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A Tale of Two Steamboxen: Episode 1

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/22/13 at 06:56 PM CT

After being lured in by the wonders of Steam back in February of 2012, it soon became obvious that the laptop I use for most things computing-related just didn’t cut it as a dedicated gaming PC. Indeed, the entire concept of a ‘dedicated gaming PC’ seemed alien to me as someone who had long tried – and failed – to maintain a PC that was capable of doing a variety of things, gaming included.

It was around this same time that the first rumblings of Valve’s upcoming attempt at entering the game console market began to shake the foundations of the industry. A PC that acts like a game console? Madness! Of course, after thinking about it for a short time, I concluded that, no, Valve’s idea is far from madness, as gaming PCs and gaming consoles abruptly became one-and-the-same during the 7th Generation.

With this idea in mind, erstwhile MeltedJoystick guest-blogger and my friend from grad school, Matt, and I made a pact: We would each build a ‘SteamBox’ – that is, a dedicated gaming PC that sits next to the TV and doesn’t do anything besides play games and possibly movies via discs, networked storage, and/or streaming. We would go through the process and examine just how similar or different a SteamBox would be compared to a traditional game console.

In August 2012, I finally bit the bullet and picked out some parts from NewEgg. My goal was to create a ‘game console’ capable of playing the most demanding game in my Steam library with high settings (“The Witcher 2”), while not breaking the bank, but also allowing room for future upgrades, should they become necessary. With that end in mind, I chose the following parts with the following justifications:

Motherboard: ASUS P8Z77-V LK: $140
This mother board supports Ivy Bridge processors, meaning I can upgrade the CPU without replacing the motherboard. It also has room for two more sticks of RAM, meaning I can upgrade to a total of 32GB if I feel the need. On top of that, it supports SATA 6 and USB3.

Processor: Intel Core i7 2600K Sandy Bridge 3.4Ghz: $290
I had an AMD processor back in the day. It was really cheap, but it also didn’t perform as well as my Intel processors had when they were new. If I was building a fileserver or some sort of boring workhorse PC, AMD would be fine, but for a gaming PC, I will only use Intel, even though processors don’t matter nearly as much anymore as GPUs. I went with the Sandy Bridge because the Ivy Bridge was just that much more expensive, and I didn’t see the need to spend more. In retrospect, I could have saved some money with a Core i5 processor instead.

Memory: 16GB (2x8GB) G.SKILL Ripjaws DDR3: $85
I wanted 16GB. Since RAM chips must be paired, I could either fill all four of the motherboard’s RAM slots with 4GB chips, then throw them out when I need to upgrade, or fill two of the slots with 8GB chips and add two more 8GB chips when upgrade time rolls around.

Graphics Card: MSI (nVidia) N560GTX-TI Twin Frozr w/2GB VRAM: $270
The most important part of a gaming PC is the GPU. I looked at the prices for the nVidia 600 series and felt queasy – those things are insanely expensive. Instead of going top-of-the-line, I went with the best budget chip I could find, which ended up costing me less than half of what a high-end part would cost. By the time all games require a 600 series GPU, they will be dirt cheap and I can upgrade, or perhaps SLI a second 560TI to my current one. I deigned to consider an ATI card for the same reason I didn’t consider an AMD CPU.

Boot Drive: 1TB Western Digital Black 7200RPM HDD: $110
Despite Matt harping on me constantly that solid-state drives are the future, I went with a traditional magnetic platter drive. SSDs are just too small and too expensive. When I can get a 500GB+ SSD for around $200, I will upgrade. But for now I’m happy with a single drive that can hold all of my games and the OS at the same time.

Optical Drive: Sony Optiarc DVDRW: $17
This part was an afterthought. Really, the only reason I need an optical drive at all is to install Windows and any rare PC games that might come on discs. Maybe I could use it for emulators too?

Power Supply: Raidmax 700w: $65
This is another afterthought part. It’s not glamorous, yet it’s also essential. I went with this specific 700w part because it offered the most wattage for the best price.

Wireless: ASUS Wireless N: $27.50
Because my house was built in 1979, it isn’t wired for Ethernet. Therefore, until I can convince the local electrician to pull some cables for me, I need to rely on Wi-Fi for everything. Wireless N is plenty fast to keep up with my epic 1.5Mbps Internet connection, and I don’t keep a massive collection of movie rips or DVD isos on my networked drive, so it’s good enough.

