Best Computers for KeyShot Rendering

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So you’re ready to either buy or build a new computer for CAD or 3D modeling but want to make sure you’ve made the best choice when you hit the buy/render now button? Well, you’re in luck! By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll be confident enough to make a decision. And if that’s not the case, please email me and explain what I left out!

If for some reason, you’re reading this and you don’t even know what KeyShot it, it’s a standalone, CPU-based real-time render engine. In English? It’s what designers use to make their CAD models look good. Throughout the product development cycle, KeyShot helps designers, engineers, product managers, marketing teams and others make informed decisions to bring products to market faster, better and cheaper.

While KeyShot is great at what it does, it’s only as good as the user and its speed depends on the computer it’s running on. If you’ve ever waited for hours, days or yes, even weeks for a rendering job to complete, you’re not alone. KeyShot is fast, but as the capabilities of our hardware and software expand, so do our expectations. We will always be pushing for higher-resolution, more detailed and higher-quality Computer-Generated Images (CGI). Because computers are often the most expensive investment a designer will make, we all want to get the most out of our hard-earned money.

With thousands of choices, choosing the right computer can be overwhelming and feel like a waste of time. I’m here to help you make the right decision—quickly.

We’ll go through a series of questions that will continue to narrow down your options until we’ve identified the best choices for your computer when it comes to KeyShot rendering.

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Questions to ask Before Building or Buying a new Render Machine

Desktop or Laptop?

Do you need to be able to take your computer with you on business trips, into conference rooms or a white-sand beach? (not recommended) Or, are you okay with your computer being a permanent fixture in your office? The answer to this narrows the field down immensely. If you need to be mobile, from here on out, ignore all the desktop solutions. If you’re not the jet-set type, rule out laptops now.

Operating System

Depending on the other software you use, you’ll probably need to choose an OS to stick with. If you use any software that only runs in a Windows environment (looking at you SolidWorks, Creo, NX, 3Ds Max users) I’ll take this time to discourage you from buying a Mac and running Windows on a virtual machine via Parallels or Bootcamp. While it’s possible, I would avoid it if I were you. 

If you’ve used Macs for a long time and are just getting into rendering or have heard that lots of Mac users are making the jump to PCs for rendering, don’t worry. You still have some decent options we’ll cover in a moment. 

Sorry Linux nerds. For the time being, you’re out of luck. Check back at a later date to see if KeyShot will run on your OS. 

KeyShot does run natively in Windows and Mac environments and the experience is the same. Features as well as user-interface are virtually the same. 

Budget

I’m not here to tell you your budget is too small (though it probably is), but a budget is an important consideration because it’ll help to further narrow down the field of choices. A hard budget is a true limit of how much you can spend, but there may be ways to stretch your dollars further down this article. 

Common advice that I’ll echo is that you should spend as much as you can afford to on your computer. Lame, I know. But let’s consider this machine an investment. I hate when people mistake ‘large purchase’ with investment. Investments earn you more money, and as a professional, your computer is your all-in-one creation tool. If you earn a living from work performed on your computer, it should be the largest professional investment you make outside of your education.

My first professional-grade PC cost me $5,500 USD. It was more than I’d ever paid for a car. It cost half a year of rent money. And then the software I paid for cost me another $3,000. Eight thousand dollars to start rendering. Are you insane? That computer and software combination allowed me to bill $75,000 worth of night and weekend work over the following 5 years. It paid off. It was an investment.

I aim to earn 10x off of every computer I buy or build. That makes it very easy to feel good about the investment. I recommend you do the same and it’ll remove all the guilt or push-back you’ll likely get when disclosing how much you spent on your machine.

So, what’s a good budget? This is different for everyone, but luckily, today you have tons of budget-friendly options. I personally recommend spending no less than $3,000 USD. That said, I’d rather you get a computer and start making renderings than never get started because it seems too expensive. Even a cheap computer can lead to work that can finance more expensive equipment. 

Decide on a budget right now before you learn more about the options you have and stick with it. We are all very easily convinced to spend more money than we have, so choose a budget now and hold firm. 

Components – What Each Part Does

If you already know about all of these, skip down to the Performance heading

Now that you know if you’re going with a laptop or a desktop computer, you’ve picked an OS and budget, let’s talk about performance. This is where most of the confusion comes from when looking at rendering.

The more money you throw at a computer, the faster it will be. This is nearly a universal truth. But if you know a bit more about what allows a computer to run KeyShot as fast as possible, you can focus your budget on only the things that will give you better results and not pay for features you don’t need.

CPU

The CPU, or Central Processing Unit is what’s often referred to as a ‘computer chip’. This is the brain of your computer. It performs a majority of the calculations. More cores and faster cores makes a CPU more expensive and more capable.

