Sick of waiting for Valve to come out with their version of a console, I decided to build one myself to replace my Ouya that faithfully powers my viewing experience on my TV. The Ouya itself is a decent piece of hardware and when paired with Kodi, a media player, it does a decent job playing music and videos. The problem with it is that streaming sources are limited. No Amazon, Netflix and Spotify unless you want to do some serious hacking to get it to work.
I had 5 main objectives going into it:
|1||Play saved/online media||Better than expected|
|2||Play CD/DVD||Slight better than I expected|
|3||Play blu-ray||Awful. I will never buy another blu-ray again.|
|4||Gaming||Mixed, but decent|
|5||User experience||Odd, but better than expected|
|Overall||Better than expected|
Part 1: Hardware is like an expensive jigsaw puzzle
After sinking a significant portion of my discretionary income on games and other software over the years, I wanted to enjoy them while sitting in front of my TV like a typical American would do. After a few weeks of research, I finally had enough information on the hardware to use in building a Steam box and media center.
What attracted me is what it isn’t, a full size box that looks like a computer siting on it side. It met all of my criteria.
Black – Think thing is actually too black, it is like an invisible monolith when lights are turned low.
Holds a full sized discrete graphics card
Spot for a Blu-ray player
Sits horizontally on top of a audio receiver
In the end, this was the only case that fit the criteria as the box fills an odd middle point between ATX cases that are too big (and look like computers) and typical ITX boxes that are too small to fit a discrete graphics card. In my experience during the build, the case is great so long as you carefully part out your equipment before the build.
An odd thing is that the case comes with spaces for three 120mm fans, but they only give your two slim styled ones. I ended up purchasing an Antec TrueQuiet case fan and placing it over the CPU and relegated the ones that came with the case moved to support the graphics card.
During the build, I decided to make the machine use a positive flow, meaning all the fans blow inward. The case has lots of holes to move air out. With the graphics card helping fan with exhaust, the machine stays cool and quiet. Even under stress testing, the machine ran cool (64C for the graphics card and 69C for the processor) with the only audible sound being the processor fan if it was under a heavy load.
Power supply: SilverStone ST45SF 450W SFX12V
Upon ignorance of computer power needs, I originally worried that 450 watts wasn’t going to cut it this machine. Later during testing I found it is actually too large. The machine peaks at 166 watts at full load. Oh well, at least it is energy star bronze certified.
I have no real complaints about the power supply outside the cost. Because the case was small, I had to purchase a SFX based version, which was about 50% more than a typical ATX of the same quality.
Processor: Intel Core i5-4590S
After a few days of pondering, I choose this over low power Haswell i5 over a comparable high-end i3. The main reason was I didn’t think a dual core i3 would have the oomph to traverse large directories of files and do complex multitasking functions.
However, this isn’t 2009. An i3 would have worked fine it all but the most demanding tasks. If I had it to do over again, I’d save the $50.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-H97N-WIFI ITX
In most situations, I prefer ASUS boards. They generally have better power user features I look for and having used their equipment for more than a decade, I understand the company’s idiocracies. However Gigabyte has always been my second choice because their lower end boards are no-frills and stable.
Fortunately, I came across this motherboard in a previous build and loved it. It is small, fast, and containing every port needed in a console computer, it pairs perfectly with the case.
I choose this board because:
Bluetooth 4.0 – few ITX board have it.
Has 802.11 AC – Fast wireless and makes pairing with other devices an easy affair.
8 USB ports (6 USB 3.0 with 2 for the front of the machine)
Optical sound out for the 15 year old Sony receiver
Good power saving while sleeping (currently < 1.2 watts)
In use, it has never crashed. The only stability issues were because of BIOS settings, which were solved by shifting the power savings and USB operations to the operating system.
If I fault the board for anything, it is that it only has 2 fan headers, one for the CPU and other for the case. The problem with this is that the case has spots for 3 fans. I ended up splicing them into the single remaining case fan header, but this never causes them to ramp up quickly fast since the power provided by the motherboard is too small. Fortunately, the case is well vented and the components never go much above 40C in normal use.
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2x4GB)
This machine doesn’t need 8GB. 2 or 4 would be fine. But it was a $5 upgrade so why not. In real world use, it causes me to never close any program. Once opened, programs stays that way until reboot since there is little to no overhead in using another half a gig of memory.
I chose this memory purely for the fact that is was cheap and approved by Gigabyte for use in the motherboard.
Drive: Samsung 850 EVO
For this build, I went for speed and power savings. So, no large spinning rust drive for storage. This allowed the machine to only have a SSD. Since I already use this model main machine, it was an easy choice. It is fast, sips power, and stable in a low usage environment.
