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3DS Max 5
Publisher: Discreet 
Purchasing:  $3,945 full, upgrades start at $795 (v4,v3,v2). Educational Pricing Here.
Reviewed:  20th August 2002

3DS Max has a long running reputation as being one of the greatest 3D modeling programs available for the PC. It's uses are enormous - from film rendering ('Shrek' for example) to still images and real-time graphics media.

It's long running position as one of the best packages available has given it a formidable following around the world - anyone who's spent any time in the graphics industry, or online graphics-development sites will have seen more than enough references to this software and the standards its created (the .3ds file format is a very common model storage format).

This version of the software sets to continue the success story from where 3DS Max 4 left off; whilst there are only a few completely new never-seen-before type features in this release, there are more than enough changes. In many cases it's just rounding off a great product and progressing the power/use of existing features. This review will be focusing on the tools and features of most use to real-time artists and developers (in keeping with the content of this website).

The Full Package
Max 5 comes with 2 CD's - one for the main program, and one with learning tools/tutorials. It also comes in a rather stylish box with 3 decently sized manuals to go with. One for new features / quick-start purposes, one full of general tutorials and the main manual content, and one specifically for 'Reactor' (Max's built in physics engine). Given the price tag this software commands, it's to be expected that you get a proper package and not just a couple of CD's!

The manuals are well presented, the quick start guide is almost entirely image/diagram based - allowing you to skim through all the new features and changes. Once you've got a grip of what's on offer you can then (if necessary) look it up in more detail within the main program manual. The main manual is over 600 pages in length - whilst far more dense than the quick-start guide, it is reasonably easy to work out what you want.

The only criticism of the main manual is that it's almost entirely tutorial based - great for learning, but not so great for a reference resource. Thankfully this function is provided by the built-in help files, which in many ways works far better (you can often select an item, hit F1 and go straight to the relevant info).

The user interface
Max 5, like the majority of 3D modeling packages has a pretty full user interface. In the default view you'll have the main modifier panel down the right-hand side, 4 modeling viewports, 2 toolbars at the bottom and a toolbar at the top - along with 14 menus.

click to enlarge

With all that in mind, the interface is still very well structured - often hiding it's true complexity and size. As you can see in the above screenshot, the top toolbar (just below the menu-bar) has 10 tabs above it, selecting any of these will show a completely different toolbar below. Essentially you're seeing 10 toolbars in 1.

To really make the most of the Max 5 interface you need a high resolution monitor; I have a very nice TFT monitor to do my work on, but it'll only handle up to 1024x768 resolution - which is perfectly functional, but it would certainly be much easier to use the higher the screen size. A decent 17" or 21" monitor capable of 1600x1200 would probably be the best set up. When you run the software on a lower-resolution monitor it is common for toolbars and the modifier panel to disappear off the edges of the screen. When this occurs Max 5 will let you drag the control-windows left/right or up/down (depending on it's position). For example, in the screenshot above the control-toolbar below the timeline is too big to fit on the screen, holding the mouse down on a section of toolbar with no buttons (such that you aren't activating a tool) and moving left/right will scroll the toolbar along so you can see the hidden parts.

A very powerful feature of 3ds max is it's customizable user interface, almost everything can be altered given enough time and imagination. The standard windows ability to drag toolbars, buttons, menu's and roll-outs exist; but the real star of the show is it's complete UI changes. Much like other programs allow for 'skinning' 3ds max allows you to create custom interfaces, but it also allows you to save with the skin the preferred layout of controls and toolbars. Using this system it is perfectly possible to create a different interface for all the different types of modeling - static low poly models, bones/skeletal animation, movie-quality rendering etc...

Discreet Dark UI (left) and Reactor Light (right) user interfaces
click to enlarge

One of the new and clever features included in Max 5 is Layers. This type of functionality has been around in 2D graphics packages for a long time now (Photoshop is particularly well known for layers), but is relatively new for these 3D modeling packages. Basically, it allows you to create several layers and assign your meshes/objects to these layers. You can then control these layers through a new toolbar and control window (see screenshot). At the simplest level it allows you to 'lock' layers (stop any changes to the geometry contained in the layer) and to 'hide' layers - stopping them from being visible in the viewport and/or final renders.

click to enlarge

>> Next Page

Review Contents:
Page 1: Introduction, The Full Package, The User Interface
Page 2: Geometry Manipulation, Animation
Page 3: Textures/Materials, Rendering, Supporting Tools, real-time multimedia, Conclusion

DirectX 4 VB 2000 Jack Hoxley. All rights reserved.
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