Forget the PS4 and the Xbox 720, build your own Steambox on the cheap

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The Nintendo Wii U is out, and new consoles from Microsoft and Sony are expected to hit the market sometime next year. Consoles from these companies have long stood as the only real way to enjoy video games from the comfort of the couch, but that's changing. Valve, the company that owns the popular game distribution platform, Steam, has been making waves with its Big Picture beta — a new option that gives users a console-like experience with their PC games.

When I first heard about Steam's Big Picture mode, I'll admit that I was more than just a little excited. I've been building HTPCs, or Home Theater PCs, for several years, and while there are more than a few attractive front-ends for movies and TV shows, PC games lacked a compelling option. Apps like Maximus Arcade give arcade cabinet builders something nice to navigate around in, but these front-ends are difficult to configure and are ill-suited to large PC game libraries. Big Picture mode, on the other hand, promises to serve up your games in a seamless "lean-back" sort of way, all while being nearly configuration free. For an introduction to what Big Picture does, check out the trailer below.

Installing Big Picture is really easy: open Steam, click "Steam" in the top left, and then hit "Settings." From there, just enable beta updates from the drop-down box, and Steam will ask you to restart. After the software re-initializes, there will be a large, blue icon in the top right of the window — you can't miss it. When I clicked on it for the first time, I wasn't sure what to expect, but what I got was amazing. After an interesting load screen, Big Picture mode's main menu appears, hovering over a shifting stack of game titles. The navigation is smooth and fluid, and all of my games were available to play right away. The best part? It can all be controlled with a wireless gamepad.

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Valve's Big Picture mode impressed me so much, in fact, that I decided to do a little experiment. I challenged myself to build an extremely affordable console-like gaming PC, one that could pull double duty as a media center for the home theater. After much trial and error, I succeeded: I was able to build a PC capable of running this year's games at 1080p with medium settings, all for around $300. That's right around the same price as Nintendo's Wii U!

The build

I actually ended up building two steam boxes — one in a traditional HTPC case using AMD's Llano processors, and the other in a tiny Mini-ITX case using Intel's regular desktop CPUs. I started with Llano because the chips are cheap — even AMD's highest-end A8-3870k processors are getting deep discounts online. In theory, I would have been able to combine an APU processor (which contains its own GPU) with a relatively affordable discreet Radeon GPU in "Dual Graphics" mode and get somewhat better-than-average performance for the money. That, however, turned out not to be the case.

Llano has problems — the hardware and software is finicky at best. The first Llano chip I received, an A4 dual-core (remember, I was trying to shave costs as much as possible) arrived with a defective integrated GPU. It was distorted and became fully unusable after a few short hours of use. I had it replaced, and while the second version arrived in full, working order, the performance could only be described as lackluster. I swapped the A4 with one of AMD's A8-3870k quad-core processors and, as if to mock my progress, it too contained faulty integrated graphics hardware. It's possible that AMD's follow-up to Llano, Trinity, has solved these engineering problems, but I was afraid to risk another round of failure with AMD hardware, so I decided to give Intel's offerings a go.

Save money by choosing a 'barebones' machine

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If you're not already aware, PC motherboards come in a variety of industry accepted sizes: ATX, Micro ATX, and Mini-ITX, just to name a few. While the larger motherboards usually offer more features, ITX boards have risen in capability within the last few years, and can be used with most off-the-shelf processors and full-sized graphics cards. With these two features, ITX boards offer everything needed for gaming, but almost nothing else. I never like to pay for more than I'm going to use, so it makes sense use something streamlined for our particular application.

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While I was investigating which hardware would work best, I came across Foxconn's line of small formfactor barebones PCs. A "barebones" PC is one that comes with a motherboard, case, and a power supply. Foxconn's models have the necessary PCI Express 2.0 slot needed for a powerful graphics card, and includes a reasonably strong integrated power supply. This really helps cut costs down, but I have to admit — Foxconn's cases aren't that attractive. Even so, I decided to jump on the RM3-H2 when it was on sale for around $60. From a purely functional perspective, this unit makes sense and works well, but I wouldn't blame you for going with a case from Lian Li or Cooler Master, or even one of these fancy passive cases from Streacom. If you're going to stash your Steambox in a home theater cabinet, however, Foxconn's barebones PCs are perfectly adequate.

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The processor

I matched the motherboard with an Intel i3-2120 processor running at 3.3GHz, but you could save quite a bit of money by choosing one of the company's Pentium branded processors. For applications in low- to mid-range gaming, these processors are more than capable. They lack features like Quick Sync video encoding and virtualization, but for the price the Pentium line stands tall for its dollar-to-performance ratio.

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The graphics card

For the graphics card, I went with the MSI Radeon 6570 pictured below, which I already had from my Llano build. Despite the falterings of AMD's processors, I am thoroughly impressed by the company's Northern Islands line of GPUs, the Radeon HD 6xxx series. On paper, the Radeon 6570 is nothing special — only 480 stream processors running at 650MHz — but it does manage to play Skyrim at 1080p with medium-high settings at an adequate framerate. Long-time PC games are probably rolling their eyes right now, but when you compare the quality of a 6570-equipped PC to game consoles released five or six years ago, the PC obviously wins by significant margin.

