A few months ago, rumours suggested that Valve--makers of Half-Life and the Steam download service--was about to enter the hardware market with its own PC-based console. It was said that Valve's "Steam Box" would include an Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU, which would make for one hell of a gaming rig, but not exactly an affordable one. Even at the most optimistic of component prices, such a system approaches the £600 ($946) mark, making the PlayStation 3's £425 ($600) launch price look a bargain. Valve could potentially soak up some of that cost for a more appealing RRP, but there are limits.
That got us thinking: with all the fantastic games available exclusively on PC right now like Diablo III, Starcraft, Counter Strike, DoTA, and Guild Wars II, why wait around for Valve to release something? What if it were possible to build your own gaming rig, powerful enough to run those games, but at a price comparable to that of a games console? With that in mind, we set about trying to build such a rig for the princely sum of £300 ($474), and discovered that it isn't the fevered dream of a cash-strapped console gamer, but an entirely realistic proposition.
To build the Steam Box we had to lay down some ground rules, most importantly of all, the budget of £300. It's a price that compares favourably to the launch/mid-lifecycle price of a games console, and is well within the reach of the average gamer--any higher and it wouldn't have the same kind of mass-market appeal. Secondly, we had to decide what we didn't need: a display, keyboard and mouse, or even a controller was out of the question at such a price. But with the box intended for life in the living room attached to a TV, and given the sheer number of old keyboards, mice, and game controllers (the Bluetooth based-based PS3 controllers and wired Xbox 360 controllers work a treat on PC) knocking about in most living rooms, we figured it was no great loss.
An optical drive, while not the priciest of components, wasn't a necessity either. This is, after all, a Steam Box, and the vast majority of games would be obtained via download. What we were left with were the necessities: a case, motherboard, CPU, PSU, RAM, hard drive and a graphics card.
Case: Fractal Design Core 1000 - £29.98
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-H61MA-D2V Gen 3 Micro ATX - £39.13
CPU: Intel Pentium G840 Dual Core - £55.01
GPU: Zotac Nvidia GT 640 2GB - £75.17
RAM: Corsair XMS3 4GB DDR3 1333 Mhz CAS 9 - £17.28
Hard Disk: Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 500GB - £49.07
PSU: Powercool PSUPC450AUBAM 450W Modular - £31.90
That gives us a total spend of £297.54, which is just under our target price. It's worth bearing in mind that prices on components can fluctuate dramatically, so while these prices are accurate at the time of publication, you may find they've gone up, or indeed down by the time you get around to buying them.
It should also be noted that you'll need an OS--namely, Windows. A retail box of Windows 7 costs around £70, but there are deals around (particularly if you're a student) that makes it cheaper. There's also the Family Pack upgrade for Windows 7, which lets you install it on up to three computers. Or, if you already have Windows on an old PC, you can move the licence to your new one without issue.
Choosing Components Is Never Easy
Building a PC can be a tricky business--there are hundreds of confusingly named and frustratingly similar component options available--but it's made all the more difficult on such a tight budget. Even a reduction of a just a few pounds made all the difference to overall price, so we had to juggle things around several times before we got to a final spec we were happy with.
For the case we went with Fractal's Design Core 1000 Micro, which is just about small enough to work in a living room setting, given it's designed for Micro ATX motherboards. There are smaller cases, such as Silverstone's Mini-ITX based SG series, but those are more expensive, as are the Mini-ITX motherboards that fit inside them. There are cheaper cases too, but most of those made us die a little inside when we saw them.
To go with our Micro ATX case we chose Gigabyte's Intel-based GA-H61MA-D2V Gen 3 Micro ATX motherboard. It may have an incredibly confusing title, but the board has everything we need, including USB 3, a PCIe slot for our GPU, and rock-solid support from Gigabyte. Again, there are cheaper options, but those lack niceties such as USB 3.
That brings us neatly onto the CPU, which is Intel's Sandy Bridge-based 2.8Ghz Pentium G840 dual core chip. While Intel's Core series gets the most attention these days, the venerable Pentium brand lives on as a budget chip line, and is an ideal choice for our Steam Box. The G840 is very similar to the pricier Core i3, minus hyper threading and higher clock speeds. In fact, in benchmarks, the G840 performs eerily close to the i3, making the £50 premium hardly worth it.
