Best Desktop Workstation Computer for 3D Animation

Last updated on November 7th, 2018,

Building the best Computer for Animation requires some specific Hardware Components and just a tiny bit of insight into the inner workings of 2D & 3D Animation Software and how they use the hardware.

Browsing for new Computer Parts is always a lot of fun and in this article you might find a few things that will make that process easier and even more interesting!

Now, this Article “Best Computer for Animation” is structured into three parts:

The first being how Animation Software utilizes the Hardware. The second being insight and recommendations on what Hardware Parts are important and best for a Computer for Animation.

And the last Part gives you finished Desktop Computer Builds in different Price Tiers if you would just like to see how a complete Computer Build for Animation would look like in your budget.

Article Content

How does Animation Tasks use the Hardware

Before we take a look at what hardware we should put in our best Computer for Animation let’s see how Animation Tasks actually use the Hardware.

Now, when I animate I usually do some of the following:

I pose rigged characters, set Keyframes, adjust Animation Curves, Move objects around for Keying on new Frames, move my view and cameras around a lot or play back the animations to be able to check and revise them, among others.

All of these processes have one thing in common: I am actively tweaking things inside my Software and expect an immediate result.

I don’t push a button and wait for 2 minutes while walking around the office, no, I expect the Viewport or Menus or other User Interface Elements in my Software to update right away.

Seems obvious! But there are lots of other tasks in a Production Pipeline of an Animated Film that work very differently.

Think of Rendering,  Simulation, Texture Baking or Encoding to name a few. These would be Processes where you don’t actively interact with the Computer, but mainly let it run its tasks on its own until it is finished.

Why is this important?

Because we can now already say one very important thing and that is “Single-Core Performance“.

Let’s see what this means exactly:

Single-Core Performance dependent tasks are tasks that can not be parallelized. Modern Processors (CPU) that are responsible for calculating almost everything you do on the Computer usually have more than one so called Cores.

Cores are individual parts of a CPU that can calculate a given task.

In a Computer for Animation, we will wan’t a CPU with extremely fast Cores, as the tasks we are dealing with the most, are tasks that can only be calculated by one Core at a time.

So having a high Core-Count wouldn’t benefit us all that much.

The main reason why Animation can’t be parallelized that well, is because the underlying Objects that are being animated usually are rigged, deformed, driven by scripts or otherwise dependent on a hierarchical order that has to be processed one after another, without being able to outsource some steps to others Cores.

Let’s make an example:

Your 3D Character that you are animating usually consists of a single Mesh. This Mesh is deformed by a Rig.

The Rig is driven by Control Objects. The deformed/animated Mesh might also have Face Controls and some kind of soft body simulation for the jiggly parts such as the belly.

And this is a pretty ordinary Character. I haven’t even gotten into Hair Collisions, Dynamic IK Chains, Muscle Collisions and so on yet.

All of these Deformers and Rigs all have to be stepped through in a predefined order until the resulting final Mesh can be correctly displayed for that Frame.

I can’t tell some of my CPU cores to already calculate the Textures or Shading or Hair Collisions, if I haven’t yet calculated the basic body Animation Parts, such as the animation and movement of the extremities.

Best Computer for Animation - Hierarchy

This is why only a single Core has to painstakingly calculate all of these hierarchical steps on after another.

And this can only be speed up if this CPU Core, that at this moment does all the work, is as fast as possible, has as high a clock as possible.

After all, it has to do this process for everything in your Scene, usually 25 times per second (or what your desired Framerate is) for you to have a fluid playback experience.

This can be applied to 2D animation as well. Even if the underlying rigs or object complexities might be somewhat simpler.

Having a slightly lower complexity in 2D usually just means you add more effects to your processing chain such as Motion Blur, and still want to have a realtime experience as much as possible, even with all the layer dependencies that are slowing the CPU down.

Now, lots of other tasks can be highly parallelized, such as Rendering.

For CPU Rendering then again you would need a CPU that has as many Cores as possible, because a Rendertask can be split into smaller parallelizeable tasks almost indefinitely.

That was quite some theory behind it all.

