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 285 graphics cards. The graphics card drivers were configured in the following standard way:
We used the following games:
Unfortunately, this review does not include the highly popular Eve Online MMORPG which cannot report its response time in digital format. We selected the highest graphics quality settings in each game and also turned on 4x MSAA. Some online gamers lower the level of detail to achieve as high a frame rate as possible, but we don’t think there is any point in doing so. After all, you cannot get higher than your monitor’s refresh time which is 60, 75 or 120 Hz, whereas your visual enjoyment would suffer. We performed our tests at many popular display resolutions: 1280x1024, 1680x1050, 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. The bottom speed data are published, too. We measured the frame rate with the Fraps 3.0.2 tool manually by testing each game three times and averaging the results.
Our Internet connection was provided by Starman. It is a CATV provider that uses cable television infrastructure for the last mile. Our Internet package offers an uplink speed of 6 Mbps and a downlink speed of 350 Kbps. Using PowerBoost technology, the connection has a peak uplink bandwidth of 18 Mbps for data amounts of 10 megabytes and a peak downlink bandwidth of 1 Mbps for data amounts of 2 megabytes. These parameters are not very high for today, but the connection is stable and has low latencies, making it possible to enjoy many online games together with voice communication.
Here is how we went about testing Bigfoot Networks’ technologies: each game was tested twice – with an EVGA Killer Xeno Pro and with a mainboard-integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller Realtek 8111D. This controller is not as widespread as similar controllers from Marvell. It is linked to a PCIe 1.1 bus, supports Jumbo Frames up to 9000 bytes, and can offload the CPU from checksum computations for both TCP and UDP. Each game was tested for 15 minutes and we recorded the response time each minute. Additionally we performed the same tests with uTorrent version 2.0 (build 18488) downloading 3 large files in the background. We did not limit the bandwidth allotted to the torrent client in order to check out the performance of the Killer Xeno Pro in automatic mode.
The test situations were as diverse as possible to make them closer to real gaming scenarios. It is next to impossible to repeat the same test sequence exactly because the other players are beyond the tester’s control, especially in MMORPGs. You can’t play always in the same way even in shooters on your local network. The only way to exactly compare two network adapters would be to use them in two identical testbeds, but we have only one test configuration with top-end components. Anyway, we tried to make all test runs as similar as possible, but we must confess there is some inherent inaccuracy in our testing method.
The Killer Xeno Pro brings no benefits at the lowest resolution but we do see some difference at 1680x1050 and higher. It is no larger than a couple of frames per second, however, and can hardly be of any practical value. The increased bottom speed of the GeForce GTX 285 at 2560x1600 is good, but we did not feel that the gameplay got much more comfortable. The average performance growth is no higher than 3% here.
We must confess we could not test this game together with uTorrent. If the torrent client was launched, the game refused to connect to EA servers or provoked disconnects. In some lucky moments when we did get through to the server, we could not play normally due to terrible lags irrespective of the network adapter installed into the system. Well, that’s why serious online gamers disable all torrent clients, FTP sessions and everything else that might affect their connection speed before they launch their game.
Still, the Killer Xeno Pro helped reduce the ping time from 83 to 79 milliseconds on average. Since statistics claims that an average man’s reaction to a visual stimulus varies within 150 to 300 milliseconds, this can hardly be called a serious advantage in online gaming.
The network engine of Team Fortress 2 does not look very effective since our results suggest that it loads the Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition clocked at 3.33GHz heavily enough. By simply replacing the integrated network adapter with the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro, we managed to increase the average and, occasionally, bottom frame rate for both graphics cards in this test session. The dedicated NPU helps boost the frame rate by an extra 10-12% at nearly any resolution excepting 1280x1024. Alas, this acceleration has little practical worth since the average frame rate is over 80 fps anyway even at 2560x1600, the bottom speed being never lower than 35 fps. Yes, the Killer Xeno Pro should add some speed to weak configurations, but we guess that $100 should instead be spent for a better graphics card which would speed such a system up even more.
When there is no additional load, the network adapters both behave in a similar way. Although the Killer Xeno Pro does have a somewhat lower response time, the advantage of 3 milliseconds is really negligible considering the parameters of our nervous system. But when it comes to some background applications, the new technology works splendidly, even though we don’t suspect that many users play Team Fortress 2 while downloading files with uTorrent. With the Realtek 8111D the ping time is as high as 179 milliseconds whereas the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro keeps it as low as without uTorrent, i.e. at 55 milliseconds. This proves the practical efficiency of technologies from Bigfoot Networks. But again, it is easier for the gamer to disable all background applications than to spend money for a dedicated NPU.
