Is it possible to build a silent Steam Box HTPC (Steam Big Picture with XBMC) that is capable of 1080p gaming?
In this guide, I will show you how to build and configure a performance HTPC, from start to finish, that will achieve exactly this. All the components used in this guide have been tested and proven to be compatible in the My Media Experience test bench.
This is definitely not the first DYI Steam Box guide, but this is an ambitious project for building a silent gaming HTPC with Steam and XBMC integrated, enabling a seamless experience in your living room.
You can build a gaming HTPC for less than $500, but I wanted to select high quality components, so the cost will be around $900. I’m sure that you’ll be happy with this build if you decide to follow these instructions.
What you’ll learn
- Why would you want to build a gaming HTPC now
- What are recommended components for a performance HTPC
- How to build a performance HTPC
- How to integrate XBMC with Steam Big Picture on Windows 8.1
- How to integrate Steam with XBMC on Linux-based SteamOS
You will learn how to choose the right components for silent gaming and how to integrate Steam Big Picture with XBMC using either Windows 8.1 or SteamOS operating system.
Why build a gaming HTPC now?
Sony has their PlayStation 4 and Microsoft has their Xbox One game console, so why would you want to spend even more money building your own living room PC that is capable of 1080p gaming?
The short answer is: variety, customizability and quality.
Valve’s Steam is the most popular game platform available. Using Steam’s Big Picture mode allows you to buy and launch PC games from your sofa. When you integrate Steam’s Big Picture mode with XBMC Media Center, you will get a really powerful combination that gives you much more control over your media experience in comparison to any commercial game console.
When you add a wireless Xbox 360 controller and remote control, you will have a really nice system that is not only able to run 1080p games, but is also capable of Blu-ray playback, live TV, streaming HD videos both locally and online, and much more.
I strongly believe that if a computer is not at least nearly silent, you should not use it in the living room. Building a nice gaming PC in a big case with a lot of cooling fans is easy, but building a completely silent fanless HTPC that is still capable of playing modern games is much harder.
So, without futher ado, let’s get started with the component selection.
In order to keep this system silent, I have focused on power efficiency and passive cooling in the component selection.
Low power and passive cooling obviously puts some constraints on the performance, but I am very happy with these parts since I’m able to play my Steam games with decent graphics settings.
In my opinion, there are couple of great mini ITX cases that are suitable for gaming HTPCs: Silverstone ML07, BitFenix Prodigy and Fractal Design Node 304.
In this 2015 reference performance HTPC, I am using a Silverstone ML07 case, which is a “home theater box” version of the revolutionary Raven RVZ01 case. The Milo ML07 has an advanced layout designed for maximum performance and a PCI-E riser making it perfect choice for your gaming HTPC.
Intel Core i5-4570S is a 65W CPU that runs very cool while keeping everything quiet and providing enough performance, even for games. Thanks to its relatively high processing power and amazingly low power consumption, it is an ideal choice for a passive-cooled build that still needs to be powerful enough for heavier media transcoding or gaming.
The Intel Core i5-4570S was also a clear winner in my 2014 HTPC processor poll.
The BitFenix Prodigy case allows you to fit up to a 175 cm tall CPU cooler, meaning that you can use even large passive CPU coolers with this case. Silverstone ML07 case can fit CPU coolers up to 83mm in height.
I decided to use the same high quality CPU cooler I used in the budget HTPC system, so that the cooler will not obstruct a passive-cooled graphics card, since these are typically larger than regular graphics cards with a cooling fan.
Haswell CPUs such as Intel Core i5-4570S need a motherboard that supports 1150 chipset, so I chose Asus Z97 mini-ITX board, that has all the connections you will need, plus plenty of ports. The WIFI module is very fast, and it includes Bluetooth 4.0.
Please note that Asus Z97 motherboard includes 4 SATA connections, so if you want to use this case as a media server with up to 6 hard drives, you should get another model that supports 6 SATA connections.
Graphic card coolers can easily be the noisiest component in your computer, therefore I chose a Gigabyte 750 Ti Windforce graphics card, which is an excellent choice for silent running HTPCs whilst offering strong performance.
If you are ok with sacrificing a bit of graphics performance for silent operation, I would recommend using a passively cooled graphics card such as the Sapphire Radeon Ultimate HD R7 250 which has an excellent performance per watt ratio.
Kingston has a good line up of memory modules for different needs.
For this performance HTPC, I chose 8GB of HyperX Genesis memory that is a superbly fast DDR3 1600 MHz RAM for video encoding or games.
System boot drive
An SSD is the best thing that you can get to boost the performance of your HTPC while keeping it silent.
For my usage, 120GB was enough, but if you are planning to have a large game collection, then you should consider getting a bigger one.
Media hard drive
Regular Western Digital Green 3.5 inch hard drives are great choice if you want to store media files and games inside the HTPC. Keep in mind that WD Green drives run only at 5400 RPM speed, while faster hard drives run at 7200 RPM.
However, if you want to keep the system as quiet as possible even with the media hard drive, then it is better to opt for a slower and energy efficient WD Green hard drive.
