How to Build the Best Steam Machine

Prepare for Steam on your TV.

Last updated: August 2016

The Steam Machine is Valve’s answer to the modern video game console: A machine capable of playing your favourite PC games from your couch, all interfaced with Steam and controller-friendly.

Basically, it's a small computer that acts like a console. A really, really awesome console that you can upgrade.

This guide will show you how to build your very own Steam Machine. By building your own Steam Machine instead of buying a prebuilt PC, you’ll get much better performance for the money, and you can customize it however you like.

While there's no rule that dictates how large or small a Steam Machine should be, we're going to make this extra fun by trying to keep our machines roughly the same size as a console. We also want them to look cool, since they're likely going to be on display in your living room.

In Section 1, we’ll review a number of example Steam Machine builds.

In Section 2, we’ll go in-depth on how to properly set up your Steam Machine.

In Section 3, we'll wrap things up with a discussion of controllers and extra tips.

First, let's quickly discuss OS, as it may influence the hardware you choose.

Choosing Your OS

Every Steam Machine needs on operating system, and each operating system has its pros and cons. 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.

SteamOS

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 “Big Picture Mode” 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. 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 Linux distributions usually ship with aren’t suited for playing games.

Windows

Pros: Full game library, full desktop features

Cons: Costs money

While SteamOS and Linux are free, Windows costs money. But you do get a few benefits for your dollar: You can easily download and configure drivers, and you get access to a full desktop, if that matters to you for your Steam Machine.

More importantly: Windows gives you access to the full catalogue of Steam games. If you’re a gamer who values choices, this will likely be the deciding factor for you.

How Do You Decide?

In our opinion, Windows is the best option, as it gives you access to the most games, and almost always provides the best performance.

Ultimately, this decision comes down to what kind of games you want to play on your Steam Machine, and how much money you want 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? Or, maybe you’re perfectly content with the Linux game library.

If you do decide to go with a free OS, we recommend using SteamOS over other distributions. It will require a lot less hassle to set up.

Section 1: Example Steam Machines

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 Space-Conscious

All of our Steam Machine build recommendations use Mini ITX designs, meaning the machines will be much more compact and portable than your average computer. The cases, motherboards, and power supplies are smaller than you will find with a normal PC. Some of these components are more expensive in smaller sizes, while others may be a little cheaper.

Due to the small size of Steam Machines, we would not recommend using an AMD CPU. They simply produce too much heat for such a small computer. And unless you are certain you’re going to run your Steam Machine using Windows, we would also not recommend using an AMD graphics card. The AMD graphics drivers for Linux-based operating systems are simply sub-par. Some people may accuse us of bias for these recommendations, but that is our reasoning.

The Budget Machine ($450)

This is a pretty modest Steam Machine. It will be able to run a majority of games on SteamOS, and it should run many graphically intense games on medium settings. You should be able to compile this for shopping list for less than $500, making it competitive with the current generation of consoles.

Operating System: SteamOS

Graphics Card: NVIDIA GTX 950

A nice low-powered graphics card that’ll provide you with enough steam to get through games, from NVIDIA’s newest line of Maxwell GPUs.

CPU: Intel G3258

The Pentium G4400 is a low-powered Skylake dual core. It has been praised as fantastic value for money on numerous accounts. It’s got enough beef to play those less demanding games we talked about, but it would likely struggle with the most advanced modern games.

Motherboard: ASRock H81M-ITX/WIFI

A neat little motherboard for Skylake CPUs.

RAM: 8 GB DDR4-2400

Convenient and cheap. 8GB is perfectly adequate for this build.

HDD: Seagate 1TB

It’s large enough to store a good number of games, and double the space most consoles currently ship with.

Power Supply: Corsair CX430M

An 80+ power supply with good reviews behind it. Thanks to the low-powered components, we’ve actually got room to spare despite this only packing 430 watts.

Case: SilverStone Tek SG13B-Q

It’s a bit bulky for something going in your living room, but more streamlined counterparts cost substantially more. You wanted this computer to be cheap, right? At the very least, this is a high-quality cheap at an affordable price.

The Console Killer ($650)

So the budget build isn’t that living room friendly. It’s kind of big. But now we have something to build on, and can start to explore the bigger 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 Steam Machine.

