Choosing a Rendering Plugin for SketchUp: A User’s Perspective

A Buyers Dilemma

There are more render engines on the market than one can shake a stick at and unfortunately no one has done a comprehensive ‘level playing field’ empirically based comparison between them all as far as I know – I did look. This is probably because to do so one would need to be very intelligent: have a great deal of objectivity, be well experienced in logical analysis and presentation, very learned in the fine and complicated art of photo-realistic rendering; in addition, the reviewer would need to: have a shed load of time on their hands, one mother of a wacky computer, and a fairly hefty budget in their bank account to purchase the entire array of render engines in order to compare them!

So new buyers are basically at the mercy of three sources of information upon which to make their decision of which render engine to buy:

1. Vendor’s sales literature;

2. Opinions of other users;

3. The availability of high quality sample output from each render engine – a keen eye for detail is necessary to be able to assess each respective image.

Sales Literature

For sure all the respective render engines have certain advantages and disadvantages – plus points and negative points for and against each other, but as I said no one has documented that so how can one proceed with a degree of confidence? Is vendors sales literature a good basis for buying? Is it honest? I cannot say for sure, but I suspect that most vendors are fairly honest about what they put in their sales literature for each engine, but they will perhaps omit the negative aspects of their product and focus on their product strengths. That’s a fairly natural thing to do if you are in the selling market, but as a result sales literature can’t provide a complete picture.

Sample Images as an Assessment of Render Engine Capacity

We’ve all heard the saying: pictures don’t lie. Well point number one is that with Photoshop out there that’s not strictly true as anyone who has used it will tell you. Or if you don’t know what I am alluding to Google why a movie star will not allow publication of a photo until their Photoshop expert has ‘corrected’ that image. So assessment of an image is not necessarily a fair and objective test of a render engine either if that image has undergone heavy Photoshop editing, but there is something else less obvious to consider in a truly objective analysis of rendered images.

I am going to refer to something I call ‘marketing force’ and we are all touched by this one way or another besides just simply trying to determine which render engine to buy. If marketing and user opinion as a result of marketing force favour a particular direction, then images however good they are may be less objective than you might think! If marketing persuades user opinion to such an extent that 80% of opinion favours a particular solution, then the percentage of highly skilled users in that subset will be larger than the remaining subset.

And why is that a problem you might ask? Well if 70% of that 80% is from the higher end of the skills pool then marketing and marketing force is favouring a particular solution because the higher end of the skills pool is focused on that solution. Can you follow that? Can you see where I am going? Let’s break that down with a very simple example. If a university has 100 students on its 3D modelling and photo-realistic rendering course, and the professors (for whatever reason) favour one or two render engines, then perhaps 90% of their class graduation will focus their attention on that rendering engine. If all the upper second and first class graduates are in that prejudicial group, then all the heavy skill and real potential is focused according to the prejudicial direction. On the other hand the remaining subset who might move in a different direction is intrinsically disadvantaged because the cream went in the other direction! You will get more quality images from the favoured subset who might have produced the same or better quality in the other subset had they gone there. The moral of the story is that just because propaganda and user opinion says that a product is the best it does not necessarily mean that is it. I am going to give a real world example of this in a moment, but let’s move on for now.

User Opinion Generally

Recently I saw a post on a Sketchup Forum from a Sketchup user who asked what appeared like a simple question: ‘There are heaps of render engines out there – can somebody please tell me which is the best one?’ He got heaps of quick responses: ‘V-Ray’, ‘Maxwell’, ‘Kerkythea’, ‘Podium’, ‘ShaderLight’, ‘Twilight’ and a comment from one well known Sketchup plug-in developer subtly addressing the lack of objectivity intrinsic to the other responses. This guy said: ‘The best eh…… I won’t go there, but….’ Yes the greatest problem for the potential buyer of a render engine however is not the incomparable sales literature, or the sample images. It’s the potential lack of objectivity in user opinion – this is a minefield for buyers of any product in reality, but I will keep the focus on render engines. Why is it such a minefield? Render engines are like your first love affair: the first is always the best until you have experience and fall in love again, but sometimes first love really is the best, but the potential buyer and dare I say users of a render engine still don’t know where objectivity lies.

Objectivity only comes from total empirical comparative analysis and I as I said in my opening statement this has not been done with render engines to my knowledge. The price of render engines discourages one from buying lots of them and the time learning them is another deterrent – people tend to stick with the one they have bought and learned.

My User Opinion and a Historical Anecdote

Most of us who use a render engine are not Render Artists per se, we are in the first instance: Architects, Landscape Architects, Interior Designers, Product Designers, Engineers, Stage Designers, Carpenters or whatever. We are Render Artists in the second instance and this is a really important point in determining which render engine is best for you. Rhetorical question: What if the popularity ratings we see for render engines are originating from the opinion of real professional Render Artists in the first instance? It may well be a correct view, but it doesn’t help those of us who are not Render Artists in the first instance.

