How to Build the Best Living Room Gaming PC
Prepare for PC gaming on your TV! (modified from photo by Paintzen)
Last updated: December 2018
A PC is the gaming solution for a massive number of people in today's world, and a living room gaming PC is a way of bringing the greatness of PC gaming to a comfortable space usually controlled by video game consoles. A living room gaming PC (which is sometimes called a Steam machine, when it is hooked up with Steam's own operating system) grants you the capability to play your favourite PC games from your couch, with the games displayed in full glory on a television. Many users then take advantage of Valve's various offerings (their operating system and/or their Steam Big Picture mode) for a straightforward and convenient interface with Steam that is controller-friendly.
Basically, this kind of PC is a small computer that acts like a console—a really awesome, high-resolution console that you can customize, upgrade, and use to play the wide variety of games that the PC world has to offer.
This guide will show you how to build your very own living room gaming PC. By building your own PC instead of buying a prebuilt PC or console, you’ll get better performance for the money, higher-quality and better-balanced components, and the maximum amount of customizability so you can tailor the machine precisely to your needs and desires.
While there's no rule that dictates how large or small a living room gaming PC or Steam machine should be, we're going to make this extra-fun and maximally versatile by trying to keep our example builds roughly the same size as game consoles. We also want them to be good-looking, since they're likely going to be on display in your living room.
In Section 1, we’ll review a number of example living room gaming PC or Steam machine builds.
In Section 3, we'll provide info on how to do living room PC gaming with an existing desktop computer.
First, let's quickly discuss the operating system (OS), as it may influence the hardware you choose.
Choosing an OS for a Living Room Gaming PC
Every PC you build needs an operating system, and each operating system has its pros and cons. For PC gaming in your living room, you have the choice between Windows, SteamOS, or another Linux-based operating system. Let's quickly discuss each, because you'll want to decide on an OS before you start building your system.
Pros: Free, built for gaming
Cons: Limited game library, lacking features for desktop use
SteamOS is a free Debian-based Linux distribution. By default, SteamOS installs Steam, and boots into Steam's TV-friendly “Big Picture Mode” interface on startup. SteamOS also ships with a few tweaks, including proprietary drivers to improve game performance.
Ironically, the greatest drawback of SteamOS is the limited game library. Because the OS is based on Linux, you will only have access to the Linux game library. However, you can still stream Windows games from another desktop to your Steam Machine running SteamOS (detailed at additional length in section two, section three, and section five). It’s also possible to use SteamOS as a normal desktop, but it’s a bit feature-barren, and really only suitable for playing games through Steam.
Linux-based operating systems (Ubuntu recommended)
Pros: Free, well-rounded desktop features
Cons: Limited game library, less gaming support
If you want a more rounded desktop experience—such as something including media center functionality—you might consider using a regular distribution of Linux. Operating systems such as Ubuntu are capable of running Steam, amongst other applications. However, Ubuntu does not include the tweaks Valve has made to improve gaming performance.
Note that with a Linux-based OS, you’ll need to install proprietary drivers manually, which can be a little tricky and will likely require some Google research. This option takes some extra leg work, because the drivers that Linux distributions usually ship with aren’t suited for playing games. That said, this is the cheapest way to get a broadly useful and reliable desktop-style operating system.
Pros: Full game library, full desktop features
Cons: Costs money, may include ads
While SteamOS and Linux are free, Windows costs money. But you do get a few benefits for the price: you can easily download and configure drivers; you get access to a full, intuitive desktop; and you will have by far the biggest library of compatible games.
If you’re a gamer who values choices, then that third point will likely be the singular deciding factor for you.
How Do You Decide?
In our opinion, Windows is the best option for a living room gaming PC, as it gives you access to the most games, and almost always provides the best performance possible for any given game.
Ultimately, this decision comes down to what kind of games you want to play on your Steam Machine, and how much money you're willing to invest in it. Do you want to play a wide variety of games directly on the Steam Machine, or are you happy to stream to the Steam Machine from your desktop PC? Are you perfectly content with the Linux game library, or do you find the nonexistent price of a Linux-based OS too enticing to pass up?
If you do decide to go with a free OS, we recommend using SteamOS for a living room gaming PC over other distributions, simply because it will require a lot less hassle to set up.
