I have been getting a number of IT people ask me recently about getting/building systems for "heavy" graphics use. The IT folks are used to building systems for doing regular drafting of architectural plans. They want to either begin to hire people proficient in the use of VIZ or MAX or will be doing so themselves. These programs have a habit of always being on the cutting edge of using the latest technology to the fullest and still wanting more from the box. I cannot recommend a particular system or cards since hardware specs and technology change at a phenomonal rate, however I can recommend some basic items to look into when buying or building a system. Figuring out which parts to get really take some research on your part to see what you really want to get. I'll refer to MAX to keep things simple but the same stuff applies to VIZ as well.
Don't skimp - get the best motherboard and chipset money can buy. Something that supports 64bit OS, dual chips with dual cores and the fastest buses and fastest hard drive with a decent graphics card that has either 256 or 512 MB or ram on it. If they go with a 64 bit system they can run 4GB of ram and if they go 32 bit they can run 2GB ram (or 4GB if brave). The temptation may be to buy the part that's a little less expensive than the best and a little less advanced than the best to save some money. If you get the best parts now you'll run through several of your current platform getting phased out before ditching the current graphics station you're putting up now.
Minimum requirements for MAX have started to stray away from setting anything other general items such as OS, minimum processor speed and ram. Here are the basics for what each of the components will help the most with.
From what I understand a system running a 64 bit OS should be able to handle things twice as well as a 32 bit system, but the application has to be re-written to take advantage of that.Very few programs have done this and MAX 9 will be the first one to do so that I work with in my arena. Getting a 64 bit system will be extremely benificial for programs like MAX because they are data intensive applications - applications like MS word will likely not see much speed improvement from 64 bit systems.
This will help in mathmatically based functions that require the chip to crunch lots of numbers. Things this can include are applying modifers to geometry, solving max scripting expressions, and rendering - which is the single most intensive process for a chip. Any machine with one single core chip will be maxed out to 100% of the processors capacity no matter how fast it is. Put in a dual core chip and it can handle almost twice the amount of data. Put in 2 dual core chips and it can handle almost 4 times the amount of data a single core chip can dish out. Why is this important? Because the more data the processor(s) can crunch, the faster the image(s) can be rendered.
The more RAM, the more applications you can have open and the files that are actively open can be larger which is often the case with MAX models. If running a 64 bit system, they can "technically" handle up upwards of terabytes of RAM, but again this will most likely be out of the usefulness for most of us. The biggest adavantage will likely come from running in the range of 4-8GB of RAM. Current 32 bit systems max out at 2GB RAM. Unless of course you like getting into the registry and flipping the 3GB switch to allow 4GB of ram to be detected by windows, you can get past the 2GB limit and run with 4GB.
This helps with the display of realtime graphics on the screen as you are modeling in the program. It helps display shadows, materials and other "surfaces" more realistically. Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with helping render faster. The more memory your graphics card has, the smoother items will be displayed when rotating the view on the screen or moving objects around.
The faster the RPMs the smoother it can write data to the disk and it can open/access files faster too. This becomes more important the larger the file gets. It also helps when rendering to have a hard drive capable of writing data as fast as possible to avoid dropped frames.
The faster the bus, the faster data moves between all the components above.
Here's he links to the latest "minimum requirements" from Autodesk, however this is really just the basics. If you are looking to take these programs into a production environment you will need to go far beyond the basics.