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How to Choose the Best 3D Application for Your Needs

How to choose the best 3D application for your needs

If you are serious about creating truly amazing visuals in 3D, it’s important to choose the right 3D application for your needs. But with so many options, how do you find the best option for you? This can be an overwhelming decision to make – especially if you’re fresh to the industry and aren’t sure what features are available or which ones are most important.

In this article, we will provide an overview of the features you should look for when shopping around for a 3D application, so you can cut through the clutter and find the perfect fit. Whether you are a video professional, a filmmaker, an aspiring 3D artist, a designer, or an architect, all of the information you need to find a 3D platform that is suited perfectly to your individual project workload. With this guide in your corner, you’ll have everything you need to take your creative capabilities to new heights!

This article is written with the freelance artist or someone in a small shop in mind. If you’re working with a studio, you’ll need to consider the team organization and its structure and standards.

Parameters to consider when you choose a 3D application

Be sure to download a demo or free trial so you can evaluate a product before you purchase. Like art and music, these parameters are subjective. You can’t always go by other people’s reviews and opinions.

What I’d like you to do is make a list of 3D applications you’d like to look at. If you don’t have a list in mind, we have a list at the bottom of this page. As you go through this guide, take notes and hone in on what you need from a 3D application. As you go you will likely be able to cross potential tools off the list to find the tool you’ve been looking for!

Know your budget

Your budget will always be a top consideration, so the cost of the software and the licensing options available are important factors in determining its suitability. 3D software can be expensive. And, to add to the cost, if you’re running an older computer, you may need a new computer to run the latest software.

Other things to consider are subscription licenses vs. perpetual when putting together your budget.

Student Discounts and PLE Editions

Another thing I want to mention is that some companies provide deep discounts on academic software, which can be a huge boon to students. Alternatively, some companies offer PLE (Personal Learning Editions), which allows users to learn the software but not use the software for work.

The Learning Curve

Some 3D programs have a reputation for being tough to learn. Ask artists about the software that they use and if it’s tough to learn. One giveaway is the number of users. Take a look around the internet for tutorials and online forums. If there are thousands of users out there, you can bet that the software is NOT all that difficult to pick up the basics.

Do your homework when you’re evaluating 3D applications. Check to see if there is a comprehensive, up-to-date manual and other documentation. Is the manual easy to understand and well-designed? Are there adequate help resources available?

The availability and quality of community resources, including forums, tutorials, and user groups, can impact the learning curve and overall success of learning and using the 3D application. For example, with some tools like Cinema 4D and Maya, there are thousands of tutorials on YouTube available. Both of these tools have an enormous user base.

Get the Right Tool for Your Industry

Some tools are geared toward visual effects or animation, while others are made for architectural design or product design. Are you wanting to learn 3D software to get into the computer games industry? If you’re new to 3D, find out what people are using in the field you want to work in.

Check the System Requirements and Hardware

To run many 3D programs smoothly, you will need to have a machine with powerful hardware. When you’re auditioning 3D software, the system requirements below are the most important to consider to ensure that your computer can run your 3D software efficiently and effectively.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to check system requirements and download a trial version of the software before making a purchase. So, before you get started, know your computer’s specs and make sure that it meets the requirements of the 3D software.

It’s worth getting the best computer you can afford before diving into 3D. If you are using an older computer, it’s possible that current versions of some 3D software will not run on your computer or on the OS you have installed. This will allow you to eliminate a few tools right away and hone down your list of potential tools.