I have been a big fan of Seasonic power supplys and I have been particularly happy with my older Seasonic SS-400FL (X-400), so for the 2014 build with BitFenix Prodigy case I chose a completely silent modular Seasonic SS-400FL2 80Plus Platinum power supply.
The 2015 case selection, Silverstone ML07 requires a smaller SFX power supply, so I was first using Silverstone 450W SFX ST45SF-G power supply with the Silverstone ML07 case, but it was a bit too noisy in my opinion. So, I switched it with the Silverstone 600W SFX SX600-G PSU. This 600W SFX PSU is semi fanless, which means that the fan does not kick off until PSU’s internal temperature reaches 45 Celsius degrees.
Once the 600W SFX PSU fan kicks in, it is a bit quieter compared to Silverstone’s 450W SFX PSU. Another benefit of the 600W SFX PSU over the 450W SFX PSU is that its fan runs at lower speed with high loads, so your system will stay quieter during games. I did notice that sometimes the 600W SFX PSU had some coil whine, which I did not notice on the 450W version, but it was not too disturbing.
In the Silverstone ML07 case, I installed Noctua NF-S12A ULN case fan on the intake side of the Silverstone ML07 case above the CPU cooler pushing air in. This helps the CPU cooler run quieter. Then, I installed two Noctua NF-S12A ULN case fans on the GPU side with a case fan Y-splitter power connector adapter cable to push air into the case.
As case fans are all set as intake with filters, this creates positive pressure in the case and forces air out of the many vents of the case. This keeps the system quieter and prevents dust build up as no unfiltered air gets inside the case.
An optical drive is not really mandatory nowadays, even in a gaming HTPC, especially if you plan to use Steam or other online stores to buy games.
If you plan to build a Windows-based system and you would like to watch Blu-ray and DVD movies, then you should obviously opt for an optical Blu-ray drive.
Keyboard and mouse
Even if you plan to use remote control or gaming controller to control your system, it is a very good idea to have a mouse and keyboard combo such as Logitech K400 Wireless Touch Keyboard, which is still my recommendation for the lower cost builds.
If you want to get even more stylish and high quality keyboard and mouse combo that fits well in your living room, I would strongly recommend checking out Logitech K830 keyboard and touch mouse.
If you want a wireless controller to use for your PC games, then the Xbox 360 controller for Windows is a must have.
The Xbox 360 controller works out of the box in both the Windows 8.1 and SteamOS operating systems without additional drivers.
The Flirc is a USB IR receiver that outputs presses on a remote control button as keyboard input to any application such as XBMC.
Even if you plan to use the Xbox 360 game controller, it is good to use a remote control with Flirc when controlling the XBMC Media Center.
Assembling the HTPC
Now that you know what kind of components are needed to build a silent gaming HTPC, let’s continue to build it.
Before installing components inside the Silverstone ML07 case, unscrew the screws from the rear of the case and remove the top cover. After that unscrew the screws from the graphics card support bracket and PSU bracket and then remove them.
Install the CPU and cooling fan
Now, let’s move back to the motherboard. I would recommend installing the CPU and cooling fan to the motherboard before mounting it to the computer.
You can follow the user manual for detailed steps on how to install Intel’s processor and Noctua’s CPU cooler.
Install the RAM memory
Installing memory modules is easy. Just spread the retaining clips at both ends of the memory socket and place the memory module in place.
Mount the motherboard
Once the CPU, cooler and memory are installed on the motherboard, it is time to mount it inside the case. Insert the motherboard’s I/O shield to the back of the case and place the motherboard within the case by positioning it into its I/O shield.
Then, align the mounting screw holes on the motherboard and secure it in place with screws.
Mount the power supply
Next, place the PSU bracket on top of the case and connect the power cord to the power supply. Then, you can insert the power supply bracket back in place and secure it with screws.
Install the graphics card
In order to install the graphics card, remove the expansion slot cover and then insert the graphics card into the support bracket.
Secure the graphics card’s bracket to the case back panel with a screw.
Install the solid state drive
Next, you should install the Solid State Drive into Silverstone ML07 case’s graphics card support bracket. Connect the power cable to the SSD drive and a SATA cable to both the SSD and the motherboard.
Install the optical drive
If you decided to use an optical drive such as a Blu-ray drive, mount the Blu-ray drive into graphics card support bracket and secure it with screws.
Connect the front panel ports
As a last step before powering the system for the first time, it is good idea to do proper cable management to ensure good airflow inside the case.
Turn it on
It is time to plug in the power cord, HDMI cable, USB keyboard, wireless game control receiver and Flirc USB device then switch the power on. I would recommend leaving the case open when you turn it on for the first time in case you need to do some last minute troubleshooting or reconnecting of cables.
Operating system alternative 1: Windows 8.1
Installing Windows 8.1 is very straight forward. You can follow these instructions on how to install Windows 8.1.
When you turn the system on for the first time, remember to enter into your BIOS setup by pressing the “Delete” key on your keyboard.
Change the boot priority, to ensure that the computer will boot from the DVD first in order to install Windows.
