A List of Popular Stand-Alone Rendering Solutions

Their Strengths and Weaknesses

Almost every 3D content creation package comes with a built-in render engine. Built-in renderers are nothing if not convenient, but are they always the best choice for your project?

That decision comes down to the artist and their specific needs on a production. Most of the standard rendering solutions are completely capable of producing absolutely stellar results. However, it's also the case that similar or better results can sometimes be achieved in a different engine with less overhead and time invested.

We're not suggesting that you go through this article and attempt to learn every piece of software listed, but it is prudent to at least know what the options are and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. That way, if you find yourself in a situation where you're struggling to achieve something in your render, you'll know where to look for possible solutions.

Let's get onto the list:

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3D rendering of a commercial airplane

 Nickrumenovpz [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What We Like
  • Renders reflective objects more realistically.

  • Proxies let you create very large scenes.

  • Very precise rendering.

  • Lots of customization.

What We Don't Like
  • Distributed rendering doesn't work with animation.

  • Doesn't support viewport rendering.

  • Creating materials is not user friendly.

  • Expensive.

Vray is pretty much the granddaddy of standalone rendering packages these days. It's being used in everything from industrial design and arch-viz to animation and effects. Vray's success is in its versatility--it's powerful enough that a studio can use it on a relatively large-scale production but also easy enough to use that a single individual user can wield it to great effect. Vray is a biased raytracer like Mental Ray, but a lot more fun to use.

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What We Like
  • Works well on both Mac and PC.

  • Features adaptive sampling.

  • Beautiful rendering and materials.

  • Comes packaged with Maya.

What We Don't Like
  • CPU based rendering works much slower.

  • Steep learning curve.

  • Doesn't interpret fluids very well.

What to say about Arnold? This may very well be the single most powerful piece of rendering software on the market—except for the fact that it isn't really on the market. Arnold has been around since the mid-2000s and has been used on oodles of high-profile productions, but because of Solid Angle's top-down marketing strategy, it still hasn't been released to the general public. It's incredibly versatile, and remarkably well suited to work in animation and visual effects, but unless you're at a studio that's using it internally, good luck getting your hands on a copy. Still, you should watch their ​latest reel—it's very, very impressive.

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What We Like
  • Easy to use.

  • Choose between CPU or GPU.

  • Useful searchable materials library.

  • Superior quality.

What We Don't Like
  • Very slow rendering.

  • No GPU rendering on Mac.

  • Real world physical camera approach.

  • Undoing changes is difficult.

Maxwell is probably the most popular of the ​unbiased rendering solutions. It is well-tailored for work in architectural visualization and industrial design and promises a fast, intuitive workflow with predictable results. Maxwell is fairly slow compared to biased raytracers like Vray, but it's accurate and relatively easy to work with.

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What We Like
  • Fast GPU rendering.

  • Simple WYSIWYG interface.

  • Large, web-based material interface.

  • Produces high quality, quickly.

What We Don't Like
  • Limited map types.

  • Light direction is not intuitive.

  • Moving around scene can be clumsy.

Octane is calling itself the first unbiased, GPU based, physically accurate renderer. What that essentially means is that they're promising photorealistic renders at freakishly fast speeds (15 – 50x faster than an unbiased, CPU-based solution like Maxwell). Octane is arguably the most prominent engine to emerge from the recent wave of GPU-accelerated rendering solutions.

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What We Like
  • Fast GPU rendering.

  • Integrates well with modeling applications.

  • Beautiful animation.

  • Good camera effects.

What We Don't Like
  • Very GPU intensive.

  • Small selection of materials.

  • Expensive for home users.

Redshift is like Octane's evil twin, in the sense that it's considered the first fully GPU -accelerated, biased render solution. What that means is that it offers breakneck speed (like Octane), but doesn't place users under the constraints of an unbiased solution. Redshift's primary advantage over traditional real-time solutions is that it uses “out-of-core” architecture for geometry and textures, meaning that artists reap the advantages of GPU-acceleration without having to worry about their scene fitting in their system's VRAM. It's pretty remarkable, really.

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What We Like
  • Realistic camera simulation.

  • High level of realism.

  • Realistic light physics.

What We Don't Like
  • Steep learning curve.

  • Very resource intensive.

  • Expensive.

Indigo is another unbiased solution targeted for architectural visualization. Similar to Maxwell in many regards, but quite a bit cheaper. The two are based on similar architecture, and from what I've heard, quality is quite similar, however, the addition of GPU acceleration in Indigo means that it will probably be the faster of the two. In the end, good results can be achieved in either one—they're similar enough that it's really a matter of personal preference.

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What We Like
  • Easy drag and drop interface.

  • Supports many file types.

  • Easy to learn.

  • Fast render time.

What We Don't Like
  • Interior rendering is lacking.

  • Struggles with metallic paint rendering.

  • Limited animation features.

Keyshot is a standalone CPU based renderer designed to take the complexity out of the rendering workflow. While certain render platforms distinguish themselves (like Arnold and Vray for example) by being virtually limitless in their scope, Keyshot understands that simpler can be better in a lot of cases. With a built-in (scientifically accurate) material library, this is a fantastic choice for industrial design, product viz, and concept prototyping. Vitaly Bulgarov called it the most user-friendly rendering software on the market, which says a lot considering he's one of the best artists in the industry.

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Marmoset Toolbag

What We Like
  • Effective animation.

  • Well done shading system.

  • Great results with little effort.

What We Don't Like
  • Can't save camera position.

  • Requires good graphics card.

  • Complicated animation tool.

Marmoset is a dead simple real-time engine designed for the express purpose of previewing/rendering your low-poly game assets without going through the tedious process of importing them into a fully functional game engine like UDK or Cryengine. Marmoset has become unbelievably popular among game-devs for its ease of use, affordability, and stellar results. Like Keyshot, Marmoset's appeal is limited to a fairly narrow niche, but what it does it does very well.

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What We Like
  • Natively integrated with many apps.

  • Creates photo realistic renders

  • Supports x-particles

What We Don't Like
  • Awkward path tracing.

  • Slower than other renderers.

OK, Cycles isn't technically a stand-alone renderer, but because Blender is pretty much the granddaddy of open-source projects, Cycles bears mentioning. Cycles is a raytracing (think Mental Ray/Vray) based renderer with node-based shading and built-in GPU acceleration. At this point, Cycles is still a work in progress, but it was built from the ground up to take advantage of hybrid CPU/GPU rendering techniques and shows a ton of promise. And of course, it's free!

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