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A Tale of Two SteamBoxen: Episode 2

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By Matt - 02/23/13 at 03:26 PM CT

Months ago MeltedJoystick Editor Nelson and I determined to build our own SteamBoxes. We had discovered the joys of Steam and had been playing games like “Dungeon Defenders” for countless hours, Nelson on his aging laptop and me on my 2010 Mac Pro, obviously with Windows installed. Steam made us feel like it had the potential to be a hit in the living room connected to a large HDTV. Playing from my couch has always been my natural place for gaming, so the lure of a SteamBox was appealing. Also there were many rumors at the time, which have now been confirmed, that Steam was prepping their own SteamBox to break into the living room and take on the traditional console giants. For all of these reasons Nelson and I took the plunge and built our very own SteamBoxen. Nelson assembled his in August of last year and you can read about in part one of this tale, and I finally built my system in January of 2013.

After much consideration I wanted my system to have two functions: 1) a gaming SteamBox, and 2) a Home Theatre PC (HTPC). Obviously I wanted to enjoy PC games from my couch hence the SteamBox part, but I also wanted my wife and kids to enjoy easy access to our entire movie collection and online video. My family has enjoyed Netflix instant streaming from our PS3 for years, but I thought it would be great to integrate everything into one multi-purpose system. I have always been looking for a system that plays great games and is an excellent media center that gives me access to all my media and online content. Sony's solution in the PS3 never completely fit, and I was never interested in the Xbox 360, plus my Wii was crippled by its standard definition limitations. So building my own system that integrated an excellent gaming platform with HTPC capabilities was a logical conclusion. Here is what I decided on:

Processor: Intel Core i5 3470 Ivy Bridge 3.2Ghz: $185
For me the processor is the first decision to make. It determines the potential outcome for many of the other components, and I really wanted to make the best choice for my needs. It is quite beneficial to always keep in mind the desired purpose of your system when choosing parts. For me I didn't want to break the bank with the highest end Core i7 processor, but at the same time I wanted to have the best performance per dollar for a gaming/HTPC system. I almost, almost, decided on one of the latest AMD processors, the eight-core FX-8350, and I really wanted to pull the trigger, but all the benchmarks and wisdom of the Internets turned my attention to Intel. Maybe it was my nature to try to help out the struggling underdog that caused me to consider AMD, but eventually I was swayed by the performance and efficiency of Intel's Core series. In my copious amounts of research, at least that's what it felt like, I stumbled upon Scott Wasson's excellent comparison of processors in gaming situations, and at the end of his article there is handy graph that plots performance vs. price of CPUs, and did I mention it was in a gaming context? This was the perfect resource to help me make the decision. AMD was out and the Core i5 3470 was in.

Motherboard: ASRock H77M: $70
This motherboard supports both the Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge family of processors, and it is a Micro ATX form factor with enough of the latest connectors (SATA 6Gb/s and USB3) to make me happy. Now, the form factor was actually a hard decision for me to make. Do I go with a regular ATX (big), Micro ATX (medium), or Mini-ITX (small) board? Eventually I decided on the Micro ATX, even though the case that I bought supported full ATX motherboards. It really came down to flexibility. Since the SteamBox/HTPC is sitting somewhere close to my TV, size really does matter. And, if I find a Micro ATX case that better fits my desire for a compact system, then I can change my case. Having an ATX motherboard would really limit my options, hence the Micro ATX form factor.

The next big decision was what chipset? H77 or Z77? Ultimately I decided to go with an Intel H77 chipset instead of the Z77. Really the reasons for the decision were 1) price and 2) overclocking my system doesn't interest me, and 3) having multiple graphics cards in SLI or Crossfire wasn't my initial goal of creating a SteamBox/HTPC. The Z77 boards excel at those three things and I felt that I could shave off some dollars to spend elsewhere by going with the H77 board. The myriad of variables for just choosing a motherboard could be daunting to the novice system builder, but the resources available to help you choose are just as many and quite excellent. For chipsets this website helped me understand the differences, while I also frequented sites like pcper.com and anandtech.com to help in the decision process.

Memory: PNY XLR8 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3: $35
8 GB or 16 GB? I decided on 8GB because the price was right and I wasn't going to be using my system for extreme RAM intensive applications like photo or video manipulation. It seems like 8GB is now the golden standard, so I went with it. Plus, I could shave off a few dollars with the RAM to splurge on other things to meet the budget of a $1000 PC. After a month of use, I have never been hindered by not having 16GB.

