How to Build Your Own Steam Box

Valve might be taking its sweet time building a Steam Box, but Mark finds that you can build your own living-room gaming rig for a mere £300.

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A few months ago, rumours suggested that Valve--makers of Half-Life and the Steam download service--was about to enter the hardware market with its own PC-based console. It was said that Valve's "Steam Box" would include an Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU, which would make for one hell of a gaming rig, but not exactly an affordable one. Even at the most optimistic of component prices, such a system approaches the £600 ($946) mark, making the PlayStation 3's £425 ($600) launch price look a bargain. Valve could potentially soak up some of that cost for a more appealing RRP, but there are limits.

That got us thinking: with all the fantastic games available exclusively on PC right now like Diablo III, Starcraft, Counter Strike, DoTA, and Guild Wars II, why wait around for Valve to release something? What if it were possible to build your own gaming rig, powerful enough to run those games, but at a price comparable to that of a games console? With that in mind, we set about trying to build such a rig for the princely sum of £300 ($474), and discovered that it isn't the fevered dream of a cash-strapped console gamer, but an entirely realistic proposition.

To build the Steam Box we had to lay down some ground rules, most importantly of all, the budget of £300. It's a price that compares favourably to the launch/mid-lifecycle price of a games console, and is well within the reach of the average gamer--any higher and it wouldn't have the same kind of mass-market appeal. Secondly, we had to decide what we didn't need: a display, keyboard and mouse, or even a controller was out of the question at such a price. But with the box intended for life in the living room attached to a TV, and given the sheer number of old keyboards, mice, and game controllers (the Bluetooth based-based PS3 controllers and wired Xbox 360 controllers work a treat on PC) knocking about in most living rooms, we figured it was no great loss.

An optical drive, while not the priciest of components, wasn't a necessity either. This is, after all, a Steam Box, and the vast majority of games would be obtained via download. What we were left with were the necessities: a case, motherboard, CPU, PSU, RAM, hard drive and a graphics card.

Case: Fractal Design Core 1000 - £29.98
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-H61MA-D2V Gen 3 Micro ATX - £39.13
CPU: Intel Pentium G840 Dual Core - £55.01
GPU: Zotac Nvidia GT 640 2GB - £75.17
RAM: Corsair XMS3 4GB DDR3 1333 Mhz CAS 9 - £17.28
Hard Disk: Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 500GB - £49.07
PSU: Powercool PSUPC450AUBAM 450W Modular - £31.90

That gives us a total spend of £297.54, which is just under our target price. It's worth bearing in mind that prices on components can fluctuate dramatically, so while these prices are accurate at the time of publication, you may find they've gone up, or indeed down by the time you get around to buying them.

It should also be noted that you'll need an OS--namely, Windows. A retail box of Windows 7 costs around £70, but there are deals around (particularly if you're a student) that makes it cheaper. There's also the Family Pack upgrade for Windows 7, which lets you install it on up to three computers. Or, if you already have Windows on an old PC, you can move the licence to your new one without issue.

Choosing Components Is Never Easy

Building a PC can be a tricky business--there are hundreds of confusingly named and frustratingly similar component options available--but it's made all the more difficult on such a tight budget. Even a reduction of a just a few pounds made all the difference to overall price, so we had to juggle things around several times before we got to a final spec we were happy with.

For the case we went with Fractal's Design Core 1000 Micro, which is just about small enough to work in a living room setting, given it's designed for Micro ATX motherboards. There are smaller cases, such as Silverstone's Mini-ITX based SG series, but those are more expensive, as are the Mini-ITX motherboards that fit inside them. There are cheaper cases too, but most of those made us die a little inside when we saw them.

To go with our Micro ATX case we chose Gigabyte's Intel-based GA-H61MA-D2V Gen 3 Micro ATX motherboard. It may have an incredibly confusing title, but the board has everything we need, including USB 3, a PCIe slot for our GPU, and rock-solid support from Gigabyte. Again, there are cheaper options, but those lack niceties such as USB 3.

