What are the best laptops for 3d modeling and rendering?

best laptops for 3d modeling

As a 25 year veteran of 3d modeling, I’ve learned a thing or two about what kind of hardware is necessary for this kind of work. Laptops didn’t used to be very good for running the latest 3d software, but things have changed. What are the best laptops for 3-D modeling these days?

Using Maya and 3DS max as a benchmark, my choices for best laptops for 3d modeling are:

  1. Dell XPS 15
  2. Alienware M17 R3
  3. 16″ MacBook Pro
  4. Acer Aspire 5 (seriously!)
  5. Microsoft Surface 3 (once again – I’m dead serious!)

All of these laptops are more than capable of being your primary device when it comes to 3d modeling and rendering in a variety of software packages. Whether it be Maya, Blender, 3D Studio Max, or whatever – any of these could easily handle the job.

As a matter fact, I bought one of them. Not only that, I depend on it daily (together with Maya and Form Z) to create my 3d renderings. I have no regrets. Keep reading to find out which one that is…

The best laptop for 3d modeling and 3d rending is: the Dell XPS 15

Oddly enough, my number 1 choice isn’t even the laptop I chose for my own 3d modeling and rendering work. The reason will be very obvious in a moment, but let me just say this: the Dell XPS 15 offers the best bang for the buck in terms of price vs performance.

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This is the laptop that I was seriously considering when I was in the market for a new computer, and I still have thoughts about it every now and then. You know how hard it is to resist checking out the Facebook profile of your ex? It’s kind a like that.

What makes it so great for 3d modeling and rending?

The Dell XPS 15 had (and still has) my attention for being a spec-rich device which would be perfect for 3d modeling and rendering.

  • It’s a great value: you’d have to spend nearly double this amount to get a MacBook Pro with the same specs.
  • The 15 inch screen (with 4K resolution) is arguably the best in its class. Having a great screen is extremely important when it comes to 3d modeling, as you need all the detail you can get when it comes to working with intricate wireframes and meshes.
  • It’s a Dell. In other words, it’s one of the best-known brands in the laptop business. Not only that, the support they offer is some of the best in the industry.
  • Oh, and yeah: the specs are pretty good too. Even the base version of this machine will be able to run Maya / 3D Studio Max / Blender with ease, you might want to spend more for a more powerful video card for complex rendering and animation. In terms of the modeling alone, this machine can handle it all. With ease.

Important things you need to know about the Dell XPS 15

The only major caveat to the Dell XPS 15 (for me anyway) is that it runs on Windows. That’s fine if you like Windows and are perfectly comfortable using it. But for someone like me (who is totally entrenched into the Apple ecosystem), it was a dealbreaker.

Best runner up: Alienware m17 17.3″ FHD Gaming Laptop

I’m of the opinion that the best laptop for 3d modeling could very well be a gaming laptop. I mean, why not? Gaming laptops are extremely powerful devices built for long hours of use under very high loads.

As a long time 3d modeler myself, I can tell you that spending all day in front of my computer trying to figure out a complex mesh is more common than I’d like to admit. As a matter fact, I’d be embarrassed to tell you how long I spent building my Lamborghini Huracan 3d model.

Anyway, I seriously considered a gaming laptop such as the Alienware when I was in the market for a new rig. The specs are simply too hard to resist.

What makes it so great for 3d modeling and rending?

As I already mentioned, a gaming machine built to handle complex graphics is the way to go when it comes to working in 3d. Especially if you’re doing animation! In terms of this specific Alienware laptop:

  • It’s all about the screen. Gamers demand the best visuals possible, and this laptop delivers. With 4K resolution (and a 300Hz 3ms refresh rate), it’ll be more than enough to handle your 3d models.
  • The specs are really good. Especially when it comes to video memory. One of the things that I’ve learned as a 3d modeler is that you can never have enough video memory. Real-time rendering and high-resolution previews will bring most computers to its knees, but not this one. It’ll real-time render the highest poly-count model you can throw at it. With ease.

