A software review by Bobulous.
Blender is an all-in-one 3D modelling and animation suite. It can be used to produce computer-generated images and movies. It is open source freeware, so it costs nothing to use.
Blender was originally developed by Dutch company NeoGeo, then made available as a commercial product by subsidiary Not A Number. When NaN shut down, one of its founders set up the not-for-profit Blender Foundation and worked to raise funds to buy the rights to Blender. Consequently, Blender is now under the GNU General Public License which makes it open source and free for anyone to use.
There are many other 3D modelling suites, but some of them cost thousands of dollars. Blender costs not a single penny.
Blender is available for most platforms that are in use today. You can run it on Windows 98, ME, 2000, or XP; Mac OS X; Linux; Solaris; Irix; FreeBSD.
The download is, at most, 5.9MB. This should take less than half-an-hour on a dial-up connection, and less than one minute on a broadband connection, so there's no reason not to download it if you're even remotely curious about giving it a try.
I will point out now that I am not a graphics professional. In fact, I don't even have graphics experience. But I've been using Blender for the last fortnight, following the tutorials, and I've had a great time.
In fact, without the video tutorials, I'd probably have fled in terror. Your first meeting with the Blender user interface will have you frozen in utter cluelessness. Almost all of the controls are hidden in keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures, so without a guiding hand you'll probably achieve exactly zero. With the video tutorials as a teacher, you'll quickly find your way around a large portion of the controls and get a taste for modelling all at the same time. Much more fun than picking up a manual and starting at page one. In fact, I've not yet looked at the user manual, though it is freely available online.
Once a few of the video tutorials have been taken in, it's easy to get down to some hands-on learning by following some of the step-by-step tutorial pages, created by Blender users, that are linked-to from the Blender main site. I've completed fourteen of the modelling tutorials so far. Each is very different from the others, so it doesn't get boring. Already I've created images using meshes, NURBS, textures, lighting, keyframes and dupliframes, skinning, image tracing, loop cuts, reflection, and height maps. There are plenty more modelling tutorials to go, and I've not even looked at animation tutorials yet.
I've seen a few complaints online about Blender's user interface. Having never used a 3D modelling package before, I can't compare Blender's control system to that of commercial packages. But I can say that, starting from scratch, I've not had any reason to complain about the controls. Mouse gestures allow common commands like move, scale, and rotate to be executed using only the mouse, and the rest of the commands are accessed using keyboard shortcuts. Having followed so many tutorials, I know a lot of the keyboard commands quite well. Some of the commands can be found on the menus, but seemingly not all commands are listed. Which might be why some of the complaints are generated. It doesn't feel like a problem to me, but perhaps to some it seems unreasonable.
The only thing that hurts me in terms of keyboard shortcuts is that I use the Dvorak keyboard layout, so whereas a QWERTY user will have the most common controls under their left hand, the same commands end up on the right of a Dvorak layout. And my right hand is being used to control the mouse. But this is not a problem specific to Blender, so it's not a product complaint, just a note. Furthermore, those most common controls have mouse gesture equivalents, so your right hand rarely leaves the mouse.
It should be clear from the images on this page (all of which I created by following the steps in the tutorials linked-to from the Blender site) that I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But for someone who has got an eye for beauty, and a discipline for detail and patience, I'm certain they could create spectacular things with Blender. If you'd like a real idea of what Blender can do, check out the Blender image gallery and the Blender movie gallery.
It is incredible to me that Blender is free software. It is so full of features that it really puts to shame a lot of commercial software that asks money for barely anything. Anyone who's ever wondered about computer-generated imagery should really devote some spare time to playing with Blender, and it is surely ideal for animation students who cannot afford to spend hundreds of pounds on modelling and animation software that might not be to their taste.
Some of the images on this page use textures from Mayang's Free Textures.
Here are some images I produced with Blender after the first fortnight, most of which were based on tutorials (in which case the image links to the matching tutorial).