It's not hard to see why PC gaming isn't so straightforward for the modern casual gamer. Graphics can look better on PC than on console, but most people own a laptop instead of a desktop these days and the price of high-end graphics cards is still scarier than the combined efforts of a horror film festival. But there is another way.
Steam Machines are hailed by many as the future of PC gaming in the face of the competition from the PS4 and Xbox One. A Linux-based OS like SteamOS cuts down on system overheads, and means you don't have to fork out for an expensive Windows license - which itself adds almost £100 onto the price of a gaming PC.
But SteamOS boxes have been delayed again and again, so we thought we'd have a go at making our own Steam Machine, now that the SteamOS beta is available to all. But we're not going for half measures.
We're out to see what Steam OS box you can make for less than the price of a Sony PS4, £350/$399. And we set a few rules to make things even harder.
The first rule of the TechRadar Steam Machine club is that you need a dedicated graphics card. A PC isn't a gaming PC unless it has dedicated graphics, no matter how much integrated chips have come on in the last year or so.
The second rule we set is that the Steam Machine needs to look somewhat-OK in the lounge. Who wants a 3ft high box sat next to their TV like some kind of nerdy air conditioning unit? After all, we are trying to make something that's an alternative to a PS4, not a centrepiece for a LAN party.
Step One: Buying the bits
These stipulations really led what components we ended up buying. Well, that and the super-tight budget. But if you're thinking about making your own SteamOS gaming rig from scratch, here are the core components you need to worry about buying (we've used UK prices, but converting them should still make the machine cheaper than a PS4):
• Graphics card
• Hard drive or SSD
• Computer case
• Game pad (mouse and keyboard works too)
• Power supply
• CPU cooler
These are the bits that make up any computer. We'll look into exactly how you put them all together in a bit – it's not quite as scary as it seems – but here are the components we hand-picked to make our SteamOS machine.
1) Graphics card
Minimum spec - NVIDIA graphics card (AMD and Intel support incoming)
Our spec - NVIDIA GTX 750 1GB - £79
With a relatively low budget, we couldn't really afford a super-high-end graphics card. However, after having a chat with NVIDIA, whose graphics cards are currently afforded the best support by SteamOS, we decided on the GeForce GTX 750. The 1GB version is available for as little as £80, it's not particularly power-hungry and offers good performance for the price.
It's one of the new NVIDIA Maxwell generation GPUs, designed to bring pretty good gaming performance across the board at 1080p resolution, with low power use and low heat output. As our Steam Machine is intended to work primarily with 1080p TVs rather than super high-end 4K monitors, we're pretty happy with that.
How does it compare to the PS4?
The PS4 has a Radeon-based graphics processor that's said to be roughly comparable with the Radeon R9 270x. And, yes, that is a cut above the GTX 750 we've used in our build. It is similar in power to the GTX 760, which was a bit too pricey for us on this occasion. However, there's not a huge gulf between the two, and the GTX 750 can handle modern games.
Advantage: Close, but PS4
For a step up, upgrade to the Radeon R9 270x (£130) or GeForce GTX 760 (£160)
Out spec - Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI - £71
When buying a motherboard, your choice is largely dictated by a) the kind of CPU you want to use and b) what sort of case you're after. As we want to use a nice small lifestyle-y case, we needed to go for a mini ITX motherboard.
This is the smallest type of 'mainstream' motherboard – smaller than the micro ATX and ATX kinds. There are those smaller still, but good luck trying to fit a proper graphics card in them. Our Gigabyte motherboard fits AMD CPUs, and comes with most of the extras we need, such as Wi-Fi, built-in.
How does it compare to the PS4?
The joy of a proper PC motherboard is that it's pretty easy to upgrade. An obvious level-up for our Steam Machine would be to bump up the RAM, or to add another hard drive or SSD. Could you do that easily with a PS4? Absolutely not.
Advantage: Steam Machine
For a step up, upgrade to an Intel-compatible motherboard
Minimum spec - Intel or AMD 64-bit capable processor
Our spec - AMD A6 dual-core 3.9GHz - £39
A bit like the graphics processor, we had to cut back a bit with the CPU in order to stay on budget – we're making a Steam box here, not a blockbuster movie. Intel makes the most powerful CPUs, but AMD offers good bang for your buck in its A-series range. Generally speaking, AMD's processors give you better integrated graphics performance, but worse overall performance.
