How do you know which computer or CPU is going to be faster?

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Is an Intel Core i3 better than an i5, or is it the i7? Is an Atom N280 faster than an Atom N550? While we are at it, is an i5 faster than an Atom N550? The CPU world moves ever onward. After all Moore’s law predicts the number of transistors that can fit within a defined area will double every 18 months. So unless you sell computer chips, or repair computers, don’t feel bad that you don’t know which computers are the fastest. To make things more difficult, the naming convention, is a branding convention. They don’t necessarily convey useful information.

And this isn’t an idle question. As new computer models are created, the old models don’t always go away as quick as you would expect. Shopping online, you can find many older and slower models for sale. There can be a plus to this. How fast a machine do you really need? The two year old model that was good for its time, may still be fast enough, and can be cheap.

The way to compare computers is to compare benchmarks. Benchmarks are programs designed to exercise the different features of a computer, measure their speed, merge the data together, and assign a score. A higher score is usually a faster machine. Each benchmark has their own recipes on how the measurements are merged. If you plan to use a computer for gaming, the graphics card speed might not be weighted highly enough. So the overall score might not reflect the speed you will see with your use. Looking at the graphics score that goes into the final score might be more useful in that case.

If you have access to a running machine, for instance at the store, then for Windows 7 check the built in benchmarks. Use the “view performance information” link in the Control Panel Action Center. This is my machine:

For other operating systems, and for more thorough benchmark scoring, you will need to get and install specific software.

  • On linux, use Hardinfo. Install on Ubuntu with sudo apt-get install hardinfo.
  • On a Macintosh, use Xbench.
  • On Windows XP and Windows 7, use PassMark PerformanceTest. The free version can be used for 30 days.

On my Windows 7 machine, I also used the PassMark PerformanceTest.

After running the benchmark and uploading the results, you can then compare to other peoples results. My score of 1163 was beaten by a substantially similar machine with a score of 1633. Looking at the details I find the faster machine is clocking at a faster rate, and has a different motherboard. This comparison tool lets us download baseline data and look at many other systems.

If you are thinking of upgrading, you can search for computers with better scores, and then look at what they have that is better than your machine. This can tell you what might be worth upgrading.

Branching out further, you can look at machines you don’t even own yet. I did some shopping for a netbook at Geeks.com:

Here are three models all being sold at the same price. Which one is going to be the fastest for the money?

I didn’t always find the exact model. And for the models I do find, there are multiple entries with varying benchmark scores.

ASUS Netbook Atom N450

MSI Netbook Atom N280

ASUS Netbook Atom N270

Model Benchmark
ASUS netbook with Atom N450 189 to 263
MSI netbook with Atom N280 242 to 250
ASUS netbook with Atom N270 152 to 296

That shows too large a swing to know in general which model will be faster. They are all much slower than my desktop i3 machine with a score of 1163. But comparing to each other? The benchmark is a combined score that reflects all the system components. For the ASUS with Atom N270 we can see the memory score (166) was much lower for the 152 benchmark than the memory score (254) for the 296 benchmark. So pay attention to the specs on all the components unless you are trying to get just a ball park estimate.

Without running a benchmark tool, PassMark provides CPU benchmark data. This can help with the ball park estimating.

CPU Benchmark
Atom N270 304
Atom N280 314
Atom N450 318
Atom N550 562
Core i3 540 2831
Core i5 650 3149
Core i7 880 6483

Geeks does have an Atom N550 system for sale:

The CPU has a higher benchmark. The system however:

The system benchmark of 252 to 294 is at the higher end of the other Atom based systems benchmarked above, but not 46% faster like the CPU benchmark might imply. System performance can be hampered by the weakest link in the chain. The Core i7 880 CPU benchmark similarly does not make as big an improvement as you might expect:

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