Is using a Lenovo SFF as a Linux gaming PC a good idea?

How Linux transformed an old desktop into a (un)worthy Steam box.

by Pete
Published: Updated: 10 minutes read

What should you do with an outdated Lenovo M710q Tiny desktop computer? Make a SteamOS machine out of it and see how it performs. To be clear, this microcomputer is not a graphics powerhouse; in fact, it falls far short of the capabilities of today’s integrated graphics options from AMD and Intel. But it’s what I have, and it’ll suffice.

I believe that the journey is more important than the destination in this case. And you’ve probably seen a tonne of YouTube videos on Single Board Computers as retro computers or 4K gaming on brand new CPUs with integrated GPS. But if you don’t have any of those things but do have $200 or so to spend on a refurbished PC, let’s dive in and see if my experience inspires you to repurpose an old computer for gaming.

The M710q

The Lenovo M710q is a now discontinued model of M series machines from the desktop giant. My variant runs an Intel i5-7400T with integrated Intel HD Graphics 630 chipset; it’s sports 8GB RAM (sharing with VRAM). Additionally, my unit came standard with a Samsung 256GB NVME drive and I later added a Samsung 870 EVO 500GB for additional storage, and by doing so, using up the only spare SATA port on the tiny motherboard.

The Lenovo M710q is a model of Lenovo’s M series machines that is no longer available. My model is powered by an Intel i5-7400T processor with an integrated Intel HD Graphics 630 chipset and 8GB of RAM (sharing with VRAM). Furthermore, my unit came standard with a Samsung 256GB NVME drive, and I later added a Samsung 870 EVO 500GB for additional storage, utilising the tiny motherboard’s only spare SATA port.

The Intel i5-7400T

Let’s start with the fact that the 7400T has a lower TDP than its 7400 brother, at 35W vs. 65W, and thus offers slightly lower clock speeds and performance (rating Geekbench5 778 single core and 2713 scores tested under Linux) because this is a tiny PC aimed at the business market rather than the gaming market. The 7400T has a base frequency of 2.4 GHz and can burst its four cores to 3 GHz when necessary.

So please, don’t buy the T variant if you’re wanting outright performance. But I’m here, and I have to roll with it. Let’s press on.

The Intel Graphics 630

With no room in the tiny case for even a low-profile discrete GPU, I’m forced to rely on the integrated Intel. Fortunately, my M710q includes an HDMI output adapter in addition to the standard Display Port, making it a little easier to plug it into my FHD Sony TV.

The little blighter can do 4K for general use, but it’s not going to cut it for “gaming.” But what interests me is that the chip supports OpenGL 4.5 and DX 12, so all is not lost. Using Geekbench, the 630 achieves a Vulkan score of 4039. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.

Base OS

I had initially installed Windows 10 and was “persevering” with Steam games; some ran at full speed at 1080p, while others struggled, necessitating resolution downgrades as well as graphic quality reduction. Also, I have two Logitech F710 wireless controllers that have ALWAYS caused me problems under Windows by “forgetting” to exist after every reboot, necessitating the unplugging and replugging of the USB dongles. I tried numerous hacks to fix this and eventually accepted my fate there.

Then I upgraded to Windows 11, and wow, what a performance hit this little guy took. FPS dropped by at least ten points, and some games ran so poorly that I gave up. I needed a solution. At the time, I was switching to Kubuntu on my main computer, and because my experience with Steam on my main desktop had been positive with the Proton engine, I reasoned that it couldn’t get any worse.

Enter the Kubuntu Dragon

Kubuntu Version running on my desktop

That is where I am now: Kubuntu 22.04.1 LTS on the M