This article is my personal opinion, this question comes up a lot, so I’m going to try break it down here.
I wrote this article quite some time ago, now I’m coming back to update it and i decided to add a bit more about what you should pay attention to when picking a render engine, rather than just listing off pro’s and cons.
Animation vs stills
This is important because it affects a couple of things. Firstly, if you render stills it’s not such a big deal to wait 10 minutes for a final render, even waiting an hour for all the noise to clean up isn’t such a big deal. However in animations, you need atleast 24 frames a second, so it adds up very quickly and speed will be more important. Furthermore if you don’t render animations, you don’t really care that much about render farms, or render node licenses that come with the render engine. So for stills octane for example is great. I’d say its the one to beat, especially since it’s now just $20/month for the 2 gpu version. It’s called octane VR or something. Very confusing naming. It has great inbuilt post effects, so you don’t really need to do post work in a 3rd party app and there is a huge amount of tutorials on it. Generally learning curve is quite easy. But you also have things like Maxwell, which is really slow, but produces results that are hard to match for anyone else.
However if you are doing animation you have to pay attention to other things. First speed is waay more important to you, and something like Maxwell is a dead end. Unless you like spending thousands of dollars on render farms. And in an animation you probably won’t be able to notice the subtle nuances that maxwell produces anyway. Octane also isn’t such a great choice, because render farms are a pain with it. You have to use their render farm, and if it’s down, you are out of luck. Which is not good if you have tight deadlines and clients who change their mind a lot. Also there are speed limits on it, and a bunch of other silly unprofessional stuff.
Does this render engine support the features that you need? Can it render hair? Does it support Mograph color shaders? Openvdb volumes? How about it’s instancing support? How much geometry can it handle? How memory efficient is it? Can it render a convincing SSS effect? How slow is that effect. Does it support motion blur for deforming meshes?
If you intend to do particle work, you should check how well it integrates with x-particles. Cycles 4D is from the same developers, so it supports everything. Redshift and Arnold also do a pretty good job, but i recommend testing it yourself. Octane isn’t falling far behind, i regularly see articles which explain how to get certain parameters out of x-particles in Octane.
Node Based Materials
This is another important feature. You might like nodes, you might hate nodes. Most renderer with node based materials now have “uber shaders” or something similar, which means you don’t have to build things with nodes if you don’t want to, but it’s still some thing you should pay attention to. Some render engines don’t have node based materials at all, should be something to keep in mind. If you want to know why you would want node based materials check out my “Node’s like you are 5” video.
Stability with lots of polygons/objects
This is something that Arnold and Houdini’s Mantra are famous for. They can handle Astronomical sized scenes without crashing. Which may or may not be important to you. And something you should definitely consider. When going for a GPU render also keep this in mind. Most engines now can offload textures to the ram, but as far as i know they still keep all the geometry on board, so make sure your video card has enough ram, and your render engine can handle that much geometry. Have a look at my GPU picking article.
Biased vs unbiased
You might here these terms regarding render engines thrown around. In short. Unbiased render engines are brute force light calculations. Generally most unbiased render engines will have a very similar look and feel to them. So Octane, Thea, maxwell.. etc. While biased means that the render engines cheats in order to increase speed. so it throws more power at the areas with more details, and less at smooth surfaces, and then averages stuff. This is the reason you get splotchy renders and flickering in animations. Modern days biased render engines have ways of overcoming these shortcomings, with relatively little effort, but nonetheless, its still an issue sometimes.
Many render engines now have inbuilt denoisers, this is definitely something you should pay attention to, it can save LOTS of render time.
Does the render engine have render nodes you can buy for a discount? Or are they rentable? For example, scaling octane can be easy at $20/month for a 2 gpu machine. But more difficult if you have a machine with 4 gpu’s for example. Redshift has a deadline integration where you can rent nodes and pay for just the time you use the license. Thea has a package with unlimited render nodes.