As the CPU seems to be the most important part in the best Computer for Animation, let’s take a look at what Processors there are that we can choose from and what other kind of Hardware Components can speed up our Computer:

The Best CPU (Processor) for Animation

As we now know, for animation we will need a very high clocking CPU and not as much a CPU that has many Cores.

Or couldn’t we just get a CPU that has a very high clock AND lots and lots of Cores?

That way we could work fast actively AND CPU Render fast?

Good thinking, but unfortunately this is not how it works. There is always a trade-off between core-clocks and core-counts.

Meaning, if you want a very high clocking CPU you will only get a few cores and if you want lots of cores, these cores will most certainly be clocked fairly low.

Why?

This is because a CPU has specific thermal and power regulations that it can not exceed. And since every core and every extra clock needs more power and makes the CPU hotter, it kind of makes sense there is this trade-off.

Now, fortunately Intel and AMD have thought of a way to compensate for this, at least to a certain degree.

Both have a feature called Turbo-Boost or Turbo-Core.

This feature automatically overclocks the cores that are being used a long as the power and thermal limitations are not exceeded.

For Animation this means, you might have a CPU with 6 Cores but while animating you only need 1-2 Cores. The CPU now automatically overclocks these 1-2 Cores that are in use, but downclocks or lets all other cores in a type of idle mode.

This happens so fast, that you won’t notice it at all. But you WILL notice that the Cores you are using (if you are using only a few) are faster.

So here they are, the CPU recommendations for our Best Computer for Animation:

  • Intel i9 9900K – 8 Cores / 16 Threads, 3.6GHz Base Clock, Turbo Boost 5GHz
  • Intel i7 9700K – 8 Cores / 8 Threads, 3.6GHz Base Clock, Turbo Boost 5GHz
  • Intel i7 8086K (Limited Edition)) – 6 Cores / 12 Threads, 4GHz Base Clock, Turbo Boost 5GHz
  • Intel i7 8700K – 6 Cores / 12 Threads, 3.6GHz Base Clock, Turbo Boost 4.7GHz
  • AMD Ryzen 7 2700X – 8 Cores / 16 Threads, 3.6GHz Base Clock, Turbo Boost 4.3GHz

These CPUs are all excellent for Animation. They have a high Turbo Clock and will give you a snappy work experience.

AMD Ryzen vs i7 8700K

The AMD Ryzen 2700X is the Performance / Price winner in this case, as all of the Intel CPUs are currently very expensive.

To get an impression of how these CPUs perform in different workloads, especially in Rendering, go take a look at some of the Benchmark Comparisons such as Cinebench or VRAY Bench.

Best Graphics Card (GPU) for Animation

One would expect the Graphics Card to play a larger role in giving a smooth Viewport and Software Experience, but in the Animation stage this is usually not the case.

This doesn’t mean the GPU can be ignored but it is seldomly the bottleneck and usually has lots of headroom left over while waiting for the CPU to do its calculations before it displays the output.

This changes though when you depend on certain features, that only the GPU can calculate. This includes OpenGL features such as Anti-Aliasing, Anisotropic Filtering, SSAO, Realtime-Shadows and many more.

These kind of features are also found in the Maya Viewport 2.0 and you will benefit from a strong GPU here.

If you don’t rely on a realistic Viewport that shows a near-final quality Scene, but animate mostly in shaded low quality preview modes without any fancy effects, then you can make ends meet with a lower tier Graphics Card such as the Nvidia GTX 1060.

Let’s take a look at the current GPU Line-Up:

  • Nvidia Quadro Series
  • Nvidia RTX 2080 Ti
  • Nvidia RTX 2080
  • Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti
  • Nvidia GTX 1080
  • Nvidia GTX 1070 Ti
  • Nvidia GTX 1060
  • AMD Vega 64
  • AMD Vega 56
  • AMD RX 580
  • AMD RX 570

Both GPU Manufacturers, AMD and Nvidia, have some excellent Cards for our purposes, although Nvidia Cards seem to do better in some 3D Applications and should be your choice, especially if you also plan on GPU Rendering with these.

The process of GPU Rendering of course is much more demanding than Viewport Animation, but this topic is so complex, that I covered it in another article for you to read here: Best Graphics Cards for GPU Rendering.

