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A Good Bench
Most computer users will find the urge to benchmark their computer at some point. Using a computer day-to-day can give a general feel for how fast a computer is, in the same way you can turn on a faucet and guess if your water pressure is decent or if the construction crew down the street has grazed a water pipe. Getting a precise measurement is more difficult, and that is where benchmark software is useful. With a benchmark, you can quantify how fast your computer is. If you're the geeky type, this can earn bragging rights, and if you're simply trying to decide what to upgrade, a benchmark can help you figure out the weak spots in your PC.
The only problem with benchmarks is that they are often expensive. But not to worry. Most major benchmarks have free trial software that will allow you run a limited version of the benchmark, and there are some free utilities available. Those trying to write reviews of hardware won't get much out of these more limited utilities (doing so professionaly often will violate the license accompanying the free version anyways), but they're perfect for the average home user.
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Home And Office Benchmarking
If you're a home, office, or home-office user, then you'll probably be most concerned about how well your computer performs when completing general tasks and running productivity applications. Probably the easiest benchmark program for these general tasks is Novabench 2, a very basic program that performs RAM, CPU, HDD, and GPU tests. These are not complex nor intensive tests, but since you can compare your score online, you can easily get see if your PC is performing well compared to similar PCs, or if it has for some reason fallen behind.
Should Novabench's simple testing not satisfy you, there are some other programs that can help. For testing your CPU, CPU Free Benchmark 2.2 is a decent program. It simply monitors how long it takes your CPU to complete the testing phase - the lower, the better. What it lacks in information on the results screen it makes up for in intensity, as the benchmark will be using so much of your CPU's power that virtually no other program will operate at the same time (though you should turn off as much background stuff as you can to get an accurate benchmark anyways). For Hard Disks, there is simply no other tool that rivals I/O Meter, but be warned - this is a very technical program, so you'll need to read the documentation before you use it.
If you want a serious, all-in-one benchmark program, then SiSoftware's Sandra is probably a good bet. They offer a Lite version which disables many of the program's features, but still offers enough for home and office users. CPU, HDD, GPU, and multimedia benchmarks are all included. Just be wary, because the installation process of the version I installed offered a few extras that I didn't really want, and which some users may consider spyware. Make sure to decline installation of anything except Sanda Lite.
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If you're a gamer, then benchmarking is particularly important. Games are one of the few common programs that will task a computer's full power, and they also have a very special set of demands. Benchmarking your computer for gaming can give you an idea of what kind of games your computer can handle, so you won't have to worry about buying a game that you'll never be able to play.
Futuremark's 3DMark software has long been the leader in game benchmarking, and this continues to be the case today. Their newest benchmark programs aren't cheap, with even the most basic version of 3DMark Vantage costing 7 bucks, but Futuremark does offer basic versions of their older benchmarking software. 3DMark 06 can be had for free, with limits on its functionality. But even with those limits, the benchmark can challenge many of today's gaming PCs. Futuremark also keeps a library of scores, so you can compare how you rank with others that have the same basic setup.
Besides 3DMark, another good place to look for free benchmarks is in games you already own. Many graphically demanding games, like Crysis and World In Conflict, have benchmarking tools. These tools will show you your frames-per-second as they the camera runs through a number of pre-set scenarios. Many games also have the ability to turn on an FPS counter at all times. You can get FPS numbers for other games with the free version of FRAPS, reviewed here.
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Looking For More, And A Warning
SiSoftware and Futuremark are both great places to look for free benchmarking software. There are many free benchmarks, but not all of them are good, and these two companies have a reputation for decent benchmarks. Checking back every few months to see if anything new has been released will never hurt.
Otherwise, Google is (as always) your friend. But exercise caution. I've run the benchmarks listed in this article on my own computer, and can vouch that no harm will come from them. But benchmarking software, like multimedia applications, firewalls, and anti-virus programs, are popular among those trying to shovel mal-ware and spy-ware into your computer. Just be sure that you know what you're downloading, and pay attention to installation. Even reputable companies will often have a deal with some other, larger, corporation. It is very common to find installers trying to sneak in a copy of AOL Search Toolbar or a similar application.
But as long as you exercise caution, there is a plethora of free benchmarking software available. These programs are all most users will ever need to test the performance of their computer.