  1. Processor: The processor is one of the most important components for running 3D software. If you’re in the market for a new computer look for a processor with multiple cores and a high clock speed, such as an M-Series Mac, an Intel Core i7 or i9, or an AMD Ryzen processor. If you’re using your existing computer, make sure that it meets the requirements of the 3D software.
  2. RAM: 3D software can be extremely memory-intensive, so having enough RAM is important for running complex scenes and projects. On the low end, 16 GB RAM is recommended.
  3. Graphics Card: For high performance, a dedicated graphics card is essential for running 3D software, as it is responsible for rendering the graphics on the screen. You’ll need a graphics card with at least 4GB of VRAM, such as an NVIDIA GeForce or AMD Radeon graphics card.
  4. Storage: 3D projects (and software) can quickly fill up your hard drive, so having enough storage is important. You’ll need at least 500GB of storage, but preferably 1TB or more. If space is an issue, you can use external drives, but consider using an SSD instead of a traditional hard drive for faster access to files.
  5. Operating System: 3D software has specific requirements for the versions of a supported operating system. The software may not run on a system from 2018, for example. Make sure that your computer meets the recommended specifications. This may seem obvious, but as someone who sells software, I can tell you that this is often something that is often overlooked. Look for software that supports the latest versions of Windows or macOS, too.
  6. Display: Yes, you can work on a laptop, but a high-quality display will be so much more satisfying when working with 3D software. You’ll want a high-resolution monitor with color accuracy, as well as support for a wide color gamut if you working with color-critical work.

Evaluating the Software

Alright, do you have a couple of programs that meet your criteria and interest you? Download the free trial or demo and evaluate the software with the following criteria.

The User Interface

When you’re evaluating a 3D app, look for features that make your life easier like a user-friendly design, responsiveness, and customizations. Here are some things to look for in a 3D application’s interface.

  1. Customizability: A good 3D application should allow you to customize the interface to suit your workflow and preferences. For example, some customizable features you may want are the ability to rearrange menus, create custom toolbars, or assign your own keyboard shortcuts.
  2. Intuitiveness: When you dive in for the first time, is the interface designed in a way that makes it easy to understand and navigate? Look for a 3D application with a clean, organized interface, and logical menu structures.
  3. Consistency: A consistent interface makes it easier to learn and use the application. What does that mean? Look for consistent labeling, menu structures, and keyboard shortcuts across the application’s features and tools.
  4. Responsiveness: Does the software respond quickly and smoothly to user input, with minimal lag or delays? Are the controls easy to use? Make sure you test the software while working with complex scenes and high-resolution assets to really put it to the test.
  5. Accessibility: If you have color blindness, limited mobility, or a different level of physical abilities, you already know how important good accessibility can be. Look for accessibility features like high-contrast modes, keyboard navigation, or support for assistive technologies.

Modeling and Animation Features to Look For

Now we’re getting into the meat of it! The heart, soul, and backbone of every 3D application lie in its modeling and animation tools. In order to produce remarkable results, you will need a robust set of modeling and animation tools. You will also want them to be efficient and have all of the bells and whistles that you require. If you’re new to the 3D world, choosing the right tools might seem overwhelming. Take a look at some of the top features to consider below. That said, if the application doesn’t quite have all of the features that you need, there may be a plugin that can do the job with ease.

  1. Polygon Modeling: A polygon modeling tool allows you to create complex shapes by manipulating individual vertices, edges, and faces. More on Polygonal Modeling.
  2. Sculpting: With sculpting tools, artists create organic shapes and textures by “sculpting” them in a way that mimics real-world materials like clay.
  3. UV Unwrapping: UV unwrapping is the process of flattening a 3D model into a 2D texture map, which is then used to apply textures and materials to the model. A good 3D application should have tools for efficient and accurate UV unwrapping.
  4. Rigging and Animation: A rigging tool allows you to create a skeleton for a character or object, which can then be animated. Especially if you are going to be creating character animations, you will need intuitive and powerful rigging and animation tools.
  5. Particle Systems: Particle systems allow you to create complex, dynamic effects like smoke, fire, and explosions. Look for an application that offers a variety of particle presets and customization options.

    Alternatively, if you’re going to be creating a lot of visual effects, there are many powerful 3rd-party particle systems, like X-Particles and FumeFX. Who knows? Your choice of 3D application could hinge on the particle system you want to use.

    Also, if you’re mainly working with architectural design, you may not need a particle system.
  6. Physics Simulations: Physics simulations allow you to simulate real-world physical effects like gravity, collisions, and fluid dynamics. Look for applications with advanced physics simulation tools for more realistic and complex effects.

    Again, there are some great third-party plugins available. For example, RealFlow is a fast multi-physics simulator for several 3D applications. In other words, if this is an area where the 3D application that you’re interested in is lacking, perhaps you want to look into some plugin options.

