Build your own Steam Machine

Dave James

Everything you know about the PC gaming world is set to change over the next twelve months. We're going to experience a tectonic shift in the coming year on a scale not seen since the introduction of Windows 95 and the death of DOS. Valve have struck a blow for open-source gaming must have reverberated around the corridors of Microsoft's Redmond HQ like the last peal at a funeral.

Okay, that's overselling it a bit, but the groundswell of support surrounding Linux as a viable gaming OS alternative to Windows, currently spearheaded by Valve, really could change things. We'll at least get a range of gaming PCs that look like nothing on the market right now. Next year Valve have announced that they will be helping hardware partners sell branded Steam Machines specifically designed to run with a bespoke Linux-based OS and sit under your TV in the living room. One of the advantages they'll have over the consoles is that they'll be modular and upgradeable, and rely on the hardware we use to power our desktops right now.

That means we'll be able to build our own Steam Machines to fit our living rooms. With that in mind, I've scoured the world of small form-factor hardware to create two sample Steam machines, a no-holds barred powerhouse and a powerful but more sensibly priced offering.

Valve have admitted their prototype is going to be “something special”, a high-performance beast of a mini-rig. But have also not discouraged others from building their own. “Apart from the custom enclosure,” Valve says about the Steam Machines, “anyone can go and build exactly the same machine by shopping for components and assembling it themselves. And we expect that at least a few people will do just that.” The only thing we're missing right now is the SteamOS itself. But I'm betting it will be entering beta in more than just the 300 prototype machines when they eventually ship.

Steam Machine Ultra

The money-no-object build

Motherboard

Asus RoG Maximus VI Impact - £180 / $270

After the chassis this is going to be the other important choice in the build. Valve has opted for Intel CPUs for its prototype and you can pick up some excellent mini-ITX motherboards for its chips.

As we're putting together a seriously high-powered gaming rig it seems churlish not to include the beautiful Asus RoG Maximus VI Impact. It builds on the quality P8Z77-I Deluxe mini-ITX board of the last generation and offers top-end performance in a tiny form factor.

CPU

Intel Core i7-4770K - £240 / $330

That RoG motherboard will allow for a healthy chunk of overclocking, especially with a decent cooler attached to it. For that reason I'm going to have to opt for the top Intel Core i7-4770K, as it will deliver up to 4.6GHz while barely breaking a sweat. You wont get that here, with the cooler restrictions of the chassis, but that wont really impact upon your gaming performance at this high level.

The eight threads of the fully HyperThreaded i7 means that, in comparison with the resolutely quad-core i5, you will actually get higher minimum frame rates in-game. You wont find the average frame rate jumping, but with the low end getting a boost games will feel smoother.

CPU Cooler

Gelid SlimHero - £22 / $34

Gelid's SlimHero is an excellent low profile cooler that is still powerful enough to be able to cope with an overclocked CPU, if only just. It's very slight, but the large 120mm fan will ensure you don't end up with a whiny cooler sitting atop your processor.

Memory

Crucial Ballistix Tactical LP DDR3 - £160 / $200

The important thing for a small form factor build is space. When you're working with a powerful, compact cooler like the Gelid, you need to be mindful of the memory you're using. Crucial's Ballistix Tactical LP DDR3 are beautifully designed DIMMs that will sneak under the radar of any overbearing CPU cooler and you can pick up a 16GB kit with a pair of 8GB modules to fill out the dual DIMM slots of the RoG motherboard.

Graphics card

Nvidia GTX Titan - £780 / $1020

What can I say here? If you're talking about the very best then there really is only one graphics card to go for, and hang the expense. Nvidia's GTX Titan is the most powerful single-GPU around (at least until AMD gets all Hawaii on our desktop GPUs) and that's also the top card in the Valve prototype machine so you know it's going to get some SteamOS compatibility lovin' too.

To be honest though it's a total overkill for this rig, and when the GTX 780 (also one of the cards in the prototype) is considerably cheaper with almost identical gaming performance, it really would take a total money-no-object build to consider the Titan a realistic choice.

Storage

Samsung 840 EVO SSD, 1TB - £500 / $600

It simply has to be a question of solid state storage for a top-end machine these days. I've been running SSDs in my machines for years and I don't think I could ever go back unless there was no other alternative. In a budget machine, sure, you can get away with an old fashioned disk drive, but for a proper top gaming rig it has to be solid state. And the king at the moment is Samsung, with their speedy, great value 840 EVO offerings. You can pick up a 1TB EVO drive now and that is more than enough to be getting on with.

Chassis

EVGA Hadron Air - £160 / $190

This is actually the hardest part of the Valve prototype to get a bead on. Currently there are no chassis around that will enable you to do what Valve is creating with their own bespoke case. That's because the enclosure Valve is designing for the prototype is less than 3-inches in height .

They're going to do this by using a 90º riser card for the PCIe slot so they can lay the graphics card on its front rather than having it stand vertically in the case. Nothing I've seen in the market does this right now in the gaming PC space.

So, what to do? Well, there are relatively small alternatives that allow you to use full size graphics card. The latest one is EVGA's Hadron Air and it's my favourite small form factor chassis right now. It even comes with its own installed 500W PSU. My only reservation with the Hadron is that it precludes the use of a closed-loop water cooler installed inside the chassis.

Total price: £2045 / $2644

Yep, that sure is a lot. But these are the choicest components, the priciest and most powerful small form-factor tech in their field. It's the limousine of Steam machines, impressive, but slightly unnecessary. Let's see what we can build on a budget.

