What’s a good configuration for a 3D/Rendering/DAZ Studio computer

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I’ve had various requests and discussions with supporters recently about what might be a good configuration for a DAZ Studio and/or rendering computer. It’s a good question, and with so many systems and components on the market, I thought I’d compile this article as a starting point. Feel free to ask specific questions in the comments, or get in touch via Discord if you’re a supporter.

In this article we’ll discuss the following topics (in no particular order)

  • What to look out for in a good 3D system
  • What GPU (graphics card) should I get
  • What CPU (processor) should I get
  • How much RAM should the system have
  • Desktops vs Laptops
  • Can I use a Mac for DAZ Studio
  • What system do I use (and why)

Little disclaimer before we get going: Technology (like software) moves fast. I’m writing this in March 2021, but by the time you read it, my ramblings might be outdated. If I add updates, I’ll let you know (subscribe to comments on this post at the bottom so you get an email when I do that, or when I answer questions from other users).

Grab a drink, it’ll be a long read. Let’s get started!

What to look out for in a 3D system

There are four things that make a good computer, be that for 3D work or otherwise:

  • an Operating System (Windows, macOS, Linux)
  • a CPU (Intel or AMD)
  • a GPU (there are so many)
  • System RAM (in GB)
  • and Hard Disks (HDDs, SSDs, M2 drives)

The faster any of these things perform, the better it’ll be for the applications that sue them. You can buy pre-built systems from various manufacturers through BestBuy in the US, PC World in the UK or Amazon all over the world. You can also build your own computer from lose components, provided they work together. This is the option I prefer, because it’s cheaper to do that – but I understand this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

In general, for 3D work, you’re looking either at a consumer gaming computer, or at a high end workstation. They both have similar specs, but the latter is usually capable of more, will last longer and will also cost a bit more. If 3D and DAZ Studio are a hobby for you, a gaming computer will suffice.

If this is your business, or you intend to make a lot of renders for animations, games or visual novels, then I recommend you look at a workstation as a more reliable partner in the long run. The main difference is the type of CPU they can take and the size/design of the case. Workstations tend to have larger cases for more cards/better air flow, while consumer cases are slimmer and look flashier (with LED lights and transparent insets).

While I do recommend a desktop for heavy rendering work, laptops will work too. Just be aware that there are almost always slower than their equivalent desktop counterparts. The age of your device only matters to a certain extend. There’s no need for a cutting edge rig with the latest and the greatest components. Let’s go through every part of the above list and see what’s what.

The Operating System

Most 3D apps (including DAZ Studio) will work on both Windows and macOS, some even work with Linux. To get the most out of them, you really have to use Windows 10. That wasn’t always the case: most creatives used to prefer Macs, and many still do – but Apple had a falling out with NVIDIA, so they don’t support these graphics cards any more. Additionally Apple are switching over to using their own CPUs, which means many apps will have to be re-written in the future. For those reasons, I don’t recommend getting a Mac.

I’m a Mac user myself, and a Mac has many benefits for text based things as well as coding and web administrative stuff. For that reason I use both a Mac and a Windows PC side by side. When I say Windows, I refer to Windows 10. There’s no reason to run Windows 8 any more in this day and age, and Windows 7 is a thing of the past. It’ll still work, but no longer receives security patches as of January 2020.

Windows (10) as two main options: the Home Edition and the Pro Edition. Either will work fine on most systems. I use the Pro version on all my PCs, and I’ll talk more about why in a later section.

Let’s take a look at the different parts that make up either system, what they do and what specs are important to look out for.

The CPU (Central Processing Unit)

The CPU is at the heart of every computer, or in fact any smart system, no matter how big or small. It’s the thing that calculates and shifts values at a staggering pace, although the instructions it can process are extremely limited. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about the details, as that’s taken care of by operating systems and clever software.

CPUs for our rendering computer fall into two categories: consumer CPUs and workstation CPUs. The difference between them is not so much what they can do, but how long they can do it for under pressure. Consumer grade CPUs are the AMD Ryzen and Intel Core i5/i7/i9 family, while the workstations tend to use Intel Xeon processors.

