There is no such thing.
At least, there is no one ultimate workstation for all 3D artists.
That’s because creating 3D graphics involves a lot of steps: modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, lighting, and rendering. These steps make use of your computer hardware in very different ways.
Creating 3D graphics involves quite a number of linear processes that, for the sake of simplicity, we can collapse together under the term designing. Designing actively involves steps that primarily rely on a single CPU core.
These stages include modeling, where basic shapes evolve into intricate characters or structures; texturing, the addition of surface details for realism; rigging, setting up a skeletal structure for animation; animation itself, where life is breathed into static models; and finally, simulation and baking, where physical behaviors are replicated, and results are permanently applied to the 3D models. These steps are accomplished one after the other, leading to high-frequency single-core CPUs as the efficient choice of processor for these tasks.
Contrast this with the final step in creating 3D graphics, rendering. In a nutshell, rendering takes the 3D scene you’ve created inside the 3D environment of your 3D software and makes all the necessary mathematical calculations in order to properly display that 3D scene onto 2D screens (laptops, phones, TV screens, electronic billboards, etc.) where your 3D graphics will be viewed by people they were intended for. Rendering is performed by software like Arnold, Maxwell, Redshift and V-Ray.
As opposed to designing, which is an active process, rendering is a passive process; passive because you pretty much cannot do anything else with your computer once you start rendering. Rendering uses up all available CPU cores. This is because rendering is a parallel process, meaning your 3D scene gets broken up into equal-sized chunks or “buckets” and the system distributes these buckets to your CPU cores to be processed simultaneously. This simply means that CPUs with many cores would be ideal for rendering.
With that said, however, no single workstation, even if it is equipped with the latest ultra-multi-core processor, can beat an online render farm for rendering particularly for animations or scenes with high complexity and high resolution. The simple reason is: you cannot out-hardware online render farms, not in any financially-reasonable way anyway.
Online render farms have dozens, if not hundreds, of machines all loaded with the most powerful processors, put together to do one thing: rendering. Projects that take hours to render on personal workstations take mere minutes, sometimes seconds, to render on online farms. The principle is the same: multi-core processors handle buckets of 3D scenes simultaneously; you simply get access to a lot more of those powerful processors to handle your scene with online render farms. Sure, it’s good to have a beefy workstation to render single frames or test renders. But for final outputs of huge projects, most pros – from big studios to indie freelancers – often choose online render farms.
So why not just get CPUs with the fastest speeds and the highest number of cores, you might ask?
Good question, to which the answer is: physics. CPU cores use up a lot of power and in turn, produce a lot of heat. The thing is, CPUs need to be kept at certain temperatures to be able to function properly. So while you may have multiple cores, they can’t all be running at high clock speeds because your computer just might get fried. So there’s a trade-off: you can have many cores but they can’t all run at the fastest speeds or you can have the fastest speeds on a single core.
But hey, isn’t there such a thing as GPU rendering, you might say? And to that, the reply is: you are absolutely right. But let’s talk more about that at length later at the GPU section.
Now that you know how different 3D tasks use your computer hardware differently, you now have a better idea of what to look for when building your custom workstation as a 3D artist. In the following sections, we will talk about specific hardware and which ones you should consider getting for modeling and for rendering.
Again, take note: the best hardware for you depends on the nature of the 3D task you perform.
Now on with the recommendations for specific hardware.
So as described above, fast single-core processors are best if you are mainly designing 3D graphics while multi-core processors are best for rendering (using CPU-rendering software).
Best CPU for active work: Intel Core i9-13900KS (US$999.99)
Budget alternative: AMD Ryzen 7 7700X (US$289.99)
Best CPU for rendering: AMD Threadripper 3990X (US$3990.00)
Budget alternative: AMD Ryzen 9 7950X (US$471.00)
Do take note that as mentioned earlier, since you can opt for faster rendering with online render farms, you can dedicate your workstation for active design work then just beam your images or scenes to an online render farm for rendering.
GPUs are not that involved with the active work part of creating 3D graphics mainly because most of the design part of 3D graphics are done by the CPU.
But as explained earlier, rendering is dependent on the number of cores that are available to perform calculations. Guess what has a lot of cores? Graphic cards! GPU rendering is steadily becoming the popular way to render 3D faster. And since you can string together multiple GPUs in a single motherboard (assuming you have enough PCIe lanes and the right processor to power these lanes), rendering using your GPUs will boost your render speeds.