Budget Steam Machine

Powerful components for less

Motherboard

Mini-ITX H87 - £90 / $110

Mini-ITX motherboards tend to come with a bit of a premium because of their size, but where you can save some cash is in the chipset. Like the Valve Steam Machine prototype, I'm not looking to overclock this system so we don't need the top Haswell Z87 chipset.

You can then pick up mini-ITX H87 motherboards for less than £100. They've got pretty much all the functionality of their Z87 cousins, but don't allow for any CPU overclocking.

With Valve's confirmation though that they will be supporting AMD components, despite what's going into their own prototype, you could save a lot of money going for an AMD CPU/mobo combo. Sadly though they don't make mini-ITX boards for their FX range of CPUs, only for their APUs and I would really struggle to recommend those for a proper gaming rig.

CPU

Core i5-4570 - £150 / $190

No overclocking means no expensive K-series CPUs for you. Valve are sending out some of the 300 prototype units with the Core i5-4570, and that's the chip I'm recommending for this build. That £150 Haswell quad-core is running at 3.2GHz across it's four threads, with a possible 3.6GHz turbo too. All told you're going to be spending some £50-odd more on this Intel CPU/mobo setup compared with an AMD APU/mobo combo, but it will be worth it in the long run.

CPU cooler

The Gelid SlimHero, again - £25 / $34

At £25 it's pretty tough to look past the Gelid SlimHero for this build too. It may only just be able to cope with a proper overclocked CPU, but for a reference-clocked processor it's an absolute beauty.

Memory

Crucial Ballistix Tactical LP DDR3, 8GB - £70 / $80

If it aint broke, why fix it? For a more price-focused build you don't need to go so crazy with the memory options. There's really little point in a small gaming rig having 16GB of RAM, you can more than get by with 8GB. Luckily the Ballistix Tactical also comes in 8GB kits too at a pretty competitive price.

Graphics card

GTX 650 Ti Boost - £111 / $150

Now, this is the really important decision for this more budget-oriented build; what graphics card do you choose? This is a gaming machine first and foremost, so we need something that's really going to deliver the goods without shredding our wallets.

But let's have a think about what we're building here. This is our Steam Machine, a device designed to go plug into your TV so you can sit your butt on the couch and play PC games. And that means, right now, we're aiming to game at a maximum of 1920 x 1080. Most modern graphics cards are going to deliver a pretty darned good gaming experience at that resolution.

AMD's latest releases have been pretty aggressive on pricing and now that things have settled down a little post-launch there's not so great a disparity between the reference-clocked AMD R9-280X and the older (though practically identical) HD 7970. HIS has a £246 version available that will put a GTX 680 to shame.

That's still a lot of money for a budget build, but Nvidia have a card that will still deliver more than playable frame rates at 1080p for just £111: the GTX 650 Ti Boost. I was playing the Battlefield 4 beta on Ultra settings, with 4X anti-aliasing, at 35FPS and barely ever dipped below 20FPS. It's essentially a GTX 660 but shy of a few CUDA cores and it's a great card for the money.

Storage

Samsung 840 EVO SSD, 250GB - £140 / $240

So, what's a budget gamer to do here? Well, that really depends on how much cash you've got left after you've picked up all the rest of the bits. I'm always going to say, if you can afford it, go for an SSD as your boot drive. But there's little point picking anything up below 120GB, and because you're limited on space ideally you don't want too many drives clogging things up. So a small boot drive and large hard drive for data is going to be a bit of a hog.

For £140 you can get a 250GB Samsung 840 EVO, and that will be a great little drive, offering great performance with enough space for a decent Steam library. And I'd guess that SteamOS isn't going to be as bloated as Windows, so you wont have to sacrifice half an SSD to the gods of the OS.

Chassis

Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced - £40 / $50

While you're looking at around £160 for the EVGA Hadron Air you can pick up decent mini-ITX chassis for a lot less. You can get the Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced for around £40, and the quite beautiful Bitfenix Prodigy for around £70. Both will take mini-ITX boards, but are capable of housing full size components for the rest of the build.

Bitfenix has an edge, even over the Hadron, if you want to spend a bit extra. You can use a closed-loop liquid-chiller for the CPU cooling. It's the largest of the three chassis, but is by no means some sort of monster case. It's worth considering the extra cost of buying a reliable PSU though. The EVGA case comes with its own 500W power supply, the other two I've mentioned here need you to bring your own standard size PSU to the party.

Power Supply

GX Lite 500W PSU - £41 / $50

This is something you wont have to worry about if you choose the EVGA Hadron Air chassis as it already comes with a 500W PSU installed in its base. But if you go for either the Bitfenix Prodigy or the cheaper Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced then you're going to need to pick up a separate power supply.

Thankfully Cooler Master are pretty good at making reliable PSUs as well as robust chassis. I recommend the £41 GX Lite 500W PSU for the PCGamer Rig and that's still a good choice for these small form factor machines as they'll both take ATX spec supplies.

Total price: £667 / $904

There it is. Still not cheap exactly - you'll always have to pay a bit extra for that small form-factor - but the expense is offset by the Steam Machine's upgradeablity, and you could shave a significant sum from the final price by opting for conventional storage and cheaper RAM. It'll be interesting to see how the prices of next year's Valve-affiliated Steam machines matches the price points we've arrived at here, but if the concept of the living room PC takes off we can also expect to see competition in the mini-component market that'll produce cheaper alternatives to some of the components above.

There's also the promise of living room streaming from ordinary Windows gaming PCs. When Valve reveal their streaming solution, we'll test it out and take a look at what you'll need to build your own streaming device.

For more on Valve's new living room push, we've gone back through years of Valve interviews and announcements to explore Valve's master pla n for Steam OS, Steam machines and the Steam controller.

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