What is a Benchmark?

What Does it Mean to Benchmark Something?

Illustration of a chart and graph comparison

A benchmark is a test used to compare performance between multiple things, either against each other or against an accepted standard.

In the computer world, benchmarks are often used to compare the speeds or performances of hardware components, software programs, and even internet connections.

Why Would You Run a Benchmark?

You might run a benchmark to simply compare your hardware with someone else's, to test that new hardware is actually performing as advertised, or to see if a piece of hardware supports a certain amount of workload.

For example, if you plan on installing a new high-end video game on your computer, you might run a benchmark to see if your hardware is capable of running the game. The benchmark will apply a particular amount of stress (which is supposedly close to what is required for the game to run) on the hardware in question to check that it can actually support the game.

Benchmarking your network to check the available bandwidth might be useful if you suspect that you're not getting the internet speeds that your ISP has promised.

It's most common to benchmark computer hardware like a CPU, the memory (RAM), or a video card. Hardware reviews you find online almost always include benchmarks as a way to objectively compare one make and model of video card, for example, with another.

How to Run a Benchmark

There's a variety of free benchmark software tools that can be used to test various hardware components.

Novabench is one free benchmarking tool for Windows and Mac for testing the CPU, hard drive, RAM, and video card. It even has a results page that lets you compare your NovaBench Score with other users.

Some other free tools like Novabench that let you benchmark your PC include 3DMark, CINEBENCH, Prime95, PCMark, Geekbench, and SiSoftware Sandra.

Some versions of Windows (Vista, 7, and 8, but not 8.1) include the Windows System Assessment Tool in the Control Panel that tests the primary hard drive, gaming graphics, RAM, CPU, and video card. This tool gives you an overall score between 1.0 and 5.9 on Windows Vista, up to 7.9 on Windows 7, and a maximum rating of 9.9 on Windows 8, that's based on the lowest score produced by any of those individual tests.

I keep a list of internet speed tests that you can use to benchmark how much network bandwidth you have available. See How to Test Your Internet Speed to learn how to do this best.

Things to Remember About Benchmarks

It's important to make sure you aren't doing a bunch of other things at the same time that you're running a benchmark. So, for example, if you're going to run a benchmark on your hard drive, you don't want to also be using the drive unnecessarily, like copying a bunch of files to and from a flash drive, burning a DVD, etc.

Similarly, you wouldn't trust a benchmark against your internet connection if you're downloading or uploading files at the same time. Just pause those things or wait until they're done before you run an internet speed test or any other test that those activities may interfere with.

There seems to be lots of concern as to the reliability of benchmarkings, like the fact that some manufacturers may be unfairly rating their own products better than their competition. There's a surprisingly large list of these "challenges" to benchmarking on Wikipedia.

Is a Stress Test the Same Thing as a Benchmark?

The two are similar, but a stress test and a benchmark are two different terms for good reason. While a benchmark is used to compare performance, a stress test is for seeing just how much can be done to something before it breaks.

For example, like I mentioned above, you might run a benchmark against your video card to see it performs well enough to support a new video game you want to install.

However, you'd run a stress test against that video card if you want to see how much work it can handle before it stops functioning, like if you want to overclock it.

Bart's Stuff Test and the Prime95 software mentioned above are a few examples of applications that can run a stress test.