Section 1: Example Living Room Gaming PC Builds
This section presents four example Steam Machines, which represent a range of budgets and needs. Following this section, we'll explain how to get these PCs set up as Steam Machines.
Mini-ITX for the Living Room
All of our Steam machine and other living room PC build recommendations below use Mini-ITX cases and components, meaning the machines will be much more compact and portable than your average computer. The cases, motherboards, and sometimes power supplies are smaller than you will find with a normal desktop PC. Some of these components are more expensive in smaller sizes, while others may be a little cheaper.
Overall, the prices are likely to balance out, making the primary benefits the space savings and the looks, and the primary detriments the more finnicky build process and the more limited cooling capabilities.
Now let's get to the builds!
The Budget Living Room Gaming PC ($550)
This is a pretty modest gaming machine, taking advantage of relatively impressive integrated graphics performance on its CPU. It will be able to run a majority of games on SteamOS, and it should run many graphically intense games on medium settings. The pricing on this machine makes it financially competitive with the current generation of consoles.
Graphics Card: Integrated (Vega 11)
CPU: AMD Ryzen 5 2400G
CPU Cooler: Stock
Motherboard: ASRock AB350 Gaming-ITX
RAM: 8GB DDR4-2800
Storage: 1TB Seagate HDD
Power Supply: Corsair SF450
Case: SilverStone SG05-LITE
Operating System: SteamOS
The Console Killer Living Room Gaming PC ($800)
So, the budget build isn’t overwhelmingly living-room-friendly. It’s kind of big, despite not packing in all that much power. But now we have something to build on, and can start to explore the more powerful options. This build will fit a little more snuggly in your lounge, and have a bit of extra power behind it for playing those beefier games. This is a much more elegant build, and really begins to resemble the ideal of a living room gaming PC (or a Steam machine).
We’re not quite in the zone where we can justify requiring a Windows license. However, this build will manage to play some of the most demanding games available or upcoming on SteamOS and other Linux-based systems. Of course, you can always install Windows on this thing, if the larger game library justifies the cost of the OS.
Graphics Card: MSI GTX 1050 Ti
CPU: AMD Ryzen 5 1500X
CPU Cooler: Stock
Motherboard: ASRock X370 Gaming-ITX
RAM: 8GB DDR4-2800
Storage: 1TB Seagate HDD
Power Supply: Corsair SF450
Case: SilverStone ML07B
Operating System: SteamOS (or Windows)
The Powerful Living Room Gaming PC ($1250)
So you really need to play Witcher 3 on high settings at 1080p from your couch? This will do it.
While SteamOS is nice, this machine has enough power behind it to definitely justify going that one step further and paying for Windows. Just set up Steam to launch automatically into Big Picture Mode. You’ll have a much bigger library of games, and this hardware will make good use of them.
Graphics Card: Zotac GTX 1060 6GB
CPU: Intel i5-9600K
CPU Cooler: CryoRig C7
Motherboard: MSI MPG Z390I Gaming Edge
RAM: 16GB DDR4-2800
Storage 1: 256GB Western Digital M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB Seagate HDD
Power Supply: Seasonic S12II 620
Case: SilverStone RVZ03B
Operating System: Windows
The Ultimate Living Room Gaming PC ($1850)
You can use this beast to play brand new PC games on a 4K TV, and it still fits in a Mini-ITX case.
This is simply a tremendous amount of power in a console-sized package.
Graphics Card: Gigabyte RTX 2070
CPU: Intel i9-9900K
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D9L
Motherboard: Asus ROG Strix Z390-I Gaming
RAM: 16GB DDR4-2800
Storage 1: 256GB Western Digital M.2 SSD
Storage 2: 2TB Seagate HDD
Power Supply: SilverStone SFX 800
Case: BitFenix Portal
Operating System: Windows
Big Picture Mode gives your PC a console-like interface.
Section 2: How to Make a Steam Machine
A Steam Machine is a particular kind of specialized living room gaming PC, that makes use of software released by Valve to get the PC functioning in a similar way to a console.
Why Build a Steam Machine?