The other option is to go with an AMD chip, namely the Athlon II X3 455, or the quad-core A6. What those chips gain by having more cores (better performance in multithreaded applications), they lack in sheer grunt. With a couple of exceptions, most games don't scale that well across lots of CPU cores, and instead benefit more from pure performance and higher clock speeds. In single-threaded tasks and gaming, the G840 simply performs better than the AMD chips, and because we're going to be using a separate GPU, we don't need to take integrated GPU performance into account. Going for Intel also leaves us with a nice, smooth upgrade path to the Core series, which uses the same type of CPU slot. And, at the high end, Intel absolutely smokes AMD on performance.
The final major piece of our Steam Box is the GPU, and this is where things get tricky. The options here are vast, with a range of cards available from both AMD and Nvidia that span different architectures, with wildly different prices. We settled on a Zotac GT 640, which makes use of Nvidia's latest Kepler architecture. It's a budget card, but one that should provide decent performance. Plus, it doesn't require any external power, which is a nice bonus for power consumption and cooling performance in the small case.
However, there are other options available if you've got the time to shop around, have a touch more cash, and don't mind a little extra noise in your living room. The older GTX 550 Ti is a much better performer all round, and can be had for as little as £85, depending on where you look. There's also AMD's 6670/6680, which can be had for an extra £30 or so if you can find one in stock, and--as benchmarks show--it performs better too. The more modern 7750, which is also a budget card (albeit one that requires external power from your PSU), is currently selling for just a few pounds more, and in many cases outperforms the GTX 640. Whether the increased numbers of frames per second are worth the extra power and noise requirements is up to you.
That leaves us with a few bits and bobs needed to get the Steam Box up and running. For RAM we went a single 4GB stick from Corsair's XMS3 range, which is plenty for the box, and leaves a slot free for future upgrades. For the hard disk, we went with a 500GB Hitachi Deskstar. Unfortunately, prices are still inflated from the flooding in Thailand, so whatever drive you pick you're looking at dropping around £50 on it. On the other hand SSD prices have dropped significantly, to the point where you can pick up a 120GB drive for around £60. That's not big enough for us to use it as the only drive in the box, particularly with the size of game installs, but if you have a spare hard disk you can use then buying a small SSD for the OS install is a worthwhile investment.
For a PSU we went with a 450 Watt modular box from Powercool. It's not the cheapest PSU out there, but with an 80 Plus power rating and modular cables, it'll keep the inside of the case looking tidy, and should provide ample power for the Steam Box and handle any future upgrades to the CPU or GPU. There are lots of cheaper options, but the key to PC building is to NEVER cheap out on the PSU, lest you fry your freshly purchased components.
To test out the Steam Box we installed a range of games, some old, some new. In most cases the games were PC-exclusive, but we did include a few console classics as well. All the games were tested at 1080p resolution, but bear in mind that you can eke more performance out of the box by switching down to 720p, which is still a decent resolution for the living room. Our aim was to get games running at a minimum of 30 frames per second, and with a bit of tweaking (and with the exception of Arkham City) our Steam Box did just that.
The settings for each game varied, but on the whole we had everything was set to high or medium and anti-aliasing was turned off in order to keep frame rates high. Even at medium settings and without AA on though, games still looked great. In the case of Counterstrike (and indeed, anything based on Source engine), we could easily crank the settings and keep the framerate above 60 for a great experience.
Sure, those 30fps rates aren't going to be enough for the pro-gamers out there, and the box is never going to compete with something like our £2000 uber-rig pictured below, but they're very playable. And, given the frankly ludicrously low price of the rig, very impressive. If you've got the extra cash then it's worth splurging for a GTX 550 Ti or a HD 7750, both of which will give you significantly better results.
That said, if your budget is £300 and not a penny more, then you can still enjoy the very best that the PC has to offer. And, if there's one more thing this exercise has shown us, it's that Valve could very well be building a Steam Box, one that no doubt could perform even better than ours. If we can buy up the bits at retail for £300, and get a rig working, just imagine what a company like Valve, with its buying power could do.
In the meantime, though, get building. With next-generation consoles not due until next year at the very earliest, now is a great time to catch up on some of the fantastic PC games you might have missed and get involved with some competitive online gaming. Trust us, for £300 it's totally worth it.
Think you can do better? Let us know how you'd build your own Steam Box in the comments below.