Benchmarking is the act of running a computer through a series of predetermined tests or program operations to assess its overall performance. With benchmarking, you can gauge the performance of your PC hardware to ensure everything is performing as designed. Think of it as putting your computer through a test that assigns a score, so that you can compare your hardware’s performance relative to other computers.
There are a variety of ways to benchmark a PC, with specific methods focusing on the PC as a whole, or specific components, such as the graphics card, CPU, or SSD. Broadly speaking, benchmarking methods fall into one of two categories: Synthetic or Real World.
Synthetic vs. Real World benchmarks
Synthetic benchmarks are programs built specifically for benchmarking. They’re designed to run through a series of tests in order to produce a measurement of your computer or component’s performance. An example of this would be the Catzilla benchmark, which runs through a game-engine cutscene of a monstrous cat destroying a city Gozilla-style. The Catzilla benchmark measures your PC’s frames per second while rendering the scenes and assigns a final score out of 12.
By comparison, “Real World” benchmarks are taken by measuring your PC’s performance in programs that are not specifically designed for benchmarking. For example, playing a PC game and measuring your framerate over a certain amount of time is a method of benchmarking. Measuring performance when using 7-Zip, the file compression software, has become a popular way to benchmark CPU performance.
So, which is better, Synthetic or Real World? The answer is that both are useful. Synthetic benchmarks are a good way to compare your PC to others by using an objective score. Real World benchmarks are more useful for knowing how well your PC performs with actual software. In general, we recommend that you try both Synthetic and Real World methods to get a well-rounded dataset of your PC’s performance.
Preparing your PC for benchmarking
Before you start any benchmarking, you want to make sure your PC is in the best possible shape.
1. Update all your drivers
To ensure optimal performance, you need to make sure all your drivers are up to date — at least for the hardware you want to install. If you’re on Windows 10, your drivers will updated automatically if you have Windows Update turned on. With Windows 7, 8, or 8.1, you may have to manually accept the latest driver updates from Windows Update (accessed from the Control Panel).
For GPUs, NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel provide control panel software that will notify you when new drivers are available. You can also go directly to any hardware manufacturer’s website to search for the latest drivers, if you suspect that Windows Update doesn’t have you covered for some reason.
Note: Don’t install drivers from anywhere except Windows Update or directly from the manufacturer. Do not download third-party software to help you track driver updates.
2. Disable unnecessary startup programs
For best results, benchmarking should always occur after a fresh restart. But before you restart, you’ll want to disable unnecessary startup programs. You don’t want anything unnecessary running in the background and sapping your PC’s resources.
You can disable startup programs by entering your task manager, which you can access by right-clicking on the taskbar and then selecting “Task Manager.” Once Task Manager is open, go to the Startup tab. Right-click on all your unnecessary startup programs and select “Disable.”
3. Turn off automatic updates
Similar to unnecessary startup programs, you don’t want to risk any programs trying to update during the benchmark. Once you’re sure your drivers are updated, turn off automatic updates until you’re done benchmarking.
To do this, open Windows Update (accessed from the Control Panel) and disable all automatic updates.
4. Restart your computer
Once you’ve fully prepped your PC, give it a fresh boot to ensure it’s at peak performance for benchmarking. After the reboot, don’t open up any programs except what you’re planning to use for benchmarking.
Deciding What to Benchmark
Before you benchmark any components, you should decide why you’re benchmarking in the first place. If you’re mainly interested in gaming, the most important component to benchmark is your GPU. If you’re a video editor or animator, you’re probably most interested in your CPU. Or maybe you want to benchmark your overall system. Whatever you want to benchmark, there’s software available to do it, so let’s check some out.
Benchmarking Your Entire PC
Novabench (Free): Novabench is very popular, free benchmarking software that’s been around since 2007. Simply download it, hit the ‘Test’ button, and it will run a series of tests over 1-2 minutes. It spits out an overall score and individual hardware measurements for CPU, GPU, RAM, and drive write speed. One of the coolest features is being able to submit your results and compare them to other users’ scores.
PCMark (Free / Paid): Futuremark’s PCMark software is regarded as a very good way to measure overall PC performance for home and creative use. Tests will measure your PC’s abilities for web browsing, gaming, media creation, and more. It also includes storage tests for SSDs, HDDs, external drives, and hybrid drives. While you need to pay to get all the bells and whistles, you can find a free version on their Downloads page.
SiSoft’s Sandra (Paid): Sandra is also regarded as high-quality, full-suite benchmarking software. SiSoft offers a variety of tiers for home users, IT professionals, and enterprise users.
Your Games! (Free*): Many modern PC games come equipped with benchmarking tools. For gamers interested in their rig’s gaming performance, in-game benchmarks are a great way to acquire real-world results. GiantBomb maintains an unofficial list of PC games with benchmarking tools, including Metro 2033, ARMA II, Bioshock Infinite, and Tomb Raider. *Free, assuming you’ve already bought the game.
FRAPS (Free / Paid): For those who want to record their FPS as a benchmark in any game, there’s also FRAPS. Its benchmarking tool records your minimum, maximum, and average FPS over a set amount of time. Very useful as a real-world test.
Unigine’s Valley and Heaven (Free / Paid): Valley and Heaven are very popular, free GPU stress tests that can also work as benchmarking tools. Both tests run your graphics card through the ringer to see how much it can handle.
3DMark (Free / Paid): From the creators of PCMark, 3DMark features benchmarks built specifically for graphics testing. There’s a free version on their Downloads page, while the paid version includes support for 4K resolution, DirectX 12, and Mantle. You can sometimes score the paid version for cheap in a Steam sale.
Prime95 (Free): Prime95 is mainly used as a CPU stress test, but it has a popular benchmarking tool as well.
Geekbench (Free / Paid): A cross-platform, multi-core CPU benchmarking tool for PCs and mobile devices. Geekbench 3 features ‘real-world’ workload simulations that it claims better benchmark your PC for real-world scenarios.
Benchmarking Storage (SSD or Hard Drive)
CrystalDiskMark (Free): Benchmark read/write speeds for SSDs and HDDs. Supports external USB drives and RAID. Simple, useful.
AS SSD Benchmark (Free): We haven’t used this benchmark ourselves, but it contains six synthetic and three ‘real-world’ data copying tests. Sounds useful! Just avoid the fake “Download Now” advertisement with the big green button.
What Did We Miss?
There is no shortage of benchmarking software out there, and we intend to keep this post updated as new software releases. Did we miss anything really great? Let us know in the comments!