The latest version of Blender, 2.79, makes a few significant changes, especially for users with AMD GPUs. Their main rendering engine, Cycles, has now reached feature-parity on OpenCL and CUDA. While those with NVIDIA GPUs will keep using the latter compute API, users of recent AMD GPUs can now (on Windows and Linux — macOS requires a driver update) harness their graphics cards for higher performance.

10 samples is actually very low. I'm usually in the 100-1000 range.

For the rest of us, there are four improvements that I would consider major. First, Cycles now has a denoise filter, which reduces speckles and thus should let you get away with fewer samples. Second, Filmic Color Management is now included by default, which can represent a much wider dynamic range. This was available as a user mod for a while, but you needed to manually install it. Third is a shadow catcher object for Cycles, which lets you render off translucent shadows onto dummy objects and composite them later (in Photoshop, After Effects, or Blender’s video editor).

Fourth, and most interesting to me, is their new PBR shader. I’ve done PBR materials in Cycles before, and it’s a bit of a pain to set up. If I don’t copy/paste from an existing material, it takes about 15-20 minutes of my time to wire together diffuse nodes, glossy nodes, Fresnel nodes, and so forth such that I can attach metal, bump, and so forth to it. Now? Just drag in one node and hook up the correct textures and colors, like the ones that are generated in Substance or Quixxel.

As always, Blender is free, so have fun.