How to build the perfect Steam PC
27th Dec 2013 | 14:00
Get everything ready for Steam OS
Nothing is sacred. Companies used to know their place. If you make computer games, that's what you stick to. You don't start building a vast empire of digital distribution that dwarfs anything the competition can offer.
You don't decide to take on the big boys of the operating system game, thinking you can do better. For free. And you certainly don't stick two fingers up at the hardware industry and start making your own PCs.
Well, someone in Seattle didn't get the memo, and so tendrils of Valve-ness are sneaking into places you'd never have expected the developer of Half-Life to reach when you were bashing in headcrabs with a crowbar. The first prototype Steam Machines - Valve's very own bespoke PC builds - have recently been released to a very select few beta testers. How few? Some 300.
But, aside from the custom chassis, these prototype machines are going to be built from off-the-peg parts, and are being designed to be fully configurable and upgradable once they're loose. And that means we can go ahead and make our own versions right now.
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But what's the point? Well, the 300 prototypes will also be beta testing the SteamOS platform, and this means we'll see a more widespread beta test of the open source software once the hardware gets out. But even if you don't want to take the risk of going for Valve's Linux-based operating system, or actually want total access to the vast back catalogue of games Steam has in its increasingly bloated library, then the same hardware will perform brilliantly in the familiar surrounds of Windows, and you can get the same Big Picture fun when you're plugged into your telly box.
So how exactly do you go about putting together the perfect parts for your little Steam PC? Well, allow us to show you…
1. Patience, young one...
The temptation is always to throw all your new components straight into your PC case immediately and then flick the switch, but if anything is wrong it's going to be a right pain pulling it all out again. First, stick the mobo on top of its box and plug in the CPU, RAM and graphics card in preparation for a test boot. This way you can tell if any of the main components have an issue without wasting time and sanity screwing things into a fi ddly chassis.
2. Power it up
With the graphics card in the primary PCIe slot, attach the power cables to both motherboard and GPU. You don't need to connect up the SSD yet because we're just going to check that the machine reaches the BIOS stage. Plug your screen into the graphics card, plug a keyboard into the mobo and power up your bare bones system. If all is well, the monitor will burst into life and you'll be able to get into the BIOS. Power down and let's get building properly.
3. Fit the PSU
The Hadron Air has a built-in PSU, but if your new chassis doesn't then it's worth sticking that in first to get the bulkiest component out the way. So, get it seated, making sure the intake fan is sucking from the vent in the base of the chassis, and screw it into the case from the rear. Now collect all the cables from the back of the PSU and make sure they're not cluttering up the space inside. You don't want to accidentally screw in the mobo on top of anything.
4. Seat the mobo
Hopefully your chassis will have the copper risers already in place. If not, attach those first. Depending on how your cooler attaches, it might be easier to remove it first, but if you need to screw it into a backing plate from behind you're going to have to leave it. You can leave the low profile RAM in place too. Make sure you're not covering up any cables, such as from case fans or the front panel, and screw the board down.
5. Install some storage
Once you've used an SSD, it's tough to go back to spinning platters. This is why we've opted for a Samsung EVO SSD (250GB or 1TB depending your budget). The 250GB is big enough for an OS and some games, and is fine for a small form factor build. The Hadron Air has drive trays that will house both 3.5 and 2.5-inch drives, so you could install a data HDD in there as well. Slot in your storage, connect the SATA cables to the board and the SSD, and give it some power.
6. Fit your graphics card
We're getting mighty close to the end now, so it's time to slot in the sexiest component of the lot - your new graphics card. It's also probably the chunkiest of the components after the PSU brick, which is why we've left it until towards the end of the build. Ensure it's seated firmly in the PCIe slot and screw it into the chassis to stop it moving around or rattling. It's worth making sure now there are no cables obstructing its fans, otherwise it's going to get too toasty.
7. Check your cables
Now it's time to start plugging everything in. First things first though - get the chassis' controls and hubs plugged into the motherboard. So often we've put a build together, forgotten this simple step and wondered why we couldn't power up. Your mobo will have a key to show which front panel cable goes where. Plug in the control and lighting cables, as well as any USB 2.0 or 3.0 hubs and audio connectors too, and double check mobo and GPU power cables.