If you wanted a Playstation 4, you would’ve bought one, right? You’re probably reading this guide because you know that consoles severely lack customizability, and they’re also not powerful enough to play the latest games smoothly at maximum detail, and modding games on them is considerably harder when it's even possible, and you're completely limited to the exclusives of that particular console family (and often also that console generation), and . . . well, you get the idea.
With a living room gaming PC functioning as a Steam Machine, however, you get the same benefits of customization as you would with any conventional PC (meaning you can make it as powerful as you want or can afford), while also retaining the several benefits that consoles do have (including intuitive TV/controller interfaces, minimal menu navigation to access games on startup, and—in the case of using SteamOS—a reasonable expectation of straightforward compatibility for any games that can be accessed on the platform).
All of the games available on Steam are playable with a Steam Machine, as long as those games are also available on your operating system of choice (we’ll get to operating systems shortly). You also have the possibility of streaming games from another desktop in your house to your Steam Machine in your living room (a feature also possible with a couple of dedicated streaming devices detailed in section three, below).
How Does a Computer Become a Steam Machine?
You can turn any computer into a Steam Machine. It’s pretty easy.
All you have to do is install a Steam-compatible operating system, such as Windows, SteamOS, or a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu. Make sure you have the operating system configured correctly, including drivers, updates, and any software you might need.
In Steam’s Preferences menu, you select the “Interface” sub-category, and select “Run Steam when my computer starts” and “Start Steam in Big Picture Mode” (as shown in the screenshot below). Ta-da! When you boot your computer, it’ll launch Steam automatically with the controller-friendly interface.
The Interface menu within Steam's Settings.
How to Install Your Operating System
You’ll need to put the OS on some sort of external media, such as a USB drive or a DVD. If you get it on a USB drive, you can leave out the DVD or Bluray player when selecting components.
You can download Windows directly from Microsoft, although you will need to buy a license key to activate it during the installation process.
Alternatively, you can download SteamOS from Valve’s website for free, or any Linux distribution from their respective websites.
Regardless of which operating system you decide to use, make sure you download the ‘x64’ or ‘AMD_64 version,’ and not the ‘x86’ or ‘x32’ version.
Secondly, you’ll need to use software to write the image to your DVD or USB drive. For DVDs, Imgburn is available for Windows, and in-built tools exist in Mac operating systems, as well as most Linux operating systems. For USB drives, you can download the Microsoft USB Tool to put Windows onto a memory stick. For SteamOS, simply extract the SteamOS .zip file to your USB drive.
When that’s finished, put the USB drive or DVD into your living room gaming PC, and hit the key to enter the BIOS/UEFI setup page to set the USB stick or DVD as your boot device. This is usually F1, F2, F8, or F11, depending on your motherboard. Check your motherboard manual if you’re not sure.
Please note that each operating system has its own installation process, and you should read the information on the download page for further instructions. When it’s finished installing, eject your USB stick or DVD, set up your drivers, and start downloading your games and software.
Big Picture Mode
Big Picture Mode is an alternative Steam interface, and one you’ll likely become very familiar with if you decide to build a Steam Machine. If you’re curious about it and want to play around with the interface, it’s available on Steam for any computer. Go to the top right corner of your main Steam window, and click the controller icon. Immediately, you’ll launch Big Picture Mode.
To exit Big Picture Mode, move your cursor or use your controller to navigate to the top right corner of the screen (to the icon that looks like a power button). Hit that and you’ll be able to exit Big Picture Mode, shut down your computer, or put it to sleep.
In Big Picture Mode, everything has been adjusted to be more controller-friendly. It’s easy to navigate using a keyboard and mouse, but you can tell it’s designed for controllers. It has some elements that feel reminiscent of the Xbox One UI, and it feels nice and easy to use—even from a distance.
Section 3: Streaming Games from an Existing PC
Yes, yes. I suppose we have to mention these devices for those of you already equipped with a monster PC in your home, who therefore don't want to build a cool separate living room gaming PC. Take all the fun out of it why don't you?
In all seriousness though, one of the devices below—which are designed to let you stream games from your desktop computer to your TV—can be a great addition to your home set-up.
Have too many Steam games to finish just at your desk, or do you want to play your most awesome games on a bigger screen? Then consider getting the Steam Link (a simple device that connects your computer to your television, and your controller to you). It's rather inexpensive after all, and it does work!
