Killer Network Adapters: Do They Work, Or Are They Hype?

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The Dream

Lag-free online gaming. It is, along with things like perfectly realistic physics, one of the fondest dreams of both game developers and players. The ability to play a game online without having to worry about latency would not just improve the experience. It would also improve what is possible in games, and help ensure that connection errors don’t ruin games or makes players lose for reasons out of their control. For competitive gamers, this is the holy grail, far more important and less obtainable than pretty graphics.

Enter the Killer NIC. Although it doesn’t promise to get rid of lag completely, it does claim to reduce ping times and create smoother connections, giving players an advantage. So, does it work? Or is it snake oil?

You’d Be Surprised

First thing’s first - do the Killer cards really work?

You might be thinking the answer is a big fat no. Certainly, the Killer has been subject to a great deal of skepticism. This is no surprise, considering that what it says it accomplishes does not seem like something a network card should be able to do. After all, your latency depends on your ISP and various other external factors, not what is in your PC. At least, that’s the common wisdom.

However, your network adapter can actually have an effect on not only lag, but also on your maximum upload and download speeds, the way a game feels during heavy lag, and the way a game responds to being played in conjunction with other tasks which also make use of the network adapter. Slowdowns that are caused by your network adapter are what Killer calls “client-side lag,” and Killer’s goal is a network card to rid your computer of it, resulting in a smoother online experience.

There are several ways Killer kills client-side lag. The card has custom hardware that takes on the load of processing network data that might normally be sent to the processor, thereby lowering processor utilization. The purpose of this is to try and enhance average frame-rates by keeping the processor’s attention on running the game instead of the network adapter. The Killer also has a custom packet prioritization scheme which works to make sure that data relating to any game you might be playing is given first dibs, be it incoming or outgoing.

The result of this networking wizardry is difficult to quantify. Many reviewers who have taken the Killer to task have noted that getting accurate pings is extremely difficult. Pings will differ depending on the server a player connects to, the number of other players connected to that server, network traffic at the time, and etc. In addition, the only ping information available is through the game itself - provided that the game even gives real-time ping information, and most don’t. These problems underline problems with the Killer itself - it is client-side only, and so it cannot control the many factors outside your computer which may cause lag.

However, while objective testing of the Killer NIC has proved difficult, most reviewers have stated that the Killer does provide a better experience. The difference is not night-and-day, but the Killer’s custom hardware seems to do its job. Stuttering, lag bursts, and other such phenomena feel much less common and severe when using a Killer.

What’s The Catch?

While Killer seems to have slowly managed to convince people in the hardware press that its wonder product is actually capable of doing what it states, it is not without its downsides. The biggest of which is the price. The cheapest Killer product, called the K1, costs $149.99 on Newegg. The beefed up Killer M1 costs $229.99. That is a lot of dough. There are many more appealing performance upgrades in the same price range, including high-end processors and GPUs. Killer’s pricing structure seems stuck in the mid-nineties. No one will, or should, buy this card unless they have a few hundred dollars to blow and have already purchased every other PC performance upgrade imaginable.

In addition to price, the Killer NIC is weak when it comes to bandwidth. In synthetic network file transfer tests, the Killer cards consistently ranks as far, far slower than other popular network adapters, including those integrated onto motherboards. Real-world file transfer tests show a mitigation of this weakness, but the Killer is never a star in this category. This means that while the Killer may be able to reduce ping times in games, it is an extremely focused piece of hardware lacking in utility when asked to engage in tasks besides online gaming.

And finally, Killer’s card seems to suffer from performance increases that are not always easy to notice. While it does appear that the Killer can reduce pings and increase framerates in some instances, its performance is not a key factor to the overall experience of playing a game online. A 5% decrease in a ping of 100 means that you’ve only gone down to 95, and a 5% increase in frame-rates in a game being played around 50 frame per second is only 2-3 frames. The difference in performance may be noticeable, but not consistently noticeable.

Save Your Dough, Unless You Want To Make Me Some Cookies…

Killer’s products do what they say. But the advantage they provide is difficult to quantify. While the benefits of Killer’s cards are subjectively noticeable to many reviewers, laying down $149.99 or $229.99 for a network adapter which might provide subjective gameplay improvements is a difficult pill to swallow. There are many other, more interesting PC upgrades that you could buy instead. And if you’re just dying to spend the dough, then buy an iPod or a second computer monitor. The technologies employed by Killer are innovative and unique, but they are limited in what they can do because of their position inside your PC.