Can we build an affordable, powerful loungeroom sized small factor gaming PC for under $600?
By James Pinnell on September 12, 2012 at 4:12 pm
The news that Valve skipped making the box and went straight to the software was welcome for most of us — GabeN’s development periods are long enough without having to wait for him and his team to put together some hardware. Early impressions of the “beta” have been favourable, the UI has been scaled well for large flat-screens and there has been a lot of innovation in regards to controller based keyboard input. Sure, we’re all hoping that support for the 360′s keypad is incoming, but the “lotus flower” should suffice for the basic amount of typing you’ll need when playing controller appropriate games on your TV.
But the problem lies in the simple fact that most of us probably don’t have our gaming PC anywhere near our TV. The lounge room vs study division has always been the physical implementation of the PC vs Console war in past years, although the introduction of HTPCs with small form factors has made gaming on PCs a little more realistic. Originally, technological restrictions prevented full featured motherboards, graphic cards and large hard drives from fitting in small spaces, alongside concerns regarding heat and noise. This is no longer the case, as the introduction of the ITX specification allowed for much more compact hardware that supported existing hardware options.
But the fact remains — most of our systems are abhorrently large, chock full of multiple hard drives, enormous PSUs, giant graphics cards stuffed inside solid aluminum cases. Generally, its also unlikely there’s a place on your TV cabinet for it to sit, and even if there was, do you really want to be trafficking it around just so you can play Sleeping Dogs on your 55-inch Samsung? Neither do I. So I did a bit of digging and set myself a challenge – can I build a decent Steam Box for less than $600, that will meet the following requirements?
- Fast enough to run the latest games
- Quiet enough to placate your partner
- Small enough to sit near your TV
- Plus the proper outputs/inputs for easy configuration
- Without breaking the bank?
Note: this is not a product review, but more of a challenge on putting together a compact, gaming computer at a reasonable price. All of these components have a plethora of reviews available online, so if you would like more detailed info (benchmarks and comparison), a quick Google search for the part in question will bring up that information.
I did not include any software in this challenge, since I assume you own Windows already. Additionally, this system would also work fine with Steam Linux when it eventually releases. All prices were taken from my local Umart store, which has a good reputation and exists as a reliable price benchmark. I’ve also omitted an optical drive to shave costs, especially since almost everyone has one lying around.
BitFenix PRODIGY-WH Mini-ITX case (White) – $86.50
The Prodigy isn’t the smallest case in the world, but it’s easily one of the best ITX cases on the market, confirmed by our friends at Atomic. Most micro-ITX cases struggle with heat dissipation, due to the fact most of them are basically metal cubes with vents. Running a modern graphics card with enough power to satisfy demand generates a *lot* of heat, especially when the settings are ramped up. Even with fans, confined heat will have issues venting if everything is too tightly packed.
The main advantage with the Prodigy is the fact that the HDD enclosure can be completely removed, which frees up space for wires and air circulation, especially since we are planning to use a single SSD which can be either placed inside a separate caddy or attached to the top flat mounting surface. The case has also been designed to support water cooling (which is almost unheard of in ITX cases) and supports two 120mm fans on top which is more than enough for our needs. The PSU slot supports a standard ATX spec, and is sealed off from the rest of the case.
At 250 x 404 x 359mm, it’s roughly the size of a small parcel, meaning that while it’s better than your average NAS, it’s only a little fatter than your average X360 or PS3. Plus, the design it looks good and the built in handles mean easy movement if you feel like taking it on the road. Most importantly, support for larger graphics cards has been provided, thus the motherboard bay is a little bit wider than most ITX cases.
Thermaltake Litepower 500W ATX PSU – $44
There’s not too much to say with this one – The Litepower has been optimized for quiet performance, making it perfect for use in an environment where background noise is a problem. It’s also easy on power consumption for its wattage, although there’s enough power there if you decide to upgrade the graphics card at a later date or add more hard drive capacity.
GSkill 8G(2x4G) DDR3 1333 PC10600 -$41.50
I’ve been using GSkill RAM since it debuted in Australia a few years ago and have been impressed with not only its quality and reliability, but its performance. At the price, it’s a no brainer. If overclocking is your bag, the timings and speed can be changed manually, and it’s recommended if you’re a tweaker.
