Build your own small Steam Box PC using Valve's Big Picture Mode
As PC gamers, we’re big fans of Valve Software’s Steam service and can’t imagine life without it. We’ve got a huge library of installed games, all of our friends are on it, and almost every AAA title is released on Steam, making it indispensable. The only “problem” with Steam has been that its interface was designed for sitting 24 inches away, at a monitor, making it incompatible with couch-bound gaming. Valve has rectified this dilemma with its recently launched Big Picture Mode, which slaps a 10-foot interface on top of Steam and makes it easy to control with a gamepad. Since distance and connection issues can get in the way of running your desktop PC on your HDTV screen, we’re going to walk you through a more workable solution. First, we will advise you on selecting a small-but-powerful PC that’s suitable for a living room, then we’ll walk you through selecting appropriate peripherals, and finally we’ll show you how to get it all up and running, ready for Big Picture Mode deployment.
1. Get Yourself a Living Room PC
If you’re like us, you already have a desktop gaming PC that lives in a separate room, semi-far away from your television. Here in San Francisco, we reside in homes so cavernous that oftentimes our living room and bedroom or office are roughly 20 feet apart from each other, and don’t even get us started on our spacious bathrooms and ample parking options (this is sarcasm). Seriously though, space constraints aside, we like to keep our PC out of the living room since it’s big, somewhat noisy (despite our best efforts), and resides under a desk large enough to qualify as a studio apartment in the Bay Area. The living room is reserved for TV watching and Netflixing, and the only gaming it ever sees is on a board, typically. However, now that Steam offers a Big Picture Mode interface that can be controlled from across the room, we’d like a dedicated Steam box chillaxing in our living room so we can play some PC games from our couch.
Falcon Northwest Tiki gaming PC
To accomplish this feat, we had two options—buy or build. Anyone who reads this magazine knows the route we took, but there are also a couple of worthwhile rigs for folks who don't want to get their hands dirty. For the more budget-conscious, Alienware’s X-51 has an elegant and amazingly thin chassis that can be had for as little as $800 (it received a 9 verdict when we reviewed it in our May 2012 issue). If you're willing to part with a bit more cash, Falcon Northwest has a new slimline rig called the Tiki that’s just 4 inches wide (pictured above). The baseline Core i5/GTX 650 combo will set you back $1,600, but Core i7 and GeForce GTX 680 are also options, if you can afford it (see our review in the September 2012 issue). Though both of these machines would look great in a living room, we chose to build a system because that's what we do here, and because we have a perfect template for this task: the "How to Build a Small Gaming PC" story.
Click the next page to see how to prepare your rig.
2. Prepare Your Rig
The rig we built for this job splits the difference between a full-powered gaming machine and a small form factor PC. We know—technically, it’s a small form factor PC since it has a tiny Mini-ITX motherboard, but that board houses some kick-ass components, including a water-cooled Intel Core i5-3570K processor, a 240GB SSD and 3TB HDD, and an overclocked GeForce GTX 670 from MSI. In our benchmarks, this little rig cranked out 76fps in Batman: Arkham City at 2560x1600, which is more than enough muscle for gaming on our TV. That’s one hell of a PC, and the fact that it’s not any taller or wider than a roided-out Chihuahua is icing on the cake.
Our Steam box
3. Choose the Peripherals
As desktop commandos, we know exactly which mouse and keyboard combo we usually prefer, but that all changes when you move to a softer, more comfy location like the couch. We needed a keyboard that was light and wireless, and we decided against a mouse simply because neither our legs nor our couch is flat enough to provide an accurate mousing surface. We also needed to select a gamepad that works well on a PC, and it's slim pickings these days as most gamers just use a mouse and keyboard.
To satisfy both our mouse and keyboard needs we went with the sublime Logitech K400 Wireless Touch Keyboard (below)— not to be confused with its predecessor from the 1980s, the Invisible Touch. The K400 is incredibly light but provides comfortable keys and a surprisingly accurate touchpad with vertical scrolling support that makes browsing the web and navigating Steam's interface a cinch. The keyboard's 30-foot wireless range is more than sufficient, and its slim profile comes in handy when we need to stow it inside our entertainment center. We also like the fact that the included AA batteries will last up to a year; we just have to remember to turn off the keyboard when not using it.
We debated for quite a while over which game controller to choose before settling on an old standby, the Xbox wireless controller for PC. We like that it's comfortable, easy to set up, and it works perfectly. We could have saved some money by going with something from Saitek but we like the build quality and heft of the Microsoft controller. Say what you will about Microsoft’s ability to craft a touch-based OS, but the company knows how to build a peripheral, that's for sure. The wireless dongle is also easy to tuck away in our rat's nest of cables.