That brings us neatly onto the CPU, which is Intel's Sandy Bridge-based 2.8Ghz Pentium G840 dual core chip. While Intel's Core series gets the most attention these days, the venerable Pentium brand lives on as a budget chip line, and is an ideal choice for our Steam Box. The G840 is very similar to the pricier Core i3, minus hyper threading and higher clock speeds. In fact, in benchmarks, the G840 performs eerily close to the i3, making the £50 premium hardly worth it.

The other option is to go with an AMD chip, namely the Athlon II X3 455, or the quad-core A6. What those chips gain by having more cores (better performance in multithreaded applications), they lack in sheer grunt. With a couple of exceptions, most games don't scale that well across lots of CPU cores, and instead benefit more from pure performance and higher clock speeds. In single-threaded tasks and gaming, the G840 simply performs better than the AMD chips, and because we're going to be using a separate GPU, we don't need to take integrated GPU performance into account. Going for Intel also leaves us with a nice, smooth upgrade path to the Core series, which uses the same type of CPU slot. And, at the high end, Intel absolutely smokes AMD on performance.

The final major piece of our Steam Box is the GPU, and this is where things get tricky. The options here are vast, with a range of cards available from both AMD and Nvidia that span different architectures, with wildly different prices. We settled on a Zotac GT 640, which makes use of Nvidia's latest Kepler architecture. It's a budget card, but one that should provide decent performance. Plus, it doesn't require any external power, which is a nice bonus for power consumption and cooling performance in the small case.

However, there are other options available if you've got the time to shop around, have a touch more cash, and don't mind a little extra noise in your living room. The older GTX 550 Ti is a much better performer all round, and can be had for as little as £85, depending on where you look. There's also AMD's 6670/6680, which can be had for an extra £30 or so if you can find one in stock, and--as benchmarks show--it performs better too. The more modern 7750, which is also a budget card (albeit one that requires external power from your PSU), is currently selling for just a few pounds more, and in many cases outperforms the GTX 640. Whether the increased numbers of frames per second are worth the extra power and noise requirements is up to you.

That leaves us with a few bits and bobs needed to get the Steam Box up and running. For RAM we went a single 4GB stick from Corsair's XMS3 range, which is plenty for the box, and leaves a slot free for future upgrades. For the hard disk, we went with a 500GB Hitachi Deskstar. Unfortunately, prices are still inflated from the flooding in Thailand, so whatever drive you pick you're looking at dropping around £50 on it. On the other hand SSD prices have dropped significantly, to the point where you can pick up a 120GB drive for around £60. That's not big enough for us to use it as the only drive in the box, particularly with the size of game installs, but if you have a spare hard disk you can use then buying a small SSD for the OS install is a worthwhile investment.

For a PSU we went with a 450 Watt modular box from Powercool. It's not the cheapest PSU out there, but with an 80 Plus power rating and modular cables, it'll keep the inside of the case looking tidy, and should provide ample power for the Steam Box and handle any future upgrades to the CPU or GPU. There are lots of cheaper options, but the key to PC building is to NEVER cheap out on the PSU, lest you fry your freshly purchased components.

To test out the Steam Box we installed a range of games, some old, some new. In most cases the games were PC-exclusive, but we did include a few console classics as well. All the games were tested at 1080p resolution, but bear in mind that you can eke more performance out of the box by switching down to 720p, which is still a decent resolution for the living room. Our aim was to get games running at a minimum of 30 frames per second, and with a bit of tweaking (and with the exception of Arkham City) our Steam Box did just that.

The settings for each game varied, but on the whole we had everything was set to high or medium and anti-aliasing was turned off in order to keep frame rates high. Even at medium settings and without AA on though, games still looked great. In the case of Counterstrike (and indeed, anything based on Source engine), we could easily crank the settings and keep the framerate above 60 for a great experience.

Sure, those 30fps rates aren't going to be enough for the pro-gamers out there, and the box is never going to compete with something like our £2000 uber-rig pictured below, but they're very playable. And, given the frankly ludicrously low price of the rig, very impressive. If you've got the extra cash then it's worth splurging for a GTX 550 Ti or a HD 7750, both of which will give you significantly better results.

