Compare PC Gaming Hardware with Benchmarks - dummies

Compare PC Gaming Hardware with Benchmarks

By Mark L. Chambers

Benchmarks — when it comes to comparing graphics cards, the gaming world seems to revolve directly around them. If you’re not familiar with a performance benchmark, it’s a program (or suite of programs) that you run on your PC to display the performance of a component, usually compared against some form of proprietary scale in completely proprietary units of measure.

(Which confuses the issue even more because there are a large number of benchmark programs out there.)

Many benchmarks are offered as freeware and shareware. Because this kind of computer programming is practically a requirement to learning how to address computer hardware in larger projects, most computer programming students have written at least one benchmark program in the past. Some benchmarks test the performance of your CPU, hard drives, and memory as well as your graphics card.

The whole idea sounds very scientific, and a large majority of gamers rely almost entirely on benchmark performance figures when they buy new hardware. But are benchmark programs completely accurate?

Keep in mind that these programs can choose from a nearly unlimited combination of methods to test hardware (perhaps putting too much importance on one aspect of a graphics card, like memory handling, and not enough on texture mapping). Like statistics, take the results from a benchmark with a grain of salt.

Because your PC must “concentrate” on delivering the best possible graphics during a benchmark, it’s important not to run any other programs in the background while the benchmark is running.

How do benchmarks work?

All benchmarks tend to use the same measures to arrive at their results — for example, a graphics benchmark program will likely measure the same arcane technical features as other benchmarks, including polygons created per second, frames per second, memory throughput, number of threads, and the GPU speed rating. (Don’t worry, you won’t be tested on the behind-the-scenes stuff.)

A graphics benchmark program runs a series of 3D scenes — which, by the way, are pretty doggone awesome viewing in their own right. Each scene puts a specific type of effect through its paces, and the benchmark records the specifics on how well the card performed.


At the end of the testing cycle, the final performance figure is calculated and displayed, ready to compare with other systems (as shown within PCMark 7).


The real result you’re looking for is the final performance figure — a card with a significantly higher benchmark figure should deliver better performance in your 3D games. Most benchmarks report their findings in a totally proprietary result, so you need the same program’s benchmark figures (run once using each device) to compare two or more different pieces of hardware.

Popular benchmark programs

Downloading and installing any of these well-known and well-respected independent benchmark programs (rather than a proprietary benchmark from a hardware manufacturer) is time well spent, especially if you’d like to squeeze every last frame from your hardware:

  • 3DMark 11 from Futuremark Corporation: This is a high-intensity graphics benchmarking program for PCs using DirectX 11 (which is installed by default within Windows 8, but is not supported by all graphics cards).

    3DMark 11 focuses specifically on your CPU and graphics card performance in a gaming environment, so it tends to be the common denominator online when discussing 3D game performance. 3DMark 11 will set you back $20. Visit the company website for more information. (The company also offers PCMark 7, which is a more comprehensive benchmark that tests your entire system.)

  • PerformanceTest 8 from PassMark Software: This well-respected shareware ($26) offering dates all the way back to Windows 98. PerformanceTest 8 benchmarks your entire system — not just the graphics card — and the detailed results are probably the best in the business.

  • Sandra Lite 2013 from SiSoftware: Sandra Lite is the freeware version of this classic shareware benchmark — the full Personal version costs $50. Sandra Lite benchmarks a number of PC features that the others don’t, including virtual memory performance and advanced networking functions.