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Thread: Learn how to build your own Steam Box System

  1. #1
    Administrator M.A.A's Avatar
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    Learn how to build your own Steam Box System

    Learn how to build your own Steam Box
    The growth of the Steam gaming portal and platform has been an interesting evolution. Valve Corporation started it as a distribution network in 2002, and it has since transformed into a major gaming community, content showcase and hub for independent software developers.

    The idea behind Steam is to allow gamers to buy a range of new and innovative content, maintain that title through a Steam account and provide a central management resource for digital rights. Once you've bought a game (or downloaded a free one) on Steam, you're free to play that on multiple machines using your login, and any achievements will be attributed to your account, regardless of what system or platform you're on. Initially on Windows and then Apple Mac, it's now looking to expand into mobile platforms, and it's also developing its own operating system, SteamOS.

    The SteamOS is based on Debian 7 kernel Linux, so it could be used as easily to run an office application as play games. But it's been built specifically to support gamers, and a number of hardware manufacturers are actively developing Steam Box systems that package sufficient PC hardware to run the OS.

    Kindly, Valve Corporation hasn't restricted Steam OS to commercial companies, and it's possible to get the software and build your own Steam computer. What I've detailed here is my own Steam box experience, as a guide for anyone who's Interested In creating their own.

    All system builds begin with a little preparation, and this one is no exception. Much of my preparation time for this one involved thinking about what hardware I'd really like to see in my Steam Box. The minimum requirement for SteamOS is pretty loose, but Value dictates the following:

    : Intel or AMD 64-bit capable processor
    Memory: 4GB or more RAM
    Hard Drive: 500GB or larger disk
    Video Card: Nvidia or AMD graphics card (or Intel/AMD Integrated)
    Additional: UEFI boot support and USB port for installation

    The only reason that would stop you using virtually any PC from the past ten years is the UEFI boot requirement. That's something that's only been on motherboards more generally in the last five years.

    My thoughts on this were heavily coloured by AMD, and a recent press afternoon I'd spent with them and their new APU range of processors. What I didn't really want to do was build a Windows gaming system and then stick SteamOS on it. The whole point of this operating system is to provide a very efficient platform for gaming, and in that respect I wanted something modestly specified but with enough performance for enjoyable gaming.

    Another factor pushing me in this direction was cost, because I didn't want to spend any more than I'd reasonably pay for a next generation console for this system. In the end, I went for an AMD APU system, even if at the time I wasn't entirely convinced it would have enough power to do the job.

    Projects like this always flirt with the possibility of failure, but when I started this, I was only 50% certain it would work. That wasn't only because of the hardware but also because SteamOS is only a beta and not a finished product.
    Actually, when I first installed it, I think it was more alpha than beta, but it's getting better by the day. Because of that, I wouldn't let this anywhere near a system with an existing OS on it, which is why I built the Steam Box.

