How Fast Is Your PC?

Category: Hardware

I'm shopping for a new PC, and it's difficult to get an overall rating for how fast a computer is, under real world conditions. Some benchmarks show raw CPU speed, but I'm looking for more than that. Can you recommend any free software to measure system peformance?

How To Measure PC Speed and Performance

It's true, computer vendors like to throw around numbers to dazzle you, when describing how fast their systems are. But after comparing CPU clock speeds, graphics adapter frame rates, motherboard bus capacity, hard drive data transfer, RAM speeds, and other arcane stats, your head starts to spin. And then there's the problem of comparing one brand versus another, when they use differing units of measurement.

Or perhaps you're one who likes to tinker or overclock your PC. When you try one of the many tricks to speed up your computer, how do you know whether it worked? A psychological phenomenon called "confirmation bias" makes your gut feeling about a tweak's effect unreliable; after all the work you put into speeding up your computer, you want to confirm that it worked.
Computer Speed and Performance Testing

That's where free performance benchmarking software comes in. Benchmarking is simply a matter of measuring the performance of your system before you start tweaking it, so you have a benchmark to which you can compare post-tweak measurements. Benchmarking is an objective way to see how much, or how little, your computer's performance changes over time.

Free Benchmarking Software

SuperPi is a free benchmark test program designed to measure the speed of your CPU. It calculates pi to 35 million decimal places, a very processor-intensive task. SuperPi tracks how quickly your processor performs the operation. Overclockers consider SuperPi a favorite free benchmark because it is processor-specific and helps them see how successful they are at getting their CPUs to run at faster than rated top clock speeds. But SuperPi won't tell you anything about the performance of other parts of your computer system.

FutureMark is a well-known developer of a broad range of computer benchmark programs. Chances are that you've read product reviews that quoted 3D Mark or PC Mark stats; both are benchmarks developed by FutureMark. 3D Mark measures the performance of graphics subsystems, while PC Mark delivers a benchmark metric of overall system performance. Both are available in basic editions which are free and can be used an unlimited number of times.

Novabench is a free software suite incorporating multiple benchmark tests. It is especially well suited for home and small office computer systems. It includes a hard drive performance test; processor speed benchmark; and 2D graphics test.

SiSoft's SANDRA is a full-featured benchmark suite that is geared towards IT professionals who need detailed analysis of multiple computers. In addition to standard benchmark tests of CPU, hard drive, and graphics, SANDRA (System Analyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant) will also test your memory's bandwidth (speed), network performance, power efficiency, and a whole lot more. It also includes a database of reference products. So, for example, after benchmarking your CPU, SANDRA will show you up to five other similar processors to help you decide if an upgrade might be useful.

FRAPS is a popular gaming benchmark utility. It is different from most benchmarks in that it does not measure a system's performance on artificial tests like calculating pi. Instead, FRAPS records how your system actually performs during real world work. Specificially, FRAPS captures data on the number of frames per second your video system is displaying during game play (or movie watching). More frames per second equals smoother, more lifelike video.

Depending on your actual or intended usage, choose the benchmarking tests that will provide you with the information you need. If you're buying a new computer, ask the vendor to run one of these tests before you buy. Many benchmark suites have paid versions that allow you to compare your benchmark results against those of other users worldwide. That way, you not only know how your system is doing relative to itself before and after tweaks, but also how it compares to similar systems.

Do you have something to say about measuring the speed of a personal computer? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How Fast Is Your PC?"

Posted by:

Paul VdB
13 Sep 2011

And how accurate are the PCPitstop tests ?

Posted by:

Cal Fisher
13 Sep 2011

I see the problem is you have to load software to run benchmarks. Not easy to do when you are buying a new PC. How about Control Panel/System and checking the Windows Experience Rating. It comes with Windows on every PC. You can then compare that with you you see on other PC's. I know it is probably not the best measure of performance but I do know that when my Windows Experience Rating was 2 I was not happy and now that it is 4.9 I am much happier. Of course if the PC you are looking at does not have Windows installed you cannot use it. Is there a similar program for Linux and other operating systems?

Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
14 Sep 2011

Measuring speeds in this way is fine, but aren't we looking at speed differences that are really negligible?

Analogy: If you travel 3,000 by car across the country and average 60 MPH, driving eight hours per day, you'll arrive in a little over six days. But if you slow "way down" to 55 MPH, you'll shave less than one hour and six minutes off the entire six-day trip across country.

Doesn't comparing computer speeds amount to the same thing? I mean, if you can't really see a difference (re-read Bob's comments about "confirmation bias"), what does it really matter?

What are you going to do with the 90 seconds you save each day?

Posted by:

Jack McCurdy
14 Sep 2011

If someone like this guy were to buy any modern system that isn't a bargain basement model it will feel plenty fast to him. For instance something with a Core i5 processor and 4 gigs of ram. In fact if he has to ask how to tell if a computer is fast I can just about guarantee it would be faster than what he requires. Probably more like a Core i3 or an Athlon 2 with 4 gigs of ram would be adequate. I have people all the time who think they need a new computer because they think theirs is too slow because it,s just too old. Then I reformat it with Windows 7 and clean all the junkware, malware and Vista off of it, and they find out how fast their Core 2 duo really is. And also if they have less than four gigs of ram I also upgrade that. Because Memory is cheap these days, and easy to install.

Posted by:

Dean Wheeler
20 Sep 2011

While I agree with the point of Les McIntyre's comment, there is a problem with the arithmetic for his analogy.

Slowing down from an average speed of 60 MPH to 55 MPH for a 3000 mile trip will increase the driving time by a bit over four and a half hours.

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