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Computers

How to Build a Steam Machine for $500: Part 1

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There's a tireless division between console gamers and computer gamers, but Valve is hoping to bridge some of the gap by bringing the gaming PC to the living room with SteamOS. The platform is a Linux-driven operating system solely dedicated to gaming. 

Multiple vendors are producing ready-made Steam Machines, but you can get more bang for your buck building one yourself. This tutorial will show you how, all for $500.

The Parts List

Case: Cooler Master Elite 110 Mini-ITX

Price: $49.99–Amazon


The Cooler Master Elite 110 is a svelte black box that won't look too out of place on a shelf or with your home theater system.

Most builds don’t list the case as the first component, but this build depends on it. Since this computer was going on a bookshelf near the TV, I didn’t want a full-size ATX tower and even micro-ATX cases are often 16 inches deep. This case from Cooler Master is roughly 11” x 8” x 10”, looks nondescript, and supports a full-size ATX power supply. It’s also organized well for the size and at $49.99, it seemed like the perfect box for this purpose.

Processor: Intel i5-4570 Haswell

Price: $159.99 plus tax–Microcenter

The reason I chose the i5 over the i3 is the extra cores. More and more games are using multi-core threading to improve performance.

Choosing a processor for this build required two trips to Microcenter and hours of research comparing platforms, studying gaming benchmarks, and delving into concepts like hyperthreading and APUs. 

AMD’s processors are generally cheaper than Intel’s so I started there, but I was married to the mini-ITX case above, and there are no compatible motherboards for AMD's FX chips. I considered the AMD A10-7850 Kaveri as an alternative, but even its special dual graphics feature when pairing with an AMD graphics card couldn't overcome the benchmarks offered by Intel’s i5.

I chose the Haswell 4570 because it is quad-core–so that's better for games–had a low power consumption, and was the best chip I could get within my price range. While I was briefly tempted by the K (unlocked) version, the motherboards capable of overclocking net a higher price and would’ve put me too far over budget, even if I'd chosen an older Ivy Bridge models instead of Haswell.

Motherboard: ASRock B85M-ITX 1150

Price: $66.99–Newegg

While the B85-series motherboard is limiting in some ways, it's provides all of the necessities you'd expect (USB 3.0, HDMI, PCI 3.0, dual RAM slots, and more).

I chose a fairly basic motherboard that still had HDMI and robust audio outputs. Since the processor isn’t capable of overclocking, I got the B85 series from ASRock, a company that makes decent quality components in range of my budget. ASRock makes an even cheaper version of this board—the H81 series—but it lacks a USB 3.0 header to connect to the two USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case.

Hard Drive: 1TB Western Digital Blue 7200 RPM

Price: $54.99–Newegg

While I'll likely miss some of the rapidness that an SSD provides, the sheer ratio of gigabytes to dollars for this drive was too much to resist.

Originally, I was solely focused on a solid state drive, but they are more expensive and the only gaming benefits of an SSD are shorter load times. Once you’re in the game or level, there are negligible performance differences. Furthermore, PC games have large files up to 8GB in size. 

I could’ve gone with a 500GB drive to stay closer to budget but it was essentially five dollars more to upgrade to one terabyte, and five dollars for five hundred extra gigabytes seemed worth it to me.

Memory: 4GB Patriot Viper 3 DDR3-1600

Price: $30.99 after $10 mail-in rebate–Newegg

This Patriot RAM is well-reviewed and will provide good performance with modern games. As future games are released for the platform, I'll likely upgrade to 8GB to be safe.

Concessions had to be made somewhere so I settled for only 4GB of DDR3-1600 RAM versus 8GB. It’s a single stick, though and I intend to eventually upgrade with another 4GB if needed. Besides, the dual channel benefits of memory are greatly exaggerated.

Video Card: Sapphire Radeon R7 260X 2GB

Price: $109.99 after mail-in rebate–Newegg

Here's hoping this card can shred through plenty of frames per second in Battlefield 4.

Similar to the processor competition, there is a vitriolic feud between AMD and nVidia on the graphics card front and the competition has largely benefited the consumer. For this build, I wanted to find a good card in the $100-$150 range. 

Ideally, I would’ve landed a deal on the brand new nVidia GTX 750 Ti or Radeon R7 265, but I was running low on remaining funds and both were late in arriving to market or sell for more their retail price. 

Instead, I found a sale on the Radeon R7 260X, the little brother to the R7 265. It still packs plenty of graphics oomph and saved me at least $40 that I could then dedicate toward a better processor. You can read a comparison of AMD Radeon GPUs

Power Supply: Corsair CX430

Price: $19.99 after $20 mail-in rebate–Microcenter

The CX430 is s respectable power supply that should easily provide enough juice for this build, even if the graphics card insists on the 500-watt version.

Most builders recommend buying an aftermarket PSU for their reliability and the ability to upgrade your build down the road. 

I found a 430-watt ATX power supply at Microcenter for $19.99 after rebate, and it seems like a perfect complement to this setup. It’s very quiet and has an 85-percent electricity efficiency which translates to lower power consumption, something that is much desired for a box that will spend a lot of time churning through games and movies. 

While most would recommend a 500-watt minimum, this Corsair should be able to sufficiently power the low-wattage i5 processor and video card.

Extras

I didn’t include a keyboard, mouse, or monitor in the build cost as I have the former and will be using my TV as the monitor. One thing you might want to consider is a Windows license to provide a deeper gaming library.

Grand Total: $508.14 after tax and rebates.

On Pricing

Depending on when you start a build, it may be difficult to find these parts at the prices listed above, but if you shop around a bit, you can get as good of deals or better. 

Technology is always improving and speeds increasing so keep an eye out for last year's top-of-the-line video card or save some money via mail-in rebates. Sure, it requires a little extra leg work, but it can ensure your hard-earned dollars result in a better overall system than if you were to pay retail.

Feedback

Let me know in the comments section, below, what would you have done differently. Perhaps I should have used a different chip platform or maybe there is a better video card out there for a reasonable price. In the next tutorial I'll put all of these components together and give it a first boot into SteamOS.

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