[update]: cycles4d has been released, and while i haven’t had much time to test it yet, it looks like my new number one choice. partly because its developers are the same as xparticles and its all integrated, but mostly because they do a great job of documenting features, which makes the whole process a lot easier. So stay tuned for updates.
[update 2]: redshift is also now out of beta for cinema4D, and seems to be a very soild competitor. ( too much stuff to test) :)))
Vray – the grand daddy of 3rd party render engines for c4d.
- Big user base. Like REAL big
- lots of material presets
- many/most features of c4d supported
- Honestly hard to pick anything with the new releases. As far as i can tell it is doing really well. Has a GPU engine which supports a large amount of features, less settings than before, so its easy to use. Just a bit expensive.
- License model recently changed, so now its subscription based, but on the bright side development should be faster.
Price: €60 (68USD)/Month or €340 (382USD)/year ( no perpetual license )
Arnold – The new big gun.
- Can handle astronomical sizes of scenes without problems
- Supports lots of features straight off, including hair, xparticles, openvdb volumes from houdini.. etc..
- if you are planning on working in production houses you should know Arnold or Redshift
- New gpu and denoiser support makes Arnold a pretty nice option on par with the others.
- aquired by autodesk… ( chance of being discontinued development for other applications)
- also no render node licenses, but really only go for this render if you are relatively free with your budgets.
Price: 45USD/Month or 360USD/year ( no perpetual license )
Octane – The first GPU render, with super fast growing popularity
- lots of features supported. especially turbulenceFD
- very large user base, and growing rapidly, so lots of tutorials
- $20/month no commitment make this a great render engine to try out and get into without any commitment.
- otoy don’t sell render nodes, so you will never find farms that support it. they promised their own farm solution, but its not out yet. And even then there will be one farm, so if something happens to it, if its down, you have no alternatives. $20/month licenses to compensate though
- only gpu render, so if you run out of memory on your video card, there is no work around, no fall back.
- aggresive online activation system: for example this quote from an online chat: “what’s with octane today, said i have to deactivate, and i did, said i had to wait 60 minutes, and i did, then i try again and says deactivate and i did, NOW 60 FUCKING MINUTES AGAIN!!!!!! AHHHHH I’m losing my shit” (enterprise customers do have an option of USB dongle which should alleviate this problem, but it is more expensive)
- Otoy actively fights against users using external render farms, which are not their own. Right now most octane capable render farms require you to use your own license on the, because legally they can’t provide this service. This means if you have a tight deadline and need to enlist say 3 render farms, you can’t just pay them and send them all your fines, you have to set stuff up, purchase more licenses etc. Not a good idea for time sensitive projects, for example for trade shows, other openings etc. Where legal can require changes at the last minute for large chunks of your work.
Price: 20USD/Month for 2GPU limit OR $619 perpetual
[edit2]: ORC octanes render cloud/farm thing is live. It renders right from c4d. Awesome! BUT you need to upload orbx files. which is pretty much alembic.. which means all the animation is baked.. which means a 10mb file can become a 22gb file which you have to upload… fun…
Redshift – Biased GPU render engine, very very popular especially in production houses.
- Supports lots of features
- You get all the plugins with one purchase, so you can use it Houdini as well as cinema 4D without paying extra if you want.
- Vast amount of tutorials and knowledge which is usable from other applications since settings are the same.
- Great dev team, really invested in supporting pipeline stuff, so great for production houses and post work.
- Lots of settings to fiddle with, might not be your cup of tea
Price: $500USD – permanent, includes one year of updates. $250 per year after that
Cycles 4D bridge – From the developers of x-particles
- Its is a bridge of the Blender cycles render engine, has LOTS of features.
- Full support of x-particles, just beautiful!
- Very nice price, around $230-$250
- sweet denoiser inuilt
- It’s not quite as fast as redshift
- recently development has been slow due to health issues from main developer, but it looks like he is recovering well.
Price: 185 GBP (~$237USD) – permanent, includes one year of updates. 90GBP (~$115) per year after that ( bundle with xparticles gets you a discount 50gbp(~$64) on top of your xparticles subscription)
Thea render – ( seems development has stalled here unfortunately)
- uses all available cpu’s and gpu’s together. If GPU runs out of memory, can just keep rendering on CPU.
