How To: Benchmark Your PC without Breaking the Bank

Nathan Edwards

We run benchmarks at Maximum PC because we have to; there’s no other way to determine the minute differences between systems without a repeatable standard of comparison. But you don’t have to be a reviewer to run a benchmark; in fact, regular benchmarking can give you valuable insight into the status of your system. For example, benchmarks are the best way to decipher whether the various performance-enhancing applications you’re running on your PC actually do anything or whether that latest batch of drivers hurt your gaming performance more than it helped.

The Maximum PC suite of benchmarks costs upwards of $1,000—a bit out of the price range of users who just want to see if their machines are up to snuff. But there are cheaper (and by that we mean free!) alternatives; we’ll show you how you can use them to test your rig in the comfort of your own home.

Time: 22 hours

What You Need

Score Your CPU

We scoured the Internet and racked our brains to find the most appropriate (and most free) CPU test for your machine. And trust us, it wasn’t easy. Whittling down the list of options to just those that are free was difficult enough—there’s not much out there that will cost you absolutely nothing.

After picking through that small pile of programs, we discovered an important corollary that bears repeating: Just because a program claims to be a CPU test doesn’t necessarily mean the score it generates is a proper reflection of your CPU’s performance, particularly if you’re running a multicore machine. (Single-core users have a bit more leeway with their CPU benchmark choices, as anything that taxes the CPU is going to hit your one, lonely core.) The surest way to test a benchmark’s effectiveness is to pull up the Windows task manager while running a given CPU analyzer. A true CPU test will completely maximize the usage of all your cores.

Cinebench’s built-in database keeps track of all of your benchmark runs. Label everything correctly so you don’t forget what changes you’re testing!

Grab Cinebench and you’ll be pleasantly delighted by its absurd ease of use and applicable testing environment. The program runs on everything from single-core to 16-core machines. It’s a wonderfully future-proof little benchmark that gives you an overall performance score based on your computer’s ability to render a 3D image in as little time as possible. You can even record your results to a built-in database, a helpful way to keep track of your scores when modifying your rig. If you’re suffering any CPU performance loss as a result of your tweaking, Cinebench will let you know.

Test Your DirectX 9 Performance

One of the surest ways to test your videocard’s DirectX 9 performance is to—you guessed it—fire up a graphics-heavy game that includes a benchmark mode (like the FEAR benchmark we use in our Lab) and let ’er rip. But not every game tests your graphics card’s performance. There’s a reason we use Quake 4 and FEAR for our official benchmark runs: The former is an OpenGL-based game that’s far more dependent on your CPU than your videocard, whereas the latter is a better demonstration of GPU-based prowess.

If you have no acceptable games to test your rig’s performance, the next best thing is a free solution from Futuremark. Head over to the site and grab yourself the demo of 3DMark05. You might be tempted to download a later version for upgradeability’s sake—don’t. We’ve found that 3DMark05 pushes your graphics card more than later versions, which test the CPU a bit more.

The 3DMark05 official score throws your CPU into the mix, but you can get adequate FPS results from the app’s graphics-only tests.

Since the program’s a demo, you won’t get to edit any settings—you can’t adjust antialiasing, the resolution, or anything else. However, 3DMark05 will scale depending on the power of your graphics card, and there are numerous websites and forums you can visit to compare your demo score to the scores other rigs achieve!

Test Your DirectX 10 Performance

So you’ve plunked down big bucks for that fancy DirectX 10 card and you’re curious whether all the different drivers, tweaks, and overclocks have had any effect. The best free benchmark we’ve found is a DirectX 10 demo from Call of Juarez. It runs through a series of in-engine settings that test everything from particle effects to HDR antialiasing to shadows.

To squeeze more frames out of your DX10 card, reduce antialiasing. Your images will get a little jaggier, but you’ll see frame rates rise.

As with any benchmark, you’ll want to run multiple iterations of the graphical test to account for any errors or extraneous factors during the run. That said, the scores should be consistent, if not identical, across all three runs. If they aren’t, double-check to see if there’s anything eating up your computer’s resources in the background!

Benchmark Your Hard Drive

If you’re looking for the source of slowdowns in your system’s storage performance, the free HD Tach benchmarking utility is a must-have. With one click of a button, the application tests burst speeds, CPU utilization, random access speeds, and sequential read speeds.

The program gives you a ton of numbers once it’s finished. The most important of these is the average read speed of your drive—it takes less time to pull data from the inside layer of a platter than the outer, hence the “average” in the calculation. On the whole, this number is a good measure of your drive’s general performance.

If you have two identical hard drives in your PC, a large disparity in benchmark results could indicate a faulty drive. Back up now!

HD Tach’s burst speed measurement represents your drive’s ability to transfer data from its onboard cache to your CPU. Higher numbers indicate faster file transfers. The random access measurement indicates the time it takes the drive to access a random sampling of data from all over the drive. In this case, a lower number is better.

There’s not much you can do to improve the performance of a subpar drive. Check your BIOS to make sure you’re running at the fastest interface speed possible—SATA 3.0 instead of SATA 1.5, for example. Defragmenting the drive might help, but performance degradation over the life of a drive might indicate hardware failure.

Measure Your Overall System Performance

The open-source program COSBI OpenSourceMark attempts to replicate real-world benchmark scripts, similar to SysMark’s and PCMark’s. We’ve found that OpenSourceMark, which uses a number of real-world operations, is one of the better ways to analyze your computer. Install the program and click the “official run” button to start the tests—which include file compression, audio encoding, spreadsheet calculations, and image-editing activities. The program detects multiple cores and automatically reconfigures the benchmarks to take full advantage of your rig’s hardware. And if you just want to test a particular subset of performance—say, file encoding—just select the “custom run” option and handpick your benchmark suites.

OpenSourceMark lets you save information about your CPU utilization to a text file.

OpenSourceMark is a great way to test whether your computer tweaking is actually having a measurable effect on your system’s performance. Do you really need to defragment your drive 12 times a week? How much does your antispyware program actually slow down your PC? What’s the hard benefit of all that extra overclocking?

Test Your Rig's Stability

Prime95 runs your PC at full loads until one of two things happen: You’re content with your testing or your rig shuts down.

Whether you’ve been overclocking an old rig to wring out more performance or you just purchased a new overclocked machine, stress testing your computer’s stability should be high on your priority list. (Stock-clock users can join in the fun too, but it’s not as critical. You can test whether a beta driver you downloaded mucks up your system in some capacity, but for the most part, a stock-clock machine should be inherently stable hardware-wise.)

An overclock can push a rig past safe (or stable) operation. You might not notice this instability or Windows might crash once an hour. Either way, one sure way to determine whether you’ve gone too far is to run your computer like a madman, and if it survives the rite of passage, you’re golden.

We use Prime95 for stress testing in the Lab. In a nutshell, the program calculates new Mersenne prime numbers and taxes the heck out of your processor and RAM in doing so. If you’re on a single-core machine, all you have to do is fire up Prime95 and select the Torture Test from the options menu. Run the test for 10 hours on small FFTs, which nails your CPU, before switching to large FFTs for the RAM.

Owners of multicore machines will want to download the .zip version of Prime95 and extract its contents to a new folder for each core of your machine. Run the program out of each folder, which will open up one instance of Prime95 per core. Click “Affinity” on the program’s advanced menu and set each instance to run on a different CPU core. Dual-core owners should run a small FFT on one core and a large FFT on the other; just double that equation if you’re rocking a quad-core PC.

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