Steambox has been a topic of much debate in the PC gaming community, promising a more gamer-centric PC experience, removing the need for the Windows operating system by providing you with a free alternative, while also bringing PC gaming into the casual mainstream, much like consoles, only a lot better.
It’s been an ambition of mine to buy a Steambox, simply because “why not” and while that’s all good and well, there’s not really a lot of options out there that I’m happy with. A few system integrators have released beta-systems, but what I would like to call a “final product” still seems to be sitting on the horizon. What if we could simply do it ourselves? A Steambox is just a PC with a fancy Linux Distro installed on it anyway…
I’ve picked out a few choice components to build my own Steambox, nothing crazy expensive or overly powerful, but more than enough to provide good 1080p gaming performance. I’m sure many of you love to bash consoles from time to time, so we’ll just round that up with “it’s going to be more powerful than consoles.”
I’ve chosen the Fractal Design Node 304 chassis for this build. It’s a gorgeous looking chassis, it’s small enough to fit under the TV or next to your AV stand, desk or wherever you want it really. It’s got a super clean looking front panel, a built-in fan controller and lots of room on the interior for some decent hardware, as well as future expansions.
I’ve got a Dual-core i3 4330 3.5GHz, which may not sound like a massive powerhouse, but that’s because it’s not. However, I’ve put this chip through its paces in a few gaming rigs here at eTeknix HQ and I wouldn’t be fooled by that dual-core moniker, it’s nothing fancy, but it will get the job done without spending a huge amount of money. If you can spend more money on a faster CPU, go nuts, it’ll be even more awesome.
The Sapphire R9 285 graphics card is a great option for a compact build and while this chassis can actually house a card bigger than this, I was drawn in by its excellent price vs performance ratio and compact form factor.
Again, nothing crazy here, but our set of Crucial 8GB 1600MHz Memory 9-9-9-24 will be more than enough for any gaming we’ll be doing and it’s also reasonably priced too.
The Crucial BX100 120GB SSD is fantastic, not only is it affordable, but it still gives you all the modern high-speed thrills that SSDs offer; this will be perfect for our SteamBox. Although it’s worth keeping in mind, you’ll likely want a larger capacity drive for lots of games, but for the sake of testing, 120GB is enough for me today.
The Gigabyte Gaming 5 GA-Z97N Mini-ITX motherboard is a little more expensive that some options, but it has been designed to work especially well in gaming systems. You shouldn’t skimp on such an important component and the Gaming 5 series has plenty of cool features to justify the price tag.
The CoolerMaster Gemini Low-Profile CPU cooler isn’t the most powerful cooler in the world, but it’s more than capable of handling the chip I’m using today, whilst also staying pretty quiet. If you’ve got a system next to your TV, you certainly want it to be seen and not heard.
The Fractal Design Integra 750 is nice and simple, it has just enough connectors for a compact to mid-size system, good efficiency and a reasonable price tag. The wattage is more than we need, but it never hurts to have a little room for expansion.
There are many guides available online on how to install SteamOS, so I won’t dive into that any more than I really need to. What is important to mention is that I had to take the manual install approach, as the quicker installer requires a 500GB hard drive minimum and will otherwise fail. It is a little more complicated and it came with more than its fair share of problems regardless. In fact, this article was intended to be about the benefits of SteamOS, why you should use it and how. Now this article is going to be why you should wait, because SteamOS has proven to be more trouble than it’s worth for us here at eTeknix.
Our test system is great, it’s affordable, compact and packs the hardware you’ll need for some good ol’ 1080p gaming with high settings in most modern games and ultra settings on anything more than 18 months old. I have no doubt this is a great budget gaming build. The benefits of a free operating system are too good to ignore and from a consumer perspective, free is a tempting deal, but you really get what you pay for.
The first issue I had is that SteamOS seems to hate AMD graphics cards, there are a lot of driver and display issues right from the start. Without knowing some fairly advanced Linux commands, you’ll struggle to get anywhere; not that Nvidia cards are trouble free either with this OS still being in Beta format. Just don’t expect an easy time when trying to configure your hardware.