Graphics card: Sapphire HD 5770 1GB – 100283-3L
A recent throw away from my main machine. However, it still has life so it got a new home. Having had this card for about 4 years now, it performs as expected. 1080p is no problem and most eye candy can be upped at the max. The only reason it was demoted from my main rig was that it had a hard time handling two 1920×1200 monitors.
Originally, I purchased it because reviews highlighted its quiet running. This is still the case. During stress testing, the fan never goes above 45% @ 64C, which causes a barely audible hum in a quiet room but easily drown out by a furnace fan. Wish I could say the same thing about street noise.
The only negative I give is that this card uses a bit too much power. At idle or playing music, the machine uses 53 watts, peaking around 120 during games, which is low for computer standards, but I’d much rather it use under 40. Taking the card out lowers usage drops to 30 watts. My gaming usage patterns will dictate if it stays.
Blu-ray player: Panasonic UJ-265 Slot Load
This was the hardest part to source. Because the case needs a slot-loading player, this is the only one that fits outside the SilverStone branded version that sells for three times as much (and is the same equipment, just rebadged. Unfortunately, it has led to buyer’s remorse since the entertainment industry hates people watching their content on unapproved devices (computers.)
Remote: Rosewill RHRC-11001 Remote
The reason I chose this remote was that I already purchased it for my main PC. Since I never use it, so it was repurposed. I have little to complain about it. Once plugged in, it just worked without software. In Steam and some Metro apps it pairs fine, and Kodi allows find tuning controls and assign buttons to do specific functions. Best part is it can make the computer go to sleep and wake quickly.
It replaced my PS3 Bluetooth remote. There is nothing wrong with this remote, but few people code for it, therefore it tends not to work in many pieces of software. The two issues I had with it is that caused havoc for other Bluetooth devices in the area. The other issue is that it didn’t have a power button for the computer.
Keyboard: Logitech K400
For the price, this is one of the best wireless keyboard integrated mouse combos out there. Everyone I know has at least one of these hanging off their TV.
All functionality works out of the box.
It has multimedia keys
Has a computer on/off button
Good battery life (4 months later and it still has needed new ones)
The only negative is the mouse is a track pad, which is a poor substitute for an actual mouse.
This replaced a Fosmon Bluetooth keyboard/touch pad, which I like OK, but for the fact that the range was 8 feet. To use it, requires the user to sit up and bend toward the screen to work.
Part 2: Construction ahead
The biggest problem during the build was everything was too big or too long. All of the parts are meant for larger systems so the ended up being extra lengths of cords everywhere. Where I could, the went around the edge of the case. Others, I resorted to taping the extra cord to the book of the enclosure with electrical tape.
- Power supply first
- Hard drive
- Attach the processor and fan to the motherboard
- Attach memory to the motherboard
- Install motherboard
- Attach cabling to motherboard
- Attach fan cabling to motherboard
- Install Blu-ray player to extra mount
- Install Blu-ray cabling
- Install graphics card and and cabling to extra mount
- Install extra mount to the case and to the motherboard
- Attach 4 feet to bottom of the computer to help with airflow
- Plug in USB parts as needed
Click pictures to enlarge.
Housing for the solid state drive. The computer can hold 3.5” drives. If you are going to use something smaller, make sure you have a 2.5” to 3.5” mount. The one the drive is on was from and old OCZ drive.
Tip: When building, attach the power supply first otherwise you’ll waste time taking out the motherboard.
When adding a DVD or Blu-ray player, get Mini to Regular PCIe cord like the one at the top. The at the bottom doesn’t fit.
Blue-ray player. To use it, it is better to take off the basel (pictured at the bottom.)
When installing Blu-ray cabling route it between the graphics car and player.
Graphics card. It doesn’t fit directly on the motherboard. Instead the case comes with a small PCIe 16x hookup that attaches to the card, Then the card attaches to the extra mount that holds the Blu-ray player and graphics card.
Tip: Remember not to use a graphics card that is more than 10 inches long or it won’t fit.
The top of this is a picture shows how the extra mount attaches to the motherboard’s PCIe x16 slot.
Tip: If you use a graphics card, you cannot use any additional PCIe slot if the board has one as their will be no room.
Antec fan that faces the processor. It needs to be set at High to rotate fast enough to move air.
Inside the completed computer, minus the extension for the graphics card and blu-ray player that goes on the right.
Underside of the computer. Note the 2 fans with dust grills. At the top right shows where one of the feet should go to improve air flow.
Back side of the motherboard.
Tip: If using a wireless keyboard, place the dongle near the PS3 port (top-left.) This port is the first to initialize and will help you get into the BIOS.
