In the market for a CG / VFX PC in late 2021 and you want to know what to look for in a CG / VFX PC for most artists without breaking the bank?
Perhaps you are wondering if you should go with Intel’s new Alder Lake CPUs or AMD CPUs?
Or maybe, you don’t feel that you know enough about hardware and you just want a solid recommendation from someone who has purchased CG / VFX PCs for CG studios in the past.
This is for you. By the end you’ll have a list of parts/components to look for or to bring to a custom PC builder to build for you.
While component prices are fluctuating all the time, the recommended PC should set you out less than $3500 for a system when times are not crazy.
At the end, I’ll also talk about options on how you can overcome some of the GPU shortages we are still facing at this point in late 2021.
Who is this for?
These recommendations are great for most CG / VFX artists who are working solo or freelance and need a capable CG / VFX PC.
It is also great for the CG / VFX student who is getting into CG / VFX and needs a PC at home to learn with and to create a solid demo reel.
The idea is to spec out a CG / VFX PC that would be plenty competent for most CG / VFX artists but would not cost more then $3500 when self-assembled.
I am not a tech blogger or youtuber. So this article isn’t going to be heavy on benchmarks and graphs.
Check out the Gamer Nexus, Linus Tech Tips, Optimum Tech YouTube channels, as well as Toms Hardware for benchmarks and graphs.
I am a CG artist / practitioner who occasionally enjoys assembling my own computers, and was involved in purchasing workstations for previous CG studios I’ve worked for.
So this is about what makes sense and is most important for CG / VFX creative workflows, software and tasks.
This list started off because I needed to build my own CG/VFX PC for work in early 2020 and it started with this post here: https://www.nelsonlim.com/?p=1156
Since then there has been a lot of demand and questions as new hardware got released, so I have endeavoured to update this list.
Also, note that prices vary depending on supply and demand of these parts. I have listed down prices that you should aim to get in the range of.
Beware of price-gouging from 3rd party sellers for GPU and CPU compoenents. Make sure you buy direct from Amazon, Best Buy or Newegg and be prepared to wait or look for alternate options.
No one is sponsoring me to write a recommendation. In many cases, the products I recommend are ones that I use or would buy if I were looking to make a purchase.
When you use these links, you are supporting the YouTube channel and this blog. Even if you decide to purchase a different product, it still helps to support the blog/channel. So, thank you!
This post also ties in with the Effective with Nelson live video podcast that you can find here if you are interested in the longer ramble:
Case / Chassis
I recommend a mid-tower case, because it is not too big to place on a desk and is a common size that you will find lots of options for parts.
Also it is large enough, if you want to add another graphics card.
NZXT H510 Compact ATX Mid-Tower PC Case
Price: $70 (at time of publication)
One of the best value for money mid-tower cases, it’s really a steal. Available in several colors. Great modern aesthetics and air-flow, allows you to easily put in 2 GPU cards if you want but doesn’t take up too much space.
Fractal Design Meshify C Compact ATX Mid-Tower Case
Price: $90 (at time of publication)
Pick this if you want even better air-flow or if you simply prefer the look.
The CPU is the most CG / VFX artist’s most important computer component.
While the GPU has made good in roads into simulation, rendering and real-time computer graphics, most CG computing tasks still rely heavily on the CPU.
When pushing things to the limit, such as rendering large complex scenes or simulating high resolution fire or water, most CG workflows will still require a solid performing CPU.
While number of threads/cores is not the only determining factor, it plays a huge part in the performance of a CPU for CG tasks.
AMD Zen 3 CPUs Refresh Coming in Early 2022
AMD announced that it will be refreshing the Ryzen 9 5900/5950x with a new V-Cache that gives performance uplifts of 15% in Early 2022.
So if you already have a capable PC such as last year’s recommendations, I would wait till the first quarter of 2022, before making a purchase decision.
If you are wanting to learn CG / VFX or need a CG / VFX PC to do work, I would take advantage of the price drops on the Ryzen 9 chips.
AMD Ryzen 9 5900X 12 Core, 24 Thread Processor
Price: $499 (at time of publication)
I dropped last year’s recommendation of the Ryzen 9 3900X 12 Core, 24 Thread, in favour of the newer Zen 3 Ryzen 9 5900X.
The CPU’s benchmarks in V-Ray, Blender and CineBench scores often matched our previous Ryzen 3950X recommendation despite being 4 cores less!
For most CG / VFX artists and students learning effects simulations, the 5900X is going to be plenty.
AMD Ryzen 9 5950X 16-Core, 32-Thread Processor
Price: $699 (at time of publication)
The 5950x is about 5-25% faster than the 5900x in performance, depending on the benchmarks. Rendering benchmarks from VRay, Blender and Cinebench tends to heavily utilise the extra cores and produce 15-25% faster renders or better scores.