For just £40, we got a mid-range processor, the 3.9GHz AMD A6. For a real SteamOS powerhouse you'd want an AMD A10 or a Core i5/i7 from Intel. But we'll see how it does with this one.
How does it compare to the PS4?
You can't really directly compare the CPUs used in PCs and consoles, as the ways they are used by their respective systems is completely different – consoles are generally more efficient. However, the AMD A6 processor in our build has two 3.9GHz cores where the PS4 has eight cores running at a much lower clock speed of up to 1.8GHz.
If we weren't building to such a tight budget, we'd really want to have a quad-core processor. And probably a higher-end AMD A10 one, if not one of Intel's snappier Core-series processors.
For a step up, upgrade to an Intel Core i5 (from £130) or Core i7 CPU (from £210)
Minimum spec - 4GB
Our spec - 4GB 1600MHz - £31
Ideally you'd want to have 8GB of RAM in a gaming PC, but we've had to make do with 4GB in our build. However, this being a PC you can quite easily upgrade that in the future. We deliberately got our 4GB RAM in a single stick to make sure we'd have that chance – our Gigabyte ITX motherboard has two slots for RAM, not one.
An extra 4GB of RAM costs just £30, making it a good future upgrade. With a bit more money you might also want to buy faster 2000MHz RAM – we stuck with 1600MHz.
How does it compare to the PS4?
Looking at the PS4's RAM, you have to marvel as the sheer specs you get for not much cash at all. The console has 8GB of RAM, and it's much faster than the core system RAM in our build. It's GDDR5 RAM clocked at 5500MHz – the kind of RAM you'd find in a dedicated graphics card, not core system RAM. The 1GB of RAM in our graphics card is a bit more like the PS4's RAM.
For a step up, upgrade to 8GB of 2400MHz RAM (£65 for the lot)
Getting the bits - part 2
5) Hard drive or SSD
Minimum spec - 500GB
Our spec - 500GB Toshiba HDD 7200rpm (£36)
SSDs are the current storage type of the day. With games they'll speed up load times thanks to their supremely snappy data access. However, the most we could afford on our tight budget is a 128GB SSD, where the SteamOS install's requirements suggest you'll need more (500GB, for what we have no idea). So we went for the extra storage and opted for a good old hard drive, the cheapest 500GB 7200rpm drive we could find. Having a good amount of storage to work with matters, especially with modern games.
The PS4 has an HDD just like our build, and it's a 500GB drive too. But it's a bit smaller in stature. It's a 2.5-inch drive where we used a standard 3.5-inch one. Our drive is a bit faster too, spinning at 7200rpm where the PS4 drive spins at 5400rpm. A faster drive should shorten load times.
Advantage: Steam Machine
For a step up, add a 128GB SSD (from £40)
6) Computer case
Our spec - Coolermaster mini ITX (with included PSU) £55
We tried to go as small as we could with our SteamOS machine, and that meant using a mini ITX case. These are around a third the size of normal computer cases, making them much more lounge-friendly. Not bothered about that? You might want to consider a slightly larger micro ATX system, where space is at less of a premium. It'll make upgrading easier.
These Mini ITX-size cases are the kind used by Shuttle PCs, some of the best-known smaller lifestyle-y computers.
How does it compare with the PS4?
Sony spent years tweaking and designing the casing and internal layout for the PS4, so predictably it's a bit more compact than our build. Things like airflow and cooling are all much less carefully controlled in a DIY computer like ours, so there needs to be a bit of extra room inside to ensure the thing doesn't catch fire. It's not going to fit into a hi-fi rack, in other words.
For a step up, consider a Mac-style Bitfenix case (£70)
7) Game Pad
Minimum spec - None, you can use a mouse and keyboard if you like
Our spec - Second-hand wired Xbox pad (£10)
As it's basically a Linux computer, there are no particular requirements for a gamepad on SteamOS. There are plenty of neat-looking custom ones in the works, including an official one with a pair of analogue stick replacements that are more like little mouse pads for your thumbs.
However, for now we'll make do with a good old wired Xbox 360 pad. You'll find reams of cheap knock-off versions on eBay, but it's worth spending a few pounds extra on the real deal, even if it has been fondled by a spotty teenager or two before you got your hands on it (just tell yourself they didn't do anything too disgusting with it).
How does it compare with PS4?