Nvida's crazy streaming device. Some say this range of devices inspired the Nintendo Switch, yet this model is just a very hardcore and high-end streaming device for all kinds of media, from games to films to everything else. In addition to being designed for a broader range of streaming applications than the Steam Link, this beast also comes equipped with 'smart' capabilities, including Roku-style all-in-one video streaming management and smart home device compatibility.
Section 4: Controllers
You can always stick with keyboard and mouse for your living room gaming PC, but many people prefer to play with a controller when they’re sitting on a couch. And choosing a controller is a fairly big decision, as it will affect your experience of every game you decide to play.
The Steam controller has two haptic touchpads designed to give intelligent feedback, with one taking the place of the D-Pad, and the other in the place of the right analogue stick. To make use of the controller, you’ll need to use a wireless dongle that ships with it to pair it to the computer. While people that like the controller seem to love it, it’s very different and unfamiliar to new users. You might decide you just aren’t ready for that kind of change. Or you might love the wide array of customization options available with the Steam controller enough to give it a chance!
At present, the Xbox 360 controller works with SteamOS, while the Xbox One controller does not. You’ll still need the wireless adapter if you plan to use a wireless controller, and thankfully the Xbox 360 controller works with most games that provide controller support.
It’s hard to go wrong here. It’s familiar and it will work with almost any game.
Once again, the Xbox One controller feels familiar and works great on Windows PCs, but for now, the controller is not completely compatible with SteamOS.
The PlayStation 4 controller is compatible with any ordinary PC. The controller itself is $45 for the standard black model, and if your chosen motherboard doesn't come with bluetooth, cheap USB Bluetooth adapters can be obtained for less than $10 each.
Section 5: A Few Extra Tips
Here a number of additional tips and tricks for getting your living room gaming PC functioning in just the way you want it:
GeForce Experience/AMD Raptr
Part of what makes a console enjoyable is sticking a game in and having the game just work. We tend to have to tinker with settings on PCs. Luckily, if you’re on Windows, GeForce Experience and AMD Raptr have automatic game optimization functions based on your system specifications. It’s not perfect, but it gets you playing the game at roughly the right settings quickly.
The Big Picture Mode Web Browser
I’m not a fan of the overlay browser on Steam. It tends to be slow. The browser found in Big Picture Mode, however, is actually quite fast, and you can even watch Netflix through it. Don’t be afraid to give it a try.
Make Your Steam Machine a Media Center
Like the regular Steam client, you can launch non-Steam Games through Big Picture Mode. This includes media center software including Kodi, formerly known as XBMC—a convenient interface for media center computers that’s quite usable from your couch.
If gaming is only one of the many uses for your prospective living room PC build, then you should also take a look at our big guide article on building the best Home Theater PC.
Make Use of Sleep Mode
Modern consoles actually sit in standby most of the time, rather than turning off. It seems unfair that a console should have a head start in the booting process. Use the Sleep function instead of turning your Steam Machine off to boot a little quicker.
Access the Desktop in SteamOS
To access the regular desktop interface on SteamOS, go to the settings menu in the top right (next to the power button), select “Enable access to the Linux desktop,” and then click that power button again. You’ll have the option to return to the desktop as you do in Windows.
If you decide to use SteamOS but yearn for some of your Windows games on your desktop in the comfort of your living room, turn on In-Home Streaming. Enable In-Home Streaming on both computers from the options menu. If both computers are turned on, you’ll be able to play your Windows desktop games through your Steam Machine.
While the various prebuilt Steam machine options may feel a little lackluster, you now possess the knowledge to achieve the PC-gaming dream from your living room. If you have any questions or recommendations for fellow living room gaming PC builders, let us know in the comments below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to build a living room gaming PC or a Steam machine that is more like a traditional PC, our primary build recommendation chart on our homepage covers all budget ranges, and will all work 100% for Windows-based living room gaming PCs.
If you want to build a media center PC that can do gaming as just one of its functions, then you should also check out our big guide article on building the best Home Theater PC.
Charlie Powers is a contributing writer for Logical Increments.
Logical Increments helps more than a million PC builders each year with hardware recommendations for any budget.
If you want to see our build recommendations for general purpose gaming PCs, check them out.