Consumer CPUs are designed to run mostly idle, with occasional peaks of load. This means they’re designed to not work very hard for very long. Workstation CPUs are designed to run better under constant high load, like a long encoding job. “Long” in this context means several weeks without interruption, like in data centres. As an example, if you put an Intel Core i5/i7/i9 under 90% load for several hours, it might get too hot, lock up and freeze the system. Do the same with an Intel Xeon and it’s much less likely to happen.

While a fast CPU is desirable, it’s often not necessary to pay a premium for the latest and fastest model. That’s because the heavy lifting for Iray and similar render engines like Octane or Blender’s Cycles engine is better tackled with a good GPU. While the CPUs can do such rendering, they’re designed as general purpose calculators and as such are not as efficient at 3D calculations as GPUs.

Note that software render engines such as 3Delight, Carrara and Poser’s Firefly engines do not benefit from a fast GPU, as they solely rely on the CPU for calculations.
My point is: while the CPU is an important part of your system, even slower models can perform fine under Iray if you’ve got the right graphics card.

The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)

GPUs (or simply graphics card) are like co-processors in your system. They’re designed to do specific calculations very efficiently. Think of them as “helper systems” inside your computer. Back in the day before the term “hardware acceleration” made the rounds, a GPU was purely designed to display a picture, so that users could interact with the system.

That changed when more and more apps started outsourcing tasks to the GPU for anything like moving windows on the screen, to rendering and decoding videos. Nowadays the GPU almost determined what you can do with your system. Anything will benefit form a good GPU, from Photoshop to the latest video game.

The Iray ender engine was designed by NVIDIA, which means that only CUDA devices can render such scenes. This means you either need an NVIDIA graphics card, or an emulated CUDA device like your CPU (but as I mentioned above, even the fastest CPU is painfully slow compared to a moderate NVIDIA card).

Sadly, AMD Radeon GPUs – no matter how good and how capable they might be – are not supported by the Iray render engine. This means that many capable GPUs can simply not be used for Iray, but will work fine with Octane or Cycles.

I was seriously confused by the sheer amount of NVIDIA type cards on the market, so let me shed some light on that in simplified terms. There’s two things to consider: the manufacturer and the series. Let’s start with the manufacturer puzzle first.

While NVIDIA has indeed designed the chipset, and makes their own Founder Edition cards, various third party vendors take NVIDIA’s core chip design and build their own hardware around it (like the fans and peripheral card design). This means you can buy essentially a compatible card with the same specs from ZOTAC, EVGA, MSI and other brands, all with their own specific subtitles (like Strix or AMP Edition).

Rest assured that they’re all as good or bad as each other. I’ve had great experiences with ZOTAC cards myself and never had issues.

The series of NVIDIA cards goes way back. To keep it simple, I will only focus on the recent few years of usable cards here. There’s the GTX and RTX series:

GTX are older cards, still capable, but slower compared to the current RTX series. The latter have not only had a serious speed improvement, but also added better video encoding and live ray-tracing capabilities. This makes a big difference for real time 3D rendering revolution that’s upon us.

Each series of cards comes out with various levels of capabilities indicated by the last two numbers at the end: an RTX 2060 is slower than a 2070, which in turn is slower than a 2080. At the same time, a newer generation RTX 3060 might well be faster than an RTX 2070.

Each card comes with a varying degree of VRAM memory, which is very fast storage space inside the GPU. This amount available is important for 3D renders as the whole scene (geometry and textures) needs to fit into the GPU memory for it to be rendered. Common sizes include 4GB, 8GB, 11GB and 12GB.

The bad news is that GPUs are so capable that they are very popular devices used by the crypto mining community. This means they’re frequently in short supply. Ideally, at the time of writing in spring 2021, you’d buy a new RTX 30xx card, or a used RTX 20xx card.

The list price of these cards can be seen on the NVIDIA website. If you see prices two or three times higher than those, wait it out. You may be better off spending money on a pre-built system that includes such a card instead.

