Geekbench’s creator on version 6 and why benchmarks matter in the real world

Primate Labs

We review a lot of hardware at Ars, and part of that review process involves running benchmark apps. The exact apps we use may change over time and based on what we’re trying to measure, but the purpose is the same: to compare the relative performance of two or more things and to make sure that products perform as well in real life as they do on paper.

One app that has been a consistent part of our test suite for over a decade is Geekbench, a CPU and GPU compute benchmark that is releasing its sixth major version today. Partly because it’s small, free, and easy to run; partly because developer Primate Labs maintains a gigantic searchable database spanning millions of test runs across millions of devices; and partly because it will run on just about anything under the sun, Geekbench has become one of the Internet’s most-used (and most-argued-about) benchmarking tools.

“I’m really glad that people seem to have latched onto it,” Primate Labs founder and Geekbench creator John Poole told Ars of Geekbench’s popularity. “I know Gordon Ung at PCWorld basically calls Geekbench the official benchmark of Twitter arguments, which is the fallout from that.”

Cross-platform right from the start

Geekbench’s cross-platform compatibility is part of its appeal, which has been baked into the benchmark since its earliest versions. It began at the height of the PowerPC Mac era when Apple’s hardware was exotic and niche and apps that ran on Mac OS X were relatively rare.

“I just switched over to the Mac back in about 2002,” Poole told Ars. “So I was getting used to that ecosystem. And then the [Power Mac] G5 came out and I thought, oh, this looks really cool. I went out, bought one of the new G5s, and it felt slower than my previous Mac. And I thought, well, this is really strange; what’s going on. … So, you know, I grabbed what [benchmarks] I could download and ran them and got really confused, because what the benchmarks were saying wasn’t jiving with my experience.

“So I actually went and I reverse-engineered one of the popular benchmarks and found that the tests were, for lack of a better word, terrible,” said Poole. “They weren’t really testing anything substantial, you know, doing really simple arithmetic operations on really small amounts of data, not really testing anything. And so I thought, how hard can it be to write a benchmark? Maybe I should write my own.”

The original Geekbench (called “Geekbench 2006” and apparently lost to time) supported Windows and macOS at launch. Geekbench 2, released in 2007, added Linux support. An official iPhone version followed in 2010, and an Android version came out in 2012. Since Geekbench 3 was released in mid-2013, a revamped version with new focus areas and reformulated tests has been released roughly once every three years or so.

And it’s not just mainstream, general-use hardware and software that can run Geekbench. Geekbench could run on the PlayStation 3’s Cell processor (“[not] all that impressive as a general-purpose CPU,” wrote Poole at the time). There was even, briefly, a version that ran natively on the short-lived BlackBerry 10. Here at Ars we’ve run it on everything from the oddball, all-open-source MNT Reform laptop, the first wave of Android Wear smartwatches, and hundreds of desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets besides.