The best way for modeling in sub d’s in maya is to start using polygon mode for the basic structure of the character and or object. Make sure everything is good and then go into standard mode for fine detail. This is the way I do it, others might model with sub d’s a lot differntly. Turning off history before you model might result in maya not letting you extrude faces (thats happened to me before). The sub d’s in maya are really good. Of course there are still some faulty things about it, but its still good. If you do not want to use sub 's then there is a mel script you can use to simulate a smooth proxy, therefore not really using sub d’s. The mel script is found at www.highend3d.com. If you had maya 4.5, you wouldnt need to worry about the script because the smooth proxy tool is an option in 4.5 in the polygon tools.
Here is the method for curing sub d slowness found on cg talk:
Cure for subdivision SLOWNESS
1.) Open the Hypergraph. Options > Display > Shape Nodes.
2.) Select the shape node for your SubD model , and “show up-and-downstream connections”.
3.) Right-mouse over your SubD model in the viewport and go to Poly Proxy mode.
4.) In the Hypergraph, you should see the downstream connections change to a historyshape node (the
poly proxy) and a bunch of blindData nodes.
5.) Delete the blindData nodes. If you move vertices on your model, you should already see a slight
increase in speed.
6.) Create two layers.
7.) Select and assign the the poly proxy (historyShape) and the subd shape node to seperate layers.
8.) Hide the layer with the Subd shape node
9.) Middle mouse drag the Poly Proxy (historyShape) node over the shading group (at the right end of the
network in the hypergraph) to give it a material, so it is shaded in the viewport.
10.) Now move some vertices on your poly proxy and you should have full interactivity! You can hide
and show both layers whenever you want. (Note that the greatest performance increase comes from
hiding the SubD layer.)
You can also bind the poly proxy to a skeleton and animate it. That way you can alter and assign UVs on
the SubD model after the poly proxy is skinned. When you want to render, just hide the poly proxy and
show the subd! Walla!
Hopefully this will work for everyone. If it doesn’t and you have questions, post them. I’ll try to solve
them. Note that you must repeat the steps concerning the Poly Proxy node if you switch back to standard
mode and then back to Poly Proxy node (deleting blindData nodes, assigning to the layer and assigning a
shading group, etc).