Is the PS4 pad better than the PS3 one? Sure it is, but is it better than the stone-cold-classic Xbox 360 pad? That's a tougher one to answer. But the question here is more about choice versus standardisation. With a PS4 you know any game is going to be optimised for your pad, where with SteamOS some games are really going to be intended for use with a mouse and keyboard. There's more interesting stuff going on with gamepad development in SteamOS land but, as we've seen elsewhere, it's more effort too.
For a step up, consider waiting for the Valve Steam Controller or buy an Xbox pad that hasn't been touched up by kids too young to drink (£20).
How much did we spend in total?
Our components, bar the Xbox pad, were supplied by Ebuyer, and the grand total for the lot comes to £321. We also spend an additional couple of quid on a lovely little Xenta toolset that offers far more than you need for less than the cost of a multipack of crisps. Not bad.
Which is the better build?
Trying to build a PC that competes with the PS4, you realise that Sony can't really be making money with the PS4's hardware. Sure, we're paying a premium when buying each component as a one-off when making our own Steam PC, but the scope of the hardware packed into the £350 PS4 is seriously impressive. To get a compromise-free SteamOS box you do need to spend a bit more than £350. However, we can at least upgrade some of the elements in the future easily enough.
Where can you buy your components?
If you're buying on a budget like us, it's a good idea to shop around. All of our components were kindly supplied by Ebuyer, which is one of the largest online retailers of these sorts of components. Their prices are often pretty decent too.
You'll often find bundles on these sorts of sites that pack together cases and power supplies, or CPU/RAM/motherboard combos. They'll often save you a few quid, and will solve any compatibility headaches you might otherwise have to worry about too.
There are others to try out too, though. Overclockers and Misco are two other long-standing component suppliers. Just make sure you don't split your order so much that you end up paying more in P+P than you save by shopping around.
Ok, we've got our components, now how do we put them together?
Putting it together
Starting to build a PC is intimidating. You have a small mound of expensive components, each of which aren't really that hard to break. However, take your time and put things together carefully and even a tech novice can put together a Steam Machine in just a couple of hours.
Step 1: Opening up the case
The first thing to do is open up the case. In our mini ITX case there are easy screws at the back that release the top 'roof' of the case. Then it just slides off. Ours comes with the PSU fitted, taking out one step of the process.
If you're not buying one of these combos, you want to look to get at least a 500W PSU in order to supply enough power for the dedicated graphics card. Even if your power supply does come included, we recommend unscrewing it and moving its mass of cables out of the way before starting to fit in any of the other components.
Step 2: First fittings
At this point we can should affix the CPU and its heatsink to the motherboard– one of the few parts you really need to make sure you get right. Doing so when the motherboard has already been put into the case can be fiddly.
The issue is the precision needed to mount the heat sink on the processor with insulating gel. This gel transfers the heat from the CPU to the heat sink, so that your computer doesn't burst into flames as soon as you run a game. If you buy a normal retail version of a processor, the gel should all be included, and pre-applied – our CPU also came with a heatsink. Score.
However, go OEM to save a few quid and you'll need to buy your own heatsink and your own gel. Try and make the Steam Machine without a heatsink or the heat transferral gel and you'll end up with a fried CPU.
Exactly how you mount the processor will depend on whether you use an Intel or AMD CPU, and your motherboard. But any processor is going to plonk into the big blank rectangular space on your motherboard.
First you'll need to unlock a mounting arm by its processor slot and insert the CPU pins down. Then refasten the mounting arm to get the CPU in place. Now the important bit – the heat sink.
If you don't have a heat sink with pre-applied gel, you'll to put a thin trail of the stuff on the flat bottom of the heat sink and place it carefully on the CPU before clipping the heatsink to the mountings on the motherboard.
If you've made it this far, you should be fine from here on in. Scary bit over.
Step 3: Attaching the motherboard
Once the CPU is attached to the motherboard, we need to secure the motherboard to the case. With a smaller case like ours, the board will generally slide in and take up almost all of the width of the bottom panel of the case.
Before putting the motherboard in, though, first jam in the IO shield that should have been supplied with the board. This is the panel that goes into the back of the case, making holes for the various video and audio sockets you get on a motherboard.
Next, line up the holes on the edge of the motherboard with those on the bottom of case, making sure all the ports line up on the back IO shield. Then screw that sucker in using the screws that (hopefully) came with your case.
Read the motherboard manual to make sure you use the right screws, though, or - like us - you might need to get out a spanner to unfasten them.
