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  1. Computer Skills
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Computers

How to Build a Steam Machine for $500: Part 3

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In Part 1 of these tutorials, I put together a list of parts for a circa-$500 Steam Machine build and showed you, in Part 2, how to assemble them into a working computer. In this third tutorial, I’ll show you how to load Valve’s SteamOS operating system, install the necessary drivers, test some popular games, and address the rationale for building a Steam Machine.

No Disk Drive, No Problem

This computer build doesn’t feature a disk drive, but the recently released ISO disk image file version of SteamOS can easily be imaged to a USB drive instead of an optical disk.

Note: You will need another computer to ready this drive. The instructions below apply to a Mac.

  1. Download the SteamOSDVD.iso file.
  2. Insert a USB drive of at least 4GB in size. 
  3. Use Disk Utility to format the USB drive in the MS-DOS (FAT) file format. The name of the drive is arbitrary.
    Using Disk Utility is a simple way to format the USB drive as MS-DOS (FAT).
  4. Open Terminal and type diskutil list to identify what drive number the USB drive has been assigned.
  5. Enter diskutil unmountDisk /dev/diskN where N is the number corresponding to the USB drive.
  6. Enter sudo dd if=/path/to/downloaded.img of=/dev/rdiskN bs=1m replacing /path/to/downloaded.img with the location of the downloaded SteamOSDVD.iso file and N is the number corresponding to the disk drive.
  7. If prompted, enter the password.
  8. Use the Terminal commands highlighted above, with respect to the drive number assigned to the USB drive, to write the SteamOS disk image to the drive.
  9. Eject the USB drive.

Tip: The disk image file path can be inserted into Terminal automatically by drag-and-dropping the icon onto the Terminal window.

Installing SteamOS

After successful creation of the SteamOS USB drive, SteamOS can be installed on the system build.

Note: I had to disconnect the discrete video card in my build and use the onboard graphics to get the BIOS menus to display correctly on my television. I believe this was due to my television being 720p and the video card displaying 1080p by default. If you experience this issue, you may need to enable the Debian repositories and download the AMD Catalyst control panel for the graphics card. Follow the Instructions to add Debian repositories to Steam OS.

After adding the Debian repositories, use the command apt-get install fglrx-control in the SteamOS Terminal to install the AMD Catalyst Control Center.

To install SteamOS:

  1. Insert the SteamOS USB drive into the computer and boot the computer while pressing F11 on the keyboard to access the motherboard's boot order menu. From the menu, choose the USB drive (usually designated by the brand of drive) to be the priority. The computer will then boot into the SteamOS installer.
  2. Choose the install location and confirm that the installer can erase the destination hard drive. Proceed through the other steps of the installer; nothing out of the ordinary here.
  3. Near the end of the installer steps, you'll be prompted to connect the computer to the Internet to finish updating the OS.
  4. SteamOS is still in beta development so don't be surprised if you're greeted with regular updates from Valve.
  5. The computer will reboot and you’ll be greeted with a few brief settings–timezone, display, and a few others–and then the Steam login screen.
  6. The SteamOS entry screen is a comforting sight at this point in the project.
  7. Input your Steam credentials. Since this is a new machine, an email will be sent to confirm the addition of this system on the account.

After confirming, you will be greeted by Big Picture Mode, the SteamOS home screen.

This is Steam's Big Picture Mode. It's organized akin to media platforms, but is dedicated to gaming.

Checking In and Settling Down

Before heading into the gaming library, it's a good idea to confirm the build is being detected correctly. Navigate to the Settings menu (in the top right) and then to System. Within is a summary of the build, listing the processor, installed RAM, and video card. Ensure each is correct. Also within the System area is the ability to check for updates manually.

Back out to the Settings menu and choose Interface. Tick the box next to Enable Access to the Linux Desktop. Return to the main screen and choose Exit

You should see a selection to Return to Desktop. That selection will take you to the SteamOS desktop, which is based on Debian Linux. There you can use the Terminal to make system changes or browse the internet on Ice Weasel, a Firefox clone. To return to the home screen, double click Return to Steam on the desktop.

How It Plays

SteamOS is all about games and it’s finally time to play. SteamOS is limited currently to 408 games in the library. To purchase or download compatible games:

  1. From Big Picture Mode, select Store and then Genre.
  2. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the right, where there is a SteamOS + Linux category. Select that category.
  3. Select a game and click Add to Cart to proceed with download or purchase.
To save time browsing through games that aren't yet supported on SteamOS, navigate to the Genres area, then select the SteamOS + Linux category.

I’ve chosen a few popular ones and tested their frame-rates so you can compare this build to builds with different components.

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 is a Valve classic of multiplayer mayhem. 

DOTA 2

DOTA 2 is a free-to-play massively multiplayer online game created by Valve and ported to SteamOS.

Metro: Last Light

Metro: Last Light does not offer a user option to change the in-game video resolution so I used the frame-rate for medium and low settings on 1920x1080 resolution. On high settings, the game stuttered around 10 frames-per-second.
Metro: Last Light is definitely the most highly-rated game to land on SteamOS in the last year.

Big Potential

Valve finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to convince game publishers to port their games to SteamOS to secure the future of the platform. For now, SteamOS is obviously in beta growing pains, and it will need to be rock solid before it grows in popularity. The Steam controller, confirmed to arrive in the fall, could either help or hurt as many early testers cite a steep learning curve when compared to other controllers.

There's an understandable uncertainty when deciding to build a Steam Machine. If you are committed to the values of the platform, comfortable with computers, and okay with self-diagnosing a few system hiccups, you will likely enjoy the process. You can build a much better machine than you can buy for a comparable cost. If you are worried about the lack of compatible games and/or are satisfied with your current PC or console gaming setup, then a Steam Machine may not be for you.

If you decide to build one, this tutorial can guide your decisions, especially if you're on a budget. As an update, the newly release AMD R7 265 or Nvidia GTX 750 Ti would both make excellent graphics card choices for a budget build like this one.

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