CG Workstation – The “Featherweight”

Quite often, people have been asking for an affordable, basic CG workstation.
In this post I will try to pick components for an above average machine that packs some punch and will allow you to work on almost anything and not feel that you have compromised getting something outdated. The theoretical “soft” budget is targeted to be $750 or less, excluding taxes and software.


To get it out of the way, I have to say that the potential of our hardware advances much faster than that of our software: CPUs dated a couple of generations back can perform most modelling tasks, and given proper components and enough RAM can produce top notch results. Just keep in mind what the pros you are aspired to have been producing 3-4 years ago, when in most cases the hardware used could not dream of the performance of the current mid to low range CPUs.

The most obvious difference is that almost all mid to high end CPUs offer a massive amount of cores / threads to play with. In the heart of the PC we will be describing in the lines below, live 8 cores ticking in pretty high clocks. It is certainly not the fastest chip in the block, but it is pretty good for its price. Even more amazing is that a few years ago, this kind of multi-thread performance would require a 2P solution, which for the dual socket motherboard alone would require you to invest almost as much as this complete system costs. This “Furtherweight” packs some punch.

In the range of $750, this system can fill the budget of many: professionals asking for a secondary backup system that can double as a rendering node, interns that need something potent yet affordable or students – especially when most of them are now required to also invest in a decent laptop to drag along in classes, yet realize the cost/performance benefits of a desktop that can be assigned to do the heavy lifting when home.

The suggested components are mid-to-low end, but that doesn’t mean that this system is incapable of being upgraded without “wasting” any of your initial investment, as motherboard, PSU and RAM are selected to leave decent headroom.
Overclocking is also not out of the question, but you won’t be breaking any speed records.

  • CPUAMD FX-8320 3.5GHz (4GHz Turbo) 8-core. We could find cheaper CPUs from both AMD and intel, but few could compete at this price point as far as rendering performance goes. CG workstations are not all about multi-threaded performance, but this CPU is king at its pricepoint for that. Overclocking potential is great, matching that of the 8350 that would set you back $30 more. If you are not into overclocking, the 8350 extra cost “pill” is easily swallow – you would not pay less than that for a decent aftermarket cooler, and your clocks would be 4.0GHz out of the box. That said, the FX-8320 could easily do more than 4.0-4.2GHz even with the stock cooler. AMD FX cpus are less tolerant to high temps than contemporary intel CPUs, otherwise even 4.5GHz are “doable” with the stock cooler. Should you wish to run your CPUs in such speeds, a proper aftermarket cooler like Coolermaster’s Hyper 212 Evo is highly recommended.

  • Motherboard: MSI 970A-G46 AM3+. This is a well performing AM3+ board based on the AMD 970A chipset. Proper support for 125W processors, decent overclock capabilities, USB 3.0 and full SATA 6GBps support. The PCIe slot layout is also nice, with plenty of options as dual slot GPUs won’t be blocking all other expansion slots. Unfortunately there are no USB 3.0 headers to plug your front case panel’s USB slots to. The Switch 210 offers a front USB 3.0 that will be inactive due to that fact. 

  • RAM: G.SKILL Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin SDRAM DDR3 1866. For a budget system you could go 8GB and still be ok for most simple scenes. 16GB will probably satisfy most, as very few people actually utilize more than that. Still, planing ahead is wise and 8GB sticks are recommended  to allow room for growth without parting out your initial investment (often the case with 4GB sticks). Prefer low profile heat-spreaders. Those offer little to no gains in reliability and stability, but might cause installation issues obstructing the use of large CPU heasinks, and even airflow to the CPU in tight situations. G.Skill Ares and Corsair Vengeance LP are good examples. The 1866 speed is not a must, but latest AMD architectures really likes high memory speeds. Benefits are much more pronounced than those seen with intel CPUs.