Important things you need to know about the Alienware M17

  • It’s expensive. Although it’s not the most expensive laptop in this list, it is in the upper echelon of in terms of value and performance.
  • It’s also a little flashy. Because it’s a gaming laptop, you’re going have to deal with some extra bling (such as neon red under glow and some fairly aggressive styling). Personally, this is something that I can’t handle very well, so that leads me to my next recommendation:

Best for somewhat unlimited budgets: the 16″ MacBook Pro

This is it. This is the laptop that I chose to be my primary device for 3d modeling and rendering in Maya. So far, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. Not only is it a beautifully-designed laptop, it’s also extremely well-built and powerful enough to throw nearly anything I can throw at it (figuratively – not literally of course).

What makes it so great for 3d modeling and rending?

Although I don’t think that the 16″ MacBook Pro one of the best laptops for artists (it’s a bit overkill for that IMHO), it should absolutely not be overlooked for 3d illustrators and designers as well. Here’s why:

  • The specs are beastly. Comparing the specs against a Windows laptop (such as the Dell XPS 15 that I mentioned above), you might think that the MacBook Pro is massively under-powered. Guess what? It’s not. Apple engineers are absolute geniuses when it comes to making their devices run efficiently, and the 16″ MacBook Pro is no different. It’s a beast that can handle everything that I can throw at it in Maya.
  • Three words: 16 inch screen. I am fairly confident that there isn’t a 3d modeler out there who would disagree with me about screen size being important. There are fewer things more frustrating in life than having to do fine detail work (in a polygon mesh or nurbs) on a small screen. It’s infuriating. Thankfully, the 16″ MacBook Pro has a large high-resolution screen which prevents any frustrations.
  • It’s extremely durable. I use my 16″ MacBook Pro for up to 10 hours a day / 6 days a week as my primary device. I’ve got it attached to an external display, and I am doing 3d modeling and rendering on (in Maya and Form Z) a near daily basis. It doesn’t skip a beat, and I’ve never had any issues with it. No crashes, no overheating, and no complaints.
16" MacBook Pro for 3d modeling
This is my 16″ MacBook Pro spitting out high-resolution renderings in Maya. A sexy beast it is.

Important things you need to know about the MacBook Pro

  • It’s the most expensive laptop in this list. By far. However, even after spending so much money on my MacBook Pro, I can honestly say that I don’t regret it at all. This machine delivers, and there isn’t a laptop on the market that I want more.
  • It’s not going to work for 3D Studio Max users (which only runs on Windows). Yes, you could use Boot Camp (or Parallels) to put a virtual Windows environment on your Mac, but you’ll sacrifice both convenience and performance doing that. However, I will say that the 16″ MacBook Pro is perfect for Maya and Blender. Even Form Z, which is one of my favorite 3d modeling software packages of all time. It’s totally underrated.

Best budget option: Acer Aspire 5

Ok. Stop laughing! Those of you who are paying attention will know that the Acer Aspire 5 was included in my list of the best laptops for artists as well. Because of how much laptop of it is for the price, I just couldn’t resist bringing back as one of the best laptops for 3d modeling and rendering as well.

No, it’s not as powerful (or good looking – or well-built) as some of the other laptops in this list, but it’ll get you started in the world of 3d if you’re on a tight budget.

What makes it so great for 3d modeling and rending?

To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend the Aspire 5 as a really good laptop for doing 3d modeling and rendering. However, I’ve included it in this list because:

  • This is a heck of a lot of computer for such a little price.
  • The base-level specs are more than good enough to run the latest versions of your favorite 3d modeling software. Acer may not be known for being the best in terms of build quality and styling, but they do offer a heck of a lot of computer for relatively little money. For the record, I’ve used both 3D Studio Max and Blender on computers with lesser specs than this. And you know what? It worked fine for basic 3d modeling.
  • It’s very highly-rated (and one of the best-selling laptops on Amazon.

Important things you need to know about the Aspire 5

Although I don’t see any issues with the Aspire 5 being able to handle basic 3d wireframe and polygon mesh creation, it may struggle a bit when it comes to real-time rendering and animation.