There was a joke in a computer mag years back that touched me because I could see the punchline based on my knowledge and experience. It went like this: ‘so a guy goes into a computer store and says I need to buy a database package – I want to create an address book, and some perverted salesman recommends dBASE!’ Those of you laughing will have connected with this as I did at the time. In my Landscape Design degree, which was now some considerable time ago I studied architecture and design to ever increasing depth and levels of erudite knowledge for the first three years; concurrently I also studied: engineering, contract and project management, ecology, soil science and horticulture. In the final year I did two semesters on AutoCAD and one semester on 3D modelling, rendering and digital visualisation, at that time using 3D Studio. My point being only a small portion of my formal education as a professional was dedicated to 3D modelling and rendering. In professional practice the same is true – time is always limited and 3D rendering by nature falls right at the end of the architectural or landscape architectural design process or near to it.

In my favour I also happen to have a second string to my bow – I am very IT literate and a competent computer programmer albeit self-taught. I have designed and marketed three professional software products. I am thus not a novice in the IT world either technically or from a marketing perspective – I have been working with computers since 1983, back when a 360k floppy disc was the limit of your storage space! So I happen to have a fairly good handle on logic which is really important when you are working with software. It’s also really important when you are assessing software products to buy, along with that objectivity I keep mentioning.

I want to illustrate a point about objective comparison of render engines and marketing force and to do so I am going to deviate with an objective in mind. I am going to take you on an analogous time trip back into the past. Back in those early days of the 360k floppy discs and slightly later 720k cassette discs there was a war waging between three software houses and three major products: WordStar, WordPerfect and MS Word in its early incarnation. All of these products were word processors which formed the backbone of commercial computer use at that time. Dominance was jointly held between WordStar and WordPerfect and MS Word was kicking at their heels. However, there was another little known word processor from a much smaller company and this was by far the best word processor of that time. It was cheaper than all of the other three and had built into it the most advanced powerful mail-merge programming language that allowed you to do incredible things that none of the others could. The reason I can make this statement with objectivity is because I did hard-core work with all four of them and I was proficient in all four of them. Read this very carefully – the worst of them and the most useless and unfriendly was MS Word! The best by a furlong and a half x 2 was that little known product from that small software house (called Locomotive Software), and their product was called LocoScript which yes I’ll bet you have never ever heard of! Why was it objectively the best? Because it was very intuitive and user friendly, had superb documentation, unrivalled power and flexibility, was sensibly and very competitively priced, was lightning fast, and originating from a small software house end user technical support was second to none. If all things were equal in this world and believe me they are not, then LocoScript should have been number one, it should have been the word processor we are all using now today under Windows, but it isn’t. Interesting isn’t it – the worst word processor won the battle.

Don’t misunderstand me because now MS Word is indeed a formidable word processor, it has come a very long way, but back then it was defiantly not the best. What was formidable about MS Word was the power of Microsoft’s marketing and the sales literature that overtly influenced user opinion. The same is true of DR DOS and MS DOS, but that’s another story and you can look that history up for yourselves if you are that way inclined. Around this time there was a phrase thrown around: ‘nobody ever got fired for buying IBM!’ Question is: was IBM really the best computer? It’s the self-same issue but a different product. I remember walking into a computer store (back in those day’s software came in boxes off the shelf} and I had with me one of my employees: a very sharp and intelligent engineer and an experienced man senior to me in age. He was as proficient as me in all of those word processors and he asked to buy a copy of LocoScript. The young salesman of 19 or so years almost straight out of secondary college replied with a degree of disdain: ‘why do you want to buy THAT! MS Word is the best word processor – it’s more popular than any other word processor, we are selling it like hot cakes!’ My associate was more formidable with words than even LocoScript and he replied with a wry smile and a triple portion of disdain: ‘AIDs is spreading like wildfire, but it doesn’t make it a good thing! Now give me that copy of LocoScript you have over there please.’ So having made my point about objectivity with some factual historical anecdote and a little help from my sharp tongued associate let’s cut to the chase and I’ll tell you why I love IRender nXt with at least a degree of objectivity because I have used more than one render engine.