If you are a freelance effects artist, lighter, compositor or generalist who relies on CPU for rendering and simulation this upgrade pick will be worth the extra dollars over the time saved waiting on renders and sims for clients.
These are all great air coolers for performance CPUs. Pick the cheapest or the one that suits your aesthetic.
be quiet! Dark Rock Pro 4
Price: $90 (at time of publication)
Noctua NH-D15, Premium CPU Cooler with 2x NF-A15 PWM 140mm Fans (Brown)
Price: $90 (at time of publication)
Noctua NH-D15 chromax.Black, Dual-Tower CPU Cooler (140mm, Black)
Price: $100 (at time of publication)
Gigabyte X570 AORUS MASTER ATX AM4 Motherboard
Price: $370 (at time of publication)
This is the motherboard I use myself and it is what I recommend if you can find it at a good price.
Motherboards can still sometimes be in short supply. I have included additional links to alternative motherboards to consider if the recommended pick is not available.
These motherboards all do well based on reviews from Gamers Nexus and were options I would purchase if they were available or cheaper.
High-end Ryzen performance is dependent on good motherboards.
These motherboards are a solid option as they are often used to benchmark Ryzen CPU performance.
These x570 motherboards also support the newer PCIE4 technology on more than one card slot.
While you won’t see performance gains even on the RTX 3090 GPUs, the PCIE4 will ensure that your motherboard continues to support newer cards.
ASUS ROG Crosshair VIII Hero X570
Price: $360 (at time of publication)
MSI Meg X570 Unify Motherboard
Price: $330 (at time of publication)
ASRock X570 TAICHI
Price: $320 (at time of publication)
TEAMGROUP T-Force Vulcan Z DDR4 64GB Kit (2x32GB) 3200MHz
Price: $255 (at time of publication)
For best performance with Ryzen 9 CPUs, you will want DDR4 memory that is at least 3200MHz.
Memory prices have been fluctuating. So get the best 3200MHz or greater memory you can find at the cheapest price.
I recommend 64GB of memory if you can as a professional artist.
Most DCC applications are memory intensive and the ability to have multiple DCC applications or scene opened is helpful.
Being able to jump between Substance and Maya when texturing.
Also when running water simulations in Houdini, 64GB is recommended.
If you are a student, 32GB of memory is the minimum I would recommend if you are buying a PC today that you don’t want to outgrow.
TEAMGROUP T-Force Vulcan Z DDR4 64GB Kit (4x32GB) 3200MHz
Price: $510 (at time of publication)
I recommend 128GB of memory as the upgrade pick. But it is not for everyone, especially when memory prices are expensive.
Professional freelance effects, lighting, compositing, generalist artists are the ones that will benefit the most from this upgrade if it is within your budget.
Students, modelers, animators, riggers, texture artists would not need this upgrade altogether.
G.SKILL Ripjaws V Series 64GB (2 x 32GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 3200 (PC4 25600) Desktop Memory Model F4-3200C16D-64GVK
Price: $275 (at time of publication)
Team T-FORCE DARK Z 64GB (2 x 32GB) 288-Pin DDR4 SDRAM DDR4 3200 (PC4 25600) Intel XMP 2.0 Desktop Memory Model
Price: $289 (at time of publication)
The most difficult part about making a graphics card recommendation at the moment is that they are either no where to be found or at 2-4x their launch price.
Nonetheless, products are still coming back in stock for brief moments which you may be able to snag if you use a real time product tracker app like hotstock.io
Buying a pre-built PC is an option that more and more folks are doing in order to get their GPUs. Check out some of the links to company’s that sell pre-built PCs below.
NVIDIA RTX 3070 8GB
Price: $499 (at launch)
For 2021, the best graphics card for most VFX/CG artists would be the NVIDIA RTX 3070 8GB DDR6.
It outperforms last year’s recommendation the NVIDIA RTX 2070 Super by 20-30% across blender, VRay, Redshift and Octane benchmarks, while maintaining the same $500 MSRP.
The RTX 3070 has 5888 cuda core, compared with 3584 cuda core in the RTX 3060 which has an MSRP of $330.
That means that the cost per cuda core for the RTX 3070 is $0.085/core vs $0.092/core for the RTX 3060.
NVIDIA RTX 3080 10GB
Price: $699 (at launch)
Interestingly, the RTX 3080 is also the best value for money card.
At 8704 CUDA cores for a launch price of $699, it’s $0.080/core!
|RTX 3060 Ti
|RTX 3070 Ti
|RTX 3080 Ti
ADATA XPG SX8200 Pro 1TB NVMe Solid State Drive x2
Price: $100×2 (at time of publication)
I now recommend getting another 1TB SSD for a secondary hard drive for caching as it is so much faster and the prices have gone down.
