Benchmarks: Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy

How to make a 166 MHz Pentium perform like a 300 MHz Pentium II
and visa versa

By Robert R. Collins

Recently, I met with someone who has made a career benchmarking computer products. In fact, he found the business so lucrative he quit his day job to capitalize on the benchmarking business. Over dinner, he said, "Tell me what results you want, and I'll choose the benchmark to give you those results." This didn't surprise me, as I've been involved with benchmarking throughout my career. However, ordinary consumers might be surprised by his comment -- especially if they've ever bought a computer product because of published benchmark results.

Last year, the editors at a popular computer magazine bemoaned the task of benchmarking an AMD K6-based computer. They complained that the comparison between the AMD-based PC and an Intel Pentium MMX-based PC they previously tested couldn't be fair because the AMD-based system had a higher performance disk subsystem.

At the time of the AMD test, the Seagate Cheetah Ultra-Wide SCSI hard drive was new to the market; it wasn't even available for beta testing when the Intel computer had been tested. The Cheetah was the state-of-the-art in disk performance. At the time of the Intel test, however, state-of-the-art was the Seagate Barracuda 4LP Ultra-Wide SCSI hard drive. Both AMD and Intel were guilty of stacking the deck in their favor by configuring a benchmark computer with the highest performance peripherals that were available on the market. Therefore, the magazine's complaints seemed disingenuous.

There's nothing new about vendors loading a computer with higher-performance peripherals for benchmarking purposes. We did it when I worked at Acer; Intel did it for the Pentium MMX tests. So why would the magazine editors complain when AMD did the same thing? I suppose if they really were concerned with this problem, the editors could have put the Cheetah in the Intel computer or the Barracuda 4LP in the AMD system, and rerun the tests. Instead, it was easier to complain about the inherent inequity in the test than try to do something about it. The end result is that the article implied AMD had been somewhat deceptive.

Instances of computer manufacturers submitting computers with the highest performance peripherals available is common in the benchmarking industry. Vendors know that high-performance peripherals can hide a multitude of bad designs. Thus, benchmark results don't end up reflecting a good computer design -- they end up reflecting how well the various components work within the computer system.

In general, I've found there are three basic types of benchmarks:

Benchmark suites have been developed to serve the needs of business, the most popular being BAPCO's Sysmark ( and Ziff-Davis' Winstone ( Both Sysmark and Winstone attempt to give you a measurement of overall system performance. Raw computing power only plays a minor role. Overall throughput is the metric of choice.

Some benchmarks attempt to measure specific performance, like microprocessor and disk subsystems. WinBench (also at and SPEC ( are the two most popular benchmarks in this category. WinBench uses a technique called a "playback" test, which uses logs of system calls made during specific application activities (graphics calls or disk usage, for example), then plays them back in isolation. WinBench measures each subsystem of the computer: disk, CD-ROM, CPU, memory, and graphics. SPEC is intended as a measurement of raw CPU integer or floating-point performance (SpecINT95 and SpecFP95).

Benchmarks can also be devised for marketing purposes, and their published results should be carefully weighed. Intel's ICOMP benchmark (Version 1.0), for instance, is an example of a benchmark program developed by a microprocessor manufacturer for measuring microprocessor performance. ICOMP 1.0 was a proprietary benchmark, unique to Intel. Intel didn't publish the formula for ICOMP 1.0, nor did it allow anyone to license the program. Therefore, the results couldn't be independently verified. Thankfully, Intel has abandoned ICOMP 1.0, replacing it with ICOMP 2.0. The formula for ICOMP 2.0 is published at, making it an open standard that can be independently verified.

In short, vendors know that peripherals make more difference in benchmark results than any motherboard design or CPU choice. Differences in motherboard design would never account for more than one or two percentage points of benchmark results. Likewise, whether you choose an AMD, Cyrix, Intel, or IDT 586-class CPU will not make much of a difference in most benchmark results either. Therefore, unless you have specific computing needs, your money would be more wisely spent by purchasing a slower, cheaper motherboard and CPU, and spending the money you've saved on higher-performance peripherals.

The Challenge

To prove my point, I will make a Pentium running at 166 MHz appear to outperform a Pentium II running at 300 MHz. How will I do this? Simple. I'll start with a basic 166-MHz computer that is typical of home systems. From that point, I'll upgrade the graphics and disk subsystems. With these two minor changes, I can achieve higher (benchmarked) performance than the 300-MHz Pentium II, running with the same base components as the Pentium 166.

