Valve have started sending out their new Steam Machines to beta testers in limited quantities, and currently only within the United States (due to various issues that would have otherwise delayed the Beta). But if you’re someone who wants to get their very own Steam Machine, that doesn’t mean that you can’t just simply build your own and use the SteamOS / Windows on the system.
In this guide, we take a look at building a Steam Machine similar to the ones sent out to the 300 Beta Testers. These machines simply use PC components but in small form factor cases.
So, we go into this with a few rules. The first is that it won’t be a full desktop case. Instead, we’ll be going with something compact and would look at home within your living room. It’ll be quiet, while providing enough power to play games and of course watch movies and anything else you’d need it to do. The second ‘rule’ is that we’re not going to break the bank while doing so, but we are going to be getting pretty high end components. This guide isn’t to build the ‘cheapest’ gaming machine, but rather to be similar enough in specs to the ones Valve has been sending out to people.
In the spirit of the specs of the beta testers Steam Machines we’ll stick with Intel. It has been revealed that the Beta testers machines have come with either an Intel Haswell I5-4670K OR an Intel Haswell I7-4770K.
While we’re not limited to an Intel system, Valve have confirmed they’ll be releasing the Steam Machines with AMD parts too – we’ll stick with what the Beta testers are using. There are two main options – the Intel Haswell I5-4670K or the Intel Haswell I7-4770K. The 4670K is currently on Amazon for the grand total of $220, and should you desire to go with the I7 you’ll be paying another 100 on top of that, making it $320. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you’ll go with the Intel Haswell I5-4670K.
The ‘K’ is important, as it means that the part is unlocked and allows you to easily overclock the part. We’ll have to stick with a fairly small heatsink due to the size constraints of the case, but we’ll still be able to push for a modest increase. The 4770K benefits from Hyper-Threading. This allows two threads to be run on one core, increasing performance on certain applications. For the extra price, most games (for now) likely won’t see enough of a boost (as they’ll be GPU limited) and so it makes more sense to spend the cash on a better GPU (Graphics Card).
RAM in Valve’s Steam Machines is plentiful, each of the 300 machines sent to Beta testers features 16GB of DDR3 main system memory. Memory prices aren’t exactly cheap right now, and currently games won’t take advantage of more than 8GB, but that will likely change – especially as the next generation of consoles is now released. 16GB of Corsair Vengeance (model number CML16GX3M2A1600C10) is currently selling for around the $150 US dollar mark. 8GB meanwhile is selling for $77 US Dollars.
There’s no getting around it – we’re not able to use a full size motherboard. This means that we’ll have to deal with some compromises (such as only 2x memory slots). There are a few boards out there to consider, the ASRock Z87E-ITX and the MSI Z87I both score well. The MSI for instances comes with Wi-Fi, bluetooth 4 and along with 1x PCIE x16 3.0. Because the MSI board is slightly cheaper right now on Amazon ($140 US dollars), and scores well in overclocking it’s the one we’ll be selecting.
Graphics Card / GPU
Nvidia seems to be the card of choice with Valve for the Beta testing, with users getting a variety of cards from the Geforce GTX 7XX and the Geforce GTX 6xx range. They range from Nvidia’s flagship, the Titan to a Geforce GTX 660. Higher end costs are going to hurt our budget a lot.
MSI have created the MSI GTX 760 GAMING ITX Mini GPU which packs a reasonable punch. Some cases however do have ‘long card support’ which would allow you to go for a longer GPU, such as Nvidia’s Geforce GTX 770. For a card such as this, you’ll be paying between 250 and 350 US dollars. I’d highly recommend that you buy based on not only your budget, but the type of games you’ll be playing. A GTX 760 does pretty well in most benchmarks (link to another site). Other options to consider would be an AMD Radeon R7 or R9 card.
I would personally really look at the benchmarks of a few cards and go from there.
Hard Drive Selection
In the next generation consoles, both Sony and Microsoft decided to opt for 500GB HDD’s. We PC gamers of course could choose to do the same, but why not go for something bigger? Titles now can be huge, and easily take up 20 – 50GB (depending on the game). I’d recommend nothing less than a 1TB main drive now, 2TB if at all possible. Make sure to split this drive into at least 2 partitions. One for the OS and the second for your downloads and the like. As a bonus, if your Steam games are on this second drive and you need to format then you’ll not find that you’re going to need to redownload them all from scratch. You could also have a third partition for Windows too should you wish.
I’d recommend Seagate’s Hybrid Drives. They constantly get good reviews, and offer great performance for the money. For a 2TB drive, you’ll be looking at $134 US Dollars. Should you choose not to go for a hybrid, and just a standard HDD you’ll be looking at around the $85 US dollar mark.
Power Supply Unit:
The power requirements are going to vary largely – depending mostly on the GPU that you ended up going with. Make certain that you’re also go with a modular design if possible. This way you can choose not to connect up a cable if needed. Just buy from a good brand, such as Corsair, Cooler Master or Akasa. Double check that the PSU has good rails and fits into the case.
Case for Steam Machine:
Case is a personal choice I find. It comes down to not only how much space you need (for instance, do you want multiple hard drives, or do you need the extra space for a long GPU) and your other requirements. These would likely be – how large a case, do you care about noise, what about case connections. I’d suggest speccing up the rest of the system and then figuring the case last. A Cooler Master ITX case (with long card support) can cost about $50 US Dollars.
$922 US dollars. Sounds expensive right? Yeah, it’s certainly not cheap. But remember – this does come with a high end GPU. Cheaper Graphics Cards, and going with an AMD processor would drastically cut the price of the unit down by 100 to 300 US dollars (depending on selections). The other benefit is that the system is pretty easy to upgrade, you’ll easily be able to add in new bits and pieces as needed. In the not too distant future, we’ll be building another pretend Steam Machine, with a lower budget in mind that will still be plenty powerful enough to play the games you’d expect.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the guide and gives you ideas of what to do with your own Steam Machine. In the meanwhile, if you’re interested in testing the SteamOS in a virtual setting then check out our article here.