Free 3D software Blender 3.0 is turning the performance screw

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After a decade since the last major release, version 3.0 of the open source 3D software Blender has appeared. The user community has been wishing for some new functions such as an object library for just as long. Above all, however, the update promises significant performance improvements. Blender 3.0 is now available for free download for Windows, Linux and MacOS. This edition will receive updates for about three months until version 3.1 replaces it.

Die-hard users have waited a long time for the new Asset Manager, a system to manage all content that can be used in Blender, be it objects, materials, environments or poses for animation.

When you open Blender 3.0 for the first time, the Asset Manager appears completely empty. At the moment you have to fill your library manually. To do this, first mark the desired object as an asset and then save the Blender file that contains it in a previously defined folder. From now on, this serves as an asset library. The asset appears in the library and can be used in other blender projects in the future. The developers are planning a selection of demo assets for the future.

The Asset Manager combines 3D objects and materials in a library.

The developers have changed the user interface in detail in many places. This applies, among other things, to the themes with which you can adapt the software to your own needs. It is now easier to create your own window configurations than before. Blender 3.0 shows thumbnails in higher resolution and uses high-quality scaling algorithms for the preview. The program either generates file previews using screenshots or renders them with the view options that have just been selected. Fonts are now displayed with their names instead of the file name as before.

Blender 3.0 now shows fonts by their name (right). Before that, you had to figure out the file name (left).

The path tracing engine Cycles enables photo-realistic renderings, which, however, take time. Thanks to a rewrite, Cycles works much faster with Nvidia graphics cards. With Nvidia’s ray tracing engine OptiX as the backend and an RTX-capable graphics card, the developers promise a two to eight-fold increase in performance. For this, drivers of version 470 or higher are required.

With the new scheduling algorithms, navigating the viewport is much more responsive when you are in render preview mode. During the final rendering, Blender can now reuse the BVH acceleration structure between different frames, similar to the viewport. The creation of motion data from motion capturing in BVH (BioVision Motion Capture) format often takes longer with complex geometry than rendering itself. Caching brings another major performance boost, regardless of the hardware used for rendering.

In other areas, too, Blender 3.0 works faster than its predecessor. The program opens projects with many links faster than before. For files to be saved in compressed form, Blender now uses the high-performance Zstandard algorithm: files that the program previously wrote over a span of around ten seconds should now be able to store in less than a second. When loading, the new algorithm should work more than twice as fast. Version 3.0 promises to process large meshes at around two to three times the speed of earlier versions.

When rendering with Cycles, the image initially appears noisy and gradually clears up the more light rays the engine renders. This process is called sampling. The final quality of an image was previously defined by a certain number of rays per pixel. Thanks to improvements in adaptive sampling, the developers in Blender 3.0 recommend a workflow in which the desired quality is specified and Cycles can decide for itself how many rays it sends per pixel based on the existing image noise.

If there is still noise, it can be removed using denoising. Blender 3.0 brings a new version of Intel’s OpenImageDenoise with it, which preserves fine details better and delivers a higher quality than before with volumetric shaders.

With baking, rendering information is baked into textures so that it does not have to be recalculated over and over again in animations or computer games. In Blender 3.0 this also works with nVidia OptiX and adaptive sampling. The baked images can in turn be freed from residual image noise via denoising.

Graphics chips from Intel or older graphics cards from AMD can no longer be used in Blender 3.0 because the program no longer renders with OpenCL. Right from the start, the interface only supported a limited set of features and this situation is unlikely to change in the future either. Driver errors have also made it increasingly difficult for developers to support OpenCL.

In cooperation with hardware manufacturers, the developers are working on supporting other APIs in the future. Blender 3.1 is said to support a backend for the Apple-specific computer graphics API Metal and bring back GPU rendering under Mac OS.

If you have a current graphics card from AMD of the Radeon RX 5000 and RX 6000 generations, you can already render in Blender 3.0 via the HIP platform, but currently only under Windows; the required driver version is Radeon Pro 21.Q4. The Blender developers are currently working with AMD on support for Linux and older graphics chips – also with the aim of Blender 3.1.

With the Shadow Catcher, 3D objects created in Blender can be integrated into real photos or videos. This is an object that only stores the light and shadow that are thrown on it, but is itself transparent. In Blender 3.0 it now also supports indirect light and light from the environment. In addition, you can now exclude light sources, which means that they no longer have any effect on the Shadow Catcher.

Five years ago, all sorts of tricks were necessary to credibly integrate a 3D object into a photo. The new Shadow Catcher makes most of it redundant.

When rendering objects that only consist of a relatively small number of large polygons, so-called low poly models, Cycles sometimes generates artifacts that reveal the underlying geometry through hard shadow edges. This so-called shadow terminator problem can be countered in Blender 3.0 with a series of settings that shift the incident rays a little in borderline areas.

The picture on the left shows so-called shadow terminator artifacts as they arise when rendering in Blender 2.93. In the middle, an optimized render shows how Blender 3.0 does this. On the right a wire frame model that shows the faces and edges of the figure (render by Juan Gea Rodriguez).

With the Geometry Nodes introduced in Blender 2.92, objects can be procedurally generated or deformed. The operation, however, was cumbersome and deviated from known operating concepts at key points. They were therefore completely overhauled for Blender 3.0. Now they work more like the shading nodes for Cycles and Eevee. The developers adopted procedural textures from there, for example. In total, Blender 3.0 brings with it more than 100 new nodes that support Bézier curves and texts, among other things.

The relatively abstract workflow with “attributes” has been revised so that any form of data can now be sent to other nodes via links. This makes it easier, for example, to create your own functions from basic nodes using node groups. Blender users can be prepared for the fact that there will be a large selection of additional functions as node groups in the future.

Of the more than 100 new Geometry Nodes, 33 are dedicated to working with curves.

The video editing editor integrated in Blender has also received a major update. The video strips now show thumbnails. Up to 128 strips can be stacked on top of each other; previously the number of tracks was limited to 32. The biggest innovation, however, is that images and videos can now be easily rotated, scaled and moved using widgets in the sequencer’s preview window. With this innovation, the Video Sequence Editor can now be operated almost as easily as a conventional video editing program.


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