What's the first I did upon hearing the numbers for ATI's new HD Radeon 5870 graphics card? I scrambled for benchmarks, because that's the one thing an announcement and subsequent review of a smokin' new piece of hardware can do for a rabid enthusiast: inspire.
It's been a while since I've actually sat down and crunched the numbers for my killer custom PC (that's killer as in legendary, not NICs). I'm not lazy. Rather, I don't have access to the expensive system benchmarks that magazines and Web sites typically use to analyze the all the new hardware that comes out. I don't have all-in-one benchmarks like PCMark Vantage, GPU-punishing titles like Crysis, and--worst of all--preconfigured demo runs for any number of titles that would help ensure the validity and repeatability of the delivered scores.
In short, I have nothing. You might not have nothing, but odds are good that you are similarly ill-equipped to benchmark your graphics card (and any tweaks or modifications you make) in the style of a professional review. Nothing... until now.
This week's freeware roundup will show you five different games that you can use to punish your poor graphics card into frames-per-second submission. They might cost a grand total of zero dollars, but these tests are repeatable and easy to use--the perfect combination of characteristics for aspiring benchmarkers who might not want to get their hands dirty, but still want some kind of way to determine exactly how powerful their graphics card really is.
This demo for the open-ended space simulation game X3: Terran Conflict is like having the Four Horsemen pay a visit to your house and kick your graphics card. It's a DirectX 9 benchmark, which isn't as ideal of a scenario as you'll find in some modern titles that support DirectX 10 functionality. Still, the point of a benchmark is to tax your system to its limits. To that extent, X3: Terran Conflict is a free, fire-starter of a test for your GPU
Killing zombies is fun. Killing zombies at a maximum framerate is even more fun because, er, it accelerates the killing. Right. Although it was original designed, in-part, to test out the 3D capabilities of the game for those equipped with Nvidia-based graphics cards, the Resident Evil 5 benchmark demo is still a solid solution for testing your graphics card's capabilities regardless of manufacturer. Better yet, the RE 5 benchmark comes with the option to run in both DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 modes. It's the ideal solution for those looking to test on either a current or legacy architecture... or both.
Okay, everyone who's a DirectX 10-or-higher benchmark, raise your right hand.
*A number of different games raise their hands*
Now everyone who's a DirectX 11-compatible benchmark, raise your left hand.
*BattleForge shoots its second hand in the air and screams as if it was on a rollercoaster*
'nuff said. This game is as graphically punishing as it is future-proofed, for this is the only title on the market as of this article's writing that now supports DirectX 11 functionality. Of course, that's slightly hampered by the fact that there are only two DirectX 11-compatible graphics cards right now. But. Er. The benchmark is free, as BattleForge itself is one of EA's "Play4Free" titles--downloading the game itself costs nothing, as the various bits and pieces that flush out the title's main RTS experience come as microtransactions. Boo those, but yay for free DX11 benchmarks!
You'll appreciate the GPU benchmark found in Tom Clancy's HAWX in part because the game is just so damn pretty. Watch as your death-from-above aircraft soars over beautifully rendered satellite-generated terrain... provided your graphics card can handle the punishment, that is. This DirectX 9- and DirectX 10-compatible benchmark isn't quite as challenging on the former as it could be, but it's a real killer if you crank the settings on the latter. Can your system handle this game's intense aerial combat? Or will you long for the days of the less graphically robust A-10 Tank Killer?
This is the biggie. It's the age-old retort to any video card boast: "Yeah, but can it run Crysis?" There's only one way to find out, and this is it. Install the Crysis demo, then be sure to grab the third-party Crysis Benchmarking Tool. This helpful little utility auto-detects whether you're running the full game or the demo. It also opens up access to a wealth of configurable options that you can set prior to the run--and believe me, you'll be doing a lot of tweaking. This is the end-all be-all of current graphics benchmarks, save for the aforementioned BattleForge DirectX 11 test. But that game just uses the new APIs; Crysis bends your videocard over its knee and slaps it right on the bottom.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!