As a PC gamer, a big part of the experience is our hardware. Even if you don't build the machine yourself, there is a good chance that you'll upgrade the components at some point. Once a new PC is put together, one of the first things to figure out is how good it is.
A good way to see just what a computer can do is to use benchmarking software. This type of software will run a series of tests that monitor exactly how many frames-per-second a computer can render. I got a chance to take a look at the latest 3DMark, which has been a standard for testing computers for a while. This latest version delivers easy-to-use tools to test just about any hardware, and it's also available now from Steam's software section, making it even more accessible.
One of the first things I noticed about the latest 3DMark is how many different types of devices it covers. The main test option screen has three different series of tests you can run that are clearly marked for "mobile devices and entry-level PCs," "notebooks and home PCs," and "high performance gaming PCs." This makes it easy to tell what would be best for your system. The gaming PC option has an even further "extreme" setting to test out any Gigantor systems out there.
3DMark has tests that are suited for anything from a cheap desktop all the way up to a high-end monster. Picking the test you want to run is easy to choose and navigate. Most users will probably just stick to the main "Tests" screen. When you click on a test, the software clearly explains what the test is and what it does, and starting it is as as simple as clicking on the "run" button.
Each test is made up of several parts and each of these parts focuses on something different. For example, the gaming PC test is comprised of four parts. The first section has heavy tessellation and volumetric illumination, part two has smoke and particles, part three has physics that measure CPU performance, and the final step combines all of these things to see how well the overall performance stacks up. The benefit of breaking it up in this way is that it's easy to see what slows down your system. If the CPU portion slows everything down, it might be time to upgrade or overclock.
Results are easy to access from the top menu tab, and they can be compared online against other users. A score is assigned to the overall system and to each separate test. The results even show temperatures in a graph, which is a nice tool for anyone who is trying to overclock their system. Results are also saved, so it's possible to compare earlier test scores to see if new tweaks or hardware improvements were worthwhile.
There is also a tab for running custom tests, which are based on the three main tests but they can be customized. Things like screen resolution, shadow map size, texture filtering, and MSAA sample counts can be configured to see how they affect performance. This is good if you want to see if something like lowering the resolution has a significant impact on how smoothly the system runs.
There are three versions of 3DMark available. The Basic Edition, which is free, runs all three tests and gives you an overall system score. The Advanced Edition is $24.99 and allows you to choose which tests you want to run and includes access to the "extreme" setting. There is also a Professional Edition, which is licensed for commercial use and has some heavy-duty tools like command line automation.
If you just want to see how your system compares to other users, the free version is a good place to start. However, if you're going to be building a system or overclocking, the Advanced Edition is a great tool to have. I've used 3DMark software since I started building my own PCs, and it's always come in handy.