Step 4: Fitting the other components
Now we need to bung in the video card, the hard drive and the RAM. The RAM and video card simply slot into your motherboard while the hard drive fits onto the case, interfacing with the motherboard using a cable rather than a direct connection. Check your case's manual on how to attach the hard drive/SSD - double-sided tape is not the preferred method.
As long as you don't try and put the wrong component in the wrong slot and push with all your might, you can't really go wrong with this bit. If in doubt, check your motherboard manual.
Step 5: Cables, cables, cables
We said that sorting out the CPU was the most precarious part of making a Steam Machine, but fixing all the cables is the real fiddly bit. Once you've re-screwed in your power supply, your Steam OS box should now be a real mass of wires.
Move all the ones sprouting out of the front of the case out of the way, and deal with those of the power supply first. They plug into your motherboard and your hard drive - and the general rule to stick by is if it doesn't match the slot, don't try and put it in. There's a great big 12-block power plug for the motherboard, and smaller ones for the other components.
You also need to use the SATA cable that came with your HDD/SSD to hook up your storage with the motherboard, and do the same with an optical drive, if you went for one of those. We didn't, because – well – why would you need one in a SteamOS machine?
The rest of the cables let you use things like the power button and any extra audio sockets on the case. They're the fiddliest of the lot – little finger tentacles that are all too easy to lose in the mass of cabling inside the case. Each should be labelled with its function, so just match them up to the right little metal contacts on your motherboard. You'll almost definitely need the motherboard manual for that. Just don't panic.
Finally, make sure your CPU heat sink's fan's power cable is attached to the motherboard, and that the case's fan is hooked up too. The last thing we want is the system overheating as soon as we turn it on.
Next, put the metal lid back on the case and cross your fingers.
How to install Steam OS
How to install Steam OS
Before we get to installing SteamOS, you'll want to turn on the box and make sure it doesn't instantly beep itself into some kind of BIOS blue screen of death.
All good? Now we come to the secret requirements of building a Steam Machine – another computer, a mouse and a keyboard. And a 4GB-plus memory stick.
Using your normal computer, perhaps the one you're reading this on (if it's not a phone), download the custom Steam OS install file and extract the zip file onto the root of a USB stick.
What's the difference between the standard Steam OS install and the custom one? Not much, other than that the custom one needs less storage. Before doing anything else, we recommend making sure all the hardware you want installed is in place. We had to install SteamOS twice as the Beta doesn't seem to be able to reconfigure itself if - for example - you add in a graphics card, as we did.
Next, plug a keyboard, mouse and the USB stick into your soon-to-be Steam Machine and boot it up. The BIOS boot screen should tell you what F-key you need to press to get to the boot menu. Press that and select USB source. If this doesn't work, head into the BIOS settings (usually done by pressing Delete) and make sure UEFI is turned on and that the USB is set as part of the boot sequence.
Once you've booted off the USB stick, the process of installing SteamOS is pretty simple. Just follow the on-screen instructions and wait for the install – it takes a while. Once finished you'll see a simplified Windows-style interface. Here you'll need to log into your wireless home network in order to download the latest SteamOS updates.
It'll take a while, but next thing you know you'll be into the SteamOS interface proper.
SteamOS vs PS4 – Which is the top gaming platform?
Tripping into the SteamOS interface, initial impressions are solid. For a real beta release, SteamOS looks and feels pretty good. It has the swish look of a console-style system, rather than the stuffy Steam interface that works well on a desktop PC.
However, at present you have to manage your expectations to realise what SteamOS is working with. It's a Linux-based system that can only natively play games that support Linux.
We hope that this approach will soon see all games that run on Windows come to accept Linux as a gaming platform, but we're not there yet. The number of games you can play directly from a SteamOS box at present is fairly limited. The one true high-end game that's available is Metro: Last Light. It'll play on our Steam Machine, but you do have to be a little conservative with settings.
You get quite a lot of great little indie picks, but these are often the sort of games, like Osmos, that you can even play on a phone or tablet. SteamOS is not at present a platform that lets you play the top-top-tier games you can get on a PS4.
However, it does have a rather neat secondary feature – you can stream games from another room in the house. So you'll be able to stream from your gaming PC upstairs to act as a stop-gap until Linux gaming really gets off the ground.
Should you have a go at making your own Steam OS box rather than buying a PS4 this year? That's for you to decide. But if you're waiting eagerly for companies to release their own Steam Machines, why not try making one of your own? It's easier than you might think.