System Memory

Your operating system needs RAM to hold things in its memory. The more you have, the better your system’s overall performance will be. This RAM is different than the GPU RAM we’ve discussed above. While you can upgrade your system RAM, you cannot upgrade your GPU RAM.

Windows itself needs at least 8GB to operate, but this does not include what your applications may require to work swiftly. As a rule of thumb, 16GB is a good starting point. More is always better, because you may have several memory hungry apps running at the same time. I have 48GB or RAM on my system, but I rarely exceed 24.

On this note, there are several RAM flavours around, like DDR-3 or DDR-4, as well as various frequencies on which these chips can operate. Faster is better, and a higher number is better than a lower number. This is not something to obsess over though: DDR-3 RAM is cheaper than DDR-4 RAM, which in turn is faster, but we’re talking nanoseconds here. Go with what your motherboard supports and what your budget allows.

Hard Disks

Disk drives are the last important piece in the puzzle. Your operating system and applications rely on them to be in permanent use. There are three types of drives you can get, and they all have advantages.

Regular spinning disk drives (HDDs) are relatively cheap and large. These contain a spinning metal disk and a mechanical head, much like an enclosed floppy disk with a huge capacity. They’re not particular fast, but are ideal as data storage – especially when used as part of a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent/Inexpensive Drives). I recommend to use these for data storage only, NOT as a boot drive.

SSDs are essentially a faster version of the above. They work with the same connector as spinning hard drives and they can be used anywhere a HDD is installed. They’re much faster and lighter, and they work with solid state technology (a bit like an extremely fast memory stick). Prices have dramatically dropped in recent years, and I wholeheartedly recommend these for any computer you use, desktop or laptop. They’re ideal as a boot drive as well as storage drives.

Something even faster than SSDs is the M2 drive. This is also a solid state memory device, but it connects to the motherboard differently (not via SATA). The advantage is a huge speed boost: while a regular SSD can transfer data at up to 600MB/s, an M2 drive is about 5x faster than that. This means faster boot times and faster load times when using applications.

These drives look like slim sicks, not dissimilar to a regular RAM DIMM, but your motherboard needs to support it. They’re a little more expensive than regular SSDs, but they’re worth considering as a fast boot drive.

While any type of drive can/will fail at one point in the future, I’ve had great experiences with the longevity of SSDs. My oldest one has been with me in excess of 10 years, and so far nothing has gone wrong (unlike with spinning hard disks, which have failed me from time to time).

On this note, I advise to use either a RAID for data backup, or a cloud storage system for files that are important to you. You can also get external drives that plug into a USB port. These are nice for short term storage and portability, but they’re not a reliable medium for long term archiving. Just thought I’d mention it.

In Summary

The ideal 3D rendering computer has a large case with good air flow and adequate power supply, one or two NVIDIA GPUs, a decent i7/i9/Xeon/AMD CPU and 32GB of RAM or more. We’re also talking about a 1TB SSD/M.2 boot drive (or larger), with either SSD storage drives for data, and/or a RAID made of HDDs.
The type of NVIDIA GPU(s) will depend on your budget. The RTX 3070 is good, the RTX 3080 is great, and the RTX 3090 might even be overkill. Watch out for price gauging!

What do I use (and why)

I personally use an old HP Z800 workstation with two RTX 2080 cards and 48GB, featuring two Xeon x5675 CPUs. I bought the use system for $180 from eBay and added the parts I needed for my requirements, and considerable savings compared to a brand new system. This didn’t happen overnight, and it works for me because I’m a fiddler and techie. Building a system from scratch is not everyone’s cup of tea.

If you’re looking for a similar system, perhaps a little younger than mine and pre-built by people who know what they’re doing, take a look at the excellent ZWorkstations.com. You can custom build your own HP Z workstation, either from new parts or used ones. These guys have RTX 20xx and 30xx cards in stock! While they’re not the cheapest, the system will last you many years, and as components become cheaper, you can upgrade your system at a later point that’s unattainable today.

I hope this helps you make more sense of the type of hardware for a rendering machine. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.

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