Valve’s SteamOS is an exciting development for PC gamers, and not just because it has the potential (however small) to disrupt Windows’ deathgrip on the market. The Linux-based operating system is designed to run on what would be a low-end build for a traditional gaming PC, and its interface is meant to make console-style living room gaming the first and best option.
Several PC vendors are offering branded “Steam Machines,” which are pre-configured with the software and ready to play. But there are other options, if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and install SteamOS yourself (it’s free). Here are our picks for the best options on the current market.
For those who already have a Windows-based gaming PC, a Steam Machine is an expensive proposition. Luckily Steam already includes local game streaming: just install the Steam client on another machine, plug in a controller, and you’re ready to go. This tiny Zotac ZBOX P uses an Atom processor, just 2GB of RAM, and Intel HD graphics, so it’s not going to handle 3D gaming on its own very well. But with Windows 10 included, plus an HDMI port, Ethernet, and 802.11N Wi-Fi, it’s ready to stream at under $200. Add a controller (and maybe a 5GHz Wi-Fi adapter) and it makes a fantastic stream machine that can easily hide in your entertainment center, or even attached to your TV’s VESA mount.
CyberPowerPC is a well-known maker of customized PC hardware, and their Steam-branded option is one worth considering. The “Syber” Steam Machine starts with a Core i3-6100 processor, an NVIDIA GTX 950 graphics card, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive for only $500. It won’t run the latest high-end games at the highest settings, but it will handle 1080p gaming for most titles at a modest clip. The design comes with Wi-Fi and a Steam Controller (a $50 value), so it has everything you’ll need to throw it under the television and start playing. More elaborate upgrades, up to a Core i7 processor or the latest GTX 1080 graphics card, are available for more dough.
Zotac’s branded Steam Machine comes with the same 8GB of RAM and 1TB hard drive as the Syber above, but it steps up the graphics card to a GTX 960 (an ideal mid-range card) and swaps out the processor for a Core i5-6400T. It doesn’t hurt that Zotac’s case design is one of the sleeker, more conservative options on the market – a major plus if you don’t want your entertainment center to look like a gamer’s den. The price starts at $900 with a free Steam Controller and (from some retailers) a bundled Steam game.
This boutique PC maker doesn’t actually do much except build the PC for you and install Windows. That gives Origin the freedom to offer the most customizable small computer on this list – even the enclosure comes in eight different flavors from popular case makers. The cheapest Core i5-6500 system weighs in at just under $1500 with a GTX 950 graphics card, 8GB of memory, and a 480GB SSD. More opulent options, including custom paint and the latest Nvidia GPUs, will drive the price up. Note that this price includes a copy of Windows – you can run Steam in Big Picture mode, or install SteamOS to the main system drive instead.
Related: Origin Chronos (2015) review
Falcon Northwest’s stylish Tiki is one of the best small form factor PCs on the market, but it’s not for the faint of heart (or bank account). It’s a high-end gaming machine stuffed into a tiny tower case, complete with a slot loading disc drive on top and a solid aluminum base on the bottom. The base model Tiki costs an eye-popping $2000, but it comes with a Core i5 processor, a built-in liquid cooling system, a GTX 1060 graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid state drive. The highest possible gaming configurations can reach nearly $6000, and that’s before any custom paint jobs or lighting. Luckily there are plenty of configuration options in between to make the perfect mix of excess and temperance. Like the Origin Chronos, this machine comes with Windows, but Steam can be run in Big Picture Mode or SteamOS can be installed as the main operating system.
Related: Falcon Northwest Tiki (2015) review
Build your own!
A “steam machine” is nothing but a gaming PC without Windows. So of course you can always pick up a PC case, a compatible motherboard and processor, then add RAM, a graphics card, a storage drive, and a power supply, and roll your own… for a gigantic discount over a similarly-configured PC from a boutique manufacturer. In most cases you won’t even need a disc drive, since Steam operates exclusively via software downloads. A gaming PC doesn’t need to be a giant tower, either — pick a Micro ATX or Mini ITX enclosure and motherboard, add a decent processor and a high-end graphics card (making sure that the case can handle the card length), and you’ve got a “Steam Machine” that’s more or less identical to the official offerings.
Of course, you’ll need to know how to build a PC before this becomes an option. Don’t worry, it’s much easier than it seems. Check out the Digital Trends PC build guide to get started.