Case: Redwood NMEDIAPCHTPC 8000 RT: $90
Just look at this thing! It's made of wood! It’s beautiful and retro all at once! My gaming PC will not just be a ‘SteamBox,’ but a ‘SteamPunkBox!’

Random NewEgg Discounts and Rebates: -$85
I was able to use a promo code to get $30 off my total, and three of my parts had mail-in rebates ($15, $20, and $20).

Subtotal: $1009.50

Operating System: Windows 7 Ultimate: $189
I don’t really like to consider this as part of my total price. I didn’t really want to install Windows 7 on my gaming PC. I wanted to wait for Windows 8, but the rumors of Windows 8 being an abomination, plus the fact that its release was several months away, while I wanted to build my SteamBox NOW, meant that I needed to buy Windows 7.

My subtotal ended up about as close to the sweet-spot of $1000 as possible. It may seem strange that the ‘sweet spot’ for gaming PC pricing is $1000, when Sony got themselves raked over the coals for daring to price the PS3 at $600… but PCs have always been stupidly expensive. Every one of my previous PCs has cost at least $2000. The really interesting data point to note is that each of the desktop PCs I have owned throughout my life has been about $1000 less expensive than its predecessor, yet significantly more powerful. Thus Sony’s problem isn’t that the PS3 was too expensive, it’s that the PS2 was too cheap and they moved the PS3’s price the wrong way.

All of my SteamBox components arrived from NewEgg within a week of ordering them. Once the weekend arrived, I rolled up my sleeves, donned a pair of rubber gloves and prepared to build my first PC.

I had considered building PCs before. However, after an unfortunate incident in the 1990s where installing a 28.8 modem in my PC caused it to stop booting (it was because the BIOS in the motherboard was an obsolete piece of trash that didn’t know what modems were – but I had no way of knowing that without asking the computer lab geeks at the local university), I was extremely leery of doing any hardware maintenance myself. I was even more worried about slotting-in a processor with its bottom covered with dozens of tiny pins that could bend or break just by looking at them the wrong way, not to mention my phobia of thermal paste, which is too similar to glue – a subject in which I received a failing grade in elementary school. Upon unboxing and spreading out my collection of components from NewEgg, I discovered that PC building is a lot simpler than it used to be.

Modern PC builders are fond of saying that building a PC from components is like playing with really expensive LEGOs. I can confirm that this is a correct assessment. While most components come with instruction manuals written in some variety of Engrish, the fact that these manuals have detailed diagrams makes them easy to follow. On top of that, processors no longer have pins, but simply rest in a slot and are held-down by a clamping mechanism. Even easier, processor heat sinks come with thermal paste pre-applied in just the right amount.

Of course, anyone who has played with LEGOs knows that assembling a LEGO set is a time consuming process. After screwing in the motherboard and power supply, I slotted-in the processor, memory, video card, and wireless card. The next step involved screwing the boot drive and optical drive to a removable metal tray that bridges the interior of the case when the whole thing is assembled. These steps took next to no time.

The time consuming part was connecting everything together with cables. Every component needs to be able to draw electricity directly from the power supply, while the cables themselves need to be situated within the case in such a way that they don’t rest on anything that gets hot (read: they can’t touch anything, period) or get caught in the heat sink fan or case fan. With the amount of time it took to get everything connected, I didn’t really feel like spending more time bundling cables together with zip ties or strapping them to the sides of the case… I just crammed them down around the edges, made sure they weren’t touching anything besides other cables, and called it good. The final piece of cabling work I needed to complete was attaching the case’s front panel to the motherboard to enable such essential tasks as turning the system on by pressing the power button. Thanks to the fact that these cabling tasks can’t really be done until all of the components are assembled and nestled inside the case, reading the tiny labels on the motherboard and reaching into tight spaces becomes a real problem. I constantly worried that I would drip sweat into the case as I hovered over it, glaring hot lights overhead barely allowing me to see what I was doing within the cramped confines of the case.

