Google SketchUp landed with a big splash last year, but it's not the only freeware option for budding 3D designers. From the makers of the popular scene-rendering program Bryce comes DAZ Studio for Windows and Mac, a powerful freeware 3D modeling and CAD program that looks great, but is a resource hog and can be sluggish for the average user.

The publisher recommends at least 256MB of RAM, but I found that to be wishful thinking at best. The program runs choppily on anything less than 1GB, although some of the more complex rendering was processed more slowly than others. It also requires an OpenGL compatible graphics card with at least 128MB of RAM onboard, so machines built before 2003 or 2004 will almost certainly struggle. This isn't unusual for this kind of program, but caveat emptor and all that.

DAZ offers up a wide array of built-in models and tools for creating, animating, and recording lifelike scenes accessible from the Content window in the left nav. Models include realistically designed animals such as goldfinches, angelfish, cats, and dogs, as well as an ichthyosaur, a dragon, and more Pixaresque renderings of kid-friendly beasties. The dragon is the most impressive and comes with its own category, which includes highly detailed claws, head spikes, tail accouterments, and other user-selected body parts.

Users can purchase additional models and program plug-ins through the publisher's Web site.

Tabbed navigation makes what could be an overwhelmingly complex series of views and windows much easier to deal with. The left nav features Content and Scene options, while the top nav visually presents Load, Pose/Animate, and Render options. The interface is important to note here because there are so many moving parts in this program that if it navigation was difficult, it'd be nearly impossible to get going.

Fortunately, free tutorials linked from within the program to the publisher's site take a bit of the edge off the learning curve, although it's still steep. The feature set is nothing short of incredible: You can take a model, manipulate it, add detail and texture, have it interact with other models, and manage your art files. The tool panels on the left and right navigation bars can be hidden, to maximize screen space, and all the tools have mouse-over labels to help newbies learn what's what, but I still found the tutorials to be practically essential for getting started. There are also components for easy export to other programs like Photoshop.

According to the publisher, the program is compatible with Windows Vista, however, I was unable to install it on my Vista Enterprise machine. It might've been because of a hardware problem, but I find it hard to believe that my XP computer is better equipped for 3D rendering than one outfitted for Vista. Assuming you can get it working, don't panic when the program asks you for a serial number--all users must register for free on the publisher's Web site to get the free serial number.

Even with these gaffes and problems, DAZ Studio runs well for an app with the potential to be so monstrous, and any budding 3D animator should check it out.