Testing Overview

In total, we used three different testing locations, an “ideal” setup with the wireless router less than ten feet from the test laptop(s), and two different “distant” locations where the laptop is located several rooms away, with doors closed in between and several sheetrock walls. We also tested with two different routers, a Netgear WNR3500L and a Linksys E4200. At each location, we ran four different networking related tasks. The tests had the server PC connected directly to the Gigabit router via a six-foot CAT6 Ethernet cable, and the test PCs were otherwise idle (no extra processes, services, etc. were running).

The first task consists of copying files from the server to the test laptop. Here we have two different scenarios; the first is a single large file, a 2.2GiB HD movie. We time how long it takes to copy the file and then calculate the throughput in Mbps (1Mb = 1,000,000 bits). The second scenario consists of numerous small files. We use the contents of the Cinebench R10 and Cinebench R11.5 folders, which have a mix of a few larger files with many small files. In total, this test has 8780 files and 511 folders, with the total file size coming to 440MiB. Again we time the copy process and then calculate Mbps. Copying files between PCs is a completely real-world scenario, and with SSDs present in all of the test systems we should be bottlenecked by the networking performance (even a moderate HDD should be able to outpace WiFi speeds, but for Gigabit Ethernet you’ll want SSDs).

The remaining three tests are more theoretical rather than real-world. First up, we have the NTttcp utility. Unlike file copying, this test transfers data from memory between PCs, so the storage subsystem is out of the loop. We run two different scenarios, once with the laptop acting as “client” and the desktop being the “server”, and the second test with the roles reversed. This will test the maximum theoretical throughput of the laptop in both transmit and receive modes; most of the wireless devices do better at receiving vs. sending, but in a few instances the reverse holds. We used the following commands on the client/server:

ntttcpr.exe -m 6,0,[Server IP] -a 4 -l 64000 -n 4000
ntttcps.exe -m 6,0,[Client IP] -a 4 -l 64000 -n 4000

Our third test is very similar to the above, only we use Netperf instead of NTttcp and we conduct TCP as well as UDP testing. We use a precompiled version of Netperf that Bigfoot sent, but a Windows version is available from Chris Wolf that shows essentially the same results. One of the things to be aware of is that Netperf has a variety of options; we tested with the “stock” options, though Bigfoot has a second set of recommended command line parameters. The throughput can be very different depending on what options you specify and what wireless card you’re using. Several of the systems we tested with the Bigfoot parameters performed horribly on the UDP test, so we decided to stick with the stock Netperf command (though we’ll show the performance with the Bigfoot settings on the E4200 Ideal page as a reference point). The default options simply specify the IP address of the host, along with “-t UDP_STREAM” for UDP testing; the Bigfoot recommended commands for TCP and UDP are:

netperf.exe -l 20 -t TCP_STREAM -f m -H [Server IP] -- -m 1460 -M 1460 -s 4000000,4000000 -S 4000000,4000000
netperf.exe -l 20 -t UDP_STREAM -f m -H [Server IP] -- -m 1472 -M 1472 -s 4000000,4000000 -S 4000000,4000000

The key difference between the stock options and the Bigfoot parameters is the selection of a 1472 byte packet. The default UDP packet size is 1000 bytes, so that’s what most manufacturers optimize for, but larger packets are possible. Bigfoot states that video streaming often uses larger packets to improve throughput, so they’ve worked to ensure their drivers perform well with many packet sizes. Skip to the “ideal” testing with the Linksys router for more details of our Netperf UDP testing with the Bigfoot parameters.

