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I don't plan to be doing much cycles rendering, but I wanted to know if a GPU is still important if I'm doing high-poly modeling.

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I will assume you are talking about an external GPU in this case, say a Nvidia GTX 660 etc..

Excerpt from the wiki

...GPU rendering makes it possible to use your graphics card for rendering, instead of the CPU. This can speed up rendering, because modern GPUs are quite designed to do a lot of number crunching...

In short, No, you do not need an external GPU. Not to get too technical but except for drawing and viewport stuff amongst some other things, much of Blender's core functionality relies very little on a fully fledged GPU.

For modeling in your case, you are perfectly fine with just a decent CPU and an onboard graphics card that supports OpenGL (which in these modern times is pretty much every one of them).

Having one would be nice though as this can greatly improve the viewport performance among other things but it is not a major requirement unless you are going to be doing very heavy or demanding production work.

Graphics card note: Blender runs on all OpenGL compliant cards, although there are some issues with cheap onboard cards (Intel, Via). We therefore can't officially support and guarantee that Blender works fine on those systems.

You can see the system requirements for Blender here.

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    $\begingroup$ High-poly modeling is not a very clear term, but if that includes sculpting I would definitely recommend a good NVidia or AMD GPU with 1GB memory minimum. Even for moderately complex scenes it's best to avoid onboard graphics whenever possible. $\endgroup$ – brecht Jun 8 '13 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer needs to be a bit more clear about the role that the GPU plays in rendering the viewport. Every point/line/poly that shows up in the viewport has to be rendered by the GPU. In fact, the principles are (by design) extremely similar to 3D gaming. Asking if you need a GPU for Blender is almost exactly like asking if you need a GPU to play computer games: it depends. Do you want to play Crysis or Tetris? Are you okay with playing Crysis at 2 fps on the lowest settings, or do you need to run max settings at 120 fps? It all depends. $\endgroup$ – Matt Jan 2 '14 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt I think I summarized it well enough (it's good to have one but not necessarily needed) so feel free to add to it if you wish or roll your own answer :). $\endgroup$ – iKlsR Jan 2 '14 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ I take that back, I overlooked the link you provided to "What everybody needs to know about Blender Viewport performance." That should suffice ;-) $\endgroup$ – Matt Jan 2 '14 at 20:09
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On-board Graphic cards are not much powerful.Its just one simple fact,if you want fast renders you will need a good graphic card. Rendering time also depends on material. Suppose if you use SSS, you "will" need a graphic card.

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    $\begingroup$ the question, while perhaps not explicit enough, suggests that the major use case will be high poly viewport editing, and not rendering which your answer concentrates on. $\endgroup$ – zeffii Jun 9 '13 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ Not only that, but SSS is not yet available on the GPU. $\endgroup$ – gandalf3 Nov 13 '13 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ Renders are only capable of using the GPU in cycles. The GPU will not affect renders in the slightest outside cycles. $\endgroup$ – linuxhackerman Jan 3 '14 at 15:18

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