How to build your own Steam Machine today for $560

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My first step was installing the CPU, CPU cooler, and memory onto the motherboard. Both the memory and CPU fit into their respective sockets/slots one way only, so installing them was just a matter of lining up some keys and securing everything in place. The CPU cooler included with the Core i5-4430 had thermal paste pre-installed, so it too just needed to be positioned properly over the socket and locked into place.

side 2 Steam machine

The inside of the finished Steam Machine, part one. Despite its small form factor, there’s plenty of open space inside our Steam Box for relatively unobstructed air-flow.

Next I opened up the case, untangled all of its internal cables, and checked the lay of the land to find the optimal position to mount our drive. There’s a 2.5-inch drive bay in the top drive cage on the SilverStone Sugo case we used for this build, and a removable 3.5-inch cage just below that. Since I wouldn’t be using it, I removed the 3.5-inch cage to free up some internal space and mounted the Seagate drive with its connectors facing the right side of the case. Doing so would allow for easier cable routing, out of the way of any other components within the system.

side 1 Steam machine

The inside of the Steam Machine, part two. Smile for the camera, GTX 650 Ti!

Next I snapped the motherboard’s custom IO shield into the case, then positioned the motherboard properly inside the case and secured it place with four included screws. Then I connected the front panel cables and case fan to the motherboard and installed a SATA cable for the drive. I was lucky; there was a small channel between the motherboard and edge of the case where we could neatly route all of the cables, save for a bulky USB 3.0 cable that was too long and firm to easily secure anywhere. A couple of zip-ties later, though, and the inside of the system was neat and tidy.

I like to save the power supply for last because it makes routing cables a bit easier, since everything else is in its proper position. Installing the PSU required little more than holding it in position and tightening four screws. Then I connected up power to the motherboard, GPU, and drive and was ready to rock.

top steam machine

A view from the top. Without the power supply installed, you can see how much clearance there is around the CPU cooling fan and at the top of the case.

Establishing a baseline

Prior to installing SteamOS, I installed Windows 8.1 x64 and ran a handful of benchmarks, including PCMark 7, Cinebench 11.5, and a handful of games.

In PCMark 7, the system put up a respectable score of 4,976 after conditioning the hybrid drive. And in Cinebench, the system managed single- and multi-threaded CPU scores of 1.44 and 4.62, respectively.

In a low-res (1024x768)/low-quality Crysis CPU benchmark, the system put up 87 frames per second. Frame rates were all over the map using higher detail settings at 1080p resolution, however. In Batman: Arkham City, using high quality settings and 4X anti-aliasing, the system managed 55 FPS. In a medium quality Crysis 3 test, using 4X anti-aliasing, 30.54 FPS. And in Metro: Last Light, the system put up 20.33 FPS in high-quality mode, with depth of field disabled. Not killer numbers by any means, but decent enough.

With detail quality bumped down a hair, the system would be capable of maintaining a completely playable 30-plus FPS at 1080p with the vast majority of games currently available, as Metro: Last Light and Crysis 3 are far more punishing on a PC than most titles.

Taking SteamOS for a whirl

After testing the system in Windows, it was time to install SteamOS. All you need to do is download a file from the SteamOS repository (from a working system) and set up a bootable flash drive. You can find full, step-by-step installation instructions on the Steam website.

virtualbox steamos automated install for byo steam machine

Installing SteamOS.

Expect to find some rough edges while you're using SteamOS. Currently, only Steam for Linux titles run natively on SteamOS. Valve's Steam in-home streaming technology will one day allow you to stream games from your Windows rig to your Steam Machine on a local network, but the feature only recently entered beta status. (It's already looking magical, though.)

Games that are available for both platforms don’t always have the same menus, either. I initially planned to use Metro: Last Light on both Windows and SteamOS for comparison purposes, but the game has only a simple slider to adjust quality on SteamOS, and there were no explanations as to what was being changed when dragging the slider down. This made it virtually impossible to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.

Regardless, I still ran a couple of tests to see how our homebrew Steam Machine performed. Things didn’t go too well, unfortunately.

metro last light

Metro: Last Light runs worse in SteamOS than it does in Windows. (Click to enlarge.)

In Metro: Last Light, we recorded an average of about 24 FPS at medium quality settings at 1920x1080, but there were noticeable hiccups in the frame rate when gaming.

We also tested a popular game that’s known to run well on Linux and a wide array of graphics cards, Valve's own Left 4 Dead 2. At 1080p, with 2X anti-aliasing enabled at high-quality settings, the Left 4 Dead 2 ran at only 22.88 FPS. I expected L4D2 to run much faster based on past experience, but it did not seem to behave properly on our rig. We suspect the frame rate issues stem from SteamOS's beta state, as well as the ho-hum (but improving) state of today's Linux graphics drivers.

While idling at the SteamOS desktop, the system consumed on 41 watts. While perusing the Steam games library the system consumed 65 watts. And while playing Metro: Last Light, it peaked at only 125 watts. That’s perfectly acceptable, and only about 25 percent higher than an Xbox One.

Was it worth it?

finished byo steam machine

It’s no barnburner, but this $560 Steam Machine is small, good looking, powerful enough to play modern games, and almost as affordable as a current-generation console.

Now that we’ve done it, we think keeping the budget as close to a current-gen game console cut the system short. If money were no object, upping the specs to at least 8GB of system memory, a beefier PSU, and a more potent graphics card would really make this puppy purr. Spending even an extra $40 to $60 for a GeForce GTX 660 would likely have provided a big step up in performance.

To truly blow away the current-gen consoles, you’ll want to run any game at 1080p without compromising image quality, and that’s not quite something we can do with this rig. That said, our little experiment showed that it is indeed possible to create a perfectly satisfactory small form factor PC gaming rig for roughly the same cost as an Xbox One—though you're better off sticking with Windows until SteamOS is fully formed and polished.

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