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nVidia put quite a lot of emphasis on the networking side of things – as they did during the nForce 3 250 launch. They have made the decision to remove the nVidia Firewall, which is surprising considering how much development went in to it. Perhaps its problematic operation has become more of an issue than its questionable usefulness.
What has been added in, is FirstPacket, NIC Teaming/Bonding and TCP/IP Acceleration. Testing networking is a tricky and time consuming task, so I didn’t get a chance to test many aspects of this. TCP/IP Acceleration is supposed to lower CPU utilisation while maintaining top performance. For most people’s network usage this will barely go noticed, but as Tesco constantly try and remind us – every little helps.
Having two Gigabit connections on a motherboard has often been considered a questionably useful feature. The only time I’ve ever used two is as a make shift router, by bridging the two together using the built in functionality in Windows XP, and then plugging a notebook into this second NIC for internet access. nVidia however has used its collective noggin and included NIC Teaming as a feature. This essentially gives you a 2Gbit connection.
Unlike just connecting both your NICs to a switch, which would give you two IP addresses, Teaming has a single IP so that the nVidia software can distribute the traffic evenly amongst the two NICs. As nice as this is, it has questionable benefit as a single Gigabit connection is hard to saturate in a real world scenario due to hard drive performance limitations. Where this does have a benefit is teaming two 100MBit connections, for those who haven’t quite upgraded to Gigabit yet.
FirstPacket is piece of partially hardware accelerated packet prioritisation software (say that ten times fast). This can re-order the queue of outgoing packets from your machine to prioritise particular applications such as Games or VoIP so that they will have lower latency and faster performance. This sounds too good to be true, and in most scenarios it probably will be.
FirstPacket only affects the queue of outgoing packets. In the example nVidia used, it was uploading a large file via FTP to another computer while simultaneously playing Serious Sam 2. Here, we saw a considerable drop in ping times when FirstPacket was in use. Uploading FTP files is a pretty rare occurrence for most people, but sharing files across a network is not. If all goes well, performance will no longer drop when your house mates start leeching your MP3 collection… of unsigned bands of course.
But for most people, the packets that tend to screw up gaming are downloaded packets and unfortunately these can’t be shaped by FirstPacket. BitTorrent has been incredibly popular for both legal and illegal downloading but absolutely kills gaming performance if run simultaneously. Although FirstPacket will help to an extent here as it can at least shape the uploading aspect of BitTorrent, it can’t help with the download. The biggest issue with downloading in BitTorrent is not the amount of bandwidth it’s taking, but the number of simultaneous connections used in doing so.
When I tested BitTorrent downloading a single Torrent of the latest Fedora Core 5 ISO, ping was almost identical with FirstPacket on or off, and in both scenarios caused me to be kicked from the Counter-Strike server I was connected to.
Of course, no amount of prioritising your own packets is going to help against the other bandwidth hogging users on your home or office network. If you are serious about increasing your gaming performance and like to stay downloading, then you might be better off looking at building a Linux based router with traffic shaping.
FirstPacket will definitely benefit anyone who shares files over a LAN, but it isn’t the magic answer to all your ping woes.