    If you’re mainly working with architectural design, you may not need a physics simulator. Then again, it could be helpful to add water features to your projects.
  7. Rendering: The last stage of your pipeline is rendering. A good 3D application should have a robust rendering engine that can produce high-quality images and animations. Look for applications with advanced lighting and shading tools, as well as support for advanced rendering techniques like ray tracing. The most popular 3D applications also support several third-party renderers. More on that, below.

Rendering Quality and Speed

When it comes to producing final output from a 3D application, the rendering engine’s quality and speed are of paramount importance. Ideally, you want a balance between rendering quality and speed. For optimal results, keep these key factors in mind:

  1. Rendering Engine: The rendering engine is the core component of a 3D application that generates the final output of a scene. Look for applications with powerful and efficient rendering engines that can produce high-quality output quickly.
  2. Quality Settings: Most 3D applications allow you to adjust quality settings to optimize the balance between rendering speed and output quality. Look for applications that offer a range of quality presets as well as fine-grained control over individual settings like anti-aliasing, sampling rate, and depth of field.
  3. Hardware Acceleration: Many 3D applications take advantage of hardware acceleration to speed up rendering times. The GPU is designed for parallel processing to work with a lot of data at once. Look for applications that offer support for GPU rendering or other specialized hardware to accelerate rendering speed.
  4. Output Formats: The output format of a render can greatly impact both quality and speed. Look for applications that offer a range of output formats, including high-resolution images and animations, as well as support for industry-standard file formats like EXR or Alembic.
  5. Distributed Rendering: Distributed rendering allows you to spread the workload of rendering a scene across multiple machines or nodes, which can greatly speed up rendering times. Look for applications that offer support for distributed rendering either natively or through third-party plugins. For more information, check out In Depth: Render Farms / Network Rendering / Distributed Rendering.
  6. Rendering Plugins: With many 3D applications, users can extend the functionality of the rendering engine or add new features by using a separate renderer. Some popular rendering tools you may have heard of are V-Ray, Arnold Render, and Redshift. Look for applications with a strong plugin ecosystem to expand the rendering capabilities of the software.

    Want more information about 3D Rendering Software? See: In Depth: Which 3D render engine is best?

Support for Common File Formats

Efficient collaboration and workflow are crucial to a 3D pipeline. Your 3D application should support commonly compatible file formats, enabling seamless import and export of files. For example, a 3D model created in one software application may need to be imported into another application for texturing, lighting, or animation. Whether you’re working with other artists or departments, look for 3D software that provides the ability to import and export files in various formats, minimizing the risk of errors or compatibility issues.

This is also important if you are downloading models from the internet. If your 3D application supports common formats, you have more options for models.

Some common 3D formats used by 3D rendering software include:

  1. OBJ: A popular 3D model format that can be used by many different applications.
  2. FBX: A proprietary format developed by Autodesk that is widely supported by many 3D applications.
  3. STL: A format commonly used for 3D printing, but also used for 3D modeling.
  4. Collada: An open standard for exchanging digital assets between different software applications.
  5. Alembic: A format designed for exchanging large amounts of animated geometry and other data between different applications.
  6. glTF: An open-source and royalty-free 3D file format.
  7. USD: Developed by Pixar, Universal Scene Description, or USD, is an extremely fast and efficient platform built for collaboration. USD is fairly new and open source.

Find out How Often the Software is Updated

It may seem trivial but it’s important. Check out the release notes for the software you are checking out. If a company has slow development, they are not likely to keep up with OS updates or bug fixes. When users bought M1 computers, we were barraged with inquiries about software support. Let’s just say there are still some frustrated 3D artists out there.

Companies that are slow in updates and product development likely do not have as many tutorials either.

3D Application Rundown

Because there are so many options available, we are focusing on software that we sell at Toolfarm. To be clear, we’re not snubbing any other products on the market. Yes, there are some great free tools out there, as well. Also, we are only covering full 3D modeling applications, not plugins.

3D SoftwareCurrent versionPrice*PlatformsLicensingFree Trial?Mainly Used ForLearning Curve?Notes
Adobe Substance 3D2023$1,199.88 (Adobe VIP licensing for Teams & Businesses license)⍑Windows, Mac, Linux12-month SubscriptionYes3D ModelingEasyNot included with Creative Cloud subscription.
Autodesk 3ds Max2024$1,875.00 (Single-User 1-Year Subscription)Windows12-month SubscriptionYesArchitecture
Interior Design
Game Design
Film/Video Production
MediumRequires a powerful computer for efficient use.
Autodesk Maya2024$1,875.00 (Single-User 1-Year Subscription)Windows, Mac12-month SubscriptionYesMajor Hollywood Film VFX
3D Animation
Production Design
SteepBifrost visual programming for procedural effects, particles, hair, and other simulations

Supports many popular third party renderers.

Known to have a steeper learning curve but incredibly powerful.

Requires a powerful computer for efficient use.
Autodesk Mudbox2024$100 (Single-User 1-Year Subscription)Windows, Mac, Linux12-month SubscriptionYes3D Painting & SculptingEasy
AutoDesSys formZ Pro9$995.00
TF Price: $945.25
Windows, MacPerpetualYesInterior Design
Product Design
Renderings & Visualizations
EasyEasy to learn with an intuitive interface. Known for good customer support.

Small user base, but a solid product.
e-on VueVue is bundled with PlantFactory in 3 versions. Below is pricing for a 1 year subscription.

Creator Solution
$199.00 TF Price: $189.05

Professional Solution
$750.00, TF Price: $712.50

Enterprise Solution
$990.00 TF Price: $940.50

Windows, Mac1 year, 3 year, and 5 year subscriptions

Floating licenses available for Enterprise Solution
YesCreating CG EnvironmentsEasyAvailable Bundled with Plant Factory only.
Maxon Cinema 4D2023$719, also available bundled with Redshift, and in Maxon OneMac, Windows

Linux Command-Line Rendering
1-year SubscriptionYesMotion Graphics
Visual Effects
MediumLarge, active user base, lots of tutorials available.

Supports many popular third party renderers.

Requires a powerful computer for efficient use.
Maxon ZBrush2023$895.00 Perpetual
$359.00 1-Year Subscription.

Also bundled inMaxon One
Windows, Mac1-year Subscription
Yes3D Painting & Sculpting
Used by toy designers, action figure makers, jewelry desigers
SteepKnown to have a steep learning curve but there are a lot of learning resources available.
NewTek LightWave 3D2020$995.00Windows, MacPerpetualYes3D ModelingEasyEasy to learn, but rarely updated so if you have an older computer, this may be a good choice for you.
Pilgway 3D Coat2023Individual License; $482.00
TF Price: $457.90

Company node-locked and floating licenses are also available
Mac, Windows, LinuxOne-time purchase.YesSculpting & Modeling
SteepPilgway is known for excellent customer service.

Great tool for UVs and create organic models.

McNeel Rhino 3D7$995.00
TF Price: $945.25

Bundles also available.
Windows, MacPerpetualYes3D Drawing
Product Design
Drafting & Engineering
SteepA powerful tool with a steep learning curve. It uses NURBs and is great for curved surfaces.
Autodesk AutoCad2024 $1,955.00 (Single-User 1-Year Subscription)Windows12-month SubscriptionYesCAD Software for 2D/3D Drafting & EngineeringEasyLoads of features, some say its a bit bloated.
Autodesk Revit2024$2,805.00 (Commercial Single-user ELD Annual Subscription)Windows1-year SubscriptionYesCAD Software for 2D/3D Drafting & Engineering
Trimble SketchUp2023$299.00 for Pro Annual Subscription. $598.00 for Pro 2-year subscription. ⍑

Studio version also available
Windows, Mac, iOS (for iPad), web1-year Subscription
2-year subscription
YesDrafting & EngineeringEasyA large and active user base with user-generated elements and objects that you can download and use.

Not meant for photorealistic rendering.
*Prices are accurate as of April 2023 and are subject to change.
TF Price is the discounted Toolfarm Price.

⍑ U.S. & Canada sales only


Comparison of 3D Computer Graphics Software, Wikipedia

The best 3D modelling software in April 2023, Creative Bloq, by Georgia Coggan, published December 19, 2022

The Best 3D Modeling Software in 2023 (April), Just Creative, by Jacob Cass, April 6, 2023

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