Click the next page to see how you should enable Big Picture and connect to the network.
4. Connect to the Network
Powerline networking has overcome most of its initial teething issues and has turned into a reliable and fast alternative to wireless. Obviously, running a gigabit hardline would be the best option, but that’s not always an option. And while wireless is the easiest option, it’s also prone to problems if you live in a dense area where several routers are stomping on each other. Thus, we opted for powerline networking. We can plug our router into a power outlet in our office, then connect the Steam box to a power outlet in our living room and be done with it.
The kit we chose was the winner of our powerline-networking roundup in the December issue of the magazine, the TP-Link AV500. This $95 kit was the fastest kit we tested, with 66Mb/s average read speeds, and the least expensive, so that’s a win-win in our book. We also like how the LEDs on the front of the units show us how fast our connection speed is.
Setting it up was as simple as plugging one unit into a wall socket, then connecting the cable to the LAN port on our router, and pressing a button on the adapter to begin the syncing process. We then connected the second adapter to a power outlet behind our entertainment system, and ran CAT5 cable from the adapter to our Steam box. After we pressed the sync button on the second adapter, we had a signal in about 45 seconds and were able to get online.
5. Enter Big Picture Mode
With our rig connected to our HDTV, all of our peripherals functioning, and our Internet connection humming along, we installed our OS (Windows 8 Pro), went directly to www.steampowered.com, and installed the Steam client. Big Picture Mode is not enabled by default, so we followed a few steps to enable it, which involves opting in to the Steam Beta program. Once we restarted Steam, we found a Big Picture button in the upper right-hand corner, so we clicked it to activate Big Picture Mode.
The interface is extremely easy to navigate, with everything nicely organized into big boxes that are easy to see, even from the couch. We attempted to navigate the UI with our Xbox controller but found we prefer using the Logitech keyboard/touchpad just because it was easier to move our finger on the touchpad and it's what we're used to. The main screen lets you choose between the Store, Library, and Friends list; we dove right into our Library. Games are organized just like in regular Steam, so we could see installed games, games we played recently, and even games that support a controller—a very nice touch, and an indication that Steam took the implementation of Big Picture Mode seriously as opposed to just overlaying a bigger skin on top of Steam. BPM also includes a web browser as well as a home page portal that includes Facebook, Twitter, Google, and our other "favorites," which are easily customizable. Is it possible that someday we'll boot into a Steam OS with all our games, our favorite web browser, and our files hosted in the cloud? We shall see.
Click the next page to see what PC games work well from your couch.
Let off Some Steam
Four games that play great from the couch
We’ll be the first to admit that we’re not the most avid living room gamers, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. We’re typically found at our desks playing Borderlands 2, BF3, or DayZ, so playing with an Xbox controller is sort of akin to a dog walking in sandals. We did, however, find some games that are awesome with a controller, and we highly recommend you check them out.
We loved Portal 2 on the PC, and though the placing of portals and dropping of the companion cube took a bit of practice with the controller, we eventually figured it out and had a blast playing this game from our couch. Since you rarely have to use twitch movements to accurately aim yourself when being flung through the testing facility, a controller works just fine.
We've always been a fan of racing games on the PC, and as much as it pains us to say it, they are even better with a gamepad. We were able to sit back and comfortably shred the snow-capped courses of Dirt 3 while drifting to our heart's content.
Psychonauts is an oldie but a very, very goodie and it plays extremely well on a huge TV and with a gamepad. The Xbox controller is especially useful for all the jumping puzzles the game throws at you, even the horrific ones contained in the Meat Circus.
MotoGP 08 was designed for gamepad use and it’s bloody awesome. Controlling the bikes is almost as easy as actually riding a MotoGP bike in real life—or so we imagine. The main advantage is being able to hold a lean angle through the corners, with a smidge of pressure on the controller stick, which is much easier to pull off with a controller than trying to half-press a keyboard key.
The good old days of MotoGP—Stoner on the Ducati and Rossi on the Yamaha
To be honest, we never got that into this game’s sequel, and prefer the original. We just appreciate the simplicity of the game mechanics, and love going up against an ogre or orc and unleashing a deadly chain of attacks. Having the huge display with much larger blocks than we’re accustomed to made it easier to evaluate our options before making a move, and it also made navigating the world map a bit easier, as well.
Note: This article appeared in the Holiday 2012 issue of the magazine.