Building My Steam Machine: A Mini-ITX Story

I made this post a while ago on Kotaku, but meant to post it on Polygon...so better late than never I guess.

Fairly recently (little over a month ago) I had the pleasure to build my own PC. You could say it fills in that gap of buying a next-gen machine, since it's almost entirely made with modern parts. As I got closer to building my computer, and watched a few builds online, I thought it would be fun to share my own experience. While I don't own an actual Steam Machine, my purpose for this PC was something similar: make something small that can blend into a living room, retain a good deal of power, boot quickly, and overall be convenient for my life.

My last PC I built around 6-7 years ago, when I was in college studying game design...so long time coming. Yes, contrary to sayings on the internet, gaming computers don't need to be replaced or upgraded every few years, and since mine cost around $800…the $1000+ myth doesn't apply either. Over this long 8 year console gen, I've only upgraded 2 things, a Samsung Blu-Ray reader for watching blu-ray movies, and a Nvidia GTX 570 GPU for faster rendering in 3d classes…while oh so conveniently maxing out the Witcher 2 (minus that crazy ubersampling). I bring those two parts up, because those are the two I'm still using in this new computer, while everything else got replaced.

Why re-use my GPU? Well, it near maxes out most AAA games still, and I might as well wait until Nvidia's 800 series next year when Witcher 3, The Division, Watchdogs, etc. hit.

Some of you may also be wondering why I said "Mini-ITX" for the headline. The answer is mini-itx refers to the motherboard type, which is what most Valve Steam Machine prototypes have within them. So much so that I recognized the exact same motherboard I'm using in one of Valve's own prototype pictures. What is the benefit of Mini-ITX? Pretty much this:

Mini-ITX motherboards are tiny!They're only about half the size of standard ones, which allows you to use much smaller cases to fit in the rest of your components. Really all you lose is some RAM slots, but you can still put in 16gb, and you lose the capacity for multiple GPUs...which is overly expensive.

Now I spent some time searching for cases, and finally landed on the Bitfenix Prodigy. Why I liked it was the nice layout that could fit any powerful GPU, has good ventilation, some nice handles to grip for traveling to LANs/friends' houses, room for my optical drive, usb 3.0 and audio/mic jacks in the front. Just for a size comparison, I took a picture with my old PS3 next to it, and sorry for the quality…only have an iphone camera:

As you can see, it's still a bit bigger, and is deeper in the back. However, it's a far cry from the large lumbering gaming towers, and I think looks fairly clean and elegant. Also, one Steam Machine at CES is just the newest iteration of this case. Now, before I get started with the actual building process, I just wanted to list the other basic components, and a short reason why I picked them to achieve my Steam Machine ideal. If you'd prefer to build your own on a budget, and want a better "bank for buck" build, skip ahead past this first part list. Bear in mind, my prices were based off taking advantage of Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales.

MY PC BUILD

  • CPU: Intel Core i7-4770k 3.5Ghz Quad-Core LGA1150 - $300 (Amazon)
  • Reason: While the i5-4670k is easily the better deal for the power you get, I wanted the hyper-threading. A few games make use of hyper-threading for better fps, useful for running multiple programs at once, and I keep hearing talk of future games making use of the virtual cores.
  • CPU Cooler: Thermalright TS-120M 53.3 CFM (Amazon) - $40
  • Reason: Well this air cooler outperformed quite a few water-cooling fans, and the heatsink is quite thin so you don't have to worry about it blocking RAM sticks of any height.
  • Motherboard: ASRock Z87E-ITX Mini ITX LGA1150 (LGA1150 is the CPU socket type) - $120 (Newegg)
  • Reason: Plenty of sata ports for hardrives, 8-pin CPU power connector for possible overclocking, analog and optical surround sound support, 6 usb ports (4 usb 3.0), wi-fi AC antenna, and the biggest differentiating reason: supports what ASRock calls Home Cloud. Home Cloud (requires Windows 8 to use) essentially lets me remotely boot and control my computer from ANY web browser on a PC, or through an app on mobile/tablet devices...basically my PC's version of remote play. So if I want to buy a game during work to play with friends when I get home. Simply boot my home rig up from my PC at work, start the download on Steam, and play the finished game right when I get home. No other mini-itx motherboards I saw but ASRock's line support this, and I hope it becomes a standard feature in the future.
  • OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit w/Disc - $100 (Amazon reseller)
  • Reason: No, I'm not crazy…and yes the Metro UI sucks. HOWEVER, installing Classic Shell brings back the beloved start menu, and negates the metro UI altogether. So now I get some of the new explorer UI benefits, and faster boot times of Windows 8, without the downsides. Here's my Desktop right now:

Feel a bit similar to Windows 7?