Operating System: SteamOS

Alternative OS: Windows

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. Of course, you can always install Windows on this thing, if the larger game library justifies the cost of the OS.

Graphics Card: AMD RX 480

The RX 480 provides you with an adequate boost over the GTX 950. Play very demanding games on full settings at 1080p.

CPU: Intel i3-6100

A dual-core CPU with hyper-threading, the i3-6100 has excellent lightly threaded performance, making it an excellent value gaming CPU.

Alternative: If you feel like you want that extra bit of bite, you might also consider the i5-6500. You get a true quad-core with significantly improved performance in almost all modern games.

Motherboard: ASRock H170M-ITX

Gets the job done. More than enough for this build's needs.

RAM: 8 GB DDR4-2400

Convenient and cheap. 8GB is still plenty of RAM for this build.

HDD: Seagate 1TB

We just aren’t at a price point that justifies an SSD, so we heartily recommend a 1TB hard drive again.

Power Supply: SilverStone SFX 450W

Because we’ve gone smaller this time, conventional power supplies won’t necessarily fit in the case. We need a small form factor power supply, the SilverStone’s ST45SF fits the bill perfectly. While it’s not modular like the CX430M, it will actually fit in this case.

Case: SilverStone Milo Series ML07B

It’s a bit bulky for something going in your living room, but more streamlined counterparts cost substantially more. You wanted this computer to be cheap, right? At the very least, this is a high-quality cheap at an affordable price.

Casual Living Room Super Computer ($1,300)

So you really need to play Witcher 3 on high settings from your arm chair? This will do it.

Operating System: Windows

While SteamOS is nice, this machine has enough power behind it to really justify going that one step further and paying for Windows. Just set up Steam to launch automatically and into Big Picture Mode. You’ll have a much bigger library of games, and this hardware will make good use of them.

Graphics Card: NVIDIA GTX 1070

We’ve recommended a GTX 970 here, but a GTX 1060 would also be quite good.

CPU: Intel i5-6600K

The Skylake i5-6600K offers an ideal amount of power for gaming. The quality of motherboards available for Skylake ITX builds also offer many additional features.

Heatsink: DEEPCOOL Gamer Storm GABRIEL

The Gabriel is a low-profile heatsink with four heat pipes and a small aluminium fin section, with a fan pointing vertically to disperse heat out of an ITX case. Unfortunately, there aren’t many choices for low profile heat sinks, but this will do the job just fine.

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-WIFI

This motherboard has so many features they had to put some things on the other side -- seriously. The M.2 high speed storage connector is on the back. You’ve got enough SATA slots to fill the case, enough USB ports for controllers for you and your friends, and you even have a bit of forward thinking with a USB Type-C connector. With a high quality Wi-Fi module, you don’t need to worry about cables.

RAM: Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB DDR4

Because when we start throwing this much money around, 8GB just doesn’t quite cut it. While the board supports up to 32GB of RAM, not many games do. It’s important to remember we need low-profile RAM here. RAM speeds haven’t mattered in games for quite some time, so there’s no need to be too choosey over frequencies.

SSD: Samsung 850 EVO M.2 250 GB

Because wasting that M.2 slot would be ludicrous. This is for your operating system. By putting your operating system on a separate drive, you can actually see improved load times and gaming performance as the system isn’t fighting the game for control of the hard drive arm. Not to mention, it’s always satisfying having your computer boot up almost instantly thanks to the enormous speed of M.2 SSDs.

You can always go for a 2.5" SATA SSD if you'd like to save some money, or if you want a faster option, upgrade to the Samsung 950 Pro M.2.

HDD: HGST 2TB

2TB is far from the limit. You can get 6TB if it strikes your fancy.

Power Supply: SilverStone SFX SX600-G

A gold-rated, fully modular power supply in a small form factor, and it doesn’t come cheap for 600 watts. This is powerful enough to support a 980 Ti, with the other components considered.

Case: SilverStone RAVEN RVZ01B

SilverStone makes nice ITX cases, and this one is particularly nice. With support for up to three additional 2.5” hard drives, a 13” graphics card, and able to sit flat or in an upright position, this machine is one that’ll blend in with the other television electronics. It’ll certainly be one of the best-dressed in show.

Ultimate Steam Machine ($1,900)

You can use this beast to play brand new PC games on a 4K TV, and it still fits in a Mini-ITX design.