As a minimum I usually recommend an Nvidia GTX 1060 that already gives excellent performance in most of the 3D and 2D Animation Applications out there.

Best Computer for Animation - GPU

If you need certain professional Features such as 10bit Color support you should consider a Nvidia Quadro GPU, as these come with drivers that support more features.

That said though, I have been in the 3D Industry for a decade now and have never needed a Quadro Card or wanted to pay the heavy premium to get one.

The GTX and RTX Cards have excellent Performance / Price Ratio, especially compared to the Quadro Cards and you can GPU Render on them extremely fast.

The AMD GPUs can perform well too, though many Software optimize for Nvidia Cards, and many GPU Render Engines support Nvidia GPUs only (CUDA Support), that is why you very rarely see an AMD GPU be recommended for a Computer or Workstation in Animation.

They are excellent GPUs, no questions asked, but the Industry support unfortunately just isn’t on the same level yet as it is with Nvidia.

How much and what type of RAM in a Desktop Computer for Animation

I hear this discussed often and it is quite true: RAM does not impact Speed all that much (if at all) UNLESS you have too little.

Sure there might be the 2% Speed gain in certain type of workloads, but getting extremely expensive or high-clocked Ram with great Timings, just isn’t worth it, especially if you are not planning on extreme Overclocking.

It is much better to get “normal” RAM for a normal price and spend the extra bucks on additional Gigabytes.

This will help you a lot more in the long run.

RAM (or Memory) is essentially just a storage part, that the CPU (and some other Hardware) uses to cache data so it can access it very quickly. If this RAM is full, there is nowhere else to go but the System Storage Devices such as the Hard Disk, or Solid State Disks.

These though are a multitude slower than RAM, and you will notice your System crawls to a halt if your RAM is full.

So you should make sure you have enough RAM, as full RAM is also a reason why Systems often crash.

Corsair RAM for Computer for Animation

That said, the baseline should be 16GB of RAM.

32GB though is much better already and 64GB will last you a long time unless you are working on very large projects with lots of Polygons, Displacements, Hires Textures or giant Particle Caches.

Having more RAM also benefits you when you have more than one Software open at a time. And that happens all the time.

If you are in Cinema 4D or Maya or 3ds Max, chances are you also have Photoshop, maybe After Effects, Google Chrome and an Email Program open, and of course all of these Applications need their own share of RAM.

Good brands to look out for usually are Corsair, G.Skill & OCZ but you might prefer others.

One Important thing here: Buy your final RAM Size in a KIT (Bundle). If you want 32 Gbytes of RAM buy 4*8GB in a KIT or 2*16GB in a KIT.

Don’t buy two or more individual RAMs.

Why?

Because bundled RAMs are pre-tested in the Factory and will work well together.

If you buy RAM Sticks individually, these might not work well together (even if they are of the exact same specifications and Brand) and can be a cause of crashes and Blue-Screens.

If you do like to optimize even your RAM as much as possible and have some more cash to spare, the general rule is to buy high Clocks and low CL Timings for best performance.

So a 32GB DDR4 3200MHz CL15 would be slightly better than a 32GB DDR4 2666MHz CL17.

Best Mainboard for Animation

As with RAM, the Mainboard too is nothing that will speed up this Computer all that much, but there are some things to consider before buying just any mainboard.

The Mainboard (or Motherboard) basically is the central HUB where all your other hardware is attached to.

It serves as a switchboard between these Hardware Components and any external devices you might want to plug in to the Computer.

The CPU plugs into the Mainboard and requires the right Socket.

An Intel i7 8700K for example would need an LGA 1151 Socket and it only fits into this socket. An AMD Ryzen CPU needs a Motherboard that has an AM4 Socket.

Mainboards have PCI-Express Slots, where the GPU(s) are plugged into. Depending on how many GPUs you would like to get or are planning on upgrading to in the future, be sure to get a Mainboard that has enough PCI-Express Slots.

PCI-E Slots and PCI-E Lanes though are a Topic for itself and therefore have an Article for themselves.

Head over there if GPU Rendering in Redshift, VRAY-RT or Octane on Multi-GPU Setups is something you are planning on doing.