That said, if your budget is £300 and not a penny more, then you can still enjoy the very best that the PC has to offer. And, if there's one more thing this exercise has shown us, it's that Valve could very well be building a Steam Box, one that no doubt could perform even better than ours. If we can buy up the bits at retail for £300, and get a rig working, just imagine what a company like Valve, with its buying power could do.

In the meantime, though, get building. With next-generation consoles not due until next year at the very earliest, now is a great time to catch up on some of the fantastic PC games you might have missed and get involved with some competitive online gaming. Trust us, for £300 it's totally worth it.

Think you can do better? Let us know how you'd build your own Steam Box in the comments below.

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Discussion

1 comments
BuzzLiteBeer
BuzzLiteBeer

at 475 bucks, this looks like a decent build. unfortunately, it seems to perform pretty poorly for most games (under 40FPS, is unacceptable in my opinion), especially when set below max and without AA. For the price, a PS3 or 360 still takes the cake. If you wanna game properly on a PC, you're gonna have to take the hit and spend twice the amount of money. On the upside, a PC does more than play games and movies.

faizan_faizan
faizan_faizan

So the ultimate gaming machine is PC? Gotta agree on you that, I chose recently PC Gaming because i had the choice to do anything i can plug in my X360 Pad any time and Play FIFA or just pick up my Wireless Mouse and KB and play BF3, Its all about choice.

alvizzei
alvizzei

This is the one of many advantage in PC gaming - building a machine that suits not only your gaming desire but also your pocket. it's true that pc gaming is relatively more expensive than console gaming but that's because the pc gaming age stretch longer. it's more likely for console to release a new gen in a short time. in contrary  you still can play few recent games with a 4-6 year old pc. i myself still use my 2008 rig with phenom2 x4, GTS 250 and a couple of budget RAM and manage to run Sleeping Dogs, Skyrim, Hawken awesomely.

and if  you think your rig doesn't have enough juice, you can just upgrade a few part rather than buy a whole package.

 

in the end, regardless intel or amd, pc gaming will last longer than console gaming but, it also comes with a price.

dahaoleboy69
dahaoleboy69

I would have spent 30 dollars or 18.46 pounds more on the GTX 650.

AsbestosUnderpa
AsbestosUnderpa

Next-Gen consoles did arrive in 2012 after all ;-)

 

Could be a nice alternative for a console-gamer-because-of-budget-restriction like me, I'll give it a nights sleep!

LegatoSkyheart
LegatoSkyheart

Head over to the Forums to build your own Steam Box. I did it. It just takes time.

conorsquash
conorsquash

Potentially how much RAM could be installed? 16gb max or 8gb..32 .. 64 ?

HapiJoel
HapiJoel

Just a question; is this motherboard up to scratch? planning out a rig based on this but with more money spent on CPU and GPU, so far I'm looking at;

 

CPU: Intel i5 2500

GPU: an hd 7850 (as mentioned by chaos_power)

RAM: G.Skill F3 -12800CL9T-6GBNQ 6gb

 

Gonna need an HDMI port, and still figuring out a PSU...

 

Any help would be hugely appreciated without diving into the forums...

 

thanks!

chaos_power
chaos_power

Building a £300 is a waste of money. I do realize the idea here was to build the best pc you can for as little money as you can. But all you're doing is basically building a new computer that will perform no better than a 4 year old gaming computer...

for £200 more you'll be able to build a gaming pc that will last you for years to come.

The g840, although it can be said that it is close in performance to the i3, the gap in perfromance between it and the i3 compared to gap between the i3 and the i5, is much larger, and therefore it justifies buying the I3. An Ivy bridge i3 3220 will cost you  £40 pounds more than a g840 and will provide much better performance.

The hd 7850 is now offered for a great price and it performs in some games up to x4 times better than the GT640. It's a great card that can now be found for about £140, only £65 more than the GT640 and it performs similar to how former £400 cards like the GTX 580 performed. Add an H77 motherboard that natively supports Ivy bridge, and a better PSU to support the HD7850, and you got yourself a computer that will perform admirably for years to come for just  £200 more than the one offered in this article.