This demonstration will underscore some important principles:

  • Beware of benchmark results. Always scrutinize what peripherals are being used. If you don't recognize the peripherals, you might as well consider the benchmark results meaningless.
  • Beware of benchmark comparisons. If the motherboard, memory, and peripherals aren't identical, the benchmark comparison is meaningless. Even when the peripherals are the same, the results can sometimes be meaningless. For example, in one test, the graphics card may have been set for 1024x768x(eight-bit) colors, while another test may have the graphics card set for 1024x768x(24-bit) colors. The latter test must write three times as much data to the video card. Therefore, it will drag down the benchmark results.
  • The proper graphics card and disk subsystem can substantially increase performance. You don't need a 300-MHz Pentium II to play Quake (in spite of what the Bunny-Geeks tell you). You only need to upgrade the components of your computer to achieve 300-MHz-like performance.
  • Choosing the highest priced components doesn't always produce the highest performance.
  • It's easy to cripple the performance of a 300-MHz computer -- simply choose the wrong peripheral components.

For the purposes of these tests, I've selected benchmark suites from both main categories of benchmarking. Winstone and Sysmark are representative benchmark suites to gauge overall system performance. Winstone is published by Ziff-Davis. A consortium of computer and software manufacturers (of which Intel is a member) publishes BAPCO's Sysmark. (BAPCO's office, in fact, is located inside Intel's corporate headquarters.) In general, I found the BAPCO's methodology more scientific than Winstone's. While Winstone allows testers to set a dizzying array of configuration options, BAPCO does not. The infinite variability of Winstone test configurations makes it more prone to manipulation for benchmark brinkmanship purposes. Therefore, it is unfortunate that Intel's involvement in BAPCO has meant the Sysmark suite has a low acceptance level in the computer industry.

For low-level benchmarks, I've chosen WinBench and SpecINT. WinBench attempts to measure all of the computer subsystems, while SpecINT only measures microprocessor integer performance.

I set up two separate computer systems as identically as possible. Table 1 describes both systems and my rationale for each choice. The computer systems in this table are considered the control (constants) of my tests. These components will not change from configuration to configuration, or from test to test. It's important in benchmarking to establish a control set. Once benchmark results are established for the control, the variable components can be changed to demonstrate their net effect.

As my variable components, I've chosen two different subsystems. I'm going to change the video and disk subsystem independently to demonstrate their influence on the benchmark results. Tables 2 and 3 list both subsystems and the components I've chosen for my test purposes.

Table 1 - Basic Computer Configurations
Component 166 MHz 300 MHz Methodology
Motherboard Tyan Tomcat IV S1564D Tyan Tahoe 2 S1682D Both motherboards are a dual CPU design. Only one CPU installed. Choosing the same manufacturer ensures similar design methodology. Tyan S1564 uses the Intel 82430 HX chipset. The HX chipset is the only Intel chipset for Pentium processors which is capable of caching more than 64 MB of memory.
Microprocessor Intel Pentium (P54c) 166 latest stepping Intel Pentium II 300 latest stepping P54c is representative of what Joe Consumer actually has at home. The Pentium II 300 MHz is representative of what Intel would like Joe Consumer to believe he needs at home.
Memory 64 MB EDO 64 MB EDO Same manufacturer and packaging.
Cache 512 KB L2 512 KB L2 Equal cache sizes.
Video 1024x768x256 colors 1024x768x256 colors Lowest resolution possible for use with benchmark programs. Should also produce highest possible performance for benchmark results.
Operating System Windows NT 4.0, Service Pack 3 Windows NT 4.0, Service Pack 3 To heck with Windows 95, it's a nightmare. Windows NT is much easier to switch around components without worrying what else Windows 95 and the plug-and-pray garbage in Windows 95 may have installed. Service Pack 3 ensures the latest patches for Windows NT 4.0. Service pack 3 also enhanced video performance.

Table 2 - Video Subsystems

Component Memory Bus Methodology
SIIG Master ISA 1 MB DRAM ISA Symbolic of what Joe Consumer may have purchased in his AOL-equipped Pentium 166.
Matrox Millenium 4 MB DRAM PCI Considered state-of-the-art for 2D Graphics
IMS Twin Turbo 8 MB VRAM PCI Logic should indicate that more is better, and VRAM is better than DRAM. Certainly this card costs $100 more than the Matrox Millenium does.