  • RAM: G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 16gb (2x8gb sticks) DDR3-1600mhz - $100 (Newegg)
  • Reason: Competitively fast RAM with nice timings, and Newegg's $50 discount sealed the deal.
  • Storage (main drive): Samsung 840 EVO 500GB 2.5" SSD - $300 (Amazon)
  • Reason: Samsung's drives are faster than almost anything else out there, the EVO series prices well, and they're fairly reliable from what I've read in reviews. I started out thinking I'd just get 120gb, but then it became 250gb to treat myself...and then I just said "screw it, I want to install games on this too" when Amazon shaved $60 off the 500gb.
  • Storage (secondary media drive): Western Digital WD Black 4TB 3.5" 7200RPM - $200
  • Reason: Western Digital Black drives are notoriously reliable compared to other hardrives, and that's good considering hard-disk drives are usually the thing that fails first. Amazon marked the 4TB one down to within $5 of the 3TB, so I decided why not?
  • Power Supply: Corsair CSM Series 750W Gold Certified Modular - $110 (Newegg)
  • Important Reason: While the Bitfenix Prodigy says you can fit any power supply, what they don't tell you is that buying a modular power supply that is deeper than 140mm or 5.51 inches, will bend the cables in a bad way, or just not fit. This power supply is great because it is 140mm, modular so you can connect only the cords you need, and hits 750 watts, making it future-proof for any of the highest-end components you throw at it. (Possibly overkill still, but the price difference was small)
  • Case Fan (front intake): BitFenix Spectre 97.8 CFM 230mm fan - $18 (Amazon)
  • Reason: The Bitfenix Prodigy case is designed to store this as the biggest fan in the front for intaking cool air. Completely worth it, and fairly quiet.
  • Case Fan (back exhaust): Cougar Vortex 70.5 CFM 140mm fan - $15 (Newegg)
  • Reason: The Bitfenix Prodigy comes with 2 120mm fans, but the Cougar one's are incredibly quiet without sacrificing speed, and use vibration reducing rubber screws. The back of the case fan placement supports 140mm, so I'm taking advantage of that.
  • Case Fan (top exhaust): Cougar Vortex PVM 70.5 CFM 120mm fan - $15 (Newegg)
  • Reason: The Bitfenix Prodigy case supports two 120mm or one 240mm fan on the top sections, but only one 120mm fan if you put an optical drive in. Since this is a secondary outtake fan, I chose a PVM 4-pin, which essentially means the motherboard will alternate the speed depending on the temperature inside the case.
  • Fan Cables: APEVIA CVT334 Power 3 PIN TO 4 PIN Fan Converter (3pk) - $4 Newegg
  • Important Reason: My motherboard, and most mini-itx motherboards only have 2 headers to connect your fans to, and 1 of them needs to be the CPU cooler fan. So these cables simply convert a 3-pin fan header into a molex cable, which every power supply comes with.

TOTAL(includes case): $1372

Now you're probably saying, Rathorial you hypocritical liar, your PC is clearly over $1000. Very true reader, but I'm not trying to make the best build for the money. Why? Well I'm not in college strapped for cash, and since I landed my first game design job…I've had the income to save for this. So the 500gb SSD, 4tb media drive, extra quiet fans, Windows 8.1 even though I have a Windows 7 disc, i7 CPU, and 16gb of RAM was me treating myself so that storage and speed are never an issue.

However, part of why I wanted to make this building of was to encourage/help people who thought they'd like to try making a PC to game on. So I want to present my bang for buck build, and to assist you in pricing I recommend using PCPartPicker. Basically PCPartPicker helps you organize a build, and aggregates the pricing/reviews of components from all the major sites to help you get the best stuff for the money. I used it to research parts for my own computer. Warning: These prices likely fluctuated a bit since I last posted this on Kotaku in early December.