 

 

 

 

PutU2REM
PutU2REM

One thing this article didn't mention is that even the cheapest of PCs can easily, conveniently, attractively, compactly and QUIETLY replace every other piece of equipment in your home entertainment system. My $800, nine-month-old desktop is currently the only thing hooked up to the HDTV and speakers in my living room, because adding a DVR or BluRay player would be redundant and I can't stand consoles anymore. In comparison to my PC, their graphics look like week-old manure and their cooling fans sound like freaking jet engines.

MrOnage
MrOnage

Why not use an AMD Phenom II Quad-core? that isn't very expensive and a lot faster than that intel processor they put into this.

cras5
cras5

Has nice a system it seems. But why intel ? What of the AMDs APU that would save from using the grapgics card.

 

yahia_hitman
yahia_hitman

the problem is what you call cheap in usa or europe  may be a 3 monthes of hard work salary in egypt even for an engineer ......... egypt s*ks in prices

 

BravoOneActual
BravoOneActual

Even within the budget, better cards can be had.  

 

Yeah, I know:  The point of the article is to show what kind of performance can be had with third-string (albeit modern) components and two month's worth of saved lunch money.  The results are glorious when one realizes this set up delivers similar performance  2006's top-of-the-line stuff with roughly one tenth of the cost and a quarter of the power usage.

 

GTX 460's are as common as cold sores on Craigslist and are routinely $50 to $60.  6870's show up less frequently, but the one or two a week I do see are sinking to a sub-$100, asking price.

 

As a recent PC convert, I still love my consoles for exclusives, but I've certainly seen the light.  Ardent consolites should take heed when reading articles like these.  The price of entry is lower than ever and the rewards far outstrip any minor technical headaches.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

This is all well and good, but I would bet my last dollar that the £300 machine they built themselves won't last the same as a console life cycle... if you take a shorter cycle expected of 6-7 years, there is no WAY that six years down the line, that £300 PC will be capable of playing recently released games.

 

The bottom line is - PC gaming IS awesome. But it also IS expensive VS console gaming, even if you try your best to be frugal.

Totoran
Totoran

all i can say is this is a low end end class computer, you can get it in many computer shop these days.  and btw, Onboard sound isn't interest enough and you didn't even add a speaker.  I guess we don't need music and sound from the game. Finally, the pricelist of 300Euro is not worth it. 

Charliesix
Charliesix

If you get the article's computer, make sure you get a monitor that has a native resolution around the 720p mark. I have a 1080p native monitor and all 720p gaming looks terrible on it. My PC is only able to play games comfortably at 720p unfortunately :(

TheJamin
TheJamin

the Intel Pentium G840 is garbage... i don't know how its even a relative of sandy bridge.

tgwolf
tgwolf

By 'steam box' I assume they mean what powers the machine, not a disreputable DLC-tyrant of a company.

Alexcmuller
Alexcmuller

lol 40 fps is better than most console games, especially when the settings are significantly higher than the consoles comparatively low settings at the PC's range of possible settings.

jenovaschilld
jenovaschilld

@alvizzei I do not know, I think your view is a little more simplified then you might think. 

PC gaming has its hurdles - tech, knowledge base, cost, and very focused gaming. And alot more disadvantages with pc gaming. I feel it will always be a small market of those with the education, money, or geekness that will truly be able to take advantage of pc gaming. Mean while the masses will have to use something less tech. 

I mean - okay take a look outside your home for 5 miles - up and down. Now think of all those people (young and old ) who of those do you think could buy, build, maintain, tweek, use steam, connect controllers, patch, run emulators, and then upgrade a pc like yourself could. How many of the masses would have the skill to consistently use a pc to game on (families included). Okay look up and down the street or road, how many can buy a console stick a disc in and play? (then probably throw a wii remote into the tv). 

And I disagree with a pc rig longevity, If a hardcore gamer has a pc gaming rig that can play the lastest games - they will always be tweaking and upgrading every couple of years. Consoles are sold at a loss and then just keep getting lower. PC rigs start at a high cost - while they should be able to last - most will not quit opening that case door. 

