How to Choose the Best Hardware for a 3D Artist

Whether you’re a budding 3D artist or a seasoned professional with many years of 3D modeling and rendering under your belt, you need access to capable hardware to realize your vision.
But choosing the best hardware for a 3D artist is anything but easy, which is where this detailed guide comes in, explaining what goes into building a workstation computer for 3D modeling and rendering and comparing hardware components based on their value.

What’s in this article:

  1. Hardware Specs for 3D Modeling and Rendering
  2. CPU
  3. GPU
  4. Hard Disk
  5. Cooling System
  6. Conclusion

Hardware Specs for 3D Modeling and Rendering

All 3D graphic specialists need computers with powerful hardware specifications, regardless of whether they work in the field of architectural visualization, industrial design, product visualization, animation, motion graphics, games, VFX, film & TV, or advertising.

Without a capable computer, even simple rendering tasks can take ages to load, and basic actions can be followed by a delay of as much as several minutes. In a professional setting, such a level of inefficiency is simply unacceptable.

But before you go out and purchase the best workstation for 3D rendering you can afford, you should understand that there are two main types of 3D rendering, each requiring slightly different hardware specifications:

CPU (Central Processing Unit) Rendering

CPU rendering is widely used in a variety of professional projects to render 3D graphics on, you’ve guessed it, CPUs. This type of 3D rendering is supported by 3ds Max, Maya, Cinema 4D, Blender, and many other 3D computer graphics programs for making 3D animations, models, games, and images.

The best CPUs for rendering have multiple cores, high clock speeds, and support for technologies such as hyperthreading. One of the biggest advantages of CPU rendering is the fact that it can take advantage of a much larger amount of memory than GPU rendering. CPUs also have more instruction sets available to them than GPUs, making them more flexible in the types of tasks they can perform.

GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) Rendering

GPU rendering has seen a steep increase in popularity over the last few years, largely thanks to modern GPU engines such as Octane, Redhshift3D, and VRAY-RT. GPU engines make it possible to use a graphics card for rendering instead of a CPU, speeding up the rendering process because a single GPU can be equivalent to anywhere from five to twenty CPUs, and utilizing more than one GPU card is possible.

If you would like to render 3D graphics with a graphics card, you should be looking at high-end graphics cards with ample memory, excellent performance, and efficient cooling. Since GPU rendering relies on the graphics card to do the heavy lifting, it performs best with a max-core-clock CPU, instead of a CPU that has many cores running at lower frequencies.

Now that you’re familiar with the two main types of 3D rendering, it’s time to take a closer look at the individual components you should be paying attention to when selecting a workstation for a 3D artist.

CPU

Regardless of your interest in CPU or GPU rendering, you need a powerful CPU to make your 3D computer graphics program of choice work without any annoying lags. When choosing a CPU for a 3D artist, pay attention to the number of cores, clock speeds, and price.

  • Number of cores: simply put, a core is the number-crunching part of a CPU. The more cores a CPU has, the more tasks it can perform at the same time. Cores are especially important when it comes to CPU rendering because CPU rendering engines assign one bucket to each core.
  • Clock speed: refers to the frequency at which a CPU can execute instructions. The higher the clock speed, the faster the CPU is. Most modern CPUs support a feature called dynamic overclocking (sometimes also called Turbo Boost), which temporarily increases the clock speed as required to meet demand.
  • Price: CPUs are available at a variety of prices, but those that are suitable for 3D modeling and rendering belong in the high-end category, with some CPUs offering a much better performance to dollar ratio than others.

Your choice essentially boils down to top-of-the-line CPUs from AMD and Intel. Here are two picks from each of the two companies:

  • Number of cores: 32
  • Clock speed: 3.0 GHz
  • Price: $1,799

The AMD Threadripper 2990WX is a juggernaut of a CPU that stands out as the world’s first 32-core processor. The 32 cores provide an amazing 64 threads of simultaneous multi-processing power, and it goes without saying that the processor excels at CPU rendering. Clocked at 3.0 GHz, the AMD Threadripper 2990WX is no snail, but there are many other CPUs much clock speeds approaching 4 GHz.