Table 3 - Disk Subsystems

Disk CD-ROM Controller Methodology
Fujitsu M1624 TAU Sanyo CRD 168P 8x Speed On-board IDE Joe's typical configuration. In the BIOS setup, I throttled the Fujitsu drive down to Mode-2 performance. I felt Mode-2 was typical performance in the average computer 18 months ago when 166 MHz was en vogue.
Seagate ST 34572W Barracuda 4LP 7200 RPMs, 4.5 GB Ultra-Wide SCSI Teac CD-516S 16x Speed Adaptec 2940 UW The Seagate and Adaptec Controller are capable of 40 MB/Second throughput. Actual throughput is limited by the disk internal transfer rate. However, this disk-controller combination is very cost-effective for a high performance disk subsystem.
Micropolis 4345 WAV 7200 RPMs, 4.5 GB Ultra-Wide SCSI Teac CD-516S 16x Speed Adaptec 2940 UW To make matters fair, the Micropolis drive is tested against the Seagate Barracuda 4LP. Both drives are considered A/V ready.
Seagate ST 19101W Cheetah 9, 10000 RPMs, 9.1 GB, Ultra-Wide SCSI Pioneer DR-U24X 24x Speed Diamond Fireport 40 The Seagate Cheetah is considered the pinnacle of performance. At 10000 RPMs, only the IBM 9XL can match (and exceed) it's performance. Instead of using the venerable Adaptec 2940 UW, I've chosen the Diamond Fireport 40 SCSI controller. The Fireport controller uses a faster SCSI chip, and costs one-half the price of the Adaptec card.
IBM 9XL, 10000 RPMs, 9.1 GB, Ultra-Wide SCSI Pioneer DR-U24X 24x Speed Diamond Fireport 40 This drive was released just before I was completed with my research. As I found out, this drive is the new the performance king-of-the-hill.

Problems at Benchmark Central

Running benchmarks always seems to present its share of problems. I found that some benchmarks are temperamental. Winstone 97 can easily time out or even hang a computer system. With Winstone 97, I discovered that the order in which the benchmark software and the NT Service pack are installed made a difference in function and performance. If the Service Pack is installed before the benchmark software, then the tests often time out. If the Service Pack is installed after the benchmark software, then no such problems exist.

Winstone 97 also gave me problems with my IMS Twin Turbo video card. In spite of numerous calls to the manufacturer, I could never resolve these problems. Eventually I gave up, and told the manufacturer that it would have to be dropped from the test. It's too bad, because the IMS Twin Turbo was a perfect example of "higher cost isn't always higher performance." The Twin Turbo cost nearly double the price of the Matrox Millennium, yet suffered from 30-percent lower performance. This just shows that better peripherals don't always come in more expensive packages.

The Pioneer 24x CD-ROM had its share of problems. When running WinBench, the CD-ROM tests sometimes failed. WinBench reported that the CD-ROM drive didn't contain a disk, and suggested that I reinsert the disk before retrying the test. I found that this problem was likely caused by the high-speed drive being out of balance. Often times, when I repositioned the CD-ROM drive, the problems would go away. I also noticed that the performance of the CD-ROM drive was inconsistent. Again, this was most likely caused by the drive being out of balance and issuing multiple retries before successfully reading the data on the CD-ROM.

Lastly, my Micropolis 4345 WAV drive blew a head gasket before crossing the finish line. I was running my last configuration on this drive when it quit working. The motor would spin up, then spin down -- over and over. The hard drive never booted again. Contacting the manufacturer for a replacement wouldn't have helped: Micropolis is now out of business.

The Results

As I expected, benchmarks that measured specific computer components were the most reliable and gave the most consistent results. Such benchmarks weren't dramatically affected by high-performance video controllers and high-performance disk subsystems. SpecINT95 gave consistent results regardless of configuration changes. The Pentium 166 consistently scored between 3.53 and 3.55 SpecINT95 (base). The Pentium II 300 scored consistently at 8.99 to 9.00 SpecINT95. Because of their predicted consistency, I have excluded their results from the remainder of this discussion -- doing so would only become redundant.

The remainder of the results will show the dramatic impact that enhanced peripherals can have on overall system performance. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to prove that a Pentium 166 can show higher performance on systems benchmarks than a Pentium II 300. Winstone and Sysmark are our systems-benchmark measuring tools. Even though WinBench isn't a systems benchmark, I've included selected WinBench results to demonstrate the impact on the computer system of enhancing the video and disk subsystems.