PutU2REM
PutU2REM

 @jerrycrazywheel GPU stands for "graphics processing unit." Some CPUs have GPUs integrated into them, but "discrete" GPUs (add-on cards like the GeForce in this "Steam Box") can be much more powerful.

AlexSheza
AlexSheza

 @cras5 Don't make me laugh, the AMD APU's are crap compared to dedicated cards.

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @BravoOneActual 

 

Very good points.  I've been a PC plus console gamer for a long time now, and have been recently trying to make the argument that you can get a good PC gaming setup for about the same price as a good console setup.  Unless you're okay with playing consoles on a tiny standard definition TV, you're going to spend about the price of a good computer on just your TV. 

cybrcatter
cybrcatter

Not all PC games are Crysis or BF3. There is an ocean of new and old games that can play on very dated hardware. Nice try, though. 

Charliesix
Charliesix

 @SicklySunStorm Huh? It's not a fair comparison.

 

Recently released PC games are hard to play for old PCs because the games have made such huge leaps in graphical power over the course of 6 years. Console games have some graphical power growth but not that much... 6 years pass, the tech is still the same in the 360, of course.

 

It's like you're saying that when a person buys a PS2, and they want to play PS3 games, they should be able to play it on a PS2 still.

gokao693
gokao693

 @Totoran bro you are aware that graphics cards can play audio through hdmi ports right? similar to a console thus eliminating the need for even Onboard audio plugs. 

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @Totoran The only thing I'll add to what everybody else has beat into your head, is that you will NEVER be able to get the same value from a computer shop that you can get from building it yourself.  Computer shops have this little thing called "profit" that they are obligated to pursue.

ferna1234
ferna1234

 @Totoran nowadays sound cards are just necesary if you work with sound. Even low end mo-bos bring pretty good internal audio chips.

AlexSheza
AlexSheza

 @Totoran You stick the audio jacks into the TV, lol. Consoles don't come with speakers either. And for the same specs we're talking £450+ in a PC shop..

alexg223
alexg223

 @Totoran I've been a PC enthusiast for around 12 years. I haven't bought a sound card in around the last 8 years. If you buy a decent motherboard at the start, on-board sound will be perfectly fine.  

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @tgwolf DLC tyrant?  Is that how I'm supposed to feel when I buy games like RAGE, Crysis 2, Portal 2 and Deus Ex: HR for $5-10?  Steam is the only place where DLC is done right.  DLC packs are often under $5.  XBOX 360 is where DLC really gets abused. 

alexg223
alexg223

 @tgwolf What, would you rather game on Origin? LMAO! You F@@king fan boy.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

 @tgwolf eh? I'll say it again... EH? Out of all the companies out there, Steam are the only ones who DON'T nickle and dime us every chance.... and like someone else said, you are the ONLY person I've ever come across that thinks that about Steam.

penpusher
penpusher

 @tgwolf How are they disreputable? Youre the first person I've seen who doesnt like steam ...

PutU2REM
PutU2REM

 @jerrycrazywheel  @MrOnage Sorry, but that is pure ignorance. AMD's processors are just as durable as Intel's. I've had several of them in my machines over the last decade, and had zero problem with them. Whether you buy AMD or Intel, your processor will probably be running long after you've upgraded.

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @AlexSheza  @cras5 Agreed.  APU's are a novel idea and all, but practically they will never compete with a dedicated GPU, so they have no business being in a gaming system.  An APU would be awesome if you want to build a cheap computer for your grandma and save money on parts. 

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

 @Charliesix No, you're missing my point entirely. The point of this article was to demonstrate to those that think building a gaming PC is too prohibitive cost wise, that they CAN build one for about the same money as a console.

 

So the article demonstrates that it can be done, and what I was pointing out was, yes, you can build a £300 gaming PC and it will run the current games for you, whereas if you spent £300 on a console, then assuming the console was at the start of it's life, you would get your 6-7 years out of the console for your £300, whereas your £300 PC will last NOWHERE near as long as 6-7 years. THAT'S what I was pointing out.