Our final test is a measure of latency, and you might be tempted to take the results with a grain of salt as we’re using a utility provided by Bigfoot called GaNE (Gaming Network Efficiency). The purpose of this utility is to measure real latency between a client and a server, down to the microsecond, while simulating a network gaming workload. Most games don’t support any logging of network latency, so GaNE is an easy to use substitute. It sends a 100 byte UDP packet every 200ms, with a timestamp included in the packet. The client receives the packet and sends it back, and by looking at the timestamp the server can determine roundtrip latency. According to Bigfoot, the majority of network games send ~100 byte packets at intervals ranging from every 50ms to a few seconds apart, so they chose a value that would represent a large number of titles. While not all games are the same, there are long-established “best practice” coding standards for network gaming, so a lot of titles should behave similar to GaNE. For the test, two laptops connect to the server at the same time and GaNE reports average latency along with the average latency of the worst 10% of packets—the latter being a better measurement of jitter on your network connection.

Besides GaNE, we conducted some informal testing of latency with other utilities. First up is the Windows ping command; we saw latency spikes that are similar to those in GaNE so the results of both utilities appear valid. Ping doesn’t work like most games, however—it has smaller packets sent less frequently and it uses the ICMP protocol instead of UDP. That brings us to the third latency test. About the only games to include support for latency logging are Source Engine titles, so we tested latency with a local server running Counterstrike: Source using the “net_graph 3” utility. We’re unable to capture raw latency numbers this way, but we could clearly see periods of higher latency on all of the Intel WiFi cards. If anything, the latency blips tended to occur more frequently with CS:S than in GaNE, though interestingly enough the Atheros controller basically tied the Bigfoot in our experience (1ms ping times most of the match, with no discernable spikes). The Realtek card had a higher average latency of around 6ms, but at least there wasn’t a lot of jitter.

In short, latency measurements with GaNE, ping, and CS:S all show similar results, at least when measured over the same local network. Despite concerns about using a Bigfoot provided utility, it doesn’t appear that Bigfoot is doing anything unusual. The bigger concern is what the results mean in the world of Internet gaming. Since we’re running on a local network, latency is already an order of magnitude (or two) lower than what you’d generally experience over the Internet. For online gaming, the latency results we’re reporting end up being more of an additive latency, after the latency of the router to Internet server is factored in. In other words, if you’re playing a game where it takes 60ms for your data packets to get from the server to your router, what GaNE reports is how long it takes those packets to get from the router to your PC. The bigger issue with latency isn’t the 3-5ms average that you’ll get over the local network, but it’s the jitter where 100+ms spikes occur, and as noted GaNE provides an indication of jitter with the “worst 10% average latency” result.

We ran each of the above tests at least five times at each test location on each laptop, and most of the tests were run dozens of times. The reason is that we were trying to measure best-case performance at each location, so we didn’t bother trying to average all of the results. We did notice a distinct lack of consistency across all wireless cards, especially on 2.4GHz connections, but as noted in the introduction, interference from other sources is nearly impossible to avoid. We report the best result for each test, which was never completely out of line with other “good” results. If we averaged the best five runs on each device, we’d be within 3% of our reported result, but we skipped that step in order to keep things manageable.

With the test parameters out of the way, let’s move to our first testing location and see how the various wireless devices perform.

Introducing Bigfoot’s Killer Wireless-N 1102 Netgear 2.4GHz Ideal Performance
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  • DesktopMan - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    What's the reason for the big difference with these results: http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/wireless/wireless-r...

    Anyone know?
  • Reflex - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Probably different laptops. This review is unfortunatly not very good because if I'm reading the first couple pages correctly, he used different laptops for each card. Contrary to his earlier experience, most laptops will accept any wifi card you wish. I swapped in a 6300 in my Dell a year ago and it works great.

    They need to establish a baseline testing platform to isolate the perf between the cards. Testing them all on different laptops invalidates the test. Hard drives, CPU's, memory speed, etc can have a *huge* impact on wifi performance, especially for file copy type operations. And the range test is completely irrelevant as everyone has their own way of routing the antennas up through the lid.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    For wireless, the storage actually matters almost not at all. I swapped in an HDD to one of the laptops and ran the two file copy tests. The HDD was withing 1 second of the SSD for the large file, and within 3 seconds on the small files. On GbE, HDD vs. SSD is a huge disparity, but with WiFi topping out at <30MBps it really doesn't matter much. The WiFi latency appears to be almost as bad as the HDD latency for seek operations.