Bang for Buck Build

  • CPU: Intel i5-4430 3.0 GHz Quad-core - $185
  • CPU Cooler: The stock cooler that comes with the CPU will suffice. If you instead want a better CPU for overclocking, I'd recommend the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO 82.9 CFM fan - $33
  • Motherboard: ASRock H81M Mini ITX LGA 1150 - $72 (still supports Home Cloud too!)
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (1x8GB) DDR3-1600 - $64 (Newegg) (you can add another 8gb stick later if you want)
  • Storage: Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5" 7200 RPM - $60
  • Power Supply: Corsair CSM Series 650W Gold Certified Modular - $100 (Newegg) If you don't see yourself getting a higher end GPU in the future, the 550W version of this line of power supplies would suffice.
  • Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 760 2GB - $250 Note - I'm not much of an AMD fan, nor knowledgeable enough to recommend something from them. Feel free to go that route if you want though, or know someone else that has a recommendation.
  • Case: BitFenix Prodigy (color up to you) Mini ITX Tower - $80 (Amazon and Newegg have marked these down to $50-60 quite often)
  • Case Fan (front intake): BitFenix Spectre 97.8 CFM 230mm fan - $18 (Amazon)
  • Bitfenix Prodigy Case comes with two 120mm fans, so use those as exhaust fans for heat.
  • Fan Cables: APEVIA CVT334 Power 3 PIN TO 4 PIN Fan Converter (3pk) - $4 Newegg (yes you still need these)

TOTAL: $833

Of course, the OS is left out, but I'm not sure if you guys/gals have a Windows 7 product key you can re-use, or would just prefer getting Windows 7 to 8. Upgrade versions of Windows are cheaper as well, and resellers/ebay are offering major low prices on both full/upgrade discs/codes (I've seen them as low as $30). Also, if you'd like SDD-Lite speed in your hardrive, look into the Seagate 1TB hybrid drive ($97). If you want an optical drive, the $15 Lite-ON DVD/CD Writer fills that need nicely, otherwise just boot windows off a usb thumb drive. Also for your convenience, I've linked this build on PCPartPicker to give you an example, and included my extra options which you can deduct if not needed.

THE BUILDING Process

(those who don't have time to read or care, feel free to skip to the conclusion where I wrap up what my built machine can do):

Ok, now we're at the "fun" part, where we put all this stuff together. Yes, "we"! I'm here to take you on journey after all, my fellow gamer brethren. Instead of going too tech manual on all you guys, I'm going to give the gist of how I organize making a computer, and some light generalized tips. All the other minor details you will find your motherboard and PC case manuals can cover…but for something sexier, this build video, from the same guys who built, Jeff Gertsmann's (of Giant Bomb fame) PC, should help. Now our tale begins!

Step 1: Open the case. (See, I'm easing you into it, right?)

Step 2: Now to fit that long GPU I've been talking about, along with more room for cables, we need to remove that additional hardrive rack...also who really needs 6 3.5 inch hardrives?

Now for convenience, I prefer to install the case fans first. Ideally we want airflow to go like this:

Blue arrows indicate the intake of cool air, and red arrows indicate the exhaust of hot air.

Step 3: In order to put in the front fan, we're going to need to unscrew that bottom cage. To do that, I tipped the case over, and unscrewed the 6 screws for the cage (very easy to put back on), and remove the front face-plate. Then I simply set up the fan vertically, and line up the holes in the front for the 4 screws to go in.

To tell which side the fan should be facing the case for intake and exhaust, I always follow this:

The side with the logo and connecting plastic indicates the exhaust side, which needs to face against the case to exhaust. Since my case fan is intaking cool air from the outside, flip it over.

Step 4: Install back and top exhaust fans.

Back Fan:

Top Fan:

Step 5: Because the SSD is a smaller drive, and I don't want to take up the two 3.5 inch cages below, I chose to install it on the compartments on the left door itself. Bizarrely, this case has screw holes that can support about 8 SSDs…because you know…reasons.

Step 6: Now, I originally had my 4tb media drive facing this way shown in the pic, but as you can see with the stretched sata cord going across...it would be easier to have both their connectors on the same side, so I flipped the 3.5 inch drive around. It's really easy to do, as the cage is designed to go either direction.

Step 7: Now here's the ugly, but important step. We want to connect all the cables we'll need to the power supply, and then just pick the directions that best manage where these cables come out of in the case. This is important, because you want to say to yourself:"Ok, what cables do I want to come out of this side, and how do I want to arrange them so they don't get in the way or block anything." Also, it's a pain the ass to fit your hands back there, so better to connect everything before screwing it in.