When all was said and done, it took me about six hours from start to finish to assemble my first PC. I plugged in the SteamBox in order to start installing the operating system. I pressed the power button… and nothing happened. I was perturbed by this complete lack of response from my system, but not nearly as panicked as I would have been as a teenager working on a similar project (probably because I bought these parts myself and my late father is no longer around to pitch a fit and scream, “Don’t touch it, you’ll break it!”). I backtraced my steps and discovered my error: As the long slog of assembling the system came to its end, I mistakenly attached the power button and reset button cables opposite of what they should have been. After a quick cable swap, I tried again and the system purred to life.

And by, ‘purred,’ I mean ‘buzzed like a swarm of bumblebees.’ Without an operating system and drivers to tell my hardware what to do, the system decided it would be awesome to push a loud, annoying sound continually through my TV’s speakers. Muted.

Installing Windows 7 is an easy process in-and-of itself. It requires only a few pieces of information from the user, but after that is able to connect to Windows Update online and grab most of the necessary drivers. Unfortunately, ‘most’ is not ‘all,’ and I still needed to install drivers for my motherboard and graphics card from the discs that came with them. Failure to find ALL of the drivers on the motherboard disc even resulted in a couple of system freezes before I figured out that I was missing a USB3 driver. After installing all of the system software, it was time to install Steam.

Steam is very easy to install on a new system. The installer is tiny and it’s possible to move the entire Steam Program Files folder from one Windows install to another, thus removing the need to redownload gigabytes of games. The Steam Cloud also effortlessly restores any existing save files it contains. Instead of redownloading “Dungeon Defenders” and “The Witcher 2” at 1.5Mbps, I was able to move them from my laptop at 3MBps. Needless to say, it was a lot faster. Unfortunately, those were the only two Steam games I had installed on my laptop, so I spent the next two weeks downloading the rest of my Steam library.

In the end, my SteamBox has had amazing performance, with only a couple of hiccups here and there (which I was able to narrow down to driver issues and eventually eliminate). My games look beautiful and run smoothly while my system remains fast, lean, and uncluttered by the normal layer of cruft and utility software that bogs down a normal Windows installation. The only ongoing ‘problem’ I have with my SteamBox is that the hard drive I bought for it is quite possibly the loudest disc drive ever built.

In the time between first assembling my SteamBox and Matt finally assembling his, Window 8 was released and became a huge temptation with its increased performance, possibly-TV-friendly Modern UI, and $60 price tag. I ended up buying a copy of Windows 8 in December 2012 and sitting on it for months, debating whether or not to install it on my SteamBox (and risk messing something up) or leaving well enough alone. I ultimately bit the bullet and upgraded. Windows 8 is a solid experience on a dedicated gaming PC, thanks mostly to the drastically reduced boot times. I thought Windows 7 booted quickly on my SteamBox before, but Windows 8 is even faster. The upgrade experience is also a piece of cake… it even helped me track down a bum driver that was causing a few rare glitches.

In building a SteamBox from scratch, without the input of Gabe Newell and his team of Linux-lovers, I was able to create a hybrid of a Windows PC and a game console that is truly representative of the current state of the PC/console singularity. My SteamBox is a game console with all the openness of a PC. My SteamBox is a gaming PC with all the simplicity of a (7th/8th Generation) game console. With an Xbox 360 controller, Xpadder, and a Razer Hydra attached to it, the SteamBox provides an unparalleled gaming experience, powered in large part by Steam and its excellent pricing model, Indie-friendly publishing, and free infrastructure (things like voicechat and Steam Community). Why anyone would want to pay Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft (well, they’re getting paid for Windows anyway) for their sub-par attempts at a similar experience is baffling. With SteamBox as a competitor, third-party games will no longer be a viable pillar for competing devices. Of course, Nintendo will always have its first-party games to stand on. Sony and Microsoft likewise must produce exclusives that will make their 8th Generation hardware a must-buy… but I don’t foresee that happening. Sony and Microsoft rely far too much on third-parties to keep their game libraries full. If Gabe Newell and Valve insist on putting Linux on their official Steamboxen, they might fall into a similar trap… but as long as the term ‘SteamBox’ refers to any open platform dedicated to running Steam, Valve will have a community of custom builders driving software sales via Windows-based Steamboxen.

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