Best Computer for Animation - MSI Mainboard

In addition you should make sure the Mainboard supports the amount of RAM you will be installing. Modern Motherboards usually support up to 64GB of RAM.

External USB Sticks, external Hard-Drives, Input Devices, Mouse, Keyboard and Tablet, and many more are also plugged into the Mainboard.

If you have a lot of external devices that you want to be able to use with this Computer for Animation, be sure the Mainboard has enough connectors to handle them.

Good Motherboard Brands to look out for usually include ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte & ASROCK but there are others that you might prefer.

If you find all of this a bit overwhelming, I have some finished Computer Builds that I put together for you down below with Hardware Components that work well together.

Best Storage Devices in a Computer for Animation

Storage is an easy one. There basically only are 3 Types of Storage Devices that you can get and I’ll list the benefits and use cases very briefly:

HDD or Hard Disc Drive

  • Kind of an old Storage Device that has been overtaken in terms of performance and speed
  • Good for archiving backing up lots of Data, not as good for an active Work Drive
  • Recommendations: Seagate Barracuda or Western Digital Blue in your desired Size (for example 2TB)

(Sata) SSD or Solid State Drive

  • About 5x faster than HDD
  • Good for working and OS Drive
  • Recommendations: Samsung EVO / PRO 860 in your desired size (for example 1TB)

M.2 PCI-E NVME SSD

  • Fancy long Name AND extreme Performance, 5x faster than even SSDs
  • Great for working Drive and OS /Applications Drive
  • More Expensive than Sata SSDs but in my experience worth it
  • Recommendations: Samsung EVO / PRO 970 in your desired Sizes (for example 512GB)

Best Computer for Animation - SSD vs NVMe

Especially SSD and NVME are coming down in price very fast currently as you can see in this price chart:Samsung 860 EVO Price Drop

Highly recommended!

Best PSU & Case for our Animation PC Build

Both the Power Supply and the Case of course won’t do anything for your Animation performance at all, but here are some things to be aware of before choosing:

It is best to get a bit more Wattage in your PSU than necessary, so you have some headroom in case you upgrade to more or more power hungry components in the future.

This way you can keep your PSU when you upgrade your other components.

Good PSU Brands are Corsair, Seasonic & BeQuiet but you might prefer others or already have a PSU in your current/old computer that you can continue using if it is strong enough.

Check this wattage calculator here to determine how much Watts your PSU should have depending on the Hardware Components that you are planning on having in your Computer for Animation.

The Case is what will be on display in your office or room. That is pretty much the only thing people or you get to see. (Unless you have a see-through Case)

Apart from having it fit all of the Hardware Components, this is one of the parts of Building a Computer for Animation, where you can let your taste decide what pleases you.

There are so many different Case styles, Colors, Materials, with or without See-through glass windows and various forms and sizes out there, you can browse for days and weeks 🙂

I have had excellent experience with Cases from Corsair, such as the Corsair Carbide 400Q or 600Q, but that is just my taste in having a professional minimalistic looking case, that also dampens the noise somewhat, so my Workstations run quiet.

Best Computer for Animation - Corsair Case

Of course you should make sure your hardware components fit into the case, so be sure to get at least ATX Midi Tower (or similar) Sizes for a standard build, or a bigger Tower if you plan on putting lots of GPUs or Watercooling inside.

Ability to Upgrade your Computer

This is one of the many reasons for carefully building a Computer with the right Hardware Parts: You can upgrade almost anything.

Want a faster CPU? Get a faster one and sell your old CPU on Ebay. Usually the Mainboard Sockets are good for a couple of CPU Generations.

More RAM? Just get more RAM. (Though beware of incompatibilities when using individual RAM Kits)

Want a faster GPU? Swap your GPU for a faster one. Or add more GPUs (if your Mainboard has enough PCIE Slots)

Storage can be added too, and most mainboards support a good number of internal devices.

You can even swap out your Mainboard for a better one, as long as the CPU socket and Chipset is compatible with all your other Components.