Step 8: First thing, make sure the power supply fan is pointed down, as we don't want to shoot heat on the motherboard above, and the case bottom is suspended from the ground to allow exhaust down. Now I screw in the bracket that holds the power supply inside the case. Face it in the direction that fits the holes of your power supply.

Step 9: The motherboard is next, and I handle this part delicately. First we should put in the I/O shield, or that metal thing that has the shape of the ports on the back of the motherboard. When the motherboard is put through it, it will look like this:


This next pic is the back of a Steam Machine…see the resemblance?

However, we don't want to put the motherboard in yet, better to install the CPU and the CPU cooler first. We'll be doing that next.

Step 10: Ok, this is an area I skipped showing a picture, and that involves sticking in the CPU, and installing the CPU cooler. Why? Well, the instruction manual for your motherboard will better illustrate the direction you put the CPU in, and really that's the only important part about installing a CPU. Once you've found the right direction, just set the CPU you down to match the shape of the socket, and they'll be a lock to keep it in place on the motherboard itself.

Step 11: The CPU cooler…this step I just looked in the manual for the CPU cooler. Much more useful diagrams than I can post, and just good to make sure I did it right (took 5 mins). The CPU cooler comes with thermal paste, which you apply on top of the cpu, and do a light coat over it. I however, re-used some Artic Silver thermal compound, and locked the bracket for the CPU cooler down. Also put the RAM in, which just involves lining up the bottom connectors to the slot (takes 10 seconds).

This is the part where I like to stand back, and admire the beauty of what I've assembled so far. While it involves more work than buying a PS4, building something myself gives me a greater sense of ownership…not unlike people who assemble/restore cars I imagine.

Step 12: This is the step that takes some time, because I am going to be connecting cables, and doing cable management so nothing gets in the way.

So I'll be connecting:

  • SATA data and power cables to the 2 hardrives and my optical drive.
  • Connecting the power cables to my motherboard and CPU, which are the big braided fatty ones.
  • Then we hook up the usb header and audio cable for the left side of the case that has the power button.

I press the power button to see if the power supply boots up, just in case I need to order another. While it still looks a bit messy, none of these cables are colliding with parts that get hot, or blocking much in terms of airflow.

Step 13: Now here we plug in the last component, my old video card. I did some cable management before this, because I need to make sure nothing blocks or touches this, and because the video card will block my hands from getting back there. Before pressing it down on the PCI express port to connect it to the motherboard, I plug in the 2 black power cables shown.

Your GPU will take up the most wattage of power over any other single component.

Conclusion: Now we're done assembling, I hook up my mouse/keyboard, and prepare to install Windows. Within a few seconds I see the bios screen indicator, which means no returns to Amazon!

Now my computer restarts, and it gives me a "press any key to use this disc" message in DOS-ish text. Ok now I see the windows logo, I click next a few times, pick my SSD as the main drive windows will be installed on, and then wait. Last time I did this with windows 7, it took about an hour or more…hard to remember since I just made something to eat and watched TV. However, SSDs are amazing, and Windows 8 a bit more efficiently coded…so it only took 7-9 mins.

What's even more beautiful was stop-watching my boot up. On my 6 year old PC, it took about 5-10 minutes just to boot, and load up startup programs to the point I can start messing with it. This computer…no lies…booted in 5-6 seconds, and was ready to use. This is the biggest endorsement I can make for SSDs: they make your life better, they can make your PC boot faster than the next-gen consoles, and all your other basic programs benefit from it.

Of course I couldn't finish this without testing games. I'm not expecting better frame-rate in most titles, since they're often heavily GPU-based. Tomb Raider performed only a bit better…but wait!

A friend of mine asks me to co-op some Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2, and to my amazement my average FPS went from 35 to 88!

Well…safe to say my new CPU and RAM paid for themselves there. Gotta love those CPU-hungry strategy games! All in all, I'm very happy to have a fresh new machine to greet the next-gen, and one that is a step up in multiple areas, from raw power to sheer conveniences.

If you have any questions about making your own small-ish computer, or just want to chat, feel free to comment. While I find that the PC is my preferred platform, that still doesn't call for master race nonsense. Instead I'd love to talk about people interested in getting into PC gaming, or anything about this next generation.

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