If those kind of things are important to you, it behooves you to spend a bit more on a device with better components. More specifically: you’ll want more video memory for real-time rendering without any hiccups.

Best alternative: Microsoft Surface 3

There have been a lot of interesting developments in the world of laptop computing recently, and the Microsoft Surface is leading the charge. Although this isn’t typically a laptop that most people consider when doing 3d work, I could see myself being very happy with one of these devices if being mobile (working from anywhere) was important to me.

These are extremely attractive devices, in the sense that they offer some really great specs very small form factor. Not only that, these are touch-enabled devices, meaning that you can interact with the screen directly by touching it – just as you would a tablet.

I’m not sure about you, but the thought of being able to manipulate and interact with my 3d models via touch is extremely intriguing.

What makes it so great for 3d modeling and rending?

There’s a lot to like about the Microsoft surface line of laptops. They look great. They perform great. Not only that, they’re extremely lightweight and highly portable. In terms of what makes  them good laptops for 3d modeling and rendering:

  • The specs are decent enough to be able to do fairly complex real-time rendering and animation. Which is pretty impressive for a device this thin and small.
  • The touchscreen is a game changer. Maybe not so much when actually building 3d models, but more so for presenting your work to a client. Being able to let your client manipulate the model in a 3d space using their fingers is a really powerful sales tool.

Important things you need to know about the Surface 3

The majority of the price you pay for the Surface 3 will be because of how lightweight and stylish it is. When you buy a Surface laptop, you’re paying just as much for good design as you are for the specs.

FAQ’s about laptops for 3d modeling

I remember 20 years ago feeling incredibly frustrated that it was basically impossible to do any serious 3d modeling and rendering on a laptop.

I’ve always craved a certain amount of portability in my life, and having to tie myself down with a big desktop computer to do 3d modeling was incredibly frustrating. Thank goodness that things have gotten better as I’ve grown older. Here are some frequently asked questions about choosing the best laptop for 3d modeling:

Is a laptop a good choice for 3d modeling?

These days, yes. It is! All the laptops in this list are more than capable of running the latest 3d modeling software. I use my 16″ MacBook Pro very hard, and it doesn’t skip a beat in either Maya, Blender, or Form Z.

3d modeling software isn’t as complex and clunky as it used to be. I find apps like Photoshop to be more power-hungry than most 3d modeling software packages these days. If a laptop can handle Photoshop with ease, that means it can handle 3d modeling just as well.

Rendering and animation is another story, but spending a bit more money on a device with more video and processing power will solve that problem.

What features are most important for a laptop used for 3d modeling?

I’m a really big fan of real-time rendering in Maya. However, it requires a lot of video memory and I’m always feeling like I need more to keep up with how fast I like to work. Surprisingly enough, processing power doesn’t play as much of a role in 3d modeling as you might expect.

When buying a laptop for 3d work, I will always sacrifice processing power in favor of getting a better graphics card.

RAM, as you might expect, doesn’t matter all that much when it comes to 3d modeling.

What brands of laptops are the best for 3d modeling and rendering?

You can’t go wrong staying with the better-known brands such as Dell and Apple. Personally, I’d stay away from consumer-grade brands (such as HP) as much as possible since 3d work can be really hard on a laptop. You are likely going to be pushing it to it’s limits, and it needs to be durable enough to last you more than a couple years.

This is why I recommended a gaming laptop for 3d modeling. The only kinds of users who are more hard on their devices than 3d modelers are gamers. Gaming laptops are built to be abused for hours on end, and it might be the smart way to go depending how serious you are about 3d work.

How important is screen resolution?

Very important – especially as you start working with very complex models. Trying to grab individual vertices in a sea of others within a complex 3d model can be madding on a low-resolution (or dull) screen. I’ve had to do it enough times over the past 20 years or so that screen quality is now my #2 feature in a laptop (behind video memory) if I know that I’m going to be using it for 3d modeling and rendering.

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