Blender 3D has been around for a long time, and is often referred to as the most advanced open source 3D application out there. It has always had a small but strong following, and is seen as the free option for those who want to dabble in the world of 3D. But Blender has long had the reputation of being hard to use, and missing some key features that professional software like 3DS MAX or Maya have. Several years ago, Blender completely revamped its user interface, and the team has been hard at work to add new features and improve every facet of the application. So now, how does Blender compare with professional tools?
Comparing software, especially things like 3D programs, is a risky proposition, because everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the issue. But a lot of people out there are new to 3D, and may be looking for the best solution to their particular needs. The fact is Blender has evolved a lot in the past few years, so it's useful to look at how much it has advanced, and whether it truly can be a replacement for commercial solutions. Blender 2.64 was released
at the beginning of the month, and like every new release this year, has brought a lot of improvements to the table.
The first and most obvious advantage to Blender is of course the price. Being open source, and distributed for free, you can use Blender free of charge. If you want to use 3DS MAX or Maya, two of the most popular commercial solutions in the industry, be prepared to spend over $3,000. Of course, there are cheaper alternatives, like Cinema4D at around $990, but that's still a lot of money. If you are cash-strapped, then obviously Blender will seem like a good deal.
Another important feature of Blender is how many features it actually has. It can do polygon modeling using Catmull-Clark subdivision, NURBS surfaces, metaballs, vector fonts, bezier and B-spline curves. It has sculpting tools like Paint, Smooth, Pinch, Inflate and Grab. It provides smooth soft selection editing tools for organic modeling, along with a modifier stack. Blender allows you to create a full skeleton for rigging, along with deformers and constraints. You can do 3D painting of your models. It provides full animation tools, high quality rendering using a built-in raytracer, UV unwrapping tools, a physics engine, composition tools, and even a real-time game engine.
Finally, because Blender is open source, it has a very dedicated community which is always customizing the software, which means you often get a lot of options as to your user interface, keyboard functions, and so on. And if you have any question, you can often find free resources that can help you out on the web.
Even though Blender received a face-lift and now has a better, more intuitive user interface for new users, it still remains a daunting first experience. It doesn't look or even feel like any normal Windows or MacOS software. Part of the reason for this complexity is simply the sheer amount of features it offers, but if you're used to other modeling software, you may find the Blender way of doing things a bit unusual.
The other negative is the small user base. The fact remains that very few studios use Blender, with most of them instead relying on professional solutions. This is particularly important because most 3D artists use a work pipeline which relies on more than one solution. They can use 3DS MAX alongside various scripts, MotionBuilder, in-house tools, plugins that handle things like mocap, game engines, etc. The point here being that the application is just one part of a vast workflow, and in most cases, that application is not Blender, so you may find that some scripts or plugins you rely on simply don't work with Blender.
If you look at individual features, it's very easy to find a solution that does things better than Blender. For example, many people find sculpting better in ZBrush, whereas if you need to make vast environment scenes you may be better off with Vue. But if you need an all-in-one tool, then few solutions out there will match what Blender can give you, and none will match the price. For basic modeling, there's no question that Blender 3D is a top of the line application, and while you may find faults in some of the other parts, like the game engine or physics system, which simply aren't on par with what some commercial solutions offer, maybe you don't have large needs there.
So in the end, if you're new to 3D and want to learn something that costs no money, and will allow you to create professional results, while allowing you to try all facets of 3D creation like sculpting and painting, then Blender is a very viable choice. The old complaints that the software is impossible to learn, or that many functions don't work right, just aren't true anymore. However, if your goal is to get in the industry, and get the skills needed to get employed in a studio, then perhaps it's best that you look for a trial of one of the more professional options, because even though Blender has been around for years, it still hasn't gained much ground in the industry.
Of course, in the end, the choice is yours, and if you get the option to try multiple solutions, then you should. Each application has its own quirks and workflows, so you should find what works best for you.