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It’s now 18 months since 3D Studio Max 3 was released. Just as we’ve all managed to get used to it and updated all our valuable plug-ins, 3DS Max 4 (as it’s now known) arrives to a fanfare of publicity from the Discreet camp. But is it worth upgrading right now? One of the best things about 3DS Max 4 is the new dongle-less copy-protection scheme. This basically writes a special file to your C:drive (which it assumes is your system drive), and all you have to do is register online to authenticate it. This proved to be a lot quicker than the previous method, and anyone who has experienced a faulty dongle in the middle of a project will doubly appreciate this. Just don’t swap out your drive or reset your clock without considering the consequences, and you’ll be fine. Another great thing is the ability to “export” your licence to another machine. This means that you can be working on your laptop at home without having to buy another copy of Max. It seems Discreet has taken dongle-associated problems seriously, and is offering its users maximum flexibility. Nobody will miss the dongle, that’s for sure. In fact, the process of installing, updating, and registering plug-ins seems a lot less hassle than previously. Popular plug-ins such as Shag Hair, Surf-it, Character Studio, and Head Designer are already available as Max 4 versions. And most of the Digimation plug-ins will be with us in about a month, so the changeover to Max 4 should not take long. One ominous development is that Discreet states that the only supported operating systems are Window 98 and 2000. I’m sure a great many people are still on NT4, and it works all right on my system. You’ll need service pack 6, though, for your render-farm nodes. You won’t get the transparent quad menus or the DirectX support until you install Windows 2000, but otherwise it works just fine. Game developers will want these more urgently than people doing work for broadcast. On starting up, the first thing that strikes you is the new sleek interface. There are several schemes to choose from, so you should be able to get it looking any way you wish. The new Quad menus and modifier panel greatly reduce the amount of mouse miles you clock-up to access normal functions, so you could consider using expert mode once you have configured the quads to your liking. The whole thing just feels faster and more responsive. The timeline at the bottom is also much improved, making it a lot easier to move keyframes around without track view, as they snap to frame markers. This is a little detail that makes a big difference. The viewport windows can now be resized in the same way as the ones in NewTek LightWave, and there is now a real-time render window called Active Shade. This gives you fast updates on lighting, effect and material changes, which is good for tweaking. Slim slow slider One brand-new feature is the on-screen manipulators. These are sliders that appear in your viewport and can be ‘wired’ (see Walkthrough) to just about any function you like. Dedicated controls can then be made to manipulate facial morph targets, for instance, making the process of using the morpher less numeric. Much has been written about the new IK system, but, quite simply, it works. I used it on a job together with the skin modifier, and it’s a lot more like using IK in Softimage, which was always streets ahead of Max in that department. In fact, an experienced character animator might prefer to do without Character Studio and just use the internal Max tools for more flexibility. This would not have been the case with the previous bone system. The bones can now be scaled to fit the actual shape of your character, and are visible in shaded views. They also have ‘fins’ to help with orientation. All these refinements help to close the gap between Max and Maya/Softimage in the character-animation department. The renderer is the same as before, with a few new options, mainly the ability to render different elements, such as diffuse, specular and reflections as separate layers for import into Combustion. It will actually make a Combustion workspace for you, which is pretty slick. Once again, these are the sort of refinements normally found in Max’s upmarket rivals. There are some new options for the camera, namely multi-pass motion blur and depth-of-field. These work, as the name suggests, by rendering the scene several times with offsets to get the desired effect. The depth of field looks good to me, as I’ve never been convinced by the Z-depth blurring method used in the render-effects panel. The default number of rendering passes is 12, so you mustn’t be in too much of a hurry. On the subject of motion blur, the super-fast image based blur now supports transparency, making it usable in just about any situation. Wired relatives One of the best new things in Max is parameter wiring. Think of this as a sort of drag-&-drop expression-writing system. Simply right-clicking and dragging a ‘wire’ from one object to another sets up a relationship between any pair of parameters. For instance, you could wire the control surfaces of an aircraft to animate automatically according to its orientation. Discreet has also bundled a whole collection of Max-to-Web authoring tools for us, including the Pulse creator/player and Vecta3D, the Max-to-Flash converter. Web3D is a major new outlet for Max creators – forming a medium alongside film, broadcast and games work – so this collection is very welcome. I have used the Vectra plug-in extensively, and very good it is too. The fact that it’s bundled makes the upgrade price more than reasonable.3D Studio Max 4 is definitely worth the price of an upgrade. The improvements are all extremely practical, and are all useful in your everyday work. It’s quite right to leave things like global illumination and radiosity to third parties – as there are quite a few interesting things coming up, such as Ghost from Blur Studios (and always Mental Ray, if your budget allows). Upgrading always involves more than the basic price. You will need Character Studio 3 and eventually Windows 2000, which will increase your RAM requirements, but 3D Studio Max 4 still works out as an extremely good deal.