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How to Build a Steam Box

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED March 4, 2013
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When the video game publishing company Valve introduced the Steam platform, it was a game changer in more ways than one. Steam serves as a digital distribution store, cloud storage database for saved games, social network and virtual video game console that lets gamers purchase and play more than 2,000 games. You didn’t have to go to a store or wait for a package to arrive before you could start blasting enemies or building civilizations — the games became instantly available through digital downloads.

To call this approach disruptive is an understatement. But to stir things up even more, Valve introduced a new product called Big Picture. It’s basically a user interface that makes it easy to navigate through Steam and play games on a television. The only hardware you need is a gaming-capable PC and a television, both with HDMI ports. Use an HDMI cable to plug the computer into the television and you’re ready to go.

Valve has admitted that it’s looking into developing its own Steam Box gaming console for the home market. While that’s exciting news, what gets me excited about Big Picture is that it makes it easier than ever to build a gaming PC for the living room.

To build your own Steam Box, you’ll need a few basic components. You’ll want a case that fits your entertainment system. The size of the case will determine how large your motherboard will be — not all motherboards will fit all cases. The motherboard will determine what type of central processing unit (CPU) you can use. Today’s video games require a lot of RAM to run smoothly so you’ll have to stock up on that. You’ll also need a graphics processing unit (GPU). Another critical component is a hard drive. Finally, you’ll require a power supply that is capable of delivering the juice you need and a fan to keep the whole system at an operable temperature.

What you won’t need is a display. You can even get away without an optical drive if you really want to. If you already have video game controllers from the more recent console systems you’re in good shape. Big Picture also supports keyboard and mouse input.

It’s important to do your research before assembling these elements. It’s easy to purchase components with compatibility issues, which will make your console perform poorly (or not at all). And while you can choose lower-cost components to keep the overall price of the system as low as possible, it could mean that your system won’t be as future-proof as one with higher-end components.

A good place to start is Valve’s list of system requirements for a Steam Box. You’ll need either a PC running Windows Vista or later or a Mac running OS X 10.7 or later. Your processor should be at least a 3.0 Ghz P4, dual core or AMD64X2 or faster chip. You’ll need a gigabyte of RAM and a video processor with at least 256MB of memory and DirectX 9 support. Valve recommends you have a hard disk with at least one gigabyte of storage space. And you’ll need a broadband Internet connection.

Keep in mind, these are the minimum system requirements. To run a graphics-intensive game at 60 frames per second on an HDTV will require a bit more horsepower. A careful review of your options is in order. And don’t forget to read customer reviews — a powerful video card might seem great on paper but if it makes a lot of noise it might provide a distraction in the living room.

Once you’ve purchased all the parts, it’s time to put everything together. First, make sure you’re free of static electricity before you begin handling these components. You’ll then need to install the CPU and RAM onto the motherboard. As long as you chose a motherboard and compatible CPU this should be relatively straightforward, though you may need to use a little thermal paste before settling the CPU in place. Depending upon the motherboard, you may have to use clamps on the motherboard itself to hold the CPU in place.

Next, I recommend connecting the fan’s power cord to the motherboard before you install either into the case itself. This will give you more space to work with before you enter the cramped world of the computer case. Once that’s connected, you can insert the motherboard into the case. You’ll probably need to secure the motherboard to the case with screws — these usually come with the actual case.

Connect all the wires for your various components to the appropriate places on your motherboard. This includes everything from USB ports to audio ports.You may also want to connect your fan and power supply cords to the motherboard at this time. Depending upon the configuration of the case you’ve chosen, I recommend leaving either the fan or power supply as the last component you install as both of these components tend to take up a lot of space.

Next, connect your graphics card’s cords to the appropriate sections on your motherboard and install the card into your case. Finish off with the fan and power supply. Use cable ties to bind loose cords together and keep them out of the way of fans and other components. Connect your system to a display and turn it on to see if everything is working properly. If so, your next step is to install an operating system on the machine. If not, you’ll need to check connections and make sure your power supply is working properly.

If you already have a computer that meets (or preferably exceeds) the system requirements for Big Picture you can always relocate it to the living room. Or, if putting all this together sounds like too much work, you can always buy a rig with the right specifications. But there’s a special sense of accomplishment that comes with building your own PC. I say game on!

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