Why I Love IRender nXt

What are the most important considerations when buying a render engine? The answer to that question will vary slightly depending on: what you produce with the render engine, what profession you are in, and what education you have had in rendering, if any; as well as how much time you have available for self-directed learning. For me since I am not a Render Artist in the first instance and rendering only forms a part of what I do, albeit an important part, my hit list of render engine desirables/undesirables (and in fact any software for that matter by and large) goes something like this……

1. AN INTUITIVE, LOGICAL and FRIENDLY USER INTERFACE FOR PRODUCTION: I do not want to and do not have time to hunt for controls and options, or be overwhelmed by complexity that I do not understand or need – I want a quality output in the minimum time, with a minimal learning curve; I want to work with a user interface that can make sense to me as an Architect and a Computer Programmer – I didn’t spend three years in university studying light physics or 3D rendering and visualisation – if I did that I probably would not be an Architect and all of this is a moot point;

2. AN INTUITIVE, LOGICAL USER INTERFACE FOR INSTALLATION: I do not want to be in the middle of an installation and be presented with multiple esoteric options that leave me more lost than a pygmy in Manhattan with no answers, and technical support that is 3, 4 or 5 days away;

3. I WANT THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: I want that complexity and absolute fine control over production output ie rendering when I need it, and so I want complexity and flexibility as well as simplicity, but I want it at a second level; I want access to complex flexibility when I am ready for it, but as a novice user I don’t want to see it or even brush shoulders with it – I don’t have time for that, its way too stressful when I just need a quality image for a presentation.

4. I WANT A ‘QUALITY’ OUTPUT IN MINUTES AND HOURS OF LEARNING: not days and weeks of learning; days and weeks of learning should produce SUPER QUALITY, but that’s a luxury to me at the cost of time – I can only go there when I have time, so that must be my choice and not the choice of the software developers. So I want a two tier user interface: simple and easy to understand and fast giving quality output from the upper level user interface; then complex flexibility giving super quality and fine control at a second level user interface;

5. I WANT ON THE NAIL TECHNICAL SUPPORT: if I am trying to do something, I am doing it for a reason and I might have a dead-line, so if I have a problem I can’t comfortably wait 3, 4 or 5 days for e response. Also when I get a response I want it to make sense and be logically explained or illustrated for me – I want the giver of the technical support to instinctively know that I am not a Render Artist, I am an Architect, or Landscape Architect, or Interior Designer or Carpenter or whatever – I am seeing it all from a different perspective to them – I am on the other side of the fence;

6. CLEAR TUITION: is important since we do not have written documentation per se any more. I want to watch videos that educate me quickly in that hidden complexity, not videos that actually leave me even more confused. That’s just a waste of my time and my time is too precious to me. If I have to sit through half of a one-hour vid to come to the conclusion that it isn’t going anywhere that really pisses me off;

7. GIVE ME SPEED: no not the white crystal kind I am done with that – I jest! Rendering is really heavy on computer resource so I want that quality output in the minimum of time, because when you have done some real hard-core rendering with extensive lighting and geometry using whatever render engine you chose you will learn that super quality generally demands super patience or/and a super computer;

8. STABILITY IS PARAMOUNT: as I said in the previous point rendering takes time and computer power, and super quality takes a lot of time which thus leads to STABILITY. I do not want a render engine that crashes my system – I don’t have a dedicated rendering super computer! I have to do other things on my computer while I am rendering, sometimes heavy things like continuing to model in 3D or access multiple web sites at the same time; or access relational database etc.

So yes I admit it I am indeed a demanding fellow I know, I have always been that way – I look for perfection in myself and in everything I do and in everything else and I hate second best. I love IRender nXt because it ticks the boxes for me.

Like that small software house which I mentioned from the past the guys at RenderPlus are bang on the nail with technical support. I never ever wait days for a response to a query, generally only minutes actually or occasionally an hour or so at most. When I get a response from them it makes perfect sense and being an Architect I appreciate that they don’t usually just tell me what to do – they show me with screen grab images – you know just like we used to have in the good old days with good visually orientated quality user manuals!

I bought IRender nXt and rendered an image in minutes after installation which by the way was a piece of cake. I watched all the Render Plus UTube videos back to back in a morning. By the afternoon I was producing quality renderings I was happy with. Now after some time I am getting closer to that super quality output. On the contrary with some famous rendering engines I have sat staring totally blank and lost for endless hours at multiple nested rendering options that are so INSANELY ESOTERIC they would even have Mr Spock scratching his pointed ears and raising his eyebrows while muttering: ‘This is not logical!’ I am not Spock, but I’m not stupid either, indeed I have two degrees and one with First Class honours, so something shouldn’t fox me to such an extent, in my opinion. Remember I am an Architect and I may be a Computer Programmer, but I don’t have time for that esoteric game most of the time!