  • Number of cores: 18
  • Clock speed: 3.0 GHz
  • Price: $1,979

The Intel i9 9980XE is a formidable opponent for the AMD Threadripper 2990WX even though it has “just” 18 cores because it supports Intel Virtualization Technology (VT-x), Intel Optane Memory, and Intel Turbo Boost Max Technology 3.0, which allows it to reach a clock speed of 4.50 GHz (the AMD Threadripper 2990WX can reach 4.2 GHz).

  • Number of cores: 12
  • Clock speed: 3.8 GHz
  • Price: $499

With its 12 cores and a base clock speed of 3.8 GHz, the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X is a king of value, costing just $499. The CPU ships with a capable and relatively quiet air cooler, called the Wraith Prism, which further increases its already stellar value.

  • Number of cores: 8
  • Clock speed: 3.6 GHz
  • Price: $499

We’ve already established that CPU rendering benefits from a high max clock speed, and that’s exactly what makes the Intel i9 9900K stand out. The base clock of this 8-core CPU is 3.60 GHz, but its max turbo frequency is 5.00 GHz.

Outsourcing to Render Farms

Looking at the prices of the above-listed CPUs, you may already be wondering if it’s even possible to fit the rest of the hardware components in your budget. If that’s the case, there’s an alternative option you should consider: outsourcing to render farms.

Render farms like GarageFarm.NET let you rent all the CPU and GPU resources you might ever need to render your projects at extremely affordable prices. They are highly reliable, always available, and trusted by many hobbyists and professional graphics artists around the world.

You can put together an affordable workstation that allows you to comfortably work on your projects, and use render farms to quickly render them to meet tight deadlines and save money on expensive hardware.

GPU

GPU rendering works best on Nvidia graphics cards with plenty of CUDA cores. Rendering on AMD graphics cards is also possible thanks to technologies such as OpenCL and AMD Radeon ProRender, but most 3D artists shy away from AMD cards so they can use a broad range of software applications and rendering methods without any limitations.

When selecting a GPU for rendering, pay attention to how much memory it has because you want to be able to load as many textures as possible. Instead of comparing GPUs based on their clock speeds, it’s much better to compare benchmark results. OctaneBench is a popular benchmark that provides a level playing field by making sure that everybody uses the same version and the same scenes and settings. Finally, you can calculate the performance/dollar of a GPU by dividing its benchmark score with its price.

  • Memory: 11
  • OctaneBench: 3.6 GHz
  • Performance/Dollar: 0.253

The RTX 2080 Ti from Nvidia is a flagship graphics card with 11 GB of next-gen, ultra-fast GDDR6 memory, the Turing GPU architecture with support for real-time ray-tracing technologies, dual-axial 13-blade fans coupled with a new vapor chamber for ultra-cool and quiet performance.

  • Memory: 8
  • OctaneBench: 210
  • Performance/Dollar: 0.381

Sharing the same Turing architecture with its big brother, the RTX 2070 is a budget-friendly high-end GPU with an amazing performance/dollar ratio. The GPU has 8 GB GDDR6, a boost clock of 1620 MHz, and a cooling system that can keep its temperatures low even after overclocking.

  • Memory: 11
  • OctaneBench: 222
  • Performance/Dollar: 0.317

While the GTX 1080 Ti is no longer the beast it once was, it still remains a fantastic choice for multi-GPU setups due to its low second-hand price and a huge amount of memory. For the price of a single RTX 2080 Ti, you can get multiple GTX 1080 Ti and render your projects much faster.

  • Memory: 24
  • OctaneBench: 139
  • Performance/Dollar: 0.036

The Quadro P6000 is a workstation-grade graphics card used by architects, 3D artists, animators, scientists, and other professionals who know how to take advantage of the most advanced ecosystem of hardware, software, and tools to transform the disruptive challenges of today into business successes of tomorrow, as stated on its official website. It has a whopping 24 GB of memory, costs a small fortune, and handles real-time ray-tracing with ease.