Completed computer. I taped the blue light of the machine with electrical tape because it is super bright. The thing attached to the second USB 3.0 slot is an extra bluetooth dongle for to extend the range of bluetooth devices. It is not needed if you use non-PS3 controllers.
Tip: The case is a finger print magnet. Make sure you clean your hands before assembly.
Controls. The most useful is the Logitech keyboard and Rosewill controller.
Tip: If you are going to use an RF controller like the Rosewill or Logitech Universal remote, place the receiver as close to the TV as possible. Otherwise, you have to do funky calisthenics to move around the menus.
Installation with Kodi running.
Tip: Clean equipment before you take a picture. Digital cameras are a harsh and unforgiving lot.
Part 3: BIOS, it thinks too much
Once built, I made numerous changes to the BIOS in an effort to make the machine work properly. The biggest issue was after waking from sleep numerous parts didn’t wake with it. In the end, I drew two conclusions:
Turn off anything that wasn’t being used (e.g. serial port)
Let Windows handle the power settings
This meant turning off most legacy ports, old technology compatibility settings, and anything non-UEFI. This fixed all of the lingering power issues and made most user interface operations extremely responsive. Any continuing problems at this point seem to be due to software issues.
Eventually I’d like to have the machine to power down to S6 or into hibernation to lower the 1.2 watt stand by power usage, but at this point the S5 lower power mode consumes less than 2 watts, so I can live with that.
Below are the settings I used. The Blue lines indicate the BIOS user interface tab. I documented any setting that I thought about. If it is not on this list, it is set at the default.
|M.I.T. settings||All at Auto||Don’t care to overclock, want stability.|
|Advanced Frequency Settings||All at Auto||Don’t care to overclock, want stability.|
|Advanced Memory Settings||All at Auto||Don’t care to overclock, want stability.|
|Advanced Voltage Settings||All at Auto||Don’t care to overclock, want stability.|
|PC Health States|
|– CPU Fan Speed Control||Quiet|
|– System Farm Speed Control||Quiet||Changing this to be more aggressive messes with my keyboard. 3 fans must draw too much power and affect the USB.|
|– PCIe Slot Configuration||Gen3||Graphics card is that generation|
|– DMI Gen2 Speed||Enabled||Helps with bandwidth of parts in computer|
|– 3DMark01||Disabled||Who cares?|
|CSM Support||Disabled||Have no old parts in the computer so not needed|
|Full Screen LOGO Options||Disabled||Who cares?|
|Fast Boot||Disabled||I will enable it once setting are finalized, but it only shaves a second or two seconds off the boot|
|Execute Disable Bit||Enabled||Anti-hacking tool|
|Intel Virtualization Technology||Disabled||Processor doesn’t support it|
|Intel TXT(LT) Support||Enabled||Anti-hacking tool|
|Dynamic Storage Accelerator||Enabled||Lets the hard drive control its own speed|
|VT-d||Disabled||i5 doesn’t support virtualization|
|Win 8 Feature||Enabled||Have Windows 8. Didn’t want the use the WHQL setting as I have hacked drivers|
|– Boot Mode Selection||UEFI only||Have modern hardware|
|– Storage Boot Option Control||UEFI only||Have modern hardware|
|– Other PCI Device ROM Priority||UEFI OpROM||Have modern hardware|
|Initial Display Output||PCIe||Have graphics card installed|
|PCH LAN Controller||Disabled||There are two LAN controllers, but I only need one. This one had the most problems so it was disabled.|
|XHCI Mode||Disabled||No old USB devices|
|Audio controller||Disabled||I use the HDMI to my TV for sound|
|Intel Processor Graphics||Disabled||Have graphics card installed and one display|
|Intel Rapid Start Technology||Enabled||Using a solid state hard drive|
|Legacy USB||Disabled||No legacy USB|
|XHCI Hand-off||Disabled||No legacy USB|
|EHCI Hand-off||Disabled||No legacy USB|
|Two layer KVM||Disabled||Don’t have one installed|
|SATA Configuration||Only changes I made is to disable ports that that are not in use|
|ISCT Support||Enabled||All ISCT settings are set to enabled for power savings.|
|Serial Port||Disabled||Not in use|
|Power Loading||Enabled||Just in case of under voltage to the house|
|Wake on LAN||Disabled|
|RC6 (Render standby)||Disabled||Have graphics card installed|
|Power On By Keyboard||Enabled||Ability to wake computer from the keyboard|
|Power On By Mouse||Move||Ability to wake computer from the mouse|
|Platform Power Management||Disabled||Problems with the computer on wake not recognizing USB equipment. Causes the graphics card to crash.|
|ErP||Disabled||Want to computer to turn on with a controller or keyboard|
Part 4: Software, this is where the fun starts
Tip: Pin programs to the taskbar or the Metro Start menu. Pressing the Windows key will allow usage of installed without much mouse/controller moving.