Power Supply Unit
Any gold certified 850W power supply unit(PSU) would be sufficient for up to a dual 3070 GPU setup. I’ve recommended two options below for you.
CORSAIR RMX Series, RM850x, 850 Watt, 80+ Gold Certified, Fully Modular Power Supply
Price: $160 (at time of publication)
EVGA Supernova 850 G5, 80 Plus Gold 850W, Fully Modular
Price: $160 (at time of publication)
Pre-built PC are a good option if you have no inclination of purchasing and assembling the separate components on your own.
In normal times, they can be slightly pricier then building your own PC.
However with the issues on graphics cards availability, it is often times cheaper to go for a pre-built PC than to purchase a graphics card from a retailer.
Nonetheless, you won’t always be able to find the exact components I recommend on this list on a pre-built PC, so you’ll need to make adjustments accordingly.
Finally, it seems from Gamers Nexus reviews of pre-built PCs lately that the quality of these builds are pretty hit-or-miss.
So check out their video on what to watch out for.
I worked with and purchased high-end custom CG workstations from the company Doghouse Systems when I was at a previous CG studio.
We evaluated their systems when we considered moving away from Dell. We eventually went with Doghouse Systems.
I have been impressed by their customer service and attention to detail.
They also don’t break the bank like some of the other companies out there.
Again, they did not sponsor this post or my recommendations.
I have simply used them before and recommended them to colleagues who have had great experiences with them too.
I contacted them on their facebook page and they are still taking custom orders for VFX / CG PCs. While they are based in Dallas, they ship throughout the U.S.
If you sent them this list and what you wanted, they should be able to take the recommendations and build a PC with the same or similar components.
What about Intel Alder Lake?
Intel Core i9-12900 KF 16-Core, 24-thread Processor
Price: $630 (at time of publication)
Intel’s release of the Core i9-12900KF CPUs that are 16 Core, 24 Thread Processors has received lots of attention from internet tech reviewers as the new fastest CPU on the block.
It has an interesting design taken from mobile CPUs where it is a combination of more powerful cores and some less powerful but more efficient cores which do not hyper-thread, sense it only have 24 threads instead of 32.
The new Intel Chip is better at single core tasks. CineBench R23 single-thread benchmarks place it 25% faster than the Ryzen 5950X.
However, many CG workflows, like reading/writing geometry, rendering, compositing, deformation and simulation divide up well into discrete instructions that benefit from a multi-thread/core performance.
So let’s look at multi-core/thread performance of the this chip.
The newer Intel Core i9-12900KF is faster than the Ryzen 5950X in multi-threaded performance by about 9% in Cinebench R23 results.
Ryzen 5950X is 6% faster in VRAY 5 Path Tracing Benchmarks.
In blender benchmarks, the Ryzen 5950X is either close to the Intel or faster by as much as 10%.
To summarize, in real-world CG production performances the Core i9-12900KF’s performance is pretty close to the Ryzen 9 5950X with the 5950X is slightly faster in multi-core CPU intensive render tasks.
That’s pretty impressive results from a 24 thread processor from Intel as they claw their way back.
So why not recommend the Core i9-12900KF as the upgrade pick, since it is almost as fast in most CG production workflows, even faster at single-threaded performance and also about $70 cheaper?
Is it really cheaper?
These CPUs will need the newer Z690 motherboards. Currently, they tend to cost about $100 more than their AMD X570 equivalents.
So artists will to find out if their choices of motherboard + CPU actually works out to be a savings.
Also, Ryzen prices are dropping in response to Intel’s release. Already the 5950X is $100 cheaper since Intel’s announcement.
So the Ryzen 9 could get even cheaper.
Currently, there are also less Z690 motherboard options available, although that would change in the future.
Finally, while I don’t recommend DDR5 memory, if you choose to use DDR5 memory it’s currently about 50% more expensive than DDR4.
Not many options available at the moment but look for a board that uses DDR4 memory.
Is it going to last?
These CPUs use much more power then the energy efficient Ryzen 5950X.
This could be a result of Intel trying to claw back dominance and tuning the chip to push at it’s limits.
How long will Intel keep it’s dominance once AMD refreshes the Ryzen 9 in a few months, with AMD having more room to tune performance?
Tech reviewers are reporting consistent temperatures in the 90s when rendering and performing CG workflows with this Intel CPU even without a chassis!
As a reference, we don’t want CPUs to run above 70 degrees Celsius consistently for long periods of time.
I think the jury is still out if the Core i9 is suitable for CG workflows where I could be rendering or simulating for days at a stretch.
Is it available?
Currently, the Intel Core i9-12900KF is out-of-stock. So most people won’t be able to get it.
That will likely change as in the near future, when there will be more inventory.
K or KF?