How to Benchmark Your PC for Free

GPU/Graphics Board

Myriad graphics-related benchmarks are available for testing a GPU's performance. Many games have built-in tools to test performance; and you can test games that don't with a utility called Fraps that shows real-time frame rates and tracks performance over time. Many synthetic and "canned" graphics benchmarks don't use actual game engines to test performance, but produce comparable results nonetheless.

Fraps tests how well a game is performing on your system, even if the game doesn't offer a built-in benchmark.

For testing a GPU's performance, we recommend using a mixture of synthetic and real-world tests to see how the GPU handles a range of different workloads. Futuremark's 3DMark 7 is a popular tool that provides an overall 3DMark score, as well as numerical results for each of the individual tests that contribute to the final score. Another handy synthetic benchmark is Unigine Heaven. Heaven can test a GPU's performance using DirectX 9, 10, or 11 or OpenGL paths, with varying levels of image quality and tessellation. Heaven's results identify both an overall score and a frame rate.

The Unigine Heaven benchmark tests GPU performance in multiple DirectX or OpenGL modes.

In a system powered by an Intel Core i7-3960X, when tested at a resolution of 1920 by 1200 with 4X MSAA, 16X anisotropic filtering, and high tessellation, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti will score about 665 points in Unigine Heaven, at about 26.4 frames per second. At the same settings, a Radeon HD 7850 will score about 706 points, at 28 fps. If you have a faster GPU than those cited here, your system should be able to beat these scores, but a slower GPU won't be able to catch them.

Memory

The most common method of evaluating memory performance is via synthetic tests designed to ascertain peak bandwidth and latency. Performance variables include the operating frequency and capacity of the memory, and the number of channels that a given system uses.

AIDA64 Extreme Edition has an excellent built-in memory benchmark that tests read, write, and copy bandwidth, as well as latency; but it is available only as a limited trial unless you pay for the full edition of the tool.

The free edition of SiSoft SANDRA 2012 offers memory bandwidth and latency tests, too. It reports bandwidth scores in gigabytes per second (GBps) and latency in nanoseconds. The tests are easy to run and take moments to complete. An Intel Core i7-2700K-based system with 8GB of DDR3-1333MHz system memory running in a dual-channel configuration (two memory sticks) should offer about 16 GBps of bandwidth at an access latency in the 29ns range. Higher clocked memory should deliver more bandwidth and lower latency.

SiSoft SANDRA 2012's Memory Bandwidth benchmark tests peak bandwidth using both Integer and Floating Point tests.

Drives/Storage

CrystalDIskMark is an excellent tool for testing a drive's read and write performance at a number of different transfer sizes.

To test the performance of a hard drive or solid-state drive adequately, your best bet is to use a benchmark that evaluates read and write transfer speeds (with both sequential and random workloads), as well as access latency. Trace-based tests, like those used in PCMark, that track performance over time with simulated application workloads are also very useful.

One of the better free tools available for testing a drive's performance is CrystalDiskMark. This benchmark is particularly useful because it tests both sequential and random read and write speeds with both large and small block sizes, and with queue depths of up to 32. A SATA II Corsair solid-state drive earned the scores shown in the screenshot at right. Hard-disk drive scores will be much lower, but most newer SATA III SSDs will score higher.

CrystalDiskMark doesn't report access latency, however, so it's a good idea to use a tool such as HD Tune, IOMeter, or the Physical Disk Benchmark in SiSoft SANDRA 2012 for this purpose.

Total System Benchmarking

Among total system benchmarks, the rather basic Windows Experience Index (WEI) built into Windows 7 and Vista isn't a good choice, owing to the rudimentary nature of the tests and the lack of granularity in the results. Instead consider using a suite such as BAPCO's Sysmark or Futuremark's PCMark 7; both are widely accepted and generate extensive results. Sysmark is expensive and tends to be difficult to run, however, whereas PCMark 7 is available in a free basic edition and can be run with a single click.

PCMark 7 runs a wide range of tests that tax CPU, GPU, memory, and disk performance; and it generates scores for each test--with higher scores reflecting better performance. PCMark 7 tends to emphasize disk/storage performance, but we're fine with that. Upgrading from a hard drive to a solid state drive tends to be one of the best upgrades a user can make to improve system responsiveness, and PCMark 7's results reflect that.

Futuremark's PCMark 7 evaluates system performance by testing CPU, GPU, memory, and storage subsystem performance.

To give you a baseline for comparison, an Intel Core i7-2700K-based system with 8GB of RAM, a discrete Nvidia GeForce GTX 280 graphics card, and a 7200-rpm hard drive will earn a PCMark score of roughly 3800. Upgrade that same system with an SSD, and its score will jump to about 5100.

Digesting the Results

Most benchmarks scores are easy to understand. But keep in mind that higher scores don't always point to better performance. On most benchmarks, higher frame rates or scores do mean that one system or component outperformed another; but some benchmarks are timed--and may output results in minutes or seconds. In such results, lower scores usually indicate better performance.

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