As much of a value as the 6570 is, the Radeon 7750 is an even better deal. It's costs nearly twice as much at over $100, but it's far closer to what some would call a "real graphics card." I haven't tested the 7750 myself, but it's newer manufacturing process and additional stream processors make it a considerable upgrade over the 6570, and a much better deal than Radeon 6670, which is almost identical to the 6570 yet costs only ~$20-30 less than the 7750. Unfortunately, there's only one low profile card that exceeds the 7750, and that's Afox's low-profile 7850. It's an enthusiast part, and won't fit in single-slot cases like the one we're using today.

Note: Don't get this particular MSI card. It's loud, the heatsink is low-quality, and it overclocks quite poorly. In retrospect, the Radeon 7750 listed above is by far your best bet, even if it is a little pricey.

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As you can imagine, all the parts fit into the case with little room to spare. When you're buying parts for a project like this, it's very important to be cognizant of the each item's space requirements. For example, this Asus Radeon 6570 is roughly the same price as the MSI model I have, but it doesn't fit next to the power supply. Make sure you buy RAM without tall heat fins, like I did, as they can block the DVD drive in these small systems. Since this project is centered around Steam, I didn't feel that including a DVD drive in my list of materials was particularly important. The entire list of parts in my Steambox is listed below:

Steambox bill of materials

Total: $303.95

If I had to do it over again, I'd go with this build:

Total: $318.99

Putting it all together

For first time system builders, a barebones PC is an ideal proving ground. You don't need to put in the motherboard or power supply, you just need to set each component in place. You'll place the processor in the socket, close the latch per the included instructions (read them!), then install the graphics card, RAM, and hard drive. These steps may seem intimidating at first, but just give it a try — the parts are more robust than you think! If you'd feel more comfortable with step-by-step instructions, you'll want to take a look at this detailed PC building guide.

Note: The CPU pins (shown below) are a notable exception — they won't stand up to much abuse. If you're cautious, however, everything should fit in place without a problem.

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After everything is properly installed, replace the top panel, drive in the case screws, and the whole thing should look something like this:

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Before we move on, you'll need one more part to make this all worth while: a game controller, or gamepad. In my experience, the Xbox 360 controller has the best driver and game support, so that's what I use. If you prefer a more traditional PS3-style controller, there are several USB and wireless options out there too.


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The software

Now that the hardware is assembled, it's time to take on the software side of the project. You'll have to make a choice about whether you want to run Windows 7 or Windows 8, but there are compelling justifications for both. You may already have a spare Windows 7 license, which keeps costs down, or you may not be a fan of Windows 8's new interface. If this is the case, Windows 7 is still highly capable, and will work fine within the context of a Steambox.

However, for this purpose, Windows 8 offers a feature that Windows 7 sorely lacks — a trusted app store. Content distributors like Netflix and Hulu can make good looking apps and feel confident that their intellectual property is protected. These apps may not be part of Windows Media Center, but the Modern UI built into Microsoft's latest OS makes a surprisingly decent lean-back interface. The only way Microsoft could improve here would be to allow game controller to navigate Windows 8's Live Tiles, but the company may not want to give users the idea that a Windows 8 PC could easily supplant an Xbox 360 with the right setup.

Given all the fuss Valve made over Windows 8, it's amusing that Steam still works perfectly in the OS's desktop mode. Simply download and install your games as you normally would, and they will work just like they would in Windows 7. Big Picture mode works automatically with the Xbox 360 controller, but only the games listed under "Controller Supported" will actually work with a gamepad (shown below).

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Interestingly, you can load games that haven't been purchased through Steam into Big Picture mode's interface, making it easy to launch older games or ones you've purchased through other online stores. Those of you out there who are a little more technologically inclined will find the ability to add third-party executables — like the ones used in arcade emulators — an indispensable feature.

If you've got a large collection of media, applications like Plex Media Center and XBMC can scan your hard drive for files, look up their metadata, and present them is a very attractive menu not entirely dissimilar to Steam's. While XBMC is a powerful media center front-end, Plex does double duty as a media server that can stream your files to other computers or even your smartphone. It's commendable to see Plex's high-quality desktop software remain free for such a long time, but if you want to access the mobile features you'll have to spend $4.99 on the mobile app.

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via www.plexapp.com

The power of a PC with the charm of a console

And that's pretty much it! With your favorite software and games installed, you should be ready to revel in DIY entertainment. You'll need a wireless keyboard or one of these HTPC-centric remotes to navigate through the Windows UI, but once you've gotten everything settled, you'll be positioned at an increasingly attractive compromise between PC and console gaming. Consoles offer a great consumer experience — they're easy to use and have access to exclusive games — but PC owners have the flexibility to do really interesting stuff, like legally emulate their PS2 and Gamecube titles with the right software and a bit of setup. Making a Steambox isn't for everyone, but it's a great weekend project and won't cost you an arm and a leg.

Have fun, and enjoy the DIY!

Nerd footnote: The dual-core i3 emulates PS2 and Gamecube / Wii titles far better than AMD's quad-core A8 with the same graphics card. As much as I love an underdog, the Intel chip is just a better part for the money. I'll see you AMD fans at the support meeting later tonight.

Informal videos!