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Product Review: Strata 3D CX 8.1

Does Strata 3D still have a place in the highly competitive 3D software market? In this product review we take a look at Strata’s current shipping version and all the technology it packs in an under $1000 USD punch—including the stunning visual results one can achieve with this stalwart 3d package.

It is hard to believe that the last review of Strata 3D was back in 2003. And this version has been out nearly a year. But it has been far too long and we have decided to bring some focus to one of the Mac platform’s oldest 3D software tools and a developer who has always been a staunch supporter of all things Apple.

How long has it been? This may surprise you but Architosh last reviewed Strata’s software back in 2003, when Akiko Ashley, senior associate editor, reviewed Strata 3D Pro 3.8. Needless to say, there has been a lot going on with this company over the last decade and a half so a quick little history will set the table for this review well.

First Some History

Strata itself was among the first wave of 3D graphics applications that arrived on desktop Macs at the tail end of the 1980’s, with a product known as StrataVision. In the early 90’s Strata 3D Pro emerged and StrataVision became the little sister app. It would end at version 5 in 1998. By the mid-90’s Strata 3D was a household name in the 3D and CAD software space and CAD tools, like MiniCAD, often had export options to bring models into native Strata file format.

01 - Strata's Strata 3D CX 8.1 still comes beautifully wrapped in one of the 3D industry's best user-interfaces. It follows a classic MacDraw and classic Adobe app UI format which will be familiar to many Mac and Adobe users.

01 – Strata’s Strata 3D CX 8.1 still comes beautifully wrapped in one of the 3D industry’s best user-interfaces. It follows a classic MacDraw and classic Adobe app UI format which will be familiar to many Mac and Adobe users.

As CAD tools eventually developed their own native rendering features Strata fell out of use somewhat in the architectural rendering market but it successfully pivoted into new areas to extend growth—particularly packing design, product design, and as a 3D extension for graphics illustrators. To this last group, in particular, Strata tuned its UI and UX to feel familiar to Adobe’s legendary product line and this helped both attract graphics artists to the world of 3D but also helped in ease-of-use, which was always one of its most appealing factors.

Strata Design 3D CX 8.1 Today

For most, if not all of its life, Strata 3D has operated in the sub-thousand dollar category; Strata has never essentially competed with the tier one professional 3D studio applications, in the current era, like Maya or 3ds max, which operate and cost at much higher levels. Those applications are often judged as overkill for the types of architects, graphic designers, and environmental design professionals that need to work in 3D. Strata Design 3D CX 8.1 is just under $600.USD, and at that price packs one of the bigger punches in the industry.

When we last reviewed Strata we noted that it has long been known for its high-quality rendering. It has long had a radiosity engine of particular note and a high-quality and fast raytracer as well. And this is a good place to start.

Rendering. While Strata today still features its high-quality radiosity engine, the big news in the dot 1 release of Strata 8 (we will simplify its long name now until the end of the article) is the integration of the Embree raycasting engine developed by Intel. This engine helps identify if any ray intersects any geometry in a 3D scene and speeds the process endemic to Monte Carlo ray tracing. Embree is more technically a set of kernels that are highly optimized for Intel processors. Offering up to 800 percent speed-up on CPU-bound rendering the Embree integration is absolutely nothing to sneeze at.

02 - Strata 3D's integration of Intel's Embree technology leads to faster more beautiful rendering results. (image: Chris Tyler/Strata. All rights reserved.)

02 – Strata 3D’s integration of Intel’s Embree technology leads to faster more beautiful rendering results. (image: Chris Tyler/Strata. All rights reserved.)

Rendering has come a long way over the years with Strata but this version 8.1 release in general added quite a few higher-level capabilities typically found in tier-one 3D software packages. One of those features is support for OpenEXR which offers high-precision floating-point color output. In both 8 or 16-bit color, white is always white. This is a valuable feature because humans don’t perceive light 100 percent accurately. Our eyes and brain see into darker areas with a bit more light than is actually there. Back at version 7.5, render output could be taken into Photoshop and the 2.2 gamma correction could be applied. Now you don’t need to; the new 2.2 Gamma function approximates how humans actually perceive light.