There is some performance growth in World of Warcraft, too. It is lower than in Team Fortress 2, amounting to 2-4%. It is only at 1920x1200 that the GeForce GTX 285 speeds up by 7%, also in terms of bottom speed. This was quite conspicuous: the gameplay became much smoother subjectively. The GeForce GTX 285 does not do the same at 2560x1600, though. As for the Radeon HD 5850, it delivers a comfortable speed both with the Killer Xeno Pro and without the latter. Still, we’d recommend the EVGA card for MMORPGs in the first place as such games use the network connection most actively.
Like in the previous two games, the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro kept the response time lower throughout the test. And, unlike in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Team Fortress 2, the game seemed to run smoother with the EVGA card than without it. At least, this was our subjective impression. When under load, the Killer Xeno Pro again proved its superb network traffic optimization abilities, keeping the ping time as low as without uTorrent. So, if you are planning a long WoW session and don’t want to disable your torrent client, the EVGA card will be just what you need.
We want to add that with our testbed described in the previous section we did not have the problem reported by some other reviewers. In their tests the response time in World of Warcraft would quickly grow up and the server disconnected when uTorrent was running in the background. We suspect the Killer Xeno Pro developers have done some error correction in the drivers and software. They still have to improve further, however, as such problems may occur in other games, e.g. in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 as we’ve described above.
Now let’s see how good the Killer Xeno Pro is as an ordinary network adapter. With the wide popularity of Gigabit Ethernet and high-definition video, it is important to have a high connection speed on your home network. A speed of 40-80 MBps is far better than 10 MBps that you may have with Fast Ethernet. Alas, the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro is far from brilliant from this aspect, at least in Windows 7.
So, the EVGA card delivers only 10 MBps as opposed to 80 MBps with the integrated controllers from Realtek and Marvell. This is comparable to the performance of the previous-generation Fast Ethernet standard. Yes, this is enough for a single Internet connection since there are few providers offering a permanent link at a speed higher than 100 Mbps. Typical connection speeds are 10-30 Mbps. This is also enough for online games for which the response time is far more important than the Internet channel bandwidth.
But if you’ve got a file server on your Gigabit Ethernet network, you won’t be able to work with it at full speed from a computer equipped with a Killer Xeno Pro. The hardware capabilities of this network adapter should not be the bottleneck. The problem must be in the software which is optimized to minimize response time in games.
The EVGA Killer Xeno Pro network adapter works just as specified by the manufacturer, offloading the computer’s CPU from processing network data and reducing the response time in online games as long as this parameter depends on the gamer’s computer. Alas, it depends even more on such parameters as connection type, how loaded the ISP’s and game’s servers are, etc. As we have found out, the Killer Xeno Pro can only improve an online game’s responsiveness by a few milliseconds, which is beyond the range of perception. This network adapter is good when you are playing a game while running some other network applications, for example downloading files from your LAN or with a torrent client. The Killer Xeno Pro shows its best in such situations and uses its advanced traffic prioritization tools to keep the ping time as low as without any additional network load. There are also some performance benefits in games in terms of speed in frames per second since the CPU does not have to process Windows’ network stack, but this improvement varies from 3 to 10% only. It is only in World of Warcraft that we really felt the gameplay became smoother with the EVGA card.
The hardware NPU has high potential but is not free from downsides. Its response time optimizations make the Killer Xeno Pro unable to work at data-transfer speeds typical of Gigabit Ethernet networks. When used on such a LAN to transfer a large file, it will only deliver a speed of Fast Ethernet. For some reason, Bigfoot Networks cannot implement both a low response time and a high peak data-transfer speed in the same network adapter and the gaming optimizations take precedence, of course. After all, they are unique to the Killer NIC series the Xeno Pro comes from whereas a high data-transfer speed can be achieved with any Gigabit Ethernet adapter.
There are also some compatibility issues. Although we used only three games in our review, one of them, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, did not run properly when uTorrent was running in the background. We wouldn’t be surprised to find that this problem occurs in other games. Hopefully, Bigfoot Networks’ programmers will solve it with driver updates. And finally, the declared support for FNA technology which allows running applications right on the NPU is still far from perfect while the voice communication support, although covers TeamSpeak and Mumble, is not compatible with some in-game communication tools which just do not see the audio codec on board the Killer Xeno Pro.
To sum everything up, the EVGA Killer Xeno Pro is a working solution but its effect is too negligible to be the decisive factor in an online game. The only exception is when you are playing a game and downloading files simultaneously. However, this is an unlikely scenario since most gamers turn every background application off before launching their game. The Killer Xeno Pro comes at $100, but we guess this money should be instead invested into a more advanced graphics card, e.g. using the EVGA Step-Up program. Perhaps this network adapter may attract some MMORPG players but we don’t expect it to become a truly mass product.