Benchmarking is the first thing you should do once you’ve finished assembling your PC, smoothed out the wrinkles in the operating system, and installed up-to-date drivers for all your components. If you drink beer, then at least make benchmarking the second thing you do once you’re finished, because it tells you whether or not you’ve got a stable system (if your system is prone to overheating, for example, it’ll likely do so during a benchmark test); it lets you know if a component is wildly underperforming (a signal of hardware or driver problems); and it gives you the feedback you need to tweak system settings in games for the best framerate with the least compromise in visual quality.
There are two ways to benchmark: use a framerate display utility such as Fraps (trial version available at www.fraps.com) to log your framerates as you play, or use the built-in benchmarks available in many games. The Fraps method is fi ne, and we often use it to see whether or not minor graphics-settings tweaks are doing me any good. But the built-in benchmarks are generally more reliable, as they max out the action and throw in every in-game effect in order to gauge your system’s performance during game sequences that are the most resource intensive; after all, it doesn’t do you much good if you know that you’re getting a smooth 72 frames per second while crossing a glade if that figure drops to an excruciating 10 or 12 during battle sequences. Fail! Don’t forget to run benchmarks frequently as a kind of routine physical for your gaming rig, to make sure that bad drivers, malware, or hardware problems aren’t bringing your system down.
3DMark06 is what’s known as a synthetic benchmark, meaning it was created exclusively for the purposes of benchmarking and is designed to test a broad range of your hardware’s capabilities. While this means that 3DMark06 isn’t a perfect indicator of how well actual games will run (with multiple characters and action that frequently speeds up and slows down), it is a good metric of your system’s overall power that you can compare against scores online or PC Gamer review systems.
You can download a free trial version of 3DMark06 (currently at build 1.1.0) at www.futuremark.com. Install, launch the application, and click on the Run 3DMark06 button to the left. You don’t have access to any options unless you purchase the full version, but the default test at 1280x1024 is what we run anyway. Kick back, watch some pretty sequences, and when it’s finished, you can compare your results with others by clicking on “Review your results online.”
Many games can push high-end gaming systems to their limits. Only Crysis can make them cry in public as they grovel for mercy. But with the built-in benchmarking tools and some judicious tweaking, we managed to get an average of 58 frames per second out of Crysis, at 1600x1200 resolution, from our DIY system. That was with all graphics settings on Medium and full-screen antialiasing turned off, but as you can see in the screenshot to the right, it still looks fantastic, and it runs smoothly even during intense action sequences. Dropping the resolution to 1280x1024 allows us to crank up the settings to High and still enjoy a silky 38 frames per second!
You’ll find a benchmark that targets your CPU (Benchmark_CPU.bat) and another that targets your graphics subsystem (Benchmark_GPU.bat) in the Bin32 folder of your Crysis installation. Double-clicking on either of them starts the benchmark (which loops four times and displays an average frames per second at the end). If the framerate is too choppy, launch Crysis and lower the resolution and the graphics-quality settings, or turn off full-screen antialiasing, and then run the benchmark again.
COMPANY OF HEROES: OPPOSING FRONTS
Launch the game, log in, click on Options, select the Graphics tab, and then click on Performance Test.
WORLD IN CONFLICT
Launch the game, click on Options, then Graphics, and then click on Run Benchmark. Note the Advanced tab at the top of the screen, where the advanced graphics settings can be found—it’s easy to miss.
HALF-LIFE 2: EPISODE ONE
The benchmark built into Half-Life 2: Episode One requires you to “record” a bit of gameplay that the benchmarking system then runs to measure framerates. But you might try running Fraps instead, or better yet, download the easy-to-use and free HL:E1 benchmarking utility from HardwareOC at www.hocbench.com. You must already own a copy of HL:E1 and you need to have launched it at least once before using the Hardware OC benchmark. Keep in mind that games downloaded through Steam update themselves automatically, which may affect benchmark comparisons in the future.