When I eventually got SteamOS installed, I was hampered extensively with display issues, something called the “black screen of death”, freezes, crashes and the problem of having to re-install several times to try get anywhere; the end result being I had to throw in the towel. Perhaps we have the wrong hardware, perhaps there’s some settings we’re missing, either way, I wanted to test how consumer friendly SteamOS has become and the end result is that it isn’t; we can’t win every battle. I had a few images of the install process, was hoping to test a few games and more on our hardware, but if I can’t finish the tasks I set out to do, even with our own good knowledge of Linux in general, then a consumer doesn’t stand much of a chance doing a build-your-own project.
What benefits are there to SteamOS?
It’s free, that’s something you cannot ignore at this point. If you’re on a tight budget and are willing to navigate the awkward install processes, you could save money from not needing a Windows installer.
What Downsides are there to SteamOS?
It’s not easy to install, we’ve covered that much. However, we have to remind ourselves that this is a Beta OS and it’s obviously unfinished. Valve are constantly working on improving it, but it’s clear that it still has a long way to go.
The game choice is limited. Many games on Steam already work on Linux, quite a few work on SteamOS since it is also Linux, but many games do not. By installing SteamOS you’re also missing out many of the aspects of PC gaming that make PC gaming so great. A lot of big name games aren’t on Steam, so by limiting yourself with this OS, you’re missing out on Origin, uPlay, GOG Galaxy and a whole host of other gaming platforms.
You don’t have a full desktop OS that you can use for day-to-day work and web browsing. There is still a desktop and a browser, but it’s not yet up to par with what you can expect from mainstream operating systems.
Linux isn’t consumer friendly. It’s a fairly complex beast to master, especially when compared to the visually interactive setup and configuration procedures you’re used to from Windows and OSX.
What Alternatives are there to SteamOS?
Right now, there’s several other ways of doing this. Naturally you can install Windows, but that comes with a higher retail price, something that we suspect will be addressed with the upcoming release of Windows 10.
The main alternative, that also remains free, is that there are many Linux distros out there you can use. Ubuntu is a great place to start, as it gives you a much easier install process, is widely used and supported and you can install Steam, as well as some other gaming platforms, directly into the OS. It has a more user-friendly GUI and features great functionality as a desktop when compared with big names such as Windows.
SteamOS is being hailed as the gaming alternative to Windows, but right now, in its current form, I just don’t see that happening. Many system integrators are making Steambox systems, which is great, but I just can’t accept that even if the OS is free, that it offers better value for money when compared to Windows or other Linux Distros such as Ubuntu. Why would you want to limit yourself to one software distribution platform such as steam? You’ll miss out on many great deals that are available to other PC gamers.
Pricing and Potential Savings
- Fractal Design Node 304 – £54.99 eBuyer
- Intel Core i3-4330 – £107.99 OCUK
- Sapphire R9 285 – £169.99 OCUK
- Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GG £41.99 OCUK
- Crucial BX100 120GB SSD – £52.99 OCUK
- Gigabyte Gaming 5 G97N Motherboard – £124.99 OCUK
- Cooler Master Gemini II Cooler – £29.99 Pixmania
- Fractal Design Integra M 750 – £61.93 CCL
Total Cost – £644.86*
*This system can be built for less, cheaper motherboard, chassis, a cheaper PSU even, but I’m a strong believer that you should always leave headroom for future expansion. An extra £100 spent today could mean you save hundreds next year, as you won’t have to upgrade your motherboard or PSU (for example) when you buy a new chip or graphics card.
Compared to the currently advertised Steambox systems from brands such as ASUS and Alienware, to name but a few, our option is about on par, if not a little cheaper due to the modest specifications. The downside with the “console-like” integrated systems they offer, is their systems are tricky to upgrade, whereas we have the flexibility of choosing our own chassis.
A copy of Windows 8.1 is available for under £50 from many legal sources online, not even 10% the total cost of our build and it adds a lot more functionality and ease of use than SteamOS likely ever will.
So, should you build your own Steambox? No, build a PC and stay away from SteamOS, at least for now. Valve still have a mountain to climb before their software is ready for mass consumption. However, if you’re an enthusiast tinkerer and love having a poke around in command prompts and experimenting with hardware, there’s some interesting concepts to be found in SteamOS that can make for an interesting, if somewhat frustrating, weekend project.
Thank you Fractal Design, Sapphire Technology, Crucial, Gigabyte and Cooler Master for providing us with the hardware required.