It shouldn’t take 4 hours of random clueless searching through esoterica to find how to save a rendered image! Let me try to illustrate this another way (sorry being an Architect I love metaphors based on fact, and yes that’s why Jesus also used them to explain the nature of the most intelligent being in existence and the dynamic complexity of the universal plan). So here’s a metaphor for you: a Ferrari is one hell of a beast of a motor car and anybody who knows anything about cars knows that. You have to be pretty wealthy to buy one (they actually ask to see inside your bank account to see if you can really afford to maintain the car); and yes everybody knows that the name Ferrari is special so it’s got to be good right? And yes it is, but here’s the thing – if you know how to drive you will be able to drive a Ford Mustang, or a Porsche or a Rolls, but you can’t just hop into a Ferrari and drive one, not even if you have an advanced driving licence – you have to have special lessons directly from Ferrari. Driving a Ferrari is more like driving a formula one car. I have been in one – the noise gave me a headache and left my ears ringing for hours! Am I reaching you with this argument? If you want something that looks good, goes fast, is sound and stable, but not insanely expensive which you can actually drive without doing special training and doesn’t give you a headache buy the bloody Mustang! Or to spell it out if you haven’t done an undergraduate in light physics and a Masters in rendering and 3D visualisation beware because marketing is really subtle and you don’t really register how you are being persuaded. Some software learning curves look like Mount Everest and yes it takes a long time to get to the top!

IRender nXt’s Outstanding and PRICELESS Features in my Opinion (with some objectivity)

With the Rolls when I open the door to get out the seat height alters to make it easier, there is an umbrella in the door hatch in case it’s raining, and if I change my mind because I can’t face the puddles I can close the door press a button and a robot feature will give me a double brandy from the bar in the boot (and yes that is all correct information). Well you will not find any of that in the Ferrari and believe me you will need the double brandy to kill the pain after you have been in one!

Running Stand-alone in the background – When I press go with IRender nXt it may take 24 hours to get a really high quality night scene with multiple light sources and tons of geometry, yet I can continue using the computer for other things and I can change the Sketchup model too because once the geometry is written IRender becomes Stand Alone. It’s also very stable even if you crash other software like Sketchup IRender just keeps going and going like the Duracell Bunny – it doesn’t come crashing down like a deck of cards when somebody sneezes. If you have studied render engines for Sketchup per se you will know that there are stand-alone and integrated render engines, but IRender is a bit of a hybrid in that respect giving you all of one world and a touch of another.

Rendering Edge Lines – Another feature of IRender nXt worthy of note is the Edge Lines feature especially if you do a lot of work with wood panels or similar. I believe that feature is unique to IRender nXt, but I can’t confirm that as I haven’t used all the render engines.

Light Balancer – My favourite IRender nXt feature however is the Light Channels – this really is priceless! If you have been reading this carefully you will see that I have been open and said that hard-core rendering does take hard-core time. Time is paramount to me and should be to most professionals, but IRender nXt’s Light Channel feature is a real time saver. It allows you to render once and yet produce multiple images each of a different light character. It’s like having all your lights including the sun and the sky on real-time dimmer switches. So you get one time overhead for rendering, but multiple image possibilities which are limited only by your imagination or creativity, i.e.: bright sunshine, shady and overcast, after rain, night with moonlight; dark night, and infinite possibilities with physical lighting: spots on or spots off, ceiling on or ceiling off, under water lights on or off etc etc. I have heard rumour that one other render engine has something similar to IRender nXt’s Light Channels, but I can’t confirm that either.

The other render engine I have used which is a metaphorical Ferrari in every sense of the comparison doesn’t have Light Channels, Edge Lines or become Stand-Alone. If I crash Sketchup while rendering I crash it too. When I render a scene with lights if I want to change lights I can, but I have to rerender. The Edge Line feature isn’t there or if it is there I can’t find it or see it because it’s called something esoteric. So the question you might be tempted to ask is: is this other render engine better than IRender nXt in other respects? There is only one possible answer I can give: ‘Eh….….I won’t go there – I can’t drive the bloody thing! Nor can I afford to take a sabbatical to go back to university and get a third degree.’ Like the Ferrari it looks good in the garage, yes it goes pretty fast in the hands of someone who can drive it, but when I just start it up I get one mother of headache!

Happy rendering and remember if you are not professionally trained as a Render Artist I think OBJECTIVITY should guide your buying decisions……

  • Intuitive;
  • User friendly;
  • Logical;
  • Stable;
  • Fast;
  • Flexible;
  • Quality output;
  • Price;
  • Learning curve;
  • Technical support.

If I can say anything concrete to potential buyers of a render engine I would say: don’t buy something because somebody or some group tells you it’s the best. That’s like buying MS Word 30 years ago. Don’t buy something bigger than you need – big is not always best. That’s like buying dBASE to create an Address Book. Do your own research: compare features and potential learning curves in relation to YOU and what YOU DO and what YOU KNOW.

As for me I just got lucky – I knew very little about rendering when I bought IRender nXt only what I could remember from 3D Studio which wasn’t much at all. I actually bought IRender nXt first based on its affordable price and me just wanting to test the water before I dived in head first. Turns out IRender is still my first love even with some other experience!


Graham Slocombe BSc(Hons) MHort(RHS) MIHort

LandArchConcepts: Innovation in Landscape and Architectural Design


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