8. Give it life
With all your components seated in your new chassis, and everything wired up, it's time for some housekeeping. Air-flow in a small form factor case is important so make sure there aren't any cables obstructing the CPU, GPU or case fans. It's also worth leaving the side off when you first boot, just to make sure all the fans are spinning as they should. Now plug in your keyboard, mouse and monitor, and boot up your new rig. Nip straight into the BIOS, set up the XMP for your RAM, save and start booting from your OS installation media. Once your OS is up and running, your new rig is ready for you to get gaming.
Our choice of parts
1. CPU: Intel Core i7-4770K ($299, £258), Intel Core i5-4570 ($199, £150)
You'll notice we're not recommending AMD CPUs or APUs here. They may be the budget option - you could build a mobo/APU combo for only a little more than a Core i5 costs on its own - but they deliver much weaker performance. We need to spare a thought for compatibility, too.
AMD processors work fine within Windows, indeed Win8.1 is set up to take advantage of their technology, but seeing as the inaugural Steam Machine is going to be Intel-powered, it would seem prudent to go for an Intel CPU if you want to prepare for SteamOS.
We've picked the top-end 4770K here, simply because you can get some serious overclocking done with that chip and the Asus RoG mobo. The advantage of going for a larger chassis than the Steam Machine prototype is that you have the option for water cooling should you wish, and you'll get a good 4.7GHz out of this chip with a decent closed-loop cooler.
Alternatively, the i5-4570 offers a great balance between price and performance at stock speeds. If you're going for a standard low-profile CPU air-cooler then you're not going to be overclocking are you? It may only have the four threads of processing power, but they're full fat cores - no HyperThreading business here.
2. CPU cooler: Zalman LQ310 ($70, £52), Gelid SlimHero ($36, £25)
The CPU cooler you choose for your Steam PC will depend upon the chassis you opt for. In something like Valve's prototype, there isn't the height for a proper tower-cooler, or the space for a small 120mm water radiator for a closed-loop liquid CPU cooler.
In that case you need a low profile air-cooler, and Gelid's SlimHero is one of the best. It will function with an overclocked CPU, but you really wouldn't want to run it at that high an overclock for too long because of the heat that will be generated within the chassis. At stock speeds, however, the SlimHero is an excellent cooler. That broad fan means it's a relatively quiet cooler too, which is especially important if you're intending to stick your new Steam PC next to your TV in the lounge.
If you go for a larger chassis (such as the Prodigy) along with an overclockable Intel CPU, then you should consider going for a closed-loop liquid-chiller. The Zalman LQ310 is a bargain at just over £50 and when it comes to overclocked temperatures it's the equal of some of the best 240mm coolers despite having a radiator that's half the size.
3. Graphics card: Nvidia GTX 780 ($729, £400), Nvidia GTX 650 Ti Boost ($179, £111)
Just because you can doesn't mean you should. That's the message for anyone thinking about dropping a GTX Titan into their Steam PC. Yes, it's possible with the chassis we're talking about here and in a few lucky Valve prototypes too, but the expense of putting one in your own build is ridiculous. That's especially true now that Nvidia has slashed £100 off the GTX 780 - a card that can outperform a Titan in-game with minimal tweaking.
The GTX 780 then is the top-end of what we'd even consider putting in your Steam PC. AMD struggles to get a look-in again because of our distrust of its Linux drivers. We're guessing there's a certain distrust coming from Valve too as it's only opting for Nvidia GPUs in its prototypes - the skinny from our Linux-lovin' buddies is that the green side's drivers are generally just more reliable.
There's also the fact that even though the R9 290X and the even cheaper R9 290 are two of the top-performing GPUs right now, they're also very power-hungry and run very, very hot. Again, in a small form factor machine neither of those traits is particularly welcome.
There are some great opportunities for dropping a decent graphics card into a budget build. The GTX 650 Ti Boost is only £111 and delivers fantastic 1080p gaming performance, which is arguably all you need in a PC you're going to be hooking up to a telly rather than a high-res monitor.
