I’ve developed 3D content for a few years and have gained some insights in working with the hardware. Most of my experience is in dealing with ZBrush, Silo3D, and Blender. I’ve also worked a little with Maya. Here are five general guidelines for selecting or building a 3D workstation in 2017.
1) Get more cores and more CPUs.
3D content creation software is mostly multithreaded. A multicore processor can better handle multithreaded tasks. Having more than one CPU with multiple cores further increases the efficiency and speed of a computer. For 3D functions, multiple cores are more important than clock speed. A dual CPU 3.46 GHz hexacore unit (2 x 6 cores = 12 cores total) can outpace a machine with a single CPU 4GHz quad core (4 cores total).
2) Get more RAM but not too much.
RAM is also a consideration when getting more cores but more RAM is not necessarily going to improve performance beyond a certain level. More RAM will cost more money. Get at least 16 GB of RAM. Hexacore processors tend to prefer RAM in multiples of three (3×4=12, 3×8=24, 3×16=48, etc.) but check with the manufacturer of your CPU for the best set up. I wouldn’t go much beyond 64 GB. I think buying 128 GB of RAM is a waste of money. Your kids’ college tuition could be cheaper than the RAM 😉
3) Get more Drive space.
3D files are gigantic. More drive space provides creators more flexibility for storing data and the ability to work on larger more complex scenes. A solid state drive (SSD) improves load times of software but using it for storage can significantly increase the cost of the machine. I tend to go with a hybrid approach. Store the software on a smaller SSD (120 GB to 512 GB) and store my files on a separate larger hard drive or RAID (4 TB or higher).
4) Avoid non-upgradeable machines.
The ability to replace and upgrade parts in a 3D workstation extends the life of that workstation. It gives the owner the flexibility to add components as needed and enhance parts that began at a basic level. All-in-one computers and laptops tend to be less upgradable than tower computers. If you do get a less expandable machine, you’ll have to get the top of the line at the beginning to ensure maximum work life, but that also means top dollar. With an upgradable machine, you can begin at a low level with less money and gradually enhance it to the top tier as you buy new components.
For those that prefer Macs, the ability to upgrade has caused some professional studios to stick with the classic Mac Pro (2009-2012) rather than getting the newer 2013 Mac Pro. A used tower off eBay or OWC can cost less than half the price of a new Mac Pro with almost the same performance. The classic can also house many components instead of sprawling them across the desk in external enclosures. If you do go that route, ensure the older machine has the upgraded dual CPU Xeon 3.46 GHz hexacore processors to provide the best performance. Another option is to wait until 2018; Apple recently announced that in 2018 the Mac Pro would return to a modular (upgradable) design.
5) Select the appropriate GPU.
Gaming is not the same as creating 3D content. The GPU draws the game on the screen and is critical for fast, smooth gameplay. In gameplay, the GPU outputs frames in milliseconds to give users immediate feedback and details are omitted or drawn very roughly to improve speed. For 3D content creation, fine detail is critical for high quality still images and breathtaking animations. 3D render engines can take anywhere from minutes to several days to develop a single frame of a feature-length animation; that is why game promo videos often look much sharper than the actual gameplay.
The importance of the GPU varies markedly depending on the 3D software employed. Mental Ray uses the CPU far more than the GPU for creating maximum resolution pictures. KeyShot does not use the GPU at all. ZBrush is CPU and RAM bound. Octane Render fully depends on GPUs for generating high-resolution images (see Octane Render GPU Performance Comparison). The more powerful the GPU, the better. It also favors Nvidia’s proprietary CUDA core technology (see OpenCL vs. CUDA: Which has better application support?). Blender can use the GPU for rendering in Cycles and LuxRender, but the amount of RAM in the GPU limits utilization. In Blender, a complex scene containing large textures can overwhelm the GPU, thus forcing CPU rendering. An ultra-wide screen performs better with an ultra-quality GPU. Buy the GPU appropriate for the applications and hardware you plan to use.
In summary, when building or buying a 3D workstation the choice of 3D software should influence the selection of hardware. More money spent on components does not necessarily translate into better performance. Finally, the ability to upgrade can extend the life of a machine.