Using a GPU Server Rental Service

Before you splurge a big amount of money on a powerful GPU, ask yourself how often you expect to use it. If GPU rendering represents only a small portion of what you do, you might be better off buying an affordable GPU and using a GPU server rental service like Xesktop.com to rent as much GPU processing power as you need to complete big projects on time.

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Hard Disk

3D artists need plenty of storage space to store multiple copies of their projects, along with all resources. While storage space has become very affordable over the years, not all storage devices are made equal. Some offer an excellent price per gigabyte but leave a lot to be desired when it comes to their performance, and others are exactly the opposite.

Hard Disk Drives (HDDs)

Traditional spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) are available in capacities up to 16 TB, and they offer the best price per gigabyte of all storage devices on the market today. Enterprise HDDs additionally offer excellent reliability, making them suitable even for enterprise environments. Their only downside is their limited performance, which makes them suited mostly for archiving purposes.

Solid-State Drives (SSDs)

Solid-state drives (SSDs) don’t contain any moving components because they use integrated circuit assemblies as memory to store data persistently, typically using flash memory. Consumer-grade SSDs offer a storage capacity between 128 GB and several TB, and they perform on average 5 to 20 times better than traditional HDDs.

M.2 SSDs

M.2 SSD connects via the M.2 expansion slot, which exposes the PCI Express 3.0, Serial ATA (SATA) 3.0, and USB 3.0 and offers even better performance than SSDs. This performance comes at a steep price, however, which is why M.2 SSDs are used mainly as OS drives.

Cooling system

Even the most energy-efficient workstation is guaranteed to produce a lot of heat when under a heavy load, so having an adequate cooling system is a must for any 3D artist.
When hardware components overheat, their lifespan shortens, and thermal throttling limits their performance to prevent damage. Many modern CPUs can sustain advertised turbo clock speeds only with aftermarket cooling systems, which include air cooling systems and liquid cooling systems.

Air Cooling

Many CPUs and all GPUs come with an air cooler included in the box, but stock air coolers tend to be rather loud and not as effective as their aftermarket counterparts.

If you’re looking at water cooling for silence, then there is no need. The 800D is very (and yes, I mean very) quiet. Intel coolers also have a reputation for silence. For example, the powerful AMD Ryzen 9 3900X stays significantly cooler and performs measurably better with the Dark Rock Pro 4 than the stock air cooler from AMD.

For any air cooler to be as effective as it can be, there must be sufficient airflow inside the workstation case, with one or more fans blowing fresh air inside the case and one or more fans forcing hot air out of the case. Again, high-end aftermarket fans perform far better than stock fans that case manufacturers include with their products.

Liquid Cooling

Liquid cooling is a modern alternative to air cooling, offering excellent thermal performance, a minimal amount of noise, and an increased lifespan of components. With a single liquid cooling system, it’s possible to cool both the CPU and the GPU at the same time.

Water is one of the best choices for liquid cooling applications due to its high heat capacity, but there are also special coolants that contain anticorrosive additives, dyes, and biocides. A good example of a high-performance liquid cooling system is the Be Quiet! Silent Loop 360, which has a 360 mm rad and three Pure Wings 2 fans.

Liquid cooling systems require some maintenance, such as periodically topping up the fluid levels, and there’s also the risk of coolant escaping the system through a crack or faulty connection and causing hundreds of dollars worth of damage to hardware components.

Conclusion

We hope that you now have a better understanding of how to select hardware for rendering 3D projects. Hardware components for 3D graphics workstation computers are far from cheap, and it takes some work to ensure their compatibility. If you would like to avoid spending thousands of dollars on hardware components that are guaranteed to become obsolete in just a few years and skip their installation and configuration, outsourcing to a 3D rendering farm may be a better alternative for you.