As Jae Alexis said, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends a lot on the kind of projects you work on, the kind of deadlines you have, budget, and a number of other factors.
For instance, if you work mostly on commercial projects with very short deadlines (read ‘yesterday‘), there is no way of going around a farm. Being able to render an entire project in a few hours compared to a few days can make the difference between meeting the deadline and missing it. Not to mention the case when you have an impatient customer for which you need to do very fast revisions to the project.
If you work on commercial projects with relaxed deadlines, then you can do without a farm. However, in this case, there is a math to be done: if you use a farm to render a project, you are able to deliver faster, and while the farm is rendering you are able to use the computer for something else. If the time you save allows you to land another project, and the total financial exercise (earnings from the project minus farm expenses) is positive, then you probably want to use the farm.
If you work mostly on enthusiast or personal projects, that don’t really have a deadline, then the personal computer will do in most cases.
And now let’s see what other factors can influence the decision:
– Environmental impact (noise/heat): A rendering computer may generate a fair amount of noise and heat. If any of those impacts your quality of life (you can’t sleep because of the noise, or it becomes too hot in your home/office), a farm could offer an alternative
– Portability: If you are on the road and all you have is a low-spec laptop, you probably won’t be able to render on it. But you can use a farm from wherever you are, provided you have an internet connection good enough to upload/download your files.
– Other uses for the computer: If you only have one computer and need to use it for something else while you’re not working (games, learning, kids, etc), a farm may be a good choice
– Computer maintenance: A single computer can break, and Murphy’s laws teach us that they will probably break when needed the most. If it happens on a deadline and you can’t fix it quickly, it is a potential risk. It’s a relatively low one, but one time may be enough to lose a customer.
– Cost: I left this at the end because in my opinion the cost itself is irrelevant, and it should be looked at in connection with the benefits offered by each solution. Buying a PC will (in most cases) cost less than using a render farm permanently. You will need a PC anyway to do the modeling, so you only need to decide on the budget to spend. And when planning, look for all the online alternatives, because there are some cases in which an online service won’t break your budget.
In the end, your particular needs will tell you what the best solution is. The important thing, in my opinion, is to be informed about all the available choices, so you can make the correct one.
Cre: Marius Iatan