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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  • 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...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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! :)
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.

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