Do take note though that while GPU rendering is gaining in popularity, not all rendering software support GPU rendering. Make sure your software supports GPU rendering before committing to a GPU-heavy workstation.
Another note: online render farms also offer GPU rendering. So that may, um, render these recommendations moot should you wish to go the online rendering way.
Best GPU for rendering: NVIDIA RTX 3090 (US$ 1672.00)
Budget alternative: NVIDIA RTX 3060 Ti (US$ 332.99)
Before we understand what RAM’s role is in designing or rendering a 3D scene, we must first understand what RAM is.
RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and you can think of it as a desk. When you are, say, writing an essay for your history assignment, you want all of your notes, sources, and references to be within reach as you write your essay. You don’t want to have to walk over to a shelf in the other room to get a book you want to consult, right? So the larger your desk, the more materials you can have within reach, the faster you can finish your essay.
It’s the same when you are creating 3D assets. While you have your 3D software open, RAM acts as the “desk” on which the software spreads out the resources it needs to complete your commands and adjustments and manipulations. The more RAM you have, the more resources the software has within arm’s reach, the faster it can complete tasks.
If this is the basic idea, then more RAM is always better right? In a way, yes. If you have an unlimited budget, go ahead and pack 256GB of RAM in your machine. But since your budget has, most likely, a limit on it, there’s a certain level of RAM that’s optimal for you depending on the nature of your 3D tasks. Going beyond this optimal level brings diminishing returns, and your money is better off used to upgrade other parts of your workstation.
32GB RAM is ample for most 3D tasks.
64GB RAM is ideal.
A final note on RAM: avoid buying RAM modules separately, as there can be chip mismatches across different RAM units even when you’re buying from the same brand. To avoid issues, always buy pre-tested RAM kits as a set.
Storage is another vital component of your workstation setup. While SSDs (Solid State Drives) are faster and more reliable than traditional HDDs (Hard Disk Drives), they are also more expensive. A combination of the two works for many: A 1TB SSD should provide enough space for your operating system, software, and frequently accessed files, while a larger HDD can store less frequently accessed files.
Recommended Storage Setup: Seagate FireCUDA 530 PCIe ($199)
Budget alternative: Samsung 870 QVO SATA ($78.49)
Efficient cooling is crucial to maintain optimum performance and prolong the life of your components. Air cooling, using fans, is the most common and affordable cooling option. However, for more intensive workloads, liquid cooling solutions might be worth considering. Remember, the key is to strike a balance between cooling capacity and noise levels.
Note before buying: make sure the cooler you’re buying fits your CPU. Some coolers may bump with taller RAM kits or your CPU case may not offer enough clearance for bulkier coolers.
Recommended Air Cooler: Thermalright Peerless Assassin 120 SE ($37.90)
Budget alternative: Zalman CNPS 10X Performa Black ($29.99)
Recommended Liquid Cooler: Corsair iCUE H170i Elite LCD XT ($309.99)
Budget alternative: DeepCool LT720 ($139.99)
When selecting a power supply unit (PSU), make sure it has enough wattage to support your entire system's power consumption, especially if you're planning to use multiple GPUs. Opt for a PSU with an 80 Plus certification, indicating high energy efficiency.
Recommended PSU: be quiet! Dark Power 13 850W ($249.90)
Budget alternative: EVGA 700 GD, 80+ GOLD 700W ($79.99)
The case houses all your components, so it needs to provide adequate space, good airflow, and an appealing aesthetic. It should have enough room to accommodate future upgrades.
Recommended Case: Corsair iCUE 5000T RGB ($369.99)
Budget alternative: ADATA XPG Valor Air ($74.99)
For 3D artists, color accuracy, resolution, and size are significant factors when selecting a monitor. A 27-inch 4K monitor is a good starting point for professional work.
Recommended Monitor: Asus ProArt PA279CRV ($469.99)
Budget alternative: NZXT Canvas 27Q ($249.99)
Building a 3D artist workstation is a complex task, requiring careful consideration of several variables. While this guide offers specific recommendations, remember that these are only starting points and that the ultimate workstation is the one that best suits your specific needs and budget.
Being a 3D artist means pushing the limits of your creativity - and your hardware. Building a workstation that can keep up with your creative aspirations will ensure you can produce the best possible work without technical limitations.