Graphics Card: MSI (AMD) R7850 Twin Frozr w/2GB VRAM: $200
Competition in the marketplace can be good at times, and I definitely benefited from it. I bought a graphics card right in the middle of AMD and nVidia fiercely competing for customers. The current generation of cards have been out for a while and then, it seemed, AMD was racing to cut prices to lure customers away from the generally better performing GTX 600 series cards. I spent a lot of time pouring over benchmarks and felt that the AMD Radeon 7850 was the best for my budget. I wanted to keep the price of the GPU around $200 which led me to the 7850. I almost chose the nVidia GeForce GTX 660 which generally out performed the 7850 in all categories, but it was selling for $240 at the time of my purchase, so I went with the cheaper 7850 (now you can get a GTX 660 for $210 with rebates, a better deal in my opinion). Plus the Radeon 7850 performed well enough in all the benchmarks of games that I wanted to play on my SteamBox (“Skyrim,” “Starcraft II,” “Borderlands”).

Boot Drive: Crucial 256 GB m4 2.5 SATA 6Gb/s: $165
I am an SSD convert. For the longest time, I thought that the price per GB of SSDs didn't justify a purchase, but recently the price has come down to under $1 per gigabyte. I found my SSD on Amazon for 64 cents per gigabyte, and for that price the performance boost is definitely worth it. If you haven't experienced the blazing speeds of SSD before I highly suggest that you consider upgrading your system. Often the read and write speed of traditional spindle-based hard drives can be a performance bottleneck for a system, but now with SSDs it is eliminated. For gaming and HTPC use, I see a difference in launch times for games and applications, plus an overall boost in Windows 8 "snappiness," let alone a boot time of mere seconds.

Data Storage Drive: 2 TB Western Digital Green 3.5 HDD: $105
Since the SSD is somewhat limited on space (256 GB), I wanted a spindle drive to store all of my media for the HTPC part of my setup. I purposely bought a big enough SSD to install plenty of games and applications on it, and a multi-terabyte to house all of my DVD and Blu-Ray rips.

Optical Drive: LITE-ON 4x Blu-Ray Reader: $30
The Blu-Ray drive was necessary for me because of wanting to play the family Blu-Ray collection on the HTPC, so I went with the cheapest player that I could find. Eventually I want to set up my system to rip Blu-Ray discs, which right now is delegated to a different machine, another benefit of having a Blu-Ray reader. The drive, in my mind, was one step closer to having a unified gaming rig and HTPC.

Power Supply: Corsair CX600 600W 80 Plus Bronze: $70
With the power supply familiarity with brand name was the ultimate deciding factor. I didn't want a crappy part supplying the juice to all my expensive components, so I went with a name that I knew and had a good reputation: Corsair. Most of my time was spent on figuring out how much wattage I needed. I turned to newegg.com's power supply calculator for guidance. It turned out that 600 watts was plenty for my needs.

Case: Silverstone Tek GD07B Aluminum Extended ATX HTPC Case: $139
I splurged on the case. I could have gotten by with a $70 nMEDIAPC case to save some bucks, but the aesthetics of the Silverstone case swayed me. I know, I could have saved more cash on the case to be well under budget, but aesthetics are important to me, and the Silverstone case fit the bill. Overall the case is great. It has plenty of room to accommodate all my components plus room to grow by adding extra drives or expansion cards. The only caveat is that with any HTPC case cable management I can be a little hairy. The Silverstone GD07B has more room than most HTPC cases, but still it was a challenge at times to negotiate all the cables to make it fit. But in the end it all worked out fine.

Random NewEgg Discounts and Rebates: -$25
The rebates and discounts for my system were quite sparse. The i5 3470 had a $15 dollar promo code to lower the price to $185 from $200, and I sent in a $10 mail-in-rebate for the Corsair power supply.

Subtotal: $998

Operating System: Windows 8 Pro: $60
From the beginning I wanted to try out Windows 8 on the SteamBox/HTPC. For some reason, I felt that the Modern (formerly-known-as-Metro) tiled interface of Windows 8 would be a natural fit for a HDTV. After purchasing the Windows 8 Pro disc, I realized that I bought an upgrade media disc. I have numerous licenses various Microsoft operating systems (XP, Vista and Windows 7), but none of them were installed on my SteamBox hardware, so the activation process of Windows 8 required a little registry hack. All said and done, it was an easy process to get Windows 8 on my system and activated.

