schvenk asks: "I find myself overwhelmed by the decision about which 3D rendering package to get, and thought perhaps Slashdot readers could help me out. While I took a computer science course on computer graphics in college and am proficient in Photoshop, I'm otherwise new to working with 3D modeling, rendering, or animation tools. I tried Blender, and at least the Mac version is just too buggy and slow at this point. In addition the renderer doesn't seem quite as good as some of the commercial ones out there. There are other free apps but I have to wonder if like Blender, they won't quite stack up to the big boys in terms of UI, features, and render quality. I've read tons of reviews, but few are up to date and many aren't as helpful as I'd like. I don't have a lot of prior experience with 3D modeling (I'm a UI Designer by trade) but need it periodically for graphic design purposes, and in addition am interested in getting into it more. While animation interests me, still images are more of a priority, so the greatest emphasis should probably be on rendering quality, and modeling capability (as well as usability and speed). I'd be using it in Mac OS X."
"The packages that have been recommended to me for having really good quality rendering (I'm looking for something that can generate photorealistic images) and good modeling tools are Lightwave 7.5, Maya Complete 4.5, ElectricImage Universe 5, and Cinema 4D. There are lots of other apps out there but these are the ones that have been suggested. There's a pretty wide range of prices among those 4 apps, but at least for now I'm mostly setting price aside in my comparison, especially since the cost of learning an app is so astronomical that I'd rather just do it once.
So far what I've determined is as follows:
I haven't tried Lightwave yet (there's a demo in the mail), but lots of people seem to think it's good. I've been told -- and images I've seen on the Web bear this out -- that it's got a really good rendering engine, and sounds like it might be able to keep up with Maya on everything except animation, and it less expensive. It got Macworld's Editor's Choice award last year for version 7b. (The latest is 7.5.)
Some say that Maya is the top of the line. I'm not sure, and I don't think everyone agrees on it. With the inclusion of a rendering plug-in called Mental Ray with the latest version, its rendering engine is supposedly now as good as Lightwave's (it wasn't before). It was a runner-up in the Editor's Choice awards last year for v3.5. However, a number of the problems people had (both Macworld and others) with earlier versions have been addressed in the current v4.5. I played around with the demo version of Maya and liked its UI: it uses OS X standard widgets, which I appreciate, and its tutorials were well-designed and got me going quickly.
A lot of people seem to like ElectricImage Universe, and there is a version from a place called DVGarage that's stripped down and only $200, though I don't know what's missing. Fans say it's really intuitive, though that wasn't my experience downloading the demo. It's made up of several programs for the different pieces of the process (Lightwave is apparently the same way), and I wasn't really sure where to start. I also didn't like the modeling environment as much, though Universe users tell me that some of my problems (such as objects turning into boxes while you rotate the scene) can be solved by changing preferences. But I was unimpressed with the included tutorials: The task of creating a simple scene and rendering it is not something I've been able to figure out how to do, either through the tutorials or through experimentation. That said, it's worth noting that initial ease of use for such advanced tools is less important than ease and speed of use for experienced users. Even so, Maya, which is clearly no slouch in terms of being for advanced users, just seemed easier to figure out. The images I see on the Web (and there are fewer than I find for some of the other apps) seem less photorealistic overall than for some of the other apps, but again that's hardly a scientific method of evaluation.
Maxon Cinema 4D was also a 2001 Editor's Choice runner-up (v7.1; the current version is 8). It uses OS X-standard widgets for its UI. Beyond that I know little about it and have received the least amount of info from forums and Web searches. I've just downloaded the demo and will see what I can learn from that. The Web galleries I've looked at have contained some fairly photorealistic images, though Lightwave's still seem a bit more impressive to me, for what it's worth. I'm hoping someone can shed some light on this app especially. There are two levels: A cheaper version with some features missing, and a more expensive one (and actually an even higher-end option than that that I probably don't need to consider). It looks from Maxon's site like for photorealistic rendering the more expensive (XL) version is necessary, but I wouldn't swear to it.
And that's what I know so far. Beyond the big "Which is best?" question, a lot of questions remain. What's the best renderer? How different is the best app from the worst? What are the differences in modeling tools? Some of these apps have curved surfaces called NURBS, which seems to be a standard technology. Others have their own variants or substitutes. I don't really know what difference that makes. Maya has a neat tool that lets you sculpt a surface like clay, smoothly pushing and pulling at it to make organic objects like faces; I don't know what equivalents exist in the other apps. Ultimately, I'm definitely interested in animation but more interested in a wide array of modeling tools and top-notch rendering. Decent speed, ease of use, good docs, and ideally some OS X UI compliance would be good too.
Anyway, I'm going to continue investigating. I'm posting this partly to share what information I do have, and mostly to get discussion going that might shed some more light on this subject for people who, like me, want to get into this but can't afford the time and money required to do a personal, extensive comparison of all the major apps. I apologize if any of my information is inaccurate, and hope someone will correct it. Beyond that, any and all help is greatly appreciated :-)."