 

No matter how you cut it, PC gaming is considerably more expensive than console gaming overall, even if you try to be frugal and get just OK parts.

 

I game on PC, consoles, everything, so i'm not being biased to one or the other, just pointing out facts.

realguitarhero5
realguitarhero5

 @Charliesix  @SicklySunStorm Exactly, if you are going to make a budget PC, dont make it at the end of a console cycle because when the next cycle rolls around, the power required to play any given new release will skyrocket

TheJamin
TheJamin

 @alexg223  @Totoranagreed. used to be into my xfi's and recently the asus xonar stuff... but then I went out and got a proper amp and bookshelf setup. never gonna buy a sound card again as the gains are just not there compared to the amp..

dubrunner140
dubrunner140

 @HapiJoelthis is true. The HD6770 in the DFPC still blows the 640 out of the water however, but it consumes more power from the psu. Another interesting thing is that by the time you get the money (if you decided you were going to go ahead with this) some parts may be cheaper by then anyway. So Eurogamer are upgrading the PC specs gradually whilst keeping to the £300 price tag to avoid stagnating.

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @PutU2REM  @jerrycrazywheel  

 

Sorry Jerry, he's right.  Have you ever owned an AMD product?  I've been building PC's for about 12 years, and I base them on AMD components 90% of the time because AMD products are 300% cheaper and perfectly reliable.  Intel CPU's might perform better across the board, but the jump in performance still isn't worth the price tag.  My newest AMD budget machine runs current games on ultra dx11 graphics at about 50 fps.  Why would I spend more?  Just like PutU2REM said, it doesn't matter what you buy, you'll be upgrading long before the thing burns out. 

 

Now, if you had said "AMD CPU's burn out fast [when you overclock them too much with no cooling and don't know what you're doing]"  that would have a been a true statement I could get behind. 

 

 

 

 

 

MrOnage
MrOnage

 @PutU2REM 

You don't have to reply to me because i didn't say anything negative about AMD.

Rippletonz
Rippletonz

 @SicklySunStorm  Can't say I fully agree with you.  First of all, CONSOLES don't even last a console life cycle, so that argument is moot.  Ask any console gamer how many X360's or PS3's they've been through since it released.  90% of them will tell you they've had to replace it at least once in this cycle. 

 

Next, the argument of PC gaming being more expensive is getting weaker by the minute.  The price of quality PC components is dropping so that the entry point is much lower.  Meanwhile, HDTV prices are still rising as 3d Technology fleshes out. 

 

Just like I said in a previous comment  "Unless you're okay with playing consoles on a tiny standard definition TV, you're going to spend about the price of a good computer on just your TV."

 

I'm like you, I have a gaming PC, XBOX360, and a PS3, so I don't speak out of bias.  If I add up the worth of my components, my console setups are actually WAY more expensive than my PC setup just because of the screen!  My fault for having a $2,000 TV, but you get the point. 

 

Some might say "well that doesn't count because the TV can serve multiple purposes!"  By that logic, a PC is still more worth the price because you can do WAY more with a $2,000 computer than you can do with a $2,000 TV.  You can even "watch TV" with it. 

 

Regardless of whether Steam manages to make their Box, the price argument is over.  I think we're about to move into a very level and tumultuous period of the gaming market.  The next console cycle could be VERY interesting.  Regardless, I thinlk gamers are going to reap the benefits of a healthy and competitive market.  

 

penpusher
penpusher

 @Bamul  @vishisluv7  @tgwolf So Bamul, you basically seriously dislike competitive prices and a system that will let you download your steam games to as many computers as you like (it does, I have shogun 2 on 3 pcs) and you hate rather flexible community features? Oh and dont get me started on how they allow you to play your games when you're not connected to the net! (with the obvious exception of ubisoft games). Its just outrageous.

 

 

Bamul
Bamul

 @vishisluv7  @penpusher  @tgwolf There are many reasons to hate Steam. Valve is a great company, but they give me two reasons to dislike them: Steam and TF2. Other than that, they're amazing.