Best Monitor for Animation

Let me say this:

Size – Important

Resolution – Important

Color Display Quality – Usually not that important and this is the thing that drives Monitor prices up the most. But do read on:

Yes, you should get a Monitor that is large enough, or even two and more Monitors, so your Software User Interface, Viewport and previews and potential Image/Video References fit neatly without you having to change between different windows all the time.

Having a higher Resolution helps with fitting more on your Monitors, though beware that there are still some Applications out there that scale their Interfaces and on-screen Text with the Resolution of the Monitor.

So having a high res display (such as 4k) might make the UI Text extremely small. Usually Windows compensates this by trying to scale it back up, but that doesn’t always work well and might result in a blurry UI.

Probably the most expensive feature in a Monitor is getting a high quality IPS Panel instead of a TN Panel.

You might have already seen, that some Monitors cost around 200$ and some other with seemingly the exact same features are 600$ and up.

This is usually because the built-in Panel type is an IPS (In-Plane-Switching) Panel and not a lower quality TN Panel.

IPS Panels have better Contrast and Color Display.

You should get one if you are doing lots of Color Grading, Post-Production, Color-accurate Print, Web or Broadcasting Work.

If all you do is Animate or Model in your 3D Software and you usually just use the standard shaded or Wireframe view, you can save some money and get a regular TN-Panel Monitor.

I have had good experience with Asus IPS 24″ and 27″ Monitors that aren’t too expensive but you might prefer others.

You should build your best PC yourself

I say this in all my Articles and I can’t stress it enough: Build your own Computer!

It’s much cheaper, it’s fun, you gain knowledge about how a Computer works and what parts it is made up of and with this knowledge you can upgrade and fix most Problems that you might run into later on your own.

It’s not difficult and if you know how to follow instructions or how to put together a Lego Set, then you can build a Computer yourself.

Here’s a good Video that shows you how to:


Now that we know what individual Hardware Parts we should put into a Computer for Animation, let’s take a look at some Pre-Selected Builds in different Price-Tiers:

Best Computer for Animation, AMD 700$

PCPartPicker part list

Some Build notes:

This is a lower end build, if you are a bit tight on budget. If you are experienced enough to do a BIOS upgrade you should consider the AMD Ryzen 2600 that will work on this board with a BIOS upgrade. If you still want a second Generation Ryzen CPU but don’t want to flash your BIOS, go with a 400 Series Chipset that supports these already.

If you can spare some more cash, consider upgrading to a Nvidia GTX 1060.

Best Computer for Animation, AMD 1500$

PCPartPicker part list

Some Build notes:

This is a basic AMD build that you can build upon. The Case is professional looking, minimalistic and quiet. There is no room for Optical drives, you will need a different Case if you want to have DVD/CD Drives.

The AMD Ryzen 2700X is the fastest of the second Generation Ryzen CPUs with excellent Multi-Core and good Single Core performance. All AMD Ryzen CPUs usually come with included CPU coolers, so no extra Cooler needed here.

I added a Samsung 970 EVO M.2 NVMe Drive in this build that will give you extreme Storage Performance. The Asus Turbo Series GPUs are Blower-Style GPUs, meaning you can stack them on top of each other in Multi-GPU Builds, without loosing too much Cooling performance.

Best Computer for Animation, Intel 1500$

PCPartPicker part list

Some Build notes: This is a basic build that you can build upon. The Case is professional looking, minimalistic and quiet. There is no room for Optical drives in the Corsair Carbide 400Q, you will need a different Case if you want to have DVD/CD Drives.

The Intel CPU needs an additional CPU Cooler, so I added an excellent CPU Air Cooler from BeQuiet here. Air Coolers are usually quieter than AIO or Water Cooling solutions, as they only have one Fan. If you are planning on some more extreme overclocking, you might want to consider getting a different CPU cooling solution though.

That’s pretty much it!

What Computer for Animation are you building?

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Alex from CGDirector - post author

Hi, I am Alex, a Freelance 3D Generalist, Motion Designer and Compositor.

I have built a multitude of Computers, Workstations and Renderfarms and love to optimize them as much as possible.

Feel free to comment and ask for suggestions on your PC-Build or 3D-related Problem, I'll do my best to help out!

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Comments

Adam Benton

Great updated article/re-write of the older article, Alex – thank you! 🙂