  •  Graphics: For this one – once more – we have to be honest: is this a CG workstation built, or will it double as a gaming platform too? If the weight is on viewport acceleration for 3D programs, even a budget Quadro 600/K600 will easily outperform most gaming cards – regardless of cost and will be an obvious choice.
    If we plan on any short of gaming on contemporary 3D titles, those baby Quadro’s will struggle. For the $170 or so that are allocated to the GPU for this built, we can get quite a few GPUs that can actually accelerate games very good on single 1080/1200p monitors.
  1. Viewport Spinner: Quadro K600 1GB by Lenovo. The new Kepler based entry Quadro, straight from the OEM Lenovo’s store will provide us access to the optimized Quadro drivers that seem to benefit most of 3D programs. Yes, hardware wise it appears to be far out-speced by most gaming cards in the same price range, but real life performance in 3DS and Maya is simply not there.
  2. Best value: MSI Radeon HD 7750 2GB. Decent all around card at an amazing price, retailing below $85 these days. 128bit RAM bus won’t break any records, but the card will do very well in most light CAD environments.
  3. AMD Gamer: HIS Radeon 7850 2GB. If we can swallow the slightly inferior viewport performance in OpenGL 3D apps vs. the K600, the Radeon 7850 is a great value and a notable upgrade over the 7750. It can play most modern games @ high settings without major hickups. It is a power hungry card, which nonetheless can be easily covered with the PSU below. It offers superior OpenGL performance to relative viewports like those found in Maya, Mudbox, Cinema 4D and Sketchup (among others) and comparable D3D performance with the 650 Ti Boost (for most of the Autodesk products outside Maya & Mudbox). The 2GB version is rarely found below $140, but 1GB 7850s are not cheaper enough to worth degrading imho. Adobe is already announcing the switch to all of its popular GPU accelerated apps to OpenCL from CUDA, where Radeons have a proper advantage over similarly priced nVidia cards. Unfortunately the industry standard in GPU accelerated renderers is still heavily biased towards CUDA, and the OpenCL modes are improperly supporting AMD cards, revealing that the coding was purely adapted.
  4. nVidia Gamer: EVGA GeForce GTX650Ti Boost 2GBFeeling the pressure by cards like the 7850, the 650Ti Boost is the newest Kepler card to hit the sub-$200 segment. Its performance is great, but in most games outside BF3 the 7850 feels a more solid choice. What the 650 Ti Boost opens though is the ability to explore CUDA-only accelerated applications, like most GPU Renderers. Like the Radeon 7850, this GTX will suffice for casual 2D/3D work in architecural drafting and CG apps, but the peppy Quadro above will feel slightly to considerably better (depending on scene complexity and viewport mode and size).
  • HDD: Western Digital Caviar Black 1 TB. At this price point, an SSD would make little sense. SSDs have made huge leaps in $/GB and are quite affordable should we wish to run just the OS and a few basic apps and/or games out of, but as assets and libraries grow, the amount of money needed to keep them exclusively on SSD drives becomes disproportionate to their advantages. Lets face it: SSDs are very very rarely speeding up anything more than windows and app loading times. Gamers also love them for games that need to load often large maps, but that’s pretty much it.
    Most >1TB 7200rpm drives are fast, but the WD Black line is at the moment the only one offering 5 years warranty, while competitors (and WD Green/Blues) give 2-3years. I would get the extra coverage over ~5% less performance in comparison to newer Seagate models any day. A 1TB drive is neither the fastest, nor the best $/GB HDD choice available, but it is the biggest that could fit our budget without penalizing other component choices.

  • PSU: Corsair CM500M. An affordable 500W modular PSU with 80+ Bronze rating. Enough power for the FX-83xx and a good gaming GPU that should last for years to come. Nough said.

  • Case: NZXT Source 210 Elite. A great value, modern mid-atx tower. Minimal aesthetics and decent amenities like cable management. The Elite version comes with 1x USB 3.0/1x USB 2.0 ports in the front panel and a few case fans that the “vanilla” 210 lacks (has 2x 2.0 ports). In both versions it is hard to beat for the price. Careful with newer offerings from some companies (most of them above the $50 the 210 elite is asking), as some offer exclusively USB 3.0 front panel connections -something this generation of affordable motherboards lacks. 
  • Optical Drive: Optical Drives (ODs) are rarely utilized the last few years. Broadband connections, cloud storage and affordable flash drives are replacing them. For most ODs are limited to installing new software and OS. A Lite-On IHAS124-04 or Asus DRW-24B3ST would do the trick.

Operating System: Windows 7 Professional SP1 64bit (OEM) Windows OS is guaranteeing compatibility with most rendering packages, including 3DS Max. If your distributed rendering will be focused in Maya, you could actually get away with Linux as client packages for VRay are available. Windows 7 Home editions are limited to 16GB of RAM. Professional and Ultimate versions allow up to 128GB, and offer some additional networking/remote access features that are desirable.

Disclaimer: some of the links contained within this post and resource pages have my referral ID, leading to a small commission for each actual sale  that originates directly from my material. This doesn’t mean I won’t strive to provide you with objective information and honest opinions that will potentially help you on educated decisions. If you like the information in this site, please support it by using the links below when you decide to buy.

4 thoughts on “CG Workstation – The “Featherweight”

  1. Hi, Greetings of the day. Happy New Year. First of all I want to thank you for the information provided here. Right now I am using an AMD FX 6100 with Asus M5 A97, 8GB Corsair Vengeance 1600MHz. I am using it for Photoshop and CorelDraw works. I want to build another workstation for my brother. He wants to do it for mainly for old video & movie restoration. Available software iare Eyeon Fusion and HS Art Diamant. These software needs lot of continuous rendering for 3 to 8 hours. Will AMD FX series CPUs support these software? Other guys are suggesting to go for Intel i7 3770K or i7 4770K. But my budget matches to yours. Just I need your advice, which is better? FX 8350 or i7 4770K ? Thanks and regards Parthu

    • Hello, Happy new year.
      Yes, the FX 83xx/63xx are pretty good for any short of CG graphics and/or video and image editing software.
      The 4770K is overall a faster processor, but for the price (especially if you factor in the motherboard) the FX CPUs are hard to beat.

  2. Hi Dimitris, Thank you for posting all of this very useful info. I noticed that this configuration article for the Featherweight was posted April 2013. Your description of how it performs for the price point is definitely what I’m looking for to build my first workstation. I am a 3rd yr. arch. grad student using primarily rhino, v-ray, autocad, maya + mental ray. (non-gamer) Are these configuration recommendations relevant if I am building something new today? Is there anything on this list that should be updated with a newer model/spec? Thanks again for your help! Best, J

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *