Watch out, Nintendo: Valve's quest to drag PC gaming into the living room is picking up steam. In September, the company announced it's Linux-based SteamOS, based on the Steam gaming service's Big Picture Mode, a Steam Controller that's supposed to emulate keyboard and mouse controls in gamepad form, and a slew of diminutive "Steam Machines" to bring the puzzle together.
The first wave of Steam Machines were officially unveiled at CES in January. But there was just one glaring issue. Most of the first wave of Steam Machines cost far more the Xbox One and PlayStation 4's $500 and $400 respective price tags, which is very likely an instantaneous show-stopper for the living room gaming masses.
That got us wondering: How much PC gaming power can you get for a console-esque price? With a (very) beta version of SteamOS already available, we decided to see if it was possible to build a worthwhile, small form factor Steam Machine for a sticker price competitive with current-generation game consoles.
Spoiler alert: It definitely is… with a few caveats.
Taking on the consoles
Let's briefly dig into the competition first.
Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 feature custom, octo-core AMD APUs, paired with 8GB of system memory and 500GB hard drives. Alongside the processer cores are integrated graphics processors with 896 (Xbox One) or 1,280 (PS4) stream processors, which are roughly equivalent to the Radeon HD 7790 or Radeon HD 7870. There are other architectural differences that make it impossible to build an exactly identical PC, but you get the gist.
We want our Steam Machine to compete favorably with one of the current-gen consoles. However, it’s just not going to be possible to build an 8-core rig with that kind of graphics horsepower and 8GB of RAM for $400-$500. Pulling off something comparable requires some concessions, but we were able to build a diminutive rig that offers solid performance at a console-like price point.
The SteamOS’ system requirements call for a 64-bit processor, a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and storage totaling 250GB or more.
First on the agenda were the processor and motherboard. We wanted a relatively affordable processor that would easily outpace the 8 AMD “Jaguar” cores in the current-gen consoles and a mini-ITX motherboard to keep the form factor small. The cheapest Haswell-based Intel processor we could find as of this writing was the Core i5-4430 ($184.29). It features 6MB of cache and a base clock of 3.0GHz, with a maximum turbo frequency of 3.2GHz. With games starting to list quad-core processors as a minimum requirement, passing on cheaper dual-core Core i3 chips seems prudent.
As for the motherboard, overclocking's out of the question in a rig this small, but adding discrete graphics means the motherboard needs to be compatible with the processor and have a PCI Express x16 slot. While super cheap, off-brand LGA 1150 mini-ITX motherboards are available, we felt more comfortable with a known brand and selected an MSI H81i. The $59 H81i is built around Intel’s H81 chipset and sports a number of goodies, like USB 3.0 support, 8-channel audio, and a gigabit network controller.
Next up: memory and storage. The fastest memory the Core i5-4430 officially supports (without overclocking) is DDR3-1600. And for optimal performance, it’s best to run the memory in dual-channel mode. Ideally, we would have wanted to use as much memory as the motherboard could support—16GB is this case—but didn’t have the budget. Instead, we opted for a 4GB DDR3-1600 kit from G.SKILL that was on sale for under $41.
Choosing storage proved to be a little more difficult.
An SSD was out of the question considering our target budget. And since managing multiple drives in Linux is somewhat more difficult that in Windows—especially for novice users—we didn’t think it was a good idea to pair up an SSD and hard drive. We also wanted to outdo the current-gen consoles if possible, which both include basic, 500GB hard drives. Ultimately, we settled on one of Seagate’s Laptop Thin SSHD 500GB hybrid drives ($74.99), which mates 8GB of flash memory with a traditional hard drive to boost performance.
Since this box is being built for the living room, the graphics card for our Steam Box had to be capable of running games well at a full HD 1080p resolution. The GPU also had to be relatively small and low-power, somewhat affordable, and compatible with SteamOS. Currently, NVIDIA’s Linux GPU drivers are a bit more polished than AMD's. Also, Nvidia is working closely with Valve on SteamOS, so we immediately gravitated to the green team and settled on an EVGA GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB card for $144.99.
The last two components we needed were a case and power supply. Having already spent just over $500, we went with the most affordable mini-ITX case and power supply that would accommodate our hardware choices. The SilverStone Sugo Series SG05BB-LITE fit the bill and was selling for only $39.99, so it was an obvious choice.
The SG05BB-LITE required a SFX-class power supply, so we snatched up an Athena Power 300W unit for only $19.99. 300W may not seem like much for a gaming system, but with our hardware choices, we knew there was no way the rig would come close to consuming that much power.
The final tally
If you’re keeping track, the complete breakdown of components used in our Steam Box include:
- CPU: Intel Core i5-4430 - $184.29
- Motherboard: MSI H81I - $59.99
- Memory: G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR-1600 RAM - $40.49 (after 10% off promo)
- Storage: Seagate ST500LM000 500GB MLC/8GB Hybrid Drive - $74.99
- GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB - $144.99
- Case: SilverStone Sugo Series SG05BB-LITE - $39.99
- PSU: Athena Power AP-MP4ATX30 300W - $19.99
- Total cost: $564.73
At almost $565, were weren’t quite able to put something together for the same price as an Xbox One, never mind the lower-priced PS4. We’re in the ballpark, though.
If you don't already have a gamepad—most gamers likely do—a wired Xbox 360 controller will set you back another $30 or so. And since SteamOS is free, we did not include the cost of an operating system. Buying a copy of Windows would cost roughly $100.
Bringing it all together
Got it? Good! Let's dig in.