4. Motherboard: Asus RoG Maximus VI Impact ($229, £175), MSI Z87I ($187, £99)
You can find fairly small chassis that will allow for a larger mATX board, such as the revamped Bitfenix Prodigy M, but if you really want that tiny Steam Machine replica chassis, you need to go for a mini-ITX mobo - either of the Asus or MSI boards we look at this month.
Asus' Maximus VI Impact is the king of all mini-ITX boards, and if money is no object, it's the one to go for. It's as powerful as almost anything you'll find in full ATX desktop trim, and on top of components for serious overclocking, it has a bundled Wi-Fi card that houses a next-gen NGFF SSD connection, and a dedicated sound card.
It's a lot of cash though, which is where the MSI Z87I comes in. At only £99 it's an absolute bargain of a Z87 board. It's not quite as quick as the Asus, but it's not far off and has a pretty impressive specs sheet too.
5. Power supply: Cooler Master GX Lite 500W ($44, £49)
If you've opted for the EVGA Hadron Air chassis, then you'll already have a 500W PSU built into your machine. That PSU is powerful enough to cope with even GTX Titan levels of gaming performance and has the requisite PCIe power connectors to keep it fed with juice. It's also designed to take up as little space as possible inside.
If you've gone for either a Cooler Master or Bitfenix case though, then you'll need to find yourself a decent ATX power supply to keep your components fed. You could keep it in the family with a Cooler Master PSU. The GX Lite 500W has more than enough capacity to cope with the top GPUs and has the necessary cabling to match.
6. Storage: Samsung 840 Evo 1TB ($569, £450), Samsung 840 Evo 250GB ($162, £140)
Yup, Samsung has got the performance SSD market pretty well sewn up with its excellently-priced Evo range of drives. In a small form factor machine you ideally want to go with a silent, no-moving-part SSD. It wont generate the same noise or heat levels as a big hard drive, and you can get a decent amount of storage right now for relatively little.
We'd argue that 250GB is a usable amount of storage for a small, second PC designed for use in the living room. If it's your primary machine though you'll want a good deal more space and you can go for a full 1TB with Samsung's Evo range too.
The chassis we've recommended here will also house a full 3.5-inch hard drive, so you could go for a combination of a 250GB SSD and a 2TB hard drive, such as Seagate's £65 Barracuda 2TB.
7. Memory: Crucial Ballistix Tactical LP 8GB ($88, £88)
We're only recommending one RAM kit for this Steam PC build. With such small confines you don't want a beast of a DIMM with an extraneous heat spreader taking up room, and if you're going for something like the SlimHero low profile cooler, you're really going to struggle getting your memory to sit in the motherboard beneath it.
You won't have such problems with a closed-loop cooler, as the CPU water block won't get in the way. That said, the low power of the Tactical LP kit means it will run cooler than some 1.65v modules, and any reduction in heat is welcome in small form factor builds. You want to pick up a dual-module kit - don't buy a single 8GB DIMM instead of a pair of 4GB modules. With the dual-channel boards we're talking about here, you'll effectively be halving the memory bandwidth available to your system in one fell swoop.
8. Chassis: EVGA Hadron Air ($189, £160), Cooler Master Elite 120 Advanced ($49, £40)
The case is actually the trickiest part of the build, due to the bespoke chassis Valve is creating for its prototype. It's all about height, as Valve is looking to put a full PC into a device that's only three inches tall. Essentially, Gabe's bods are looking to make a PC that's the same sort of size as an Xbox One, but y'know, with actual graphics power.
Once the prototype is out, Valve will release the designs for the chassis and you can make your own. We can almost guarantee that within a few months, there will be a case on the market with the same dimensions. Right now, there are no chassis that will let you drop a riser board into the PCIe slot and have a full height GPU on the same plane as the mobo, so we have to go for the standard layout.
There are some great small form factor cases available though, and EVGA's Hadron Air is one of the sexiest. Like the Bitfenix Prodigy it's a scaled down tower chassis. If you're worried about the price, remember the Hadron comes with it's own built-in 500W PSU in the base. If you want something a lot cheaper, Cooler Master's budget-oriented Elite 120 Advanced will allow for the use of mini-ITX boards with a full size graphics card and power supply.