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Hard Choices: Build Your Own Steam Box

What's In The Box?

Why wait for Gabe Newell to wax his generous whiskers and turn up fashionably late to the launch party? Build your own Steam Box today. Or perhaps getting a pre-order in for Xi3's today-it's-official-tomorrow-it-ain't Piston is a good idea? Yes, there have been some odd goings on. But all this PC-as-games-console jazz does throw up several interesting questions. Like what does it take to build a Steam Box yourself? Does Piston have plausible gaming chops? And can the official Steam Box compete with those evil corporate consoles on price? For answers to these questions three and a generous helping of finger-in-air prognosticating, ride your rodents to the other side...

Before we kick off, there's an intriguing alternative to all this Steam Box shizzle. And that's game streaming. No, not from the cloud. But using your primary gaming rig to stream games over your home network.

Nvidia is working on just such a technology and Valve has indicated local streaming is indeed part of the overall Steam Box picture (Newell says Valve is in fact working with Nvidia on streaming). On paper it strikes me as a far superior solution for the serious gamer. A single performance PC driving all your gaming devices? No need to stuff proper gaming power into a small box and suffer the inevitable consequences? No need to buy a second PC for your living room? It's a no brainer.

But it's not here yet and when it comes there's cause to think Nvidia's take at least may have limitations which spoil its appeal. Plans are afoot to revisit the subject in a future article, so I'll leave that seed planted. Back to Steam Boxes. What do we know?

I'm actually a bit reluctant to attempt definition of the Steam Box thanks to Valve's typically mercurial approach to product promotion. Why give us a clear idea of what's going on and when when you can pop up in a random BBC News interview and use that as a platform to keep us all posted?

Product PR, Newell styleee

Anyway, Newell says Steam Box is all about delivering the “openness and flexibility of a PC done in a way that works well in a living room”. He's hinted the machine will have some kind of biometrics for tracking the emotions or “arousal” of users as they play. I have no real idea what that means. Valve is rumoured to be playing all kinds of funky gaming interfaces and will trial various different controllers during the customer beta phase, which is apparently a few months away.

There are also quite a few questions surrounding software, particularly given Valve's intention to make its own Steam Box a Linux rather than Windows device, not to mention Newell's slightly crazed anti-Windows, end-of-days rants. But when you start factoring in those variables, things get a bit out of control. So, for the purposes of this piece, we'll stick with the core gaming hardware. The box itself.

Piston pot

From what I can tell, the definition of the box is pretty broad and includes thin clients and the aforementioned local streaming. At least it is if you include third-party boxes. I think Valve's own product will come in a couple of flavours with dedicated CPUs and GPUs. Newell has spoken of a general good-better-best approach to offering a few different SKUs and has also mentioned Bigfoot and Littlefoot development devices.

Already that begs comparison with Xi3's Piston, which uses an AMD A10 fusion chip with CPU and graphics on the same chip. That's kind of critical, because in my view there aren't any PC-compatible CPU-GPU chips (otherwise known as APUs) available today or due out soon that are good enough for a dedicated gaming device.

Look familiar? It's Xi3's 7 Series PC

Dandy for a bit of casual gaming? Yes, but not for a device which exists primarily to game. One major reason is memory bandwidth. Current APUs use CPU-style memory controllers, whereas the Sony Playstation 4's PC-derived (but not strictly compatible) APU uses a graphics-orientated memory controller. So it has in excess of 10 times the bandwidth. It has about three times the raw graphics grunt, too, but it's that order of magnitude advantage in bandwidth that really tells.

Thus, I'm going on record to say I don't like the cut of Piston's jib as a game console. It's not powerful enough. However, what Piston does do is provide a marker regards pricing. Xi3's pre-order page puts the entry-level model with that AMD A10 chip and a 128GB SSD at $899.

Homebrew hottie

That's £595 and it's preposterous. You could buy a pretty decent entry-going-mid level gaming laptop with a discrete GPU and a screen for that much. So, the question is, can we do better building our own?

To my mind there are two obvious options here. A swanky Shuttle PC or something home-brew based on an ITX board. Either way, support for a proper add-in graphics card is critical.

Genre defining: Shuttle's pricey XPC

Shuttle's Z77 box costs £300, which is pretty painful before you've added any of the core components. So' I'd be inclined to go ITX homebrew and try something like the BitFenix Prodigy.

The design vibe, if not the engineering integrity, is mini PowerMac and it looks to have lots of performance-friendly features. For starters, it takes a full ATX power supply, so you'll have no problems keeping it juiced. Of course, it'll accommodate a pukka, dual-slot graphics card.

It's also just big enough to give you lots of cooling options. It'll swallow a closed-circuit water cooling solution with a 120mm rad like the Corsair H100, for instance. Nice. You also have the option of going for a big, fat passive cooler for the CPU. Either way, you should be able to keep CPU-related noise to a minimum.

Using an SSD obviously helps with both heat and noise, so that's just a question of how much you want to spend, though 240GB feels like the bare minimum for a healthy Steam library. Which leaves the GPU. There are quiet cooling options, but realistically, if anything's going to generate noise niggles, this is it.

Pricing up performance

So what would it cost to build a homebrew Steam Box from the Prodigy? A package with a Z77 board and Corsair 600W PSU installed is £230 from Let's go for an Intel Core i5-3570K for £175 and a Radeon HD 7950 for £240. As for storage, you can now snag a decent 240GB SSD for about £100, so let's go with that. Call it another £50 for 8GB of memory.

BYOB: The homebrew-ITX option courtesy of the BitFenix Prodigy

Grand total? £795 without an OS. Yikes. But it would annihilate the new consoles. On the other hand, you could certainly shave some cost out of that by winding back on a few options. Maybe a lower clocked Core i5 quad? Minus £35. A Radeon HD 7850 for PS4-matching graphics grunt? Lose £100.

OK, you could go for something seriously poverty-spec on the CPU side and combine it with the cheapest AMD ITX board you could find. But even a crappy quad-core AMD FX chip will only save you £45 or so, so I reckon it's a false economy. Anyway, it's hard to see how you're going to get the whole thing sub-£500 unless you really crush the gaming performance.

Now factor in the Xi3 Piston's £595 list price and you have to wonder whether Valve can get anywhere near the consoles for price. Yes, it'll ship with Linux, so there's no OS tax. And maybe Valve can sort a nice bulk purchase deal on some AMD CPUs. But I reckon the GPUs will be pricey mobile chips, which won't help. And I assume there won't be any hardware subsidy like the consoles tend to enjoy.

Is ITX the answer?

Overall, I fancy we're talking £400 minimum for a PS4-equivalent Steam Box with a good discrete GPU and adequate solid state storage, and quite possibly a bit more. The higher end model has got to be well over £500. Valve may offer an entry-level version with sub-console specs, too. There are two ways of looking at all that. On the one hand I'm thinking, hmmm, £500-ish for a properly gameable, really small form factor PC? Nice.

On the other, it's a trickier proposition when you compare it to consoles. Sony hasn't priced it up yet, but the likely range for PS4 is £300 to £400. So it's all depends on how things play out. If the Steam Box comes in towards the bottom of its price window and the PS4 towards the top, things will be very interesting indeed.

But personally, I'd probably rather pay an extra £100 up front for something fully upgradeable like the homebrew ITX option. Because it's upgradeability that could be the biggest problem for Steam Box. If it's just a generic SFF PC using standard components, you wonder what's the point. So surely it will be something a bit more radical than that.

To me, that means custom components. And custom components are never a good thing for user upgrades. And not being able to easily upgrade a PC means its lost one of its key advantages over a console.

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