Building a Steam Machine – Part 1

So yesterday something big happened for me (no, I’m not getting married or having a child). Today marked the (very close) end to the Steam Machine journey for me after about 2 years of planning and purchasing.

So after missing out on the wardrobe desk project (which I will be covering in another post), instead of live blogging this week I thought it would be good to reflect on the processes I went through to bring my DIY unit from conception to completion.

Ifyou’re looking to build a similar project (be it anything parts related – a computer, a car, an appliance or an android) or perhaps a DIY Steam Machine yourself, this is what I did and learned along the journey to ensure this rather expensive but rewarding project. Now with this being a huge drawn out project I thought I would split it up into parts so as not to present you with more of a wall of text than I usually do. So this is part one, the introduction and the first lesson.

Firstly, I cannot write about my part in this without expressing my heartfelt thanks to my parents and my colleagues at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals that chipped in to help make it a reality through Christmas and Birthday gifts. I know I’ve said it many times already, but thank you again. Without your kind and generous support, even whilst I was moving and setting up life again, I would still be building this for the next year or two at least.

Firstly, What’s a Steam Machine?

For those that aren’t aware, game publisher and distributor Valve software who built the Steam platform & store announce officially after many months of rumours and suspicions that they were developing their own consoles for gaming in the living room dubbed ‘Steam Machines’. After several months this announcement became clear that they had partnered with various PC manufacturers to create branded machines with a Linux based operating system (definition here) they were developing based on the existing Debian OS. With Debian and consequently the new “SteamOS” being open source (apart from the Steam client itself which is proprietary), Valve offered both the OS source code and the specifications out for BETA and to this day in the final for developers that wished to install it on their own machines (with the risk that the installer would wipe everything on the drive you install it on) or to build their own PC and develop/expand the OS as much or little as they wished.

So Why Didn’t You Just Buy a Pre-built One?

After taking inspiration initially from a Tech Crunch article where they tested the scenario of building one for less than the price of a PS4, I decided to take up the challenge to see if I could build one for me and my former partner. Ultimately this goal wasn’t achieved as I’m a.) Now Single b.) A PS4/Xbox one has come down a lot in price surpassing most of the guide prices in the article and c.) The parts changed over time, but I continued it to this day.

Another hope was for the price to come in less than some of the top of the line Steam Machines on sale and thankfully I have still beaten the ones coming in at around £1.5k (with my estimated Bill of Parts around £1080 mark). The big difference with mine is that it’s still fully customisable (within more reason that the prebuilds), building a slightly larger form factor giving it future-proof for the next 5-7 years at least in the short term and maybe a decade and a half in the long term (to say I still have working rearmaments of my/my dad’s Windows XP machines my dad mostly helped build around 13-14 years ago says it all).

Finally, despite chipping in on a few PCs and upgrading some still to this day, I’d never built one from scratch end-to-end, and this was the perfect opportunity to see what I had remembered from School and what my dad and my close friends had taught me.


With the definition out of the way, here’s the first of the phases I took and the first bit of advice I can give.


Plan, Plan, Plan (& Maybe Plan More)

Before you go out into the wide world to build your masterpiece, you have to know what you’re doing. When I took on the challenge I realised this build was going to cost money, lots of money and as time went on with Birthdays and Christmas,another factor was that portions of this money wasn’t my own

Most DIY projects like this one consisted as a series of components that all needed to fit together correctly and be compatible with each other.

Think of this analogy. Say you decided you wanted a little run around vehicle, but couldn’t really afford to invest in a shiny new car for the sake of it and so decide to fix up and old one, you couldn’t just whack a diesel engine you found in a car bonnet that was piped up for Petrol and expect it to work perfectly (if at all…car people, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here). For starters, you’ll need to check that everything that connects to anything is in order and if you’re building from an empty shell up, build up a list of parts you will need.

The same applies to computers, in order to get mine from a whisp of an idea to reality I needed:

  • A Case
  • A Motherboard
  • A Power Supply
  • A Processor
  • Some Thermal Compound (which I discovered later on)
  • A Processor Cooler (Fan or Radiator)
  • A Graphics Card (since the ones on board may not play my games)
  • A Storage Drive (HDD or SSD as you prefer)
  • RAM
  • Anything Else I wished to add

Once you’ve identified this, you’ll need to factor in your research (see below) and work out what can be a.) Funded First, b.) Where this funding will come from and c.) What could wait (ie: isn’t core to getting it running).

Thankfully as I said, a good £550 – 600 of mine came from gifts over Birthday and Christmas (and at the time of writing will continue to stand in place for a couple of occasions), the rest came from what’s left of my wages after bills.

Even once all the parts are ordered, I needed to ensure I knew where and roughly when things were due to arrive. With some of the individual components alone being over £300, I didn’t want to take any chances and had everything tracked and either dropped off at a predefined location (e.g: Amazon Locker or Royal Mail Depot.), collected it at store (My nearest Scan Computers International in Horwich, Bolton, Greater Manchester) or had a signed for delivery at a time I knew I would be in.

After delivery, I had to work out where everything was to be stored until use and where it would go on fitting (believe it or not, reading the manuals does actually give you a good refresher). From this I worked out the vauge order I would need to do things in to get it together and with a few hitches managed to get it altogether OK in the end. In the future learning from this experience I will develop a better plan and know what can usually go in where.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the research I did and how I came to choose the parts I had in the end.



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