What Is a Benchmark?

What does it mean to benchmark something?

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.

Min and Max banchmark test
sumkinn / Getty Images

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. If it doesn't perform as well as the game demands, the game might be sluggish or unresponsive when it's actually used with that hardware.

With video games, in particular, a benchmark isn't always necessary because some developers and distributors explain exactly which video cards are supported, and you can compare that information with your own hardware using a system information tool. However, since your particular hardware might be older or not used to a specific amount of stress that the game demands, it can still be beneficial to actually put the hardware to the test to confirm that it will function properly when the game is actually being played.

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 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 CINEBENCH, Prime95, PCMark, Geekbench, and SiSoftware Sandra.

Some versions of Windows (Vista, 7, and 8, but not 8.1, 10, or 11) include the Windows System Assessment Tool (WinSAT) in the Control Panel that tests the primary hard drive, gaming graphics, RAM, CPU, and video card. This tool gives you an overall score (called a Windows Experience Index 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.

If you don't see the WinSAT in Control Panel, you might be able to run it from a Command Prompt with the winsat command.

We keep a list of internet speed tests that you can use to benchmark how much network bandwidth you have available. See our How to Test Your Internet Speed guide 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 seem to be lots of concern as to the reliability of benchmarking, 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, 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.

  • How do I benchmark a GPU?

    To benchmark your graphics processing unit to see how it will perform running intensive games, use a benchmark testing tool such as Heaven Benchmark or 3DMark. When you run the software, opt for the resolution you usually run games and consider enabling 3D. The benchmark test results will show you how your GPU can handle this activity level.

  • What is a Unigine Valley benchmark?

    A Unigine Valley benchmark is a performance and stability test for a PC or Mac that includes stress-testing and command-line automation support.

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