A comprehensive update with improved modeling tools, a streamlined workflow, and better performance

3ds Max users will be delighted with 3ds Max 2010 mostly because it is a comprehensive update with greatly improved modeling tools. But added enhancements, such as streamlined and collaborative workflows, make the new version powerful in other ways.
For the second year in a row, Autodesk has released two versions, 3ds Max and 3ds Max Design. The Design version is identical to the standard 3ds Max but is aimed at the visualization market for architects, designers and engineers. For instance, the Design version features an exposure lighting analysis system to simulate industry-standard lighting requirements. The standard 3ds Max version, reviewed here, is aimed at artists in the gaming, film and broadcast industries and includes an SDK for third-party developers. Overall, the differences between the two versions are minor and many new tools, as well as workflow and performance improvements, are found in both versions.

New Look

Straight out of the box the most noticeable difference is the new default dark grey user interface (UI). Autodesk is standardizing the look and feel of its applications and, as a result, the new 3ds Max UI scheme looks a lot like Revit or AutoCad.

The new Graphite Modeling Tools, prominently tucked under the tool bar, are organized in a tab and menu system, dubbed the Ribbon. For long-time 3ds Max users the Ribbon may take some getting used to. But don’t worry: you can customize it to fit just about any workflow. Also, if you find the new UI more trouble than it’s worth, you can switch back to the standard 3ds Max look or even revert back to the 3ds Max 2009 UI.

Advanced Modeling

The new Graphite Modeling Tools are a tremendous improvement, moving 3ds Max to a level on a par with advanced modelers like modo 401 (read my review of modo 401 here). The best new feature in the Graphite Modeling Tools is the new Edge Loop tools; edge loop selections in general are much improved in this version. Other tools include Dot Ring or Dot Loop, which selects alternate patterns of loops as predefined; Swift Loop, which easily creates and positions new edge loops and Set Flow, which quickly centers them for perfect quads every time. The new Flow Connect tool not only creates new edge loops but averages out the geometry between edge loops to maintain a smooth topology flow. The Loop Tools help you center and relax existing edge loops to quickly normalize topology.

Why do you need all of these? With subdivision surfaces now the de facto standard for organic modeling and sculpting, it’s important to create models made only of quads. The Graphite Modeling Tools, and the edge loop tools in particular, now make it possible to quickly edit and re-topologize existing models and efficiently model in a quads-only environment.

Review 3

The new generation of Review promises real-time viewport display of ambient occlusion, soft shadows, exposure control and other display features, thus taking much of the guesswork out of rendering. When I tested the software on an HP Z600 workstation with 24GB of RAM and an NVIDIA Quadro FX 4800 card, the display performance was nimble even with most options enabled. On a more modest workstation, however, the real-time display rate suffered remarkably. While this is a great addition to 3ds Max, its full potential may be out reach for most users working on less souped up systems.


Rendering improvements include support for mental images’ mental mill Artist Edition, which lets you develop and manage platform-independent, complex shaders using a node-based interface. Another notable and useful new rendering feature for mental ray users is Global Quality Knobs control. With these handy knobs, you can adjust in real time the global properties of rendered images, such as anti-aliasing and soft shadows.


Autodesk has been steadily improving its Biped system in recent Max releases, 3ds Max 2010 features better rigging of human hands, for more natural movements and better control. Special effects like cloth simulation have been improved (an obvious migration from Maya) and can now simulate enclosed pressurized surfaces like balloons; there are also better tearing controls. Particle simulations have new operators for more realistic effects and better performance. Though still not on the same level with Maya’s nCloth and nParticles, these special effects improvements are a step in the right direction.


3ds Max’s new tool, Containers, promises to streamline scene management and improve performance by grouping objects into a container. You can unload Containers from a scene, for example, if you need to free up memory and improve display performance. Containers also lets multiple users reference, access and edit the contents, perfect for a team of modelers working on the same scene at once.

It’s collaborative benefits like these that make 3ds Max 2010 a must-have upgrade. Though animation updates in this release are a bit sparse, the workflow, modeling and rendering improvements more than make up for it. If you purchase the software with Autodesk’s added subscription fee, you get access to online training, software updates and dedicated technical support.