Since I’m one of these guys who hate reading software reviews, I’m going to cut to the chase and just go to the final conclusions. This look at 3ds Max 2010 is the first installment of a series of honest, no-hype reviews. I know some of the software publishers will be angry with me after this, but I have to tell it like it is.

I’ve followed Max since the first beta. I’ve also read a number of the dozens of reviews of this prodigious new 2010 edition of the venerable package. I’ve now had time to play with it and overall I like it.

The Good

This release if filled with useful new features. The 2010 version is indeed a major release worth the price of upgrade but be prepared for some glitches. The Graphite tools appear to come from the PolyBoost plug-in, and have been very cleverly integrated with brilliant, if subtle, interface changes incorporating a selection ribbon. It is amazing how much stuff is under the hood of 3DS Max and they still keep making the interface more usable. Interface design at Autodesk has become a high-art combining efficiency analysis and human factors design.

This ribbon has three tabs on it: Polygon Modeling, Freeform and Selection. Each opens a tab filled with tools. The tools that are available at any given time are context sensitive. So, for example, you won’t be able to access the selection tools until you pick what you want to select by clicking vertices, edges polygons, border, or object. Pick one and the Selection tab becomes active with a plethora of interesting and creative ways to build a selection.

I love both the new tools and the improved workflow. The ribbons are more intuitive for me. I’m able to do more in considerably less time. Even though I’m used to the clunky not-so-ergonomic way Max used to work (and still does if you like) the new access ribbons speed my flow with both new and duplicate tool icons.

Hands-On Project

I’m testing Max on my powerful new testbed computer which has 6 gigs of Corsair fast RAM, Intel Core i7 processor with 8 virtual cores that do actual work, and a very fast set of hard drives. I’m even cooling the CPU with the CoolIT Elite system. There is a water jacket for the support chips built into the Gigabyte EX58-Extreme mobo, but I have yet to hook it up. Currently I’ve switched out the excellent ATI FirePro v8700 video board for the also excellent Nvidia Quadro CX because I’ll be looking at the Adobe Creative Studio CS4 which the CX allegedly accelerates significantly. We shall see.

Onward to the project… Let’s create a complex spaceship hull in about five minutes. I pull out a primitive plane with 100 X and Y segments, and then I click on the Graphite tools ribbon-> go to Convert to Polygon and “Bam!” we have 10,000 square flat polygons. Ok, so this looks boring, so I drop the Polygon Modeling tab, and select Generate Topology. It’s a very cool new poly-manipulation tool. I select Planks 2. This process chugs for quite a while   and you may think your system has frozen and in Vista the screen turns white if click on anything. I thought it was dead. But then, bam, my entire surface now has been converted to a new polygon layout of rectangles of various dimensions intersecting each other much as they might on the hull of a space ship.

As a side note, I can think of many new patterns I’d like to see added to the Topology Generator menu and I hope that Autodesk comes up with a tool for me to create my own. That would be a really killer app.

Since a texture would not see this underlying pattern, I need to give it definition. I click the Select by Polygon icon in the Graphite dropdown. This activates the Select ribbon, and I pick the Random Selection tool. I set it to pick 27% of the polygons and a bunch of polygons are selected randomly. I then go back to the Graphite tools and select Extrude (the tool isn’t new, but the way you use it is) and then I set it to “by polygon” and the amount to .1 meters. This gives just a little definition to some of the polygons.

Now comes the fun part. By making various random selections and alternating tiny positive and negative extrusions you can get a very complex, greeble like surface. Make sure you only select the tops of your extrusions by engaging the Select >Tops selection filter under the Selection Tab. Experiment by mixing extruding by “group” “normal” and “polygon” doing it eight or 10 or more times. You can also use the bevel and inset tools here in a similar manner or mix them up. Each time I random select I try different percentages to select. I may add to, or reduce, the selection randomly using buttons in the tool. If you do it right, you’ll end up with an extremely detailed hull-like surface. Add a few pipes and tanks and communication dishes and some textures. There you have it you have a very believable, highly detailed starship hull.

More good stuff

There are lots of little good things, for example Max 2010 is one of the few applications that will import the new DDF format that all USGS DEMs have been converted to. The new interface can be a bit confusing. Some oft used operations are now moved to the upper left side of the title bar or behind a little blue square there where you’ll find the file operations and to the right you’ll find them reproduced next to redo and undo arrows and help button. Being a creature of habit I didn’t like this at first, but it really makes things easier and now I love it. There is also now a transform gizmo in each window that makes navigation around your scene a bit easier. It can cause problems in some installations with limited memory, but I like it. I was advised by an Autodesk engineer to remove it when high-poly objects caused extended freezing.

As for display performance on both the ATI FirePro V8700 and the Quadro CX, I think both boards are excellent little supercomputers capable of far more than I’m seeing. I admit some scenes are beautifully textured and rendered in real-time in Max, but not all and I don’t know what causes the inconsistency. But in general the real-time display with a pro video card will be reasonably good. For this review, my video cards are optimized for 3DS Max using presets supplied with each card.
As a side note, I do like the realtime display performance on PoserPro with these boards. You can hardly tell the smooth real-time display of your character from the fully rendered version. If SmithMicro can do it…E-on and Autodesk certainly should. Granted I’m usually working with more polygons in those two apps, but with 200-800 stream processors (CX vs V8700) screaming along, I expect consistent excellent performance.

