Build A Steam Machine That’s Faster And Cheaper Than The PS4 And XBOX ONE
Ever wondered at what it would take to build a gaming PC based on Steam OS that's both faster and cheaper than the PS4 and XBOX ONE ? Well, wonder no longer because we're going to tell you exactly how you can spend the same money that you would on a gaming console to build your very own !
However before we do that let's backtrack just a bit to talk about what Steam OS actually is. Steam OS is a Linux based operating system targeted towards gaming systems. It was introduced in December of 2013 by Valve the owners of the ever more popular Steam digital distribution platform for games. One of the important advantages that Steam OS holds over Windows , the most popular OS for computer games, is that unlike Windows, Steam OS is completely free. This means that you can spend the money that you would typically put towards buying a windows license into buying more powerful hardware for your gaming system instead.
Steam Machines, The Power of PC Gaming In A Convenient Living Room Friendly Box
Steam Machines are gaming systems introduced by Valve and based on Steam OS. Valve's aim with these machines is to package the PC gaming experience and hone it into a more living room friendly package. So in a nutshell a Steam Machine takes the convenience that's typically associated with gaming consoles such as the PS4 and XBOX One and marries it to the flexibility and power of PC gaming. This flexibility however extends beyond typical Windows based gaming gaming systems. Because as mentioned earlier, not only is Steam OS free it's also totally open a hallmark feature of Linux which forms the backbone of Steam OS.
How To Build a Steam Machine That's Faster and Cheaper Than The PS4 And XBOX ONE
Ah finally, we get to the more exciting part of actually building our gaming system. For this particular build we're going to build the most powerful machine that we could for $400 without compromising on functionality.
For the motherboard I picked the Asus A68HM-PLUS FM2+ motherboard. A Micro ATX board with six Sata 6Gb/s ports, two USB 3.0 ports from the rear I/O, two internal USB 3.0 headers and a physically separated integrated audio solution. So it will have all the connectivity and multimedia functionality that we're looking for and it comes in at a frugal $49.99. We paired the board with 8GB of DDR3 1600Mhz CL9 memory and a 1TB Seagate Barracuda hard drive for about $50 each. We found other Harddrives at this price point but the Seagate was the best performing of the bunch. To house our build we chose a neat Micro ATX case with support for decently sized graphics cards, USB3 and an included 480W power supply, plenty enough to power our build.
For the CPU we went for the Athlon X4 860K. A quadcore CPU based on the AMD Steamroller mircroarchitecture. At $74 this CPU provides higher overall performance when compared to the eight core Jaguar CPU inside the PS4 and XBOX ONE and double the single threaded performance thanks to its clock speed coming at twice that of the Jaguar cores in the consoles.
Both CPUs can't directly be compared since an eight core Jaguar based CPU doesn't exist in the market outside of the consoles. However we can easily draw a comparison between both by looking at the performance of the commonly found quadcore based Jaguar Athlons such as the Athlon 5350 APU and multiplying their score by two to emulate the score of an eight core Jaguar processor. The Athlon 5350 2.1Ghz scores 2606 points on Passmark, multiplying that by two gives us 5212 points. The Athlon X4 860K on the other hand scores 5590 points. And unlike the processors inside the consoles, you can overclock the 860K to get even more performance out of it.
I should note that you can use the Intel Haswell based unlocked Pentium G3258 dual core CPU and an LGA 1150 motherboard with similar results. However at the moment of writing this a similarly equipped LGA 1150 motherboard to the Asus one we picked out would cost around $25 more which would go over our $400 budget. The Intel based setup will end up faster in single-threaded performance and the Athlon based setup will end up faster in multi-core performance i.e. total throughput. So they would trade blows depending on the workload and game.
It should be mentioned as well that some games such as Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age Inquisition require a quad core CPU as a minimum and won't run at all on dual core systems by default but you can get them going with some workarounds. Which is an inconvenience at the moment, we still don't know if this will prove to be an insurmountable limitation in future games. So to remain on the safe side a processor capable of processing four different threads simultaneously is recommended. This includes quad core AMD processors and up and Intel i3 CPUs and up.
Moving on to the graphics card, the most important piece of hardware in any gaming system. Our limited budget meant that the most powerful GPU we could fit into our spending envelope was an R9 270. A GPU that's faster than the integrated GPUs inside both the PS4 and the XBOX ONE. To put things into perspective, the PS4's graphics engine is capable of 1.84 TFLOPs of compute performance while the XBOX ONE's is a more modest 1.23TFLOPs. The particular R9 270 that we chose for this build is capable of 2.432TFLOPs, so twice that of the XBOX One. And even though the PS4's integrated GPU is actually based on the same graphics processing unit as the R9 270. The one inside the PS4 is clocked more conservatively and has 10% of its compute units disabled to improve manufacturing yields. So the R9 270 ends up being noticeably faster. Our graphics card is also unlocked so we can overclock it and extend its performance lead even further.
If you're willing to spend slightly more for an even faster gaming system you can spend just $50 more and step up to a faster graphics card like the GTX 960. We've compiled the best bang for the buck graphics cards as of April 2nd 2015 in a convenient list for potential graphics card buyers, so do check it out.
Finally keep in mind that game developers can work closer to the metal with console hardware, exposing more opportunities to optimize and extract additional performance out of the systems. However low level APIs like AMD's Mantle, Microsoft's DX12 and Khronos's Vulkan allow developers to work just as close to the metal on PC hardware as they do on consoles. So as adoption continues to pick up with these new graphics APIs the optimization driven performance gap between both platforms would end up significantly smaller than it is today.
|CPU||Athlon X4 860K||$74|
|GPU||Powercolor TurboDuo R9 270||$130|
|RAM||Team Vulcan 8GB 1600Mhz CL9||$53|
|HDD||1TB Seagate Barracuda||$51|
So there you have it folks, an entire gaming system for $398 that's more capable, powerful and flexible than either the PlayStation 4 or the XBOX ONE. An affordable console killer that you can build and enjoy today.