Gigabyte GA-H61N-USB3 - $87
The selection available for ITX motherboards is small but growing rapidly, with most offering an impressive amount of features for the price. This LGA1155 Gigabyte is easily one of the best sub-$100 motherboards available. We’ve got Sandy Bridge support, 2x DDR3 slots, 1 PCIE x16 slot, 6 USB Back Panel connectors including 2 USB3, eSata, Gigabit LAN, Dual Bios and so forth. On top of this, there is full driver support for Windows 8 (if that’s your bag) and it’s squished into this ridiculously tiny package, making my now aging and comparatively gigantic motherboard look just plain antiquated.
Intel Core i3 2120 3.30Ghz – $123
I struggled a bit when deciding between the i3 and i5 processors, but after checking out a few benchmarks I just wasn’t convinced the extra cost and heat generation were worth it. The 2120 is structurally similar to older models (dual core), it now utilizes Sandy Bridge microarchitecture, and is slightly faster than its Clarkdale/Arrandale predecessors due to the 2x multiplier difference. SB also provides a much larger energy efficiency gain, alongside standard processing improvements. Although it’s (sadly) missing Turbo Boost, there are still the second iterations of Hyper Threading alongside on-board graphics processing, memory controller and a Lvl 3 cache.
Frankly, nothing by AMD in this price range comes even close to a SB core processor (outside of graphics performance, which is irrelevant as we have opted for standalone video), and even if they did, heat has still been noted as an important issue with the latest generation of AMD processors. At stock speeds, the i3 is more than capable to taking on any modern game, HD video or other task you might decide to throw at it.
OCZ Agility 3 120G SATA3 SSD – $89 OR Seagate SATA3 1TB 7200RPM 64mb Cache $79.50
There are good arguments for and against using a traditional drive or an SSD in this scenario.
I know many of you saw the size and instantly wrote it off as a bad choice, but bear with me. My Steam cache is roughly 600gb, although most of that are titles that I rarely play, if ever. My suggestion would be to use your Steam Box for frequently used titles, since its unlikely you are playing more than 2 or 3 at a time. Simply transfer the cache files from your main PC’s drive to your Steam Box (or download them) when you want to play something new.
Not only are solid state drives dead quiet, ultra quick and generate basically zero heat, but they are tiny. In a small form factor space, heat and noise are the prime concerns, since they are all amplified thanks to the size. Anything that can be utilized to reduce this impact should be heavily weighted, but its just a shame that prices are taking such a long time to fall.
A traditional drive would not necessarily be a terrible addition to the system, but the extra heat, size and noise are something to consider. Space will no longer be a problem however, so its up to you how you feel data management will impact. If your main PC is connected by wireless, it might be worth going with a traditional drive since any large scale data transfers will probably take far too long anyway.
The performance of both drives are some of the best in their classes, and almost certainly for the price.
Gigabyte ATI HD 7770 OC Edition - $123
This was a very, very tough decision that came down squarely on price. Making an affordable second PC for this purpose means making a fairly large amount of sacrifices in certain areas, and most of them come down to graphics, since its easily the most expensive part of a build. The 7770 is by no means a powerhouse of graphical performance, but it’s easily the best sub $150 card available, and has a drastically lower power consumption to performance ratio to its competitor, the almost impossible to buy GeForce GTX 560 SE.
It provides admirable HD games performance in almost all modern titles, running the large majority of them on high at a respectable FPS, and has been noted to run quietly thanks to the aforementioned low power use (and subsequently less heat output). Plus HDMI, most importantly, meeting the easy configuration requirement, and being ATI, there are drivers available for both Windows 7, 8 and Linux in future.
The 7770 is also a lot more compact and isn’t as thick as more powerful cards, meaning it will sit nice and neat inside our case. Perfect.
Total Cost: $594 (with SSD) or $584 (with IDE)
Building your own Steam Box will always be more expensive than purchasing an off the shelf console, due to the demanding nature of gaming on top of an operating system. But I hope this challenge has shown that, with a bit of creative sacrifice, getting PC gaming to your TV is not only possible but also reasonably affordable. I’m also keen to hear any suggestions, comments, changes or criticisms from you guys, or if anyone else is planning to build their own in light of Big Picture.