How to Evaluate PC Performance

by Aaron Parson
Close-up of a man installing a new hard drive on a computer motherboard.

Close-up of a man installing a new hard drive on a computer motherboard.

The first time you start up a new computer or play a game after installing a top-tier video card, your PC might feel viscerally faster, but putting a number to that feeling requires a benchmark or personal testing. Evaluate your computer -- for instance, with the built-in Windows Experience Index (an advanced benchmarking application), or by recording your own speed measurements -- to provide a numerical measurement that you can compare to other hardware to quantify the value of your new or upgraded computer.

Windows Experience Index

Windows includes a basic benchmarking tool that grades your CPU, video card, hard drive and RAM as a first step in comparing performance between two computers or after an upgrade. On Windows 7 or 8, click "Windows Experience Index" in the System control panel to see your scores or rerun the tests after adding new hardware. To test on Windows 8.1, run "winsat prepop" from the command prompt. After the test finishes, type "powershell" to switch from the regular prompt to Windows PowerShell. At the new prompt, enter the command "Get-WmiObject -Class Win32_WinSAT" to see your scores. On all commands, exclude the quotation marks.

Advanced Benchmarking Tools

For more elaborate testing, install and run a benchmarking tool that evaluates all aspects of your system. Popular options for all-around testing include PCMark and PerformanceTest (links in Resources). If you're interested specifically in game performance, run a program such as 3DMark or the Heaven benchmark from Unigine, as these utilities focus on complex visuals that push your video card to its limit. Some games also include built-in benchmarks. Most benchmarking programs generate a score for comparing your PC's performance to other systems. These scores have no objective meaning, so you can't compare scores between two benchmark utilities. Scores can even differ greatly between two different versions of the same benchmark.

Generate Accurate Results

Benchmarking utilities don't possess an innate insight into your computer -- they work by running a battery of tests and measuring performance from results -- such as the time it takes to process a calculation or the number of frames of animation displayed per second. So, just like any other program, benchmarks can run poorly if your computer is busy with other activities. For accurate results, update all your drivers and reboot before benchmarking. Wait a few minutes after booting to allow background processes to finish, and then close out of all other programs, such as tasks running in the taskbar tray. Futuremark recommends waiting an additional 15 minutes after closing programs before starting up a benchmark, and suggests repeating this entire process three separate times to ensure you have a stable result. While the benchmark runs, do not touch the mouse or use any other programs.

Measure Daily Activities

Benchmark scores help compare multiple computers or video cards, but measuring your day-to-day activity gives the most accurate look at how your computer handles the specific programs you use. Almost any computational task that takes a measurable amount of time -- such as applying a filter in a photo editing program or calculating a complex formula in Excel -- can serve as a benchmark of CPU speed if you measure how long the process takes before and after an upgrade or on two PCs. To compare video cards, run a game that includes an optional frame rate meter or use a utility such as Fraps, MSI Afterburner or Dxtory (links in Resources) that superimposes the frame rate. When measuring frames per second, turn off vertical sync in the game's options to avoid having the FPS capped to your monitor's refresh speed.

About the Author

Aaron Parson has been writing about electronics, software and games since 2006, contributing to several technology websites and working with NewsHour Productions. Parson holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

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