Mental Mill

I don’t have space to review it here, but 3ds Max 2010 comes with a remarkable new procedural shader tool called Mental Mill from Mental Images. The Artist Edition can be downloaded for free and it is a really cool and sophisticated shader generator. If you take the time to learn it, you can make very natural-looking, usable shaders. The node-based system is much like the function generator in Vue 7.5 xtreme. You select various noise generators, texture nodes, illumination nodes, color nodes, normal nodes, texture coordinate nodes, filters, etc. You pull them into the workspace and hook them up to create a near infinite variety of shaders. This is in fact so much fun, you could get lost in it. I hate reading instruction manuals, but I advise it with Mental Mill. I have to admit to hours of experimenting with textures and saving them. In a Saturday afternoon you can build an entire library of usable shaders… well worth the time.

Containers…at last!

One of the excellent innovations in this release is a collaboration tool. Containers impart the ability to encapsulate scenes or parts of scenes for use by others in your group. Everything stays together and organized. Containers look like a regular object that can be locked and transported with specific permissions. A friend of mine suggested that the container can also be used to remove a portion of a scene intact, to reduce the load on the GPU for smoother viewing while working on a specific section of the scene. It can be reloaded very easily when you need it.

More innovations

You’re going to want to check out so many new little tools and tweaks such as the new Material Explorer, Viewport Canvas (paint directly on objects in a scene),Improved Track View with Multitrack sound support, and so much more.


Another thing about Max that I love, is the amazing array of plug-ins available for customizing. For example, I work on large landscapes a lot in Vue 7.5 xtreme. This version of Vue includes a Max 2010 plug-in that works very nicely, adding tons of new atmosphere, sky, lighting and texturing tools. It also brings in the procedural vegetation tools and their vast library. Having these two applications working together provides a wonderful workflow adding modeling and other tools not available in Vue.

After many tries I was able to get a half million polygon USGS DDF model imported into Max and then exported to .obj format. Max gives you presets to optimize the .obj export for different applications including Vue. I then imported this huge file into the standalone version of Vue 7.5 xtreme. Vue can’t read the DDF format so Max made my modeling in Vue possible. Vue 7.5 xtreme handled that very large chunk of geometry with no problems, yielding quick texturing and manipulation as well.
So in general 3ds Max 2010 has many creative and useful new features in this release. They will boost both your creativity and your efficiency as long as you don’t spend a lot of time on huge chunks of geometry. Autodesk engineers are on the job creating update service packs as they discover the problems and tweak their code. Autodesk is a big company that stands behind its products. I consider that an important part of the good. There are also dozens of innovations that I haven’t even touch upon here. Good ones. So I encourage you to investigate.

The Bad

It has been my observation that Autodesk tends to alternate between Feature releases and internal tweak releases. This release is filled with great new features. But many of them have glitches, which you have to expect this in such a complex entity. Most are not yet multithreaded, and even with SP1 in place I get more freezes and crashes than I want. These freezes are not caused by lack of RAM or processor headroom. I monitored both. Sometimes I’d get a long freeze with less than half my RAM engaged and only one of my eight cores at less than 80% engaged.

I will say that every time I have a crash, a report is sent to Autodesk both with the technical details and my comments on what happened at what point. This is designed to help their engineers locate trouble spots and recode as necessary.

As an experiment I tried my Space Ship Hull project using a plane with a million polygons and it simply would not work. The last thing I was able to accomplish was Convert to Polygons from there-on the tools were just totally overwhelmed by the count. It took 25 minutes to generate the plank surface and then froze permanently on trying to select 25% of the polygons. I thought it must be me or my equipment. So I checked around and discovered I’m not the only one who has experienced these sorts of glitches.


Max has Prosound so you can add up to 100 tracks of sound to your animation. It comes with lots of controllers and in Trackview you can synch up sound with your animation. That’s good. But I don’t like Prosound. My issue with Prosound is that it is about as non-intuitive a sound editing entity as I have ever seen. You won’t even find it without reading the instructions. I find the interface klunky and confusing. It doesn’t even have a play button in tracview, but it does have a scrub bar. It works fine, but is just another unnecessary steep learning curve. I edit and synch my sound in Adobe’s Audition, and lately with Soundbooth CS4 linked to Adobe Premiere Pro CS4. I think Autodesk should stick with doing what they do best…concentrate their coding power on improving performance of the main modeling and animation, improving GPU and multithread performance.


In spite of my criticisms, I’d say 3ds Max 2010 is a landmark release. It includes so many new and useful creative tools that speed up workflow for so many people, that it’s worth the price of admission. It is a bit glitchy here and there, and may be annoying, but it is so unique and if you don’t have massive geometry to work with, it’s going to make your life better. You have to look at what you want to accomplish and make that decision. One thing that may help you make that decision is a new book by Kelly L. Murdock: “The 3ds Max 2010 Bible” Kelly knows Max 2010 intimately and his insight will help you on the fine details.

In the next installment we’ll take a look at Vue 7.5 Extreme.