Cores vs Threads

Think of Cores as cylinders on a car engine. The more cylinders, the bigger and more powerful the engine. 

Cores are physical portions of your CPU. Having multiple cores allows the CPU to perform tasks simultaneously. Each core can have another theoretical core called a thread. For example, an intel i7 can have 4 physical cores and because it supports Hyperthreading, each of the 4 cores has another theoretical core totaling 8 threads. So, an intel i7 CPU has 4-cores, 8 threads.

Core Clock

Think of Core Clock like the size of each cylinder in the engine of a car. Instead of liters, we’re measuring GHz.

Cores also have a speed often called a clock count or clock speed. This speed is measured in GHz, or Gigahertz. The higher this number, the faster each calculation can be performed on each core. You’ll notice that with more cores, the lower the Core Clock will be. Higher clocks require more energy and more threads also require more energy. There is a limit to how much energy can be passed through a CPU because energy is converted into heat. Your CPU can only handle so much heat until it’s too hot to operate. So, with more cores, you’ll see lower clocks. 

GPU

The GPU or Graphics Processing Unit, is often called a video card or graphics card. The GPU is capable of performing calculations like the CPU but with a few key differences. The CPU can perform more advanced calculations than the GPU, but due to its architecture an size, the GPU often has more bandwidth than a CPU. 

Think of bandwidth like the number of lanes on a freeway and each car as a calculation. With more lanes, more cars move through. The CPU may have fewer lanes, but it’s more clever about how it solves problems, so maybe a CPU moves cars through its freeway by using car-carrying trucks that stack cars on top of one another. 

The GPU is responsible for creating the pixels and effects you see on screen. The GUI or Graphical User Interface is drawn by a GPU. Because of the high-bandwidth of GPUs, some software uses the GPU for rendering and boast the promise of faster render times. While that may be true, there’s often a trade-off. GPU-based render engines have long relied on using a more primitive means of rendering. Recent advancements have leveled the playing field here a bit, but that’s a discussion for another time.

RAM

The RAM, or Random-Access-Memory is a collection of modules that temporarily hold data that can be quickly accessed to run programs more smoothly. With more RAM, your computer can run more programs or open more and larger files simultaneously.

RAM also has a speed associated with it. The faster RAM is, the quicker it can read and write data. This allows programs to launch and close quickly.

Storage

Think of storage like your garage, where you put all your crap you refuse to get rid of. The bigger your garage, the more crap you can stockpile before you have to start making runs to the local donation drop-off. 

Storage is what holds all the OS, programs, documents and other files on your computer. Capacity refers to how much can be stored on the disk (another synonym for storage). Measured in either Gigabytes (GB) or Tarabytes (TB). Fun fact, a Terabyte is 1000 Gigabytes. A Gigabyte is 1000 Megabytes. A Megabyte is 1000 bytes. A Byte is 8 bits. A bit is the smallest measurement of digital data. 

Storage also has speed as well. The faster the storage, the more quickly data can be read or written. Things like how fast you can save and load a file and how quickly you can move data from one disk to another are limited by disk speed. 

Hard drives are the large, heavy storage devices that are limited by how fast a platter could physically spin. 7200 rpm was on the upper limit of how fast these drives could be. Then, we created flash storage or solid-state drives, SDD for short. These are like the USB sticks you use. They’re not limited by physical platter spin speed. Finally, we were blessed with M.2. NVME storage. These are even faster than SSDs and reign supreme in the world of storage at the moment. 

MOBO

The MOBO, or Motherboard is the large wafer of silicone that all these fancy doodads attach to inside your computer. In order to squeeze the most performance out of your computer and each component, you’ll need a compatible MOBO. Fancier MOBOs with more features and expandability help to future-proof your computer and squeeze out that extra performance.

Cooling

Cooling is like air-conditioning for your computer. Because of the energy coursing through each part of the machine, heat builds and if there was no cooling, the machine would continue to get hotter until something melted or caught on fire.

Air-cooled

Air-cooling is performed with radiators and fans. A radiator draws heat away from the CPU or other hot components and spreads it across a lot of surface area. Then, a fan also blows across that radiator pushing or drawing the heat out of the machine, allowing the components inside the computer to stay cool. Air-cooling is more old-school, but is still a tried and true method of cooling and works well. Drawbacks include more noise and less-effective cooling, but of course, this will all vary from computer-to-computer.

Liquid-cooled

Liquid-cooling is done with radiators and fans, but adds a liquid component. While sometimes called water-cooling, a special, highly-conductive liquid is used to further dissipate heat across a radiator and then fans blow across those radiators pushing heat away from the computer. Liquid-cooling is a newer form of cooling, and claims cooler temps, and quieter cooling. Risks include very expensive accidents if the cooler malfunctions and leaks inside the computer. This can theoretically ruin all the parts inside the machine. Again, results will vary machine-to-machine.

