Getting Familiar with Computer Hardware Terminology for 3D Graphics Systems

Getting Familiar with Computer Hardware Terminology for 3D Graphics Systems

(Thanks to Digital Tutors)

It’s no secret that 3D-related work requires a fairly decent computer to run things smoothly, and you might be at the point where you’re yelling at your computer monitor because the viewport in Maya is running slower than a turtle in molasses. Maybe you have to let your computer run overnight to complete a simple render that should really only take twenty to thirty minutes. Whatever the case may be, it’s safe to assume you’re due for a new computer or at least a few hardware upgrades.

Let’s face it, most 3D artists have had the scenario of a family member or friend running to them for computer advice. Because you use a computer, you must know everything about them, right? Despite what your family and friends think, just because you know how to create beautiful 3D work on the computer, it doesn’t always mean you know the ins and outs of a system and all the parts that go into it and their purposes. You may be wondering what in the world is the difference between a GPU and CPU and what’s with all the talk of GPU’s in computer graphics systems?

To help you find the right hardware, and to have a better understanding of what goes into a powerful 3D graphics computer let’s go over some of the key computer hardware terminology so you’ll know what to look for, whether you’re getting a pre-built computer, or building your own.

When it comes to a computer graphics system, the more expensive the computer is doesn’t always relate to a faster performance in the 3D application. Sure, that $7,000 pre-built system will probably do a pretty great job, but that money may not be spent on the right areas of the system, and if you don’t feel like paying the price of a used car for your computer you may be able to get enough power for half the price. For example, do you really need all those neon lights illuminating the system? Sure, it looks awesome, but this is your 3D dedicated computer and not a night club’s light show.

Sometimes a good route to take is to build your own system to ensure you’re spending your money on the areas you need to, and to create a computer designed for exactly what you need it to do. However, building a computer can take time and a bit of research if you’ve never built a system from scratch. Now, through the advent of the internet it’s become easier to gather all the hardware you’ll need from sites like or, but depending on your needs buying a pre-built system with the right specs can take less time, and is a whole lot easier if you’re new to the computer building world. So determine what you think will be the right choice for you.

What is a GPU?

GeForce GTX 780 Ti shown. Copyright © 2014 NVIDIA Corporation

When it comes to 3D work, the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) is a vital piece of hardware to have. In a very basic example, the GPU is essentially the gateway between the computer and what you see on the monitor. The GPU can sometimes get confused with the Central Processing Unit (CPU), which you’ll learn about a little later. However, the GPU is vital for computing different 3D functions, and is the key component for having fast viewport rendering. So this means if you’re modeling in your 3D application and the viewport is running extremely sluggish, a better GPU can be one of the key pieces of hardware to remedy this issue.

You can actually section off different tasks to be computed on the GPU and others to be computed on the CPU. For example, you can see a great presentation of this in Pixar’s proprietary animation software Presto. They’re actually able to have all of Sully’s hair displayed in the viewport without slowing down the navigation at all, by having all his individual hair strands rendered on the GPU instead of the CPU. So some of the computer-intensive functions like viewport rendering will be placed on the GPU, allowing the CPU to handle the rest of the processes.

It’s important to keep in mind that the GPU is essentially a chip that goes inside the graphics card, so if you run a search for GPU don’t be alarmed when you get a huge list of graphics cards. You can find a list of some of the powerful NVIDIA graphics cards here. You also want to keep in mind that only certain applications and graphics cards utilize “CUDA” which you learn more about here. CUDA is a parallel computing platform which actually allows you to utilize the GPU for certain tasks within the 3D application.

What is a CPU?

©2014 Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.

©2014 Advanced Micro Devices, Inc.

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is really the brain of your computer, processing everything from basic tasks to complex functions. The CPU has quite a bit to compute, that’s why it’s important you have a powerful enough GPU to take some of this load off of the CPU, allowing you to speed up some of the graphical tasks within a 3D application like rendering and viewport navigation.

You have two real CPU’s to choose from Intel and AMD. Now, there is quite a bit of debate of which CPU is better than the other. That argument can be saved for another article. Both CPU brands are powerful, and will get the job done; AMD is known to be a little bit cheaper than Intel CPU’s. For example, you can get an 8-core processor designed for multimedia tasks for a relatively inexpensive sticker price. However, a very important factor you want to keep in mind is what CPU does your motherboard support? Not sure what a motherboard is? Well, let’s go over that next.

What is a Motherboard?

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©ASUSTeK Computer Inc. All rights reserved

©ASUSTeK Computer Inc. All rights reserved

The motherboard is really the heart of your computer, without a motherboard the computer can’t run. The CPU, GPU, RAM, and USB ports all connect to the motherboard. You should know what type of CPU and GPU you want when looking for a motherboard.

As mentioned previously, not all CPU’s work on all motherboards and the same goes for GPU’s. Usually when looking at a motherboard it should either be designed for AMD processors, or Intel processors, so you’ll want to make sure you know which type of processor you want to use. Most motherboards have a PCI-E connector that is intended to be used with the graphics card. In fact, some motherboards may even have multiple PCI-E slots that you can use to connect multiple graphics cards.