Operating System: Windows

No question.

Graphics Card: NVIDIA GTX 1080

A single-GPU card that will handle modern games at 4K. It's also ready to play nearly any VR game you throw out. (Read our Guide to Building a PC for VR)

CPU: Intel i7-6700K

The i7-6700K is likely the top mainstream CPU (i.e. non-hardcore CPU). This will ensure you have more than enough CPU power for gaming at 4K.

Heatsink: Corsair Hydro H75 Liquid Cooler

A 120mm, compact liquid cooler -- perfect for the Mini-ITX size. Feel confident overclocking the 6700K with this thing cooling it.

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-WIFI

This motherboard has so many features they had to put some things on the other side -- seriously. The M.2 high speed storage connector is on the back. You’ve got enough SATA slots to fill the case, enough USB ports for controllers for you and your friends, and you even have a bit of forward thinking with a USB Type-C connector. With a high quality Wi-Fi module, you don’t need to worry about cables.

RAM: Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB DDR4

Because when we start throwing this much money around, 8GB just doesn’t quite cut it. While the board supports up to 32GB of RAM, not many games do. It’s important to remember we need low-profile RAM here. RAM speeds haven’t mattered in games for quite some time, so there’s no need to be too choosey over frequencies.

SSD: Samsung 950 Pro M.2 256 GB

An extremely fast M.2 SSD. Feel free to opt instead for the 512 GB version

HDD: HGST 2TB

2TB is far from the limit. You can get 6TB if it strikes your fancy.

Power Supply: EVGA G2 850W

Well-reviewed, fully modular, gold-rated, and powerful enough to handle all the hardware we're throwing at it. Competitively priced, too!

Case: Corsair Graphite 380T

A sleek Mini-ITX design, with rounded corners and removable side panels. It even has a carrying handle, and a 140mm intake fan and 120mm exhaust fan.

Big Picture Mode gives your PC a console-like interface.

Section 2: How to Make a Steam Machine

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.

With a Steam Machine, 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 as powerful as you can afford).

All of the games available on Steam are playable with a Steam Machine, as long as the game is available on your operating system of choice. (We’ll get to operating systems shortly.) You also have the benefit of streaming games from another desktop in your house to your Steam Machine in your living room (a feature also possible with Steam Link).

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

First, you’ll need a copy of your OS, which you can download from another computer or, in the case of Windows, purchased on a USB drive or disc.

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 you can leave out the DVD or Blu-Ray 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 Steam Machine, 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 and what to have a play around with the interface, it’s available on Steam and has been for quite some time. Go to the top right corner of your main Steam window, and click the controller icon. Ta-da! You’re in Big Picture Mode.

To exit Big Picture Mode, move your cursor or use your controller to navigate to the top right hand screen to the icon that looks like a power button. Hit that and you’ll have the option 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 tell it’s designed for controllers. It has some elements of the Xbox One UI, and feels nice and easy to use even from a distance.

Section 3: Controllers

You can always stick with keyboard and mouse for your Steam Machine, 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 every game you decide to play.

Steam Controller

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.

Xbox 360 Controller

At present, the Xbox 360 contoller 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. If you decide to go with Windows, the Xbox One controller is also an option, but again you’ll need the dongle.

Xbox One Controller

Warning: Only for Windows. Once again, the Xbox One controller feels familiar and works great on Windows PCs. For now, the controller is not completely compatible with SteamOS.

Playstation Controllers

Sony’s controllers rarely work perfectly with PCs. There are reports of lag when paired with dongles. Some games and SteamOS do not recognize the controller properly. And that’s on top of going through numerous terminal commands to actually install the drivers properly and get the device paired. It’s an option, but it’s not a top recommendation.

A Few Extra Tips

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 armchair.

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.

In-House Streaming

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.

Conclusion

While prebuilt Steam machines 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 Steam Machine builders, let us know in the comments below, or email us at contact@logicalincrements.com.

If you want to build a Steam Machine that is more like a traditional PC, our main PC hardware list on our homepage covers budgets from $200 to $4000, and will all work 100% for Windows-based Steam machines.

About Us

Charlie Powers writes for Logical Increments

Logical Increments helps more than a million PC builders each year with hardware recommendations for any budget.