Troubleshooting And Benchmarking A New PC (Part 2)

1/11/2013 9:04:30 AM

It might sound unlikely, but the biggest bottleneck of any modern PC is quite likely to be the hard drive. Processors are getting quicker and quicker, but hard drives are getting bigger and bigger. Games and applications are becoming huge, and hard drives are expected to shift more data in and out of RAM than ever before at quicker speeds. Most of the time, they simply can’t keep up, as you’ll be aware if you’ve ever sat in front of a PC waiting for a churning disk to stop so that you can continue working.



Although SiSoftware’s Sandra 2013 does have a disk benchmarking component, the best tool for the job is probably CrystalDiskMark (available at crystalmark.info), which is specifically designed to test the read and write performance of storage (mechanical and solid state) at a variety of different transfer sizes. Tests will involve sequential and random access (in both directions). If you prefer, you can also use a program such as PC Mark to perform a ‘trace’ test, which examines read and write speeds under normal usage conditions over a longer period of time (and reports latency, which CrystalDiskMark doesn’t).

As with memory, you should also check your storage hardware for errors at the earliest opportunity - you don’t want to discover that a hard drive is in danger of failing when you’ve already filled it with your stuff, after all! Most drive manufacturers offer a free proprietary testing tool that you can use, although the built-in Windows disk checker is a reasonable alternative. If you find any bad sectors, you are entitled to get a replacement.

If your benchmark suggests that hard drive access is slower than it should be and there are no bad sectors, it’s likely that you have a configuration option wrong somewhere, so look in the BIOS and check that the drive has been correctly detected. It’s also possible that your OS has, for some reason, installed conflicting drivers for the device, so look in Device Manager and check that the IDE/ATA controllers don’t show any problems.

Alternatively, if the slow drive is a secondary storage device, check the power management settings - it may be that the hard drive has been told to power down when not in use, and the slow access times are the result of a wait while the drive powers up again.

If you have an SSD, slow access times can be caused by chipset incompatibilities, so if possible, try connecting your SSD to another motherboard (either an old one, or someone else’s) and seeing if the problem persists. It’s also possible that you’ll encounter write speed problems after cloning an existing mechanical drive to an SSD. If you did this, the best course of action is (somewhat unhelpfully) to use a program like Partition Magic to do a secure erase and then start again. SSDs should be significantly faster than HDDs, so any slowness is a definite sign of problems.

Graphics Benchmarks And Troubleshooting

GPU performance is of primary interest to gamers, but even if you’re running an onboard GPU only, you might be interested to see how it performs against actual graphics cards in case you want to upgrade to something better. There are more ways to test the graphics capabilities of a computer than almost anything else, and it is well worth testing for peace of mind. Indeed, many games even provide their own benchmarking, and Micro Mart regularly use Crysis 2 and DiRT 3 for just such purposes.

Crysis 2

Crysis 2

If you’ve read this article in order, you’ll know the drill by now: failures during stress tests may be the result of inadequate cooling, failures under moderate use can indicate software or hardware faults, and under-performance likely indicates a configuration mistake. However, rather than to test hardware, graphics card benchmarking is more popularly used to fine-tune it. The kind of people who buy graphics cards at all are normally interested in getting the best performance out of them, and benchmarking tools are the best way to see whether tweaks have had a positive, negative, or indeed any effect.

For testing real-world performance, we recommend Fraps (available at www.fraps.com) - an unusual gaming benchmark tool which runs in the background while you play games, then uses your PC’s actual performance to analyse its capabilities. By taking notes about how many frames your computer renders while you play a game, Fraps can give you an accurate picture of how your PC is actually performing, rather than putting it through a series of test designed to mimic gaming performance. The program has several other features and a paid-for version, but the benchmarking is available in the free incarnation.

Alternatively, try 3D Mark, which is perhaps the most popular benchmarking tool around. As the name suggests, it primarily analyses 3D performance, so if you’re a gamer who likes to tinker with settings, it can give you a good metric by which to quickly compare your PC pre- and post-tweak. There are several versions of the software which you should choose based on your graphics hardware’s DirectX capabilities - 3DMark11 for DX11 cards, 3DMark Vantage for DX10 cards, and 3DMark06 for DX9 cards. You’ll be given a separate score for both CPU and GPU, and in both cases, higher is better.

3D Mark - the most popular benchmarking tool

3D Mark - the most popular benchmarking tool

That, more or less, is how you check your new PC is in working order. Remember that, whatever tool you use, you should keep a note of the results you got out of it - a solid record of them will allow you to refer back to them in the future, and could potentially help you to recognise failing hardware long before anything goes seriously wrong. It’s also a good idea to run them just before an upgrade, as well as after - if only so you can see how much of an improvement the new hardware has made!


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