    Here's how I got on.
    1- The case I picked is too big. But I had it spare, and it's a really lovely design by Corsair that takes a micro-ATX motherboard. It's an Obsidian 3500 and has plenty of room for whatever other gear you might want to include. This model can be bought with or without a windowed side for about 87. It doesn't come with a PSU.
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    As I'd used a Corsair case, it seemed logical to use other Corsair parts, including this lovely CS550M modular PSU. For a gaming rig, 550 watts might seem modest, but with SteamOS I'm not looking to build anything with CrossFireX or SU ambitions.
    In the 3500 case, the PSU goes at the bottom of the case, not the top.
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    3- My motherboard of choice; the ASRock FM2A88M Extreme4+. I used this board a while back for something else, and after it returned to ASRock, I bought this one to support new AMO FM2 processor releases. It's got a bucket of features, and for about 55 delivered, it's something of a true bargain.
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    Just checking the pin layout before inserting this AMD APU in the socket. My original plans were to use a new Kaveri A 10-7850K or A 10-7700K, but AMD didn't have either of those available at the time. Instead I used this A 10-6790K, which I had spare. The A 106790K is Richland cored and is clocked at 4.1 GHz with four cores.
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    Another Corsair part! This is a Hydro Series H75 liquid CPU Cooler, and it's ideal for making a quiet system. The sealed cooling solution circulates water between a CPU cooling head and a radiator that's cooled by two 120mm fans. It works with AMO and Intel systems, and offers good cooling to combat the heat of long gaming sessions.
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    To mount the H75 requires you to remove the AMD cooler attachments and replace them with these hexagonal threaded extensions. You retain the AMD back plate, so this can be done without rear access, if you're careful. It's better to do this outside the case if you can. Once complete, the motherboard can be installed.
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    Before installing anything into the case, it's my usual practice to strip all the side and front panels off it. It's a better plan than trying to remove things as you need them, and most of these bits will need removing at some point. The cardboard box in the drive tray is where Corsair puts all the screws and extra cables in this model.
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    Oops, nearly forgot. You need to put the I/O shield in place before the motherboard. I can't count the number of times I've forgotten to do this, and then been forced to remove the board to put it in. The 350D has pre-installed offsets, saving time on the motherboard installation. It's just a matter of putting the screws in and tightening them.
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    With the motherboard mounted I installed the RAM. Amazingly, I didn't use Corsair but some 1866MHz modules that are branded to AMD. Valve only asks for 4GB, but I threw twice that in here for good measure. I later realized that the slots are paired 1-3, 2-4, and had to move one of these to get dual channel mode to work.
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    Modern cases are much neater because they've got cable paths and rubber grommets. Here I'm pushing the ATX24 connection through a hole at the bottom of the case, so it can re-emerge through another further up and not block the drive area to the left of the motherboard. By doing this, the whole system looks neater.
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    In this angle, you can see the various ATX lines and the paths they take under the motherboard. Once the system is working I'll tie-wrap this back here, so they don't end up touching the hot underside of the socket area. This case has excellent rear access for cooler installations, as you can clearly see.
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    Initially I placed the radiator, sandwiched with two fans to the rear of the case, as shown here. The problem with doing this was that the open fan was far too close to the APU, concerning me that the blades might strike the rubber water lines, and rupture them. I played with a number of possibilities to resolve this problem.
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    As the H75 had been used for review testing previously, I needed to put some fresh thermal paste on it to deploy in this system. After placing a blob of compound on there, I then used an old credit card to create a thin film across the whole surface. Use too much and it won't transfer heat efficiently between the APU and the head.
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    This was my final choice for installation, using the roof to mount a single fan and the radiator. I can't say that I'm totally convinced by this choice, but it was the best option of those available. This case would probably have worked better with the H100 double width radiator, I've since concluded.
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    Some storage is needed to put SteamOS on, so I went with this Seagate Desktop SSHD 2TB. Because it's a hybrid design, it's fast, and 2TB is plenty of space for games. Normally, I'd also put an optical drive in a PC, but there seemed little point in doing this here. All the software is installed online, so I didn't bother with a DVD-RW.
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    All that's now required is to attach the SATA cable and front panel controls before I test that the system runs. The front panel are fiddly, and it's easy to get them in the wrong places. Once this is done, and I'm confident the computer runs, it's time to start thinking about SteamOS and how I might install that.
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  2. #2
    Administrator M.A.A's Avatar
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    steam box system with steamos

    It became apparent after I'd built the system that it really wasn't powerful enough for some of the games and needed marginally more GPU power. This would have been a less pressing problem had I used a Kaveri-based APU like I'd originally intended.

    The integrated GPU in the A 10 6970K isn't as powerful as the one AMD put in the new Kaveri APU, and in many games the framerate isn't high enough. What's slightly frustrating about this is that where the Linux versions of the games diverge from their Windows counterparts is in respect of the video performance controls. Some have no controls, and others just have a very simple low/medium/high setting. Because of this, it's very difficult to tweak the system for optimal gameplay. The best solution is to overpower the machine with a powerful GPU, but this seems to fly in the face of SteamOS being a tight and efficient system.

    Just as I was about to complete this work, Sapphire sent me a R7 250 Ultimate video card, and this is probably the way to get enough GPU power. Because this is a passive design, it also doesn't require additional power lines or make the system noisier.

    If this system became a permanent feature, I'd be tempted to give it an AMD R7 260, though more than that would seem excessive for a system that can only render OpenGL under this OS. However, with over 500 spent already, without mouse, keyboard or monitor, this isn't a cheap system when compared with the PS4 or even the Xbox One.

    That said, I made this mostly with parts that I had sat around my office, some of which were undoubtedly over specified for what I needed. Ditching the Hydro cooler for the stock fan, and a putting in a 1TB conventional HD drive reduces the cost to under 400, and there's certainly fat to trim in terms of the amount of RAM and cable managed PSU. If you cannibalize an existing PC and just buy the motherboard and APU, that's about 150, and you could buy an A 10 7700K Black Edition APU for another 10 that would boost performance significantly.

    steam box parts list

    Valve did suggest that people should wait a while before diving into SteamOS with both feet, and the current installation sequence isn't really ready for the non-technical. Nevertheless, its ability to now handle AMD video hardware in addition to Nvidia is progress, and there's a distinct movement towards something more user friendly.

    It's been estimated that the final version of SteamOS won't be completed until the middle of this year and possibly later, but once you've built a working system it should automatically upgrade itself to keep pace with developments. This was an interesting project, and for the moment I'll be experimenting on it to get a better understanding of what makes SteamOS tick.

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