- render nodes available. results in farms being available.
- substance material converter.
- material repository which is cross platform. so thea users that make materials for sketchup, max etc, can share those materials and they can be used in c4d.
- Doesn’t seem to be actively developed anymore
- relatively small userbase at the moment.
- still behind octane in feature support, for example turbulenceFD, motionblur and some other small issues. ( read my thea review for more details)
- doesn’t support xparticles colors like arnold does.
- lacks node based material editor
Price: €495 (~$557USD) – permanent, €100 (~112USD)/year maintenance
Here are some more renders, that ive heard very little about, but i felt like i should mention them: Corona, recently bought by chaos group ( the developers of vray) People seem to be loving it, especially for architectural renders, i still haven’t tested it out ( it’s in beta for c4d and currently FREE!). Indigo render, only seems to have an exporter. so its not a native implementation, also plugin doesn’t seem to have been updated since july 2015. Maxwell is basically Octane/thea but only on CPU, so it makes really pretty things, but its kinda slow. Im not sure what is market position is right now.
So lets wrap this up
Update 2020: I’ve been using Octane for the last year and loving it. It does crash often, so don’t forget to save, but with it’s price and the quality it produces it’s hard to beat. If you are working on time critical productions i’d still recommend Redshift. Also redshift has been recently purchased by Maxon themselves, so it’s integration should be even tighter than before.
Old: Right now if you have to pick a render engine i would suggest going with Redshift. It’s quickly becoming industry standard, has a great development team behind it and renders REALLY fast. If you work with x-particles a lot go for Cycles 4D, also if you are on a tight budget Cycles 4D is also very friendly that way. I still use Thea because i have it and it works really well for much of the stuff i do. But i have also recently been using physical render again, it’s a bit slow, but produces really nice results all by itself. Cinema 4D’s new pro render is also starting to show promise with R20. Might do enough for you.
Below is my original recommendations from a couple of years ago:
Once again, this is targeted at someone who is just looking at 3rd party renderers. And mostly this is my opinion and specific to my situation. If money for farms is no obstacle, i would probably recommend arnold. If you can afford it, as it stands right now arnold + cash = awesome. It supports the most c4d features can handle any scene you can throw at it and is used by top studios so it’ll probably help if you are intending to get employed. For me this is not the case. Im not looking to get full time employment or work for hollywood movie productions and i need more speed. If arnold introduces GPU i will re-evaluate my options.
Now on to Octane i personally like choice, so im not going to lock myself into a company that doesn’t let me use 3rd party farms. Right now they do not have a farm service, they are building their own one, but still it will be just one farm. So if its down, you’re up a creek. Also it means you can’t build your own mini farm at home without paying for a full license for every computer you use. ( octane has no render node licenses). Also if your gpu runs out of memory, you have no choice, you can’t do anything about it. that’s it. either optimize your scene or re-do the render in another engine.
Vray im actually very excited to see what the new vray4c4d can do. It sounds REALLY promising. but i need something now, and well it’s not avaible right now. The current version is not GPU accelerated, so its not really on my radar for that reason.
And well this brings me to Thea. It runs on both CPU and GPU, it comes with 2 render nodes. If your gpu runs out of memory you can just render on cpu ( albeit a bit slower). Its crazy fast, recently hired c4d specific developers which have been doing an awesome job, the speed improvements have been phenomenal with every release. Has 3rd party render farm support. Since it uses both CPU and GPU, it can clean up noise really fast, as it uses the strengths of both architectures, GPU is good for cleaning up areas of uniform light due to its 100-1000’s of cores and cpu for cleaning up smaller details. And to boot it’s cheaper than the competition. So if your projects don’t need turbulence fd or complex xparticle color control its a really solid option. more info in my review.
So there you have it. If you have any amendments you think i should make please do tell me, im only human and have only so many hours in a day to keep up with all this.