March 31, 2012, 7:19 AM — Whether you're an advanced user or a novice, it's the perfect time to learn about benchmarking. So many easy-to-use, powerful, and inexpensive programs are out there that you're bound to find one or more that tickle your fancy. Achieving fluency with these tools takes little time, and playing with them is surprisingly fun. Along the way you'll pick up some technical knowledge, and you'll get to know your system's in and outs like a pro.
Benchmarking can be an entertaining way to keep abreast of what's going on in the world of computer hardware, too. Some people enjoy exploring the cutting-edge 3D engines that some gaming benchmarks employ, while others take their custom-painted, liquid-cooled, neon-lit rigs into speed competitions with all the intensity of an actual auto race.
The suites in this roundup are among the most popular you'll see today--you've probably heard of a few. It's a big list, with a little something for everyone.
(For links to all of these downloads in one convenient list, see our "Free and Cheap Software for Benchmarking Like a Pro" collection.)
3D Past, Present, and Futuremark
3DMark has had its ups and downs over the years, but it remains the go-to source for synthetic gaming benchmarks. You can find a separate version for each flavor of DirectX from version 9 onward (3DMark 06, 3DMark Vantage, and 3DMark 11), and each version has its own section in vendor Futuremark's online database. Advanced versions with additional features are available for a price ($10 to $40, depending on the software), but the free Basic versions suffice for most needs.
3DMark 11 looks ahead performance-wise, kneecapping most modern computers (resulting in frame rates in the teens), but I prefer 3DMark 06 from a stylistic standpoint. The older suite feels better crafted than its successors, although its days as a mainstream tool are drawing to close. The three separate sizable installs add up, however. Futuremark buries you in over 1.2GB of data downloads if you want a complete set of numbers, and requires considerably more space fully installed. Sheesh.