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8/96 Reviews SW: 3D Studio MAX

Listing of August 1996 Reviews

MAX Packs 3-D Muscle for NT

By Ian Etra and William Gee

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, only expensive workstations did professional 3-D design. Nowadays, though, PCs can handle this resource-hungry task, and products like 3D Studio MAX, from Autodesk's Kinetix division, can do things those early systems only dreamed of.

Completely removed from its DOS predecessor, 3D Studio MAX was designed from the ground up for Windows NT, and it shows. It's not only gained the full benefits of NT's 32-bit, multithreaded operating system, but it offers the familiar Windows interface. In fact, the documentation depicts the program running under Windows NT 4.0.

You'll reach all features through a combination of toolbar buttons, pull-down menus and drop-down lists. The company has added rollout commands that collapse or expand along the screen's side in a novel scrolling panel reminiscent of the CAD environment. This makes MAX more immediately accessible to first-time users than other, ported workstation applications.

The best 3-D modelers offer several ways to realize your vision, and MAX certainly delivers here. It offers a wide variety of basic primitives-essentially 3-D building blocks-to use in your models. Some can be as complex as tubes, polyhedrons and teapots. You can create preset or free-form 2-D spline shapes, then lathe, extrude or loft (a more controlled form of skinning objects) them to generate more complex renderings. Join objects in Boolean operations, convert them into mesh objects or Bézier patch surfaces, and edit them at the subobject level by manipulating individual faces and vertices.

Even more powerful is MAX's Modifier Stack, which contains any object's entire modification history. Editing the stack is like going back in time, allowing you to change earlier modeling decisions or insert new ones, and you can instantly see the changes reflected in the current model.

Nearly every program operation can be animated, from simple transforms to complex deformations. You can build hierarchical relationships between objects and animate them with inverse kinematics, or incorporate a basic particle system into a scene. This lets you simulate running water or smoke. You can adjust the intensity and flow of particles, and give them behaviors such as sticking to or bouncing off a surface. Or try creating space warps, invisible objects that can deform other objects in the scene. MAX also lets you edit any object's or animation's function curves, giving you precise control over that object's behavior in your scene. For example, you could change the speed at which an animated character's legs move, or adjust a lofted object's deformation curve to create a more complex, organic-looking model.

MAX's rendering engine can create advanced effects, such as layered fog or volumetric lighting and shadows that simulate beams of light through dust or smoke. MAX even includes some basic effects for video post-production, to create special effects or transitions between animated scenes. If you have several idle NT systems on a network, you can build a render farm with a single copy of MAX. By distributing the workload across all available resources, a render farm can considerably boost image-processing performance.

The performance of 3D Studio MAX varies depending on the system configuration. The minimum, a Pentium 90 with 32MB, proved surprisingly comfortable during the learning phase. For a production environment, we recommend at least a 133MHz Pentium with as much additional memory as you can afford. The program provides a control called "adaptive degradation levels" that helps maintain acceptable display performance by dynamically adjusting how objects are displayed. Faster hardware will allow you to smoothly manipulate shaded and highlighted objects in real time. 3D Studio MAX can exploit serious hardware-like an Intergraph StudioZ workstation-by using additional processors and memory to reduce rendering times and offer a highly interactive environment.

MAX's supporting materials clearly explain how to use the program's complex, advanced features. Its four extensive user manuals are well-organized and offer 23 excellent tutorial lessons. Additional information, such as orchestrating a networked system cluster as a rendering farm, is thoroughly described in insightful help files.

Like many applications in its class, 3D Studio MAX is protected by a hardware lock that attaches to your system's parallel port and must be present each time you use the application. After installing from CD-ROM, you also need to call or mail in your registration to validate the program.

As a professional rendering and animation package, 3D Studio MAX is not as complete as high-end packages that cost three or four times as much. However, thanks to MAX's extensible architecture, you can add what you need from third-party plug-ins. If you can afford $3,495 for 3-D software, this is an excellent choice.

Info File
3D Studio MAX
Pros: Tools; interface
Cons: Price; resource-intensive; some features require optional plug-ins
Platforms: Windows NT 3.51 (Intel only)
Disk space: 60MB (plus at least 100MB swap file)
Kinetix Div. of Autodesk
800-879-4233, 415-507-5000
WinMag Box Score: 4.5
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