How to build your own Steam Box today
Manufacturers have tried to put PCs in our living room for years, with mixed success. One of the most recent example is Alienware’s X51, which looks great in a home-theater rack, but delivers underwhelming performance when you use it to play high-end games with all their graphic settings cranked up.
But this January, the "PC as a gaming console" construct took a new twist. Valve Software, the developer of the Half-Life game series and Steam digital distribution network, confirmed long-running rumors that it's working on a "Steam box"—a prebuilt PC that plugs into an HDTV, and runs the entire lengthy list of games available on Valve’s network. But there won't just be one Steam Box on the market. Instead, the Steam Box will become its own hardware category, filled with prefab PCs from multiple manufacturers and endorsed by Valve.
At CES 2013 in January, we saw the first of many Steam Box PCs to come when modular PC manufacturer Xi3 debuted the Piston, a prototype PC designed with input (and financial investment) from Valve.
Built to fit inside a home entertainment center, the Piston looks cool; but with its expected AMD APU, it probably won't be able to run demanding PC games on a big HDTV without serious performance problems.
So if you want to play games like Borderlands 2, Hawken, or the upcoming Bioshock Infinity at peak performance, you’ll need more power than the current Steam Box prototypes seem capable of providing. To that end, I set out to build a compact gaming PC that would sit in my home-theater component rack and deliver a great couch gaming experience.
Gaming PCs don't fit in the living room
What I plan to build is a compact gaming PC capable of delivering 60 frames per second at full HD resolution: 1920 by 1080 pixels. Sure, most console games can't reach 60 fps consistently, but some can; and to compete with consoles, a living-room gaming PC needs to hit that magic frame rate.
The problem is the inherent shortcomings of compact PCs: limited expansion, limited power, and reduced heat dissipation. In particular, the small volume inside a compact case greatly complicates the task of dissipating the heat generated by fast CPUs and GPUs without generating a ton of fan noise.
The good news is that the system needs to hit high frame rates only at 1080p resolution—child's play for contemporary high-performance PC components. Also welcome is the fact that modern PC components are incredibly quiet and power-efficient; thus, the right mix of components in the perfect case makes a high-performance Steam box in the living room possible.
Researching the appropriate set of components—particularly choosing the right power supply and the best case—proved challenging. In the end, however, I assembled a stack of excellent components that can deliver good performance at reduced noise and with modest power requirements.
CPU and GPU: The heart of the matter
Current home consoles pack fairly outdated hardware, so I don't need to invest in a cutting-edge CPU and graphics card to get a solid gaming experience. I do need a power-efficient CPU + GPU combination that can deliver great gaming performance on higher-end titles like Far Cry 3.
CPU - Intel Core i7-3770s: The 3770s is a quad-core, Ivy Bridge processor running at a base clock of 3.1GHz. Like other desktop i7 CPUs, it supports up to eight threads using Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology. Even though it’s a quad-core CPU running at over 3GHz, its nominal power rating is 65 watts. Unlike the higher-end 3770K, the 3770s is multiplier locked, so overclocking isn’t as easy. But in a small case, you won't want to overclock much anyway.
Graphics card - Asus GTX 660 Ti: Good performance, low noise, and power efficiency in one graphics card are hard to find, but the Asus GTX 660 Ti DirectCU II fits the bill nicely. The dual fans spin fairly slowly, so fan noise is minimal, even under a heavy gaming load. The GTX 660 Ti GPU does a fine job with gaming at 1080p resolutions, even in demanding titles. The 2GD5 model runs the GPU core at 915MHz, but it can boost the clock frequency to 980MHz when needed. The GTX 660 Ti also comes loaded with 2GB of GDDR5 memory running at 6008MHz (effective). The 192-bit memory interface might be a limiting factor if you’re turning on high levels of antialiasing, but it should be more than adequate for most 1080p gaming. Even better, this card has a rated power draw of 150 watts under load and just 12 watts when idling.
An efficient platform
With the graphics and CPU choices made, let's turn to the platform: motherboard, memory, case, and power supply. The motherboard must support the LGA 1155 Core i7 3770s CPU, and will dictate the physical size of the case. The system needs an adequate amount of memory, and anything to help power efficiency is a bonus. The case should be small enough to sit on my A/V rack, but large enough to ensure adequate airflow. Finally, the power supply must be efficient and quiet.
Motherboard - Asus P8Z77-I: This Steam box runs on an Asus P8Z77-I Mini-ITX mainboard. The P8Z77-I sports two DDR3 memory sockets, on-board Wi-Fi with Intel WiDi (Wireless Display) capability, Bluetooth, and a bunch of USB ports. One cool design decision by Asus was to put the VRMs (voltage regulator modules) on a separate riser board on one side. The riser board is attached with screws that also serve as mounting screws when you attach the entire affair to the bottom of the case. The rear of the board includes graphics ports (in case you’re using integrated graphics), USB ports, and antenna connections for Wi-Fi.
That's a nice feature set, but the strongest reason to pick the P8Z77-I is its compact size: We can build this Mini-ITX board into a really small chassis. The board also has one PCI Express X16 slot for a high-performance graphics card, so it can accommodate the GTX 660 Ti just fine.