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Is your computer fast enough to handle HD video? Does it have the hardware to multitask without slowdown? Although most benchmarking programs focus on extreme graphics performance, PCMark Vantage ($7 for Basic version; free, feature-limited demo) instead rates everyday productivity performance. This makes it a useful tool for users trying to tune their personal computer's speed, and for IT supervisors evaluating hardware purchases.
Despite its complicated underworkings, PCMark Vantage presents a clean, simple UI. The Basic version is limited to running the default PCMark Suite, which contains a sampling of tests in the categories "Memories," "TV and Movies," "Gaming," "Music," "Communications," and "Productivity." The tests are intended to measure performance for everyday tasks, and simulate things such as rendering Web pages, transcoding audio files, and playing HD videos.
For $20 (or a $15 upgrade from the $7 basic version), the Advanced version also lets you select targeted tests, so you can run more in-depth tests in the categories mentioned before. Details of all the tests can be found in a whitepaper by vendor Futuremark. Video settings such as resolution and anti-aliasing can also be altered in the Advanced version, but other than that, starting a test is as simple as hitting "Run Benchmark" button. Just be sure not to use your computer while a test is running; interacting with any other programs will terminate the test.
PCMark Vantage's main interface for viewing results is online. With a registered account, you can save, compare, and share results through Futuremark's site. The main score you'll see is your "PCMarks." This is the overall rating of your system, useful for comparisons. Raw results are also given for each individual test in the suite. My results were consistent and accurate, and I learned that my hard drive could use a tune up. PCMark Vantage may not look like anything special, but its tests are well-designed and informative for benchmarking real performance.
Note: In addition to the basic $7 version and the $20 Advanced version, there is also a $995 Professional version, which allows commercial use and enables command line execution. The basic and Advanced versions only allow private and non-commercial use.