How Important *IS* Hardware

Ay up.

I was listening this evening to Mr. Price’s latest podcast entitled “How Important is Hardware?” and reached the unofficial end of the piece struggling a little to maintain my normally unshakably placid demeanour .

Only kidding, I was raging, as always, without fail.
Ranty opinion piece follows.

Throughout those first ten or so minutes, while not gratefully receiving the wisdom not to walk into any old Asian massage parlour, I actually spluttered to myself “but… but… what about…”, and then held my tongue and continued listening, only for the same thing to occur moments later.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall message is one of hope, and that’s lovely. To say to all the “budding artists” that it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford high-end hardware is, for the most part, a noble platitude (or cynical coaxing? …nah…) but for one thing; it’s just not true.
The power of your rig will influence how and what you learn and how and what you produce, more or less radically, depending on the circumstances.

The *most* important thing, literally, the *most* important thing is to be comfortable using your own machine. To know the limits of your rig is to prevent disaster (lost work from crashes), to ease frustration (understand why that operation takes so *damned long*), to optimise workflow (easy on the verts there tiger) and have a happier experience all round.
It’s simply not true to say that hardware isn’t that important. It absolutely *IS* that important, just not in the way the headline might lead you to think. You don’t need the fastest clocked CPU, the largest, zippiest RAM money can buy, or even a graphics card that keeps your local power plant in business. What you need, what you absolutely must have, is hardware you’re comfortable with, and an understanding that a beefier graphics card won’t magically make you better at art (which is probably what Andrew was getting at, but isn’t the whole story).

I’m not supremely artistic.
I can’t paint worth a damn, and the best thing I’ve ever sculpted in real life is a blu-tac teddy bear. I know my limitations, and for that reason (among others) I haven’t gone out to buy oil paints. I might, one day, if I have the time to spare, but I don’t expect great things so I’m not going to invest just yet.

What this past year using Blender has taught me is that I do have a little aptitude for some things and if I practice, I might get better at them.

What I feel I have a better than average aptitude for though, is knowing what my machine and I are capable of. It doesn’t expect me to be able to spread paint on a canvas in a pleasing formation and I don’t expect it to be able to handle forty million vertices with any kind of fluidity(see footnote). It doesn’t expect me to be able to chisel a new Venus de Milo and I don’t expect it to be able to load twenty 8k textures without straining a little at the time (numbers mostly pulled from somewhere sunless, but you get the gist).

The point is, that I’ve come to find my preferred group of tools and techniques based primarily on what we two are able to do together; what I can work with, and what my machine can manage.

So the importance is this; your hardware could, and probably will, shape your usage of any software.
If you’re lucky enough to have CUDA cores out the wazoo, you’ll do certain things that someone with fewer resources will not do. This can be good or bad on either side of the equation. Only the other day I saw a tutorial showing how to model a length of rope in a way that ended up spawning tens of thousands of vertices where a simple repeating normal map (or even a shader level displacement rather than the mesh level one they used) would have achieved much the same result with a tiny fraction of the memory/CPU footprint. The same person who is able to handle scenes using this technique, adding verts willy nilly, will undoubtedly also be able to do some very fine sculpting work on their rig, but if they never learn to work within the constraints of lower spec hardware, they may well miss out on some approaches that can be helpful in other situations.

That last section, as I read it back to myself, sounds a bit like “Worry not poor penniless Blenderhead, you’ll learn more than those rich folks!” which wasn’t my intention. I’m not trying to make anyone *feel* better, the poor about the experience they may gain or the rich about the freedoms they may enjoy. I simply want to say that while it’s not exactly the hardware itself that’s important, the hardware, and your relationship with it will be a major part of what will ultimately shape how you learn, what you learn, how you produce and what you produce.

Saying otherwise is to ignore some pretty obvious facts and is more than a little misleading.


Embarrassing footnote: Yesterday evening I joined together three meshes, one of which had over 30k verts, and only realised with horror in the moments thereafter that one of the meshes I’d joined had five or so levels of multires subdivision on it, and the selection order had been such that it was now attempting to subdivide my 30k+ vert mesh five times. This doesn’t invalidate my point though, because once I realised what I’d done, I had no illusions about why my machine had just ground to a halt, so there 😛

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