Now that we’ve discussed most of the fancy doodads inside a computer, lets discuss how each affects performance, especially when it comes to rendering with KeyShot.

Performance – Prioritize these Components for KeyShot Performance

I already said that the more you spend on your computer, the faster it will be. But what should you prioritize when building or  buying a computer for KeyShot? Let’s break it down. 

CPU

The more cores, the better. KeyShot doesn’t discriminate between physical cores or Theoretical cores. So, if cores are king, then you’ll want a CPU that supports hyper threading and you’ll want a CPU with the most cores you can afford. Once you identify the CPU your machine will be built around, you may notice that CPUs with a higher clock speed will cost more even though they have the same cores. The ones with a higher clock count will be faster, but what if you’re comparing fewer cores at a higher clock speed with more cores at a lower clock speed. This is where it can get a big more gray. While I can’t say with 100% accuracy that one will be faster, to be safe, I recommend more cores even if they’re slower.

You’ll find out that Intel and AMD are the two major CPU manufacturers. Intel CPUs tend to cost more and be more stable because of the companies history leading the race in CPU performance. That said, AMD has recently began competing on price and has targeted the pro-super market. Many (including myself) are willing to trade off reliability with performance and value (cost-per-core) in this case. 

One benefit of CPU-based rendering is that your rendering isn’t being held in RAM on the GPU. This means, you don’t need to worry about RAM for the rendering process. RAM will help you when rendering very, very heavy scenes with tons of geometry and very large textures. Aside from that, RAM isn’t very important for rendering.

GPU

GPUs, are great for gaming, but again, for rendering with KeyShot, a CPU-based renderer, the GPU really doesn’t make a difference at all. Save big money here and skimp on a GPU unless you have specific GPU requirements for other applications.

Storage

I think Storage is underrated. Sure, it’s cheaper to go with old-school HDDs (hard drives), but storage is so cheap today, I recommend working off or NVME storage if possible. What this means in plain English is that your boot drive (the one running your OS and applications) should be on the fastest drive you can buy, which will likely be an M.2 NVME drive. These plug right into the MOBO and have more bandwidth than a traditional SSD or HDD.

So, in summary, put your money on the CPU. Buy the best you can and opt for fast storage. The RAM and GPU aren’t as important as marketers would like you to believe. 

What about stretching our dollar? We can do a bit more optimizing when it comes to performance.

How to Squeeze Even More More Performance out of Your Machine

Overclocking

Overclocking is when you push more volts of energy through the CPU or RAM than the manufacturer recommends. This will often immediately void any warranties you have. You run the risk of ruining your hardware if you do this, so I want to say that I accept no liability for your mistakes here. That said, many CPUs are tolerant of taking on more volts than your operating system will throw at it by default. You can actually enter a low-level program that controls your hardware called a BIOS. Once you do this, you can manually set the voltage and clock speeds of your CPU or RAM. For zero extra dollars, this will often lead to higher performance.

What’s cool, is Overclocking allows you to increase your CPU clock speed (within a certain range) and if your system can remain cool enough after this, it’ll just cost you a bit more in electricity consumption.

Not every CPU can be overclocked and not every computer is an ideal candidate for overclocking. This is where I’ll recommend you do your research on the subject. Here are a few videos and articles I’ve followed to learn how to overclock my CPUs. 

Depending on the exact make and model of CPU, GPU and RAM, all can be overclocked following the same principals above.

Build-it Yourself

Yes, building a computer yourself can be challenging and daunting, or exciting and fun depending on your personality. I built my current workstation myself and learned a lot and enjoyed the process. 

If you’re willing to assume all responsibility when building your own computer, and you want to stretch your budget, DIY is the way to go. Computers today are very easy to build with plug-and-play construction and unprecedented compatibility.

By going the DIY route, you have the most freedom when allocating your budget. You can also build something that isn’t available elsewhere if you want something a bit unconventional. The other benefit of building a computer is that you can plan for long-term upgrades. This means being able to swap out parts to keep your computer up-to-date without having to start from scratch every couple of years.

This is one of the videos I found most helpful when building my custom PC. It offers a glimpse of what to expect if you go the DIY route.

More Considerations for the DIY Approach

Sales

This may sound obvious, but in our instant-gratification, buy-now Amazon-in-your-pocket economy, we often forget that waiting for or seeking out a sale can save us lots of money. I purchased all of my computer components for my most recent build between Black Friday and Christmas. This allowed me to find the best deals saving hundreds of dollars on individual components even. Overall, I saved about $800 on sales alone and more than $2000 by building my computer myself.

Companies are often looking for any holiday excuse to have a sale, so wait around for a bit and compare to get the best deal you can. This will maximize your performance-per-dollar.

Reliability

When your livelihood depends on your computer, it’s got to work every time you need it to. As your skills become more specialized and refined, the thing that costs the most is down-time. When you can’t bill hours, create content, meet deadlines or update a website, the costs go beyond just financial. Sure, you can’t earn when your computer is down, but perhaps even more costly is the stress of not being able to rely on your computer. Any risks do down-time are liabilities passed onto your clients. Not meeting a deadline can damage your reputation and cost you much more than a single job’s revenue. It can cost you referrals and repeat business. 

While I’m not going to say one computer, company or manufacturer is more reliable than any other, I will say that results may vary. I’ve personally had machines that were unbelievably dependable and others that simply were not. Definitely do some research before making a purchase to see others’ experiences with particular components or computers.

It’s also worth mentioning that many place a premium on reliability. Many large businesses have an approved vendor list or approved hardware list in which they restrict employees by only letting them order from the approved list. Often, there’s extended warranties and service agreements between the vendor and business. These are in place so when something goes wrong with a computer, there’s either a backup solution immediately available or a service or IT person ready to fix the issue immediately. If this is a priority of yours, consider computers that are marketed as enterprise solutions and be prepared to pay a bit more. 

AMD vs Intel

So, by now, you should know if you need a laptop or PC and you know what to prioritize when it comes to features or components. By now, you should also have decided if you’re going to build or buy your computer. 

Regardless of the above, you’re going to be faced with choosing between AMD and Intel. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each and how they differ. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, so we’ll keep this simple (forgive me if it’s over-simplified). 

AMD and Intel are the two most popular CPU manufacturers in the world. When computer shopping, you’ll often begin narrowing down the options by choosing an Intel CPU or AMD CPU. This is because AMD and Intel each have their own requirements when it comes to compatibility and conventions. Once the CPU has been chosen, the list of compatible components will also be narrowed down.

Intel

Intel has lead the market for a long time and has gained the trust of businesses and IT personnel alike. A larger portion of market share goes to Intel than AMD. As a result, Intel has been associated with reliability and performance for many years. Because of this brand equity, Intel CPUs tend to cost more than AMD.

Intel chips often boast higher base clock speeds and turbo-boost speeds. This makes them ideal for single-threaded operations. Most computer functions happen on a single thread. In some cases, programs can take advantage of all the threads/cores. This is called a multi-threaded operation. Most CAD programs adobe applications and OS tools are single-threaded. For single-threaded operations, a higher CPU with higher clock speed will out-perform a CPU with many cores or threads. 

AMD

While AMD may seem like the new kid on the block, they’ve been around since 1969, only one year after Intel was founded. For much of the 2000s Intel overshadowed AMD in both market share and performance. However, since early 2017, AMD has been releasing CPUs that have out-performed Intel in a few categories while also being the cheaper option. For this reason, AMD has captured the attention of hobbyists, gamers and DIYers.

AMD chips have been leading the market when it comes to core-count. If you use programs that have many multi-thread operations you’ll find more benefit in an AMD chip, unless budget is no concern. AMD’s 2990wx offers 64 threads. If you use software that support multi-threaded operations such as CPU-based rendering, you won’t beat AMD’s cost-per-thread.

Here’s a nice bundle of benchmarks to back up the claim that AMD is just as good a buy as Intel for rendering.

Cooling – Liquid vs Air

After researching and deciding what CPU to buy, you’ll want to read about what cooling is recommended by the manufacturer of that CPU. Which way you go will depend on your priorities. If you’re trying to save money, fan or air-cooled will be the way to go. If you have money to spend and you want the quietest machine possible, liquid-cooling is probably the way to go. Also, depending on your research, you may find that liquid coolers are ideal or recommended for the CPUs with the most cores. This is because they tend to consume more electricity and put out more heat. 

Summary

By now, you should know all about the critical components of computer and which ones you should prioritize for 3D rendering and design work. You should be able to navigate any computer manufacturer’s store and confidently narrow down your choices and make a decision. 

If you’re going to be doing CPU-based rendering (regardless of the software), you should build around the fastest CPU you can afford. This would mean opting for the one with the most cores/threads and then building around that. Reliable and high-quality cooling will keep your machine running stable and allow for overclocking if you’d like even more performance. Finally, some fast storage to run your programs and access your assets from will keep things moving quickly. RAM and GPUs are nice, but not as critical as many would like you to think.

My Custom 3D Modeling and Rendering Machine

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Recommended Pre-Built CPU-Based Rendering Computers

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