After the Windows operating system installation is completed, it is time to install graphics drivers.
Download the drivers for the Radeon HD7750 graphics card here and follow the installation instructions on the screen.
Launch Steam from XBMC
As this is essentially a HTPC, I wanted to use XBMC Media Center as the main platform for booting the computer. I also integrated Steam Big Picture with the XBMC main menu using a Steam Launcher add-on.
First, you will need to download the following software:
After installing XBMC and Steam, you need to install the Steam Launcher add-on.
- Download Steam Launcher add-on for XBMC
- In XBMC, go to System > Add-ons > Install from ZIP file and install script.steam.launcher-0.9.15.zip
- Go back to home menu and select Programs menu
- Press C-key over the Steam to enter the add-on settings in the context menu
- Set the XBMC and Steam location under Windows
- Save Steam Launcher settings
Now you are ready to launch the Steam for the first time. To make it more convinient to find the Steam launcher next time, I would recommend adding the Steam add-on as a favourite on the home menu.
Set autologin and Install XBMC Launcher
Lastly, I would recommend enabling the autologin to make using Windows-based HTPC more like an appliance.
In addition, I would strongly recommend using an application called XBMC Launcher which will allow you to launch XBMC automatically on start up.
Operating system alternative 2: Linux-based SteamOS
If you don’t want to pay an additional $100 for the Windows operating system, you should consider using a Linux-based SteamOS. In this section, I will show you how to install SteamOS and integrate it with XBMC.
Please note that SteamOS is currently in beta stage and this area is still developing on this area, so I will update this section once there are better ways to integrate SteamOS with XBMC.
I will use the default installation method, which means installing a pre-configured SteamOS image on a hard drive that should be at least 1TB.
Please note that you will need to use a regular hard drive such as Western Digital Green HDD unless you have a particularly large SSD drive. In addition, you will also need a 4GB or larger USB stick.
- First, download the default SteamOS beta installation
- Format the USB stick with the FAT32 filesystem and name the partition as “SYSRESTORE”.
- Unzip the SteamOSImage.zip and copy the files to the USB stick
- Insert the USB stick in your HTPC and turn the computer on
- Enter into your BIOS setup by pressing the “Delete” key on your keyboard
- Change the boot priority, to ensure that the computer will boot from the UEFI USB drive
- Restart the computer again and select “Restore Entire Disk” from the GRUB menu
- Wait until the installation is complete and boot the HTPC into the SteamOS
Install XBMC on SteamOS
The great advantage of SteamOS, when compared to other game consoles, is that you can customize it as you like since it is based on Debian Linux distribution.
However, installing the latest XBMC on Debian proved to be a bit more difficult than I expected. I found these helpful instructions from the Steam community forum, which pointed me in the right direction, but those instructions only allow you to install an old XBMC Eden v11 version.
After researching the topic more for several hours, I finally found a way to install the XBMC Frodo v12.3 on SteamOS.
These steps are based on Steam community instructions provided by a user called Shark.
- In the Steam Big Picture, go to Settings > Interface and then “Enable access to the Linux Desktop”
- Go to Exit > Return to Desktop
- Open Terminal by going to Activities and then Applications
- In the Terminal window type passwd and create a new UNIX password in order to install applications as an administrator
- Type “sudo nano /etc/apt/sources.list”
- Go to bottom of the file and add the following line
- deb ftp://ftp.us.debian.org/debian testing main
- Press “CTRL-X” and then “y” and press “Enter” to save
- Type “sudo nano /etc/apt/preferences”
- Copy the following lines to the file:
- Package: *
- Pin: release l=SteamOS
- Pin-Priority: 900
- Package: *
- Pin: release l=Debian
- Save the file by pressing “CTRL-X” and then “y” and press “Enter”
- Type “sudo apt-get update”
- Type “sudo apt-get install -t testing xbmc” and type “Y” and press “Enter” to continue
That’s it! Now, you can launch XBMC from the Applications menu under Activities.
Second, I integrated XBMC with SteamOS using these instructions.
Type the following commands:
- sudo su
- cd /usr/share/xsessions/
- mv gnome.desktop gnome-old.desktop
- cp XBMC.desktop gnome.desktop
You can now reboot the computer. After SteamOS has launched, select “Exit” and “Return to Desktop” to launch XBMC. You can then return back to Steam by selecting “Exit” in the XBMC.
You can restore the original desktop back by typing the following in the terminal:
- sudo su
- cd /usr/share/xsessions/
- rm gnome.desktop
- mv gnome-old.desktop gnome.desktop
Tip: I would recommend installing the Aeon Nox or Aeon MQ5 skin since they look good with Steam’s Big Picture theme.
As long as you aren’t expecting high-end performance, it’s possible to build a passively-cooled system powerful enough for silent gaming.
In order to build an all-in-one gaming HTPC that is capable of playing games and Blu-ray movies, then you should install Windows 8.1.
If you want to save money and you are okay with a smaller selection of games, then you should consider using SteamOS operating system.
So, if you are now interested in building this gaming HTPC,
click here for a full component listing of my performance build.