What is the difference between a material, a shader, and a texture? And why do they exist?
First of all, be aware that in some programs, there is no difference. For example, in Maya, a shader and a material are the same thing. Phong shader, Phong material, same exact thing. Such is true for other programs. However, a texture is completely different from either of these.
A texture is a 2D image pasted onto a material, basically. The material typically contains all the properties of how the model looks, such as the shader, color, opacity, glowyness (is that a word?) and so forth. The shader, generally speaking, makes the model look different. It can make the model pretend like it’s more detailed than it really is, or make it look like it’s on fire, or make it look like water is dripping down it the sides of it, or turn the model into glass, or a mirror, or whatever. There’s many cool things you can do with shaders. They are typically used to make objects more shiny, though.
Which is better? Autodesk Maya or Autodesk 3ds Max?
I’m really not going to go into depth here; there are many comparisons of the two softwares already out there.
Personally, I wish Autodesk would just merge the two programs. They are basically the same. And they are, slowly. Autodesk Maya 2013 has some features from MotionBuilder, Mudbox, and 3ds Max built into it now.
They are both extremely powerful programs. I would not recommend any other 3d modeling software, besides Blender 3D, and I would only say to use Blender when it involves money or licensing. Blender is free, powerful, open source, and there are many tutorials online if you want to learn how to use it.
If you are only going to use Maya or 3ds Max for non-commercial or personal use, you can download the student version at http://students.autodesk.com. Or, you can download free trials to find out which one works for you. That’s my suggestion. Download and install the trials, try them both, and see what you like. Then, if you plan on using it for commercial purposes, go ahead and buy whichever you choose. Note: It will cost a few thousand dollars.