Other aspects of rendering in Strata 8 include the new 64-bit support in the app. This is clearly the most important update affecting rendering and scene capacity. You can load vastly larger scenes in version 8.1 than in the prior major release. With a scene like 10 million polygons, the app will use 8 GB of RAM. With the old 32-bit limit in Strata, users were capped at 3 GB’s of RAM. To be honest, Strata is a bit late to 64-bit support but it’s here now and longtime users (as well as new users) are bound to be thrilled.

03 - Strata's onboard help system and help tools are practically unrivaled. We are big fans of video tutorials, as longtime readers know, and Strata has very good product manuals.

03 – Strata’s onboard help system and help tools are practically unrivaled. Notice in the system above all the options (most have videos) and the sub-options just under Fundamentals. We are big fans of video tutorials, as longtime readers know, and Strata has very good product manuals and tutorials as well.

LiveRay is a new rendering feature aimed at allowing rapid raytracing during typical workflows where OpenGL would not suffice to show you complex texturing setups—the kind that are typical of product packaging in many cases. New anti-aliasing technology also exists in version 8.1 as well as interactive rendering image adjustment. This last feature means you can adjust the gamma, brightness, or black point during or after the rendering process. There are other smaller improvements in the domain of rendering, including better interactive lighting in OpenGL.

Modeling. In our last review of Strata, we structured the article around common core workflow areas in a 3D software package (e.g., modeling, rendering, animation). Keeping to that format, we’ll briefly touch on modeling next. For version 8, Strata didn’t really offer any new modeling features, so let’s recap what modeling features it does have since our last review was so long ago. From way back, Strata had a complete set of modeling tools—tools for splines, polygons, lathing, skinning, extruding, sweeping, metaballs, and the all important Booleans. In 2011 the company added a brand new Boolean engine and subdivision surfacing modeling enhancements (for version 7). Then in 2013 the company upgraded its modeling feature set further with items like a polymesh conversion tool and range of UV mapping enhancements.

While Strata’s modeling tools are substantial, there are other ways to get your model into Strata without literally modeling therein. Strata supports import and export of Autodesk’s DXF (but not DWG) as well as 3DS (import), OBJ (in/out), STL (in/out), Collada (in/out), and legacy support for MiniCAD (in), and Amapi (in/out). From an architectural (AEC world) standpoint, this is far too minimal. It really should support the extremely popular SketchUp file format, at least inbound, at a bare minimum, and it may want to consider Rhino as well.

Why do we say this? Well, take a look at the rendering quality in the image below. As you can see, Strata can produce stunning results for architectural environments. But these days AEC tools are already working in in 3D, a trend well documented here on Architosh.

09 - Another stunning architectural rendering by Chris Tyler, who is a Strata god. This entire scene was likely completely constructed in Strata 3D as well. (Image: Chris Tyler, All rights reserved)

04 – Another stunning architectural rendering by Chris Tyler, who is a Strata god. This entire scene was likely completely constructed in Strata 3D as well. (Image: Chris Tyler, All rights reserved)

When we learn of these limitations, we are sort of surprised given that Strata was one of the earliest strongest architectural rendering programs and there are still a lot of excellent work being done in AEC with this tool. A quick look at their Image Showcase proves this point. Given the superb work being done with package and product design— the true sweet spot of this application’s strength—a Rhino import feature would be fantastic given that tool is popular with industrial designers. However, Rhino users are often quite sophisticated, and there are dozens of rendering options for Rhino-driven workflows as well.

A better decision might be to support SketchUp as these days SketchUp has become the de facto modeling baseline in the architectural world. It is also very popular with “makers, ” and the invention and garage fabrication crowd would likely appreciate Strata’s texture mapping features for product graphics, decals, packaging, et cetera.

next page: Texturing, Lighting, Animation and more…

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