Figure 1 shows the baseline configuration for my Pentium 166 and Pentium II 300 tests. The baseline configuration for each computer consists of an IDE hard drive, and standard VGA video controller. All of the results have been normalized to this baseline configuration. Hence, all results can be considered as percentage differences between configurations. Normalizing the results gives an easy-to-read visual display, which shows how one configuration compares to another. (If you're interested in the actual benchmark results, they're available electronically in an Excel spreadsheet; see "Resource Center," page 3. The spreadsheet is also available at

Some of the results may appear to be anomalous. The Pentium II Graphics Winmark and Business Winstone results show lower performance than the baseline configuration. These results would tend to defy logic. As a means to mitigate these anomalous results, I ran each benchmark test three times, and reported the highest results for any given run. This method guarantees that the results aren't anomalous, but instead are best-case representations of what was measured by the benchmark programs.

As Figure 1 shows, the Pentium II 300 performs consistently better than the Pentium 166. To show the performance benefits of the disk subsystem enhancements, I've broken up the Pentium 166 and Pentium II 300 results into two separate graphs. Both graphs include the Pentium 166 and Pentium II 300 baseline configuration. This inclusion was intended for comparative purposes to demonstrate the enhancing effects of higher-performance peripherals. Figure 2 shows the benefits of enhancing the disk subsystem for our Pentium 166. As this graph shows, the disk subsystem enhancement influences overall system performance by approximately 12 percent for Sysmark, and approximately 20 percent for Winstone. Interestingly, Sysmark and Winstone didn't show much difference between the 7200- and 10000-RPM SCSI drives, while the WinBench results clearly showed the performance superiority of the 10000-RPM SCSI drives.

Similar results were seen on the Pentium II 300 disk enhancements; see Figure 3. The Pentium II 300 results show little effect of the 7200-RPM SCSI drives on Winstone, but dramatic performance benefits for the 10000-RPM drives. Sysmark seemed to show a more linear performance benefit between the 7200- and 10000-RPM SCSI drives. The WinBench results again show the performance superiority of the 10000-RPM SCSI drives. It's interesting that the Pentium II 300 WinBench results clearly show the IBM 9XL having a performance advantage over the Seagate Cheetah 9LP.

As remarkable as the disk-performance benefits have been on overall system performance, I still haven't achieved the goal of making a Pentium 166 benchmark better than a Pentium II 300. To achieve this goal, you need only look as far as the video performance. Video performance alone was enough to fool Business Winstone and Sysmark. But video performance alone wasn't enough to fool the Highend Winstone benchmark programs. Figure 4 shows the results for the Pentium 166 and Pentium II 300. Using the Matrox Millennium, Business Winstone showed a whopping 81 percent performance improvement over the baseline Pentium II 300 configuration. Sysmark was only fooled into showing a 12 percent difference. Don't ignore the WinBench graphics results. These results clearly show the advantages of high-performance video controllers -- like the Matrox Millennium.

Lastly, Figure 5 shows the net effect of enhancing the video subsystem with the Matrox Millennium, and the disk subsystem with the 10000-RPM IBM 9XL SCSI hard drive. Like the video enhancements, Sysmark and Business Winstone were fooled into thinking the slower Pentium 166 gave better performance than the stellar Pentium II 300 did. Figure 5 shows the Pentium 166 outperforming the Pentium II 300 by 22 percent on Sysmark, and by 98 percent on Business Winstone. Highend Winstone was not fooled by any of my tricks. The Highend Winstone results always showed proportional performance increases that you would expect to find between a 166-MHz and 300-MHz computer.


As I expected, it is easy to make a Pentium 166 appear to outperform a Pentium II 300. With a simple video controller and a hard drive, I was able to make Business Winstone 97 show a Pentium 166 to have 98 percent better performance than a 300-MHz Pentium II computer. This demonstrates that you shouldn't always trust the benchmark results that you read in computer magazines. Keep this in mind when reading benchmark comparisons: Unless all of the computers are tested on equal configurations, allowing only one variable to change (like the motherboard or CPU), then the results might as well be meaningless.

As I discovered, more isn't always better. The higher-priced video controllers actually performed 30 percent lower than the lower-priced Matrox Millennium. Conversely, the $200 Matrox Millennium gave a bigger performance boost than the $1000+ IBM 9XL SCSI hard drive. A small battle between SCSI controllers found the Diamond Fireport outperformed the Adaptec 2940 UW at approximately one-half the price. Even though the 24x CD-ROM gave good performance, I found it too unstable to be trusted. Therefore, instead of upgrading my next computer to a Pentium II, I think I'll upgrade to a 233-MHz AMD K6, add the Matrox Millennium, and get the cheaper Diamond Fireport with 4.5-GB 10000-RPM SCSI hard drive. These enhancements will give me all the performance I need -- and then some.

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