    But you're right: the different laptops all make it hard to to apples-to-apples, and depending on vendor swapping in a different WiFi card may or may not work. The real issue for me was lack of time; I kept going back and forth between devices as I discovered a potential issue with one of the results. Now that I'm more comfortable with what WiFi testing entails, I'm hoping (not right now, but maybe in a couple months) to go through and test a bunch of cards in a single laptop, as well as in a PCI-E x1 desktop adapter.
  • endrebjorsvik - Sunday, August 14, 2011 - link

    This puzzles me as well. The last couple of days I have been struggling with getting decent performance from my own setup. I have a Netgear WNDR3700v2 and a Lenovo X220 fitted with i5-2520M and Intel 6300 3x3 and running W7. A HP ProLiant ML110 G6 with GbE and 4x2TB RAID-Z is serving the test-files.
    According to smallnetbuilder.com, the WNDR3700v2 ( http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/wireless/wireless-r... ) should be faster than WNR3500L ( http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/wireless/wireless-r... ), so my setup should at least be as fast as Jarred's Netgear-Intel6300-Ideal-result (154 Mb/s).
    I have tried both 2,4 and 5 GHz with both 20 and 40 MHz BW and with both stock and open firmware (dd-wrt), but I don't even get to 90 Mb/s (Windows file transfer tops out at 11 MB/s = 88 Mb/s, and usually stays below 10 MB/s). The distance between the router and laptop is ~6 feet, and I have tried every possible position of the router (different antenna directions). The laptop lid is open (~90 degrees).

    So I wonder if you (Jarred) came across any mindblowing tricks that increased the throughput dramatically? Or was the Netgear-Intel6300-combo just plug'n'play?
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, August 21, 2011 - link

    What are you copying from? 11MB/s max sounds like you've got the Ethernet side hooked up to a 100Mb port, or else you're doing a transfer from one wireless PC to another? In that case, you'd be doing 22MB/s of wireless traffic, which would be pretty good considering collisions and such.
  • ss284 - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    It would have been really great if a recent macbook's wireless throughput was tested. I believe all the recent refreshes have the same broadcom based wireless adapter.
  • xdrol - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    "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)"

    No it is not. It cannot be more than the SMALLER of the two. But the transmit and receive antennas are on a different device, so a given device could support more than it's Tx/Rx antennas, but only in the other direction (where it does have more antennas).

    As for specifying what 1 given device can do, then there are actually 4 different numbers, 3 are not enough:
    - The number of Tx antennas (a)
    - The number of spatial streams to be received (<=a)
    - The number of Rx antennas (b)
    - The number of spatial streams to be transmitted (<=b)

    As WiFi is a symmetrical system, the Tx and Rx features of a device are usually the same (read: I'm yet to see any that differ) - unlike e.g. LTE, where the usual MIMO currently is only downlink, but not uplink (it has different PHY for uplink anyway).

    In the example, the 2x3:3 is valid only if you meant it has 2 Tx antennas, 3 Rx antennas, and it can RECEIVE 3 spatial streams. As it has only 2 antennas, the maximum outbound spatial streams is 2.
  • Brian Klug - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    That's technically right, and we do mention that the Intel 1030 can do two streams on Rx and one on Tx, but I've seen very few routers actually support an asymmetrical MIMO scheme like that. Even the intel card for example always only shows 1 stream being used for Tx and Rx, so in practice really it should be symmetrical.

  • James5mith - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Maybe I'm used to living in smaller places, but 60 feet from your front door to the router? That seems a bit extreme. Is the router in the attic, and the front door in the basement corner of the house or something?
  • James5mith - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - link

    Actually, more to the point, if it's 60 ft to your front door, then your google maps view shows the Intel 6300 making it nearly 500 ft from the router in the Cisco 2.4GHz test. You stated it was 200 ft.

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