Operating System: Windows 8.1 64-bit Home
With all the dislike of 8.1, why choose it over 7 or SteamOS? I having been using since beta testing Windows 8, I learned it has several advantages in the living room:
Metro apps work well on large screens
Has native support for USB 3.0 and other peripheral drivers are built into the OS
Powers on quick (~3 seconds for this machine)
Many tweaks to the user interface make it useful without a mouse
The overall software settings of the machine are for media/game consumption, automation to keep software up-to-date, and power savings. There is no creativity suites and if Windows had it built in, such as Internet Explorer, Windows Defender, or Reader it was used.
|Notepad++||Text viewer||Used to open configuration files and light coding|
|Greenshot||Screen capture||Good to do screen captures with a click of a button|
|Glary Utilities 5||Maintenance||Full version automates defragging, software updates, cleaning up temp files and many other annoying maintenance items.|
|SpeedFan||Hardware testing||To check on temperatures and other metrics.|
|Spybot Search and Destroy||Security||I don’t keep it resident. It is just in case a program goes rogue.|
|Ad Block Plus for IE||Ad Blocker||Blocks ads and malware in Internet Explorer. Also makes the Internet worth surfing.|
|TightVNC||Remote control||Allows access to the computer from tablets and other computers.|
|SCP Controller Driver||PS3 software||Allows PS3 controllers to work through bluetooth.
MotionInJoy works, but it corrupts other USB devices.
When the computer powers on, it goes right into Steam Big Screen view. While it focuses on games, it allows users to favorite non-game software. This opens up other software to controller or remote usage.
It also allows access to a vast game library, of which about 1/4 are controller based. In practice however, many of games had mouse only menus or some barrier that prevents pure controller only usage. I wrote several programs to skip menus or install Xbox controller software for navigation. However, I tired of writing patches so if a game doesn’t allow immediate play, I uninstall it.
Overall, this keyboardless system works well. The user interface is fast and intuitive, doesn’t crash and opens up Windows programs to other ways of controlling them without a mouse.
Kodi attempting (and failing) to play a Breaking Bad Blu-ray. This is why I needed to install PowerDVD. You’d think that content providers would make it easy to consume (and purchase more of) their products.
Kodi (formerly XMBC)
This is the main reason I built the system. Ouya spent about 95% of its time in this program. It was vitally important that this program worked with a keyboard. It is hard to describe what it does to those that don’t own a large media library. It helps catalog the thousands of music, podcasts, video and pictures on servers and in the cloud.
Every day, it pulls in a fresh batch of podcasts and web site RSS feeds to peruse. It also scans Yahoo! to display the weather to satisfy the old man in me. In addition, there is a large library of add-ons that add functionality.
Video and Music Add-ons
- Funamation – A Netflix for anime
- Crunchyroll – A Netflix for anime, manga, and Asian drama
- PBS – American public television, need my Frontline fix to keep tab on Putin
- Rooster Teeth – Funny, got hooked after watching RWBY
- TED Talks – High minded people talk about changing the world
- The Onion – America’s news source
- Udacity – Get your learn on ppl
- Pandora – Music streaming, not as good as Spotify
- NPR – Good for listening to WGLT blues
- Fusion – A gray market add-on that allow access to nearly everything from Estonian live TV to first run movies. Best part, no ads.
|Spotify||Audio streaming||Awesome audio steaming program|
|Media Player Classic HC||Video player||Best video player for desktops and laptops on Windows. Installed with CCCP.|
|VLC||Video player||More for testing video connections.|
|Calibre||E-book/PDF reader||Perfect Viewer is so much better. Too bad that it is Android only|
|Comic Rack||Comic reader||Perfect Viewer is so much better. Too bad that it is Android only|
|Origin||Game store||Sometimes I want to play Mass Effect 3. Despite what people say about the ending it is still an awesome game.|
|Cyberlink PowerDVD 9||Blu-Ray player||It is an OK DVD and Blu-ray player but doesn’t work well with anything but a keyboard and mouse|
|Netflix Metro app||Movie streaming||Works well enough to watch shows with a game controller.|
Failures or things left uninstalled
- Amazon Music – I purchase music from Amazon. I thought about adding it, but a server downloads them to a location that I can get to from Kodi. It does have streaming, but Spotify has a better selection.
- Amazon Prime – They do not have a Metro app to watch video, so I have to use IE (sigh.)
- Controlling the mouse with a controller – Never found a good program to easily control the mouse without using a touchpad. Using a controller is slow and imprecise.
- Desura – A gaming platform for indie games. The problem is that it that you cannot use a controller with it (and they want bankrupt.)