However, not all graphics cards are compatible with all motherboards, even if they are both using a PCI-E connector. This is primarily because of either the space that a motherboard has for connecting the graphics card to the PCI-E slot, or depending on which graphics card you choose it may have been developed before the motherboard and already be outdated. This means you’ll want to double check and ensure the GPU you want is compatible with your motherboard.

Storage and Memory

Copyright © 2014 Corsair. All rights reserved | ©2014 Seagate Technology LLC

Copyright © 2014 Corsair. All rights reserved | ©2014 Seagate Technology LLC

You’ve probably heard of a hard drive before, which is the storage for your computer, and you’ve probably heard of memory or RAM (Random Access Memory). So what is the difference between storage and memory? Well you can imagine your hard drive like the storage garage you purchased to hold all your old furniture that you don’t have time to sell.

The hard drive is where all the programs you have installed are stored, like Maya or ZBrush. It’s also where all your scene files are saved, documents, pictures, etc. Basically everything you’ll need to have access to at some point in time. All this information is kept on the hard drive even when the computer shuts off. Now, wouldn’t that be a pain if you had to reinstall Maya every time you powered on your system?

Well, if a hard drive worked the same way as RAM does then yes, you would. RAM can be thought of like short-term memory. Every time you open an application like Maya it is put on the computer’s memory or RAM, except before it gets there it must be loaded from the computer’s hard drive.

As soon as you save a file you’re working on, it goes into the computer’s storage, and as soon as you close Maya it’s no longer running on the RAM, and is erased from the memory until you open it again. That’s why it’s important to have a lot of RAM in your system; it allows for you to have more applications opened at once, without slowing down.

Going back to the motherboard again, each motherboard can hold up to a certain amount of RAM, some may be able to have up to 16GB of RAM others maybe 32GB and some as low as 8GB. That’s why it’s important you find a motherboard that has the capabilities of using as much RAM as possible, because the more RAM the better. Of course, RAM doesn’t come extremely cheap, but you still want to find a motherboard that is able to expand when you’re ready to boost the memory

What is an SSD?

<p>Copyright © 1995-2014 SAMSUNG All Rights reserved.<br />

Copyright © 1995-2014 SAMSUNG All Rights reserved.

The Solid State Drive (SSD) has the same purpose as the traditional hard disk drive (HDD) talked about above. It saves all your important information like scene files, documents, etc. and it will always be there even when the computer is turned off. However, there are quite a few benefits to using an SSD over the traditional hard drive.

For one, the term “solid state” is derived from the fact that the storage drive has no moving parts causing the chance for failure to be far less, which is something everyone wants. You’re also able to access the information stored on the SSD much quicker than a traditional hard drive because there is no boot up time. Also because the SSD has no moving parts it stays much cooler, and an SSD is almost completely silent.

So with all these added benefits why in the world would anyone want to use a traditional HDD over a more durable and faster SSD? Well for one, this technology is still fairly new. Sure, it’s come along way from the traditional SSD used in a digital camera, but it’s much more expensive for an SSD than an HDD.

For example, depending on the brand, a 250GB SSD is going to cost you around $150, whereas with an HDD you can get 4TB of storage space for the same price, if not cheaper. Yeah, that’s a terabyte, not a gigabyte! Now, with each passing year SSD’s are becoming cheaper and more common place in computers. So, if you have the budget to spend a little more, and don’t need all that extra space, then an SSD is probably a very good choice.

Power Supply

Copyright © 2014 Corsair. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2014 Corsair. All rights reserved.

The power supply is basically what allows the computer to turn on and run. Every computer needs one, and depending on how powerful the hardware in your computer is will determine how powerful your power supply needs to be in order to give things like the GPU power to run.

You’ll need a power supply with enough wattage to power everything in your system, but one of the biggest components that will draw a lot of power is typically the graphics card. If it doesn’t have enough wattage then the graphics car won’t be able to work properly. The more powerful a GPU is, the more wattage you’ll need to power that bad boy.

You can find the wattage required for a GPU in the specs of the graphics card, so make sure you find a power supply with enough wattage to properly power all the equipment in your computer. It doesn’t hurt to do a little forward thinking and plan for any upgrades that you might want to do in the near future as well. For example, if you have one graphics card but want to eventually upgrade to another, that will need more power and buying a bigger power supply now can save time and money from having to upgrade it later on. Luckily, power supplies are significantly cheaper than a lot of the other hardware required to build a running computer.

Along those same lines, if you’re planning on simply upgrading some of the hardware in your existing computer the power supply is the first thing you’ll want to take a look at, because older computers’ stock power supply falls extremely short of the wattage required to power some of today’s hardware.

Now that you know some of the important hardware features like a powerful CPU and GPU to be able to run your 3D application with ease you’ll know what to look for when building a new computer, or finding a pre-built machine that can get the job done. If you have any questions be sure to post them in the comments below!

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