My initial opinion of Windows 8 on a HDTV is quite positive, minus a few annoyances. The tiled interface is elegant and well suited for the large screen. That being said, I wish that Microsoft would bake remote control navigation into the OS, making it easier to navigate the tiles with something other than a mouse or touch. Also, it would be brilliant if Microsoft would have also unpackaged more of its Media Center application and integrated it, or at least the option of it, into the new Modern Start screen. Having more access to media files and live TV through tile applications would make Windows 8 the absolute best HTPC experience. I also wish that Steam would release a native Windows 8 app that takes advantage of the tiled interface, but we all know what Gabe Newell unfortunately thinks about Windows 8. Overall, the OS shows a lot of promise for a SteamBox/HTPC.

I couldn't resist: New Case Fans: $128
After the joy of contorting my hands and fingers in ways unthinkable to get all of the pieces of the puzzle connected and operable in my case, I quickly became unsatisfied, after a week of use, with the noise levels of the stock case fans and the stock CPU cooler. Since my system is in the living room next to the TV, I wanted it to be whisper quiet, and as quiet as possible even under a load. So I decided after being annoyed for a week to upgrade my fans, which was probably one of the best unnecessary decisions I made for my build. Noctua fan products looked to me like some the best products for quiet operation and the ability to efficiently cool a case and CPU. I replaced my three intake 120mm case fans with Noctua NF-S12B fans, and my CPU cooler with a Noctua NH-U9B CPU heat sink. I made sure that the new CPU cooler would fit in my case and didn't look back. I also added two 80mm Noctua NF-R8 fans to the system for exhaust. The upgraded fans were well worth the price, and now the system is much quieter than before.

All the parts for the SteamBox/HTPC arrived within a few days of ordering and I set out one evening during the week to assemble my new creation. The process was very straight forward and after reading and rereading the manuals praying for divine intervention to decipher the archaic runes - companies really do need to invest in people who can pen an effective instruction manual - I had my SteamBox/HTPC... after about 6 hours. The next task was to install Windows 8 and find all of the drivers to make everything play nicely.

Windows 8 installed like a breeze and the registry hack made it all agreeable. Drivers were the next step. The process of installing/making-sure-the-right-one-is-installed is not particularly arduous, but it takes too damn long to do. I found that for most of my hardware, except the AMD drivers, there weren't any handy driver update applications from manufacturers that would make sure you had the right up-to-date driver installed for your system. That would have made my life easier. Instead, I had to download all the individual drivers for my motherboard (I think that there were at least 8 of them) and manually update the driver in Device Manager. But, after a little grunt work the task was finished without any major complications.

Once the system was up and running I proceeded to download my favorite applications along with Steam. For input from my couch, I purchased a Logitech k400 wireless keyboard with a touchpad and a Microsoft Xbox 320 Wireless controller for Windows. In tandem the two input devices work quite well. Steam in Big Picture Mode plays well with the Xbox 360 controller and the touchpad on the Logitech keyboard is an adequate way of navigating Windows 8. My next task, when I get the time to tinker with it, is setting up my Logitech Harmony One remote to control my system.

For the HTPC part of my new build I have been using XBMC to manage and play back all of my media. There is a bit of a learning curve to set up XBMC, but there are plenty of guides out there to help. I am also quite intrigued by XBMCs new Personal Video Recorder feature. If I install a TV tuner on my HTPC, I can now set XBMC up to watch and record broadcast television, another bonus for using XBMC. I know what you’re thinking: That's built into Windows Media Center. It is, and Windows Media center is easier to set up, but Windows Media center can't handle all the file types that I need it to, particularly .mkv, so XBMC is my choice.

Overall I am quite happy with my SteamBox/HTPC. It still needs some tweaking here and there to make it easier to use, but it has fulfilled all my gaming and media consumption needs. I look forward to the future assault on the living room by both Microsoft and Steam, both companies I feel can contribute to excellent solutions. Now Gabe Newell just needs to be convinced that Windows 8 isn't that bad and that Steam should make a native Windows 8 client.

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View Chris's Profile

Chris

Wrote on02/24/13 at 01:16 PM CT

There is pretty much certainty that after I've wringed all I can out of the PS3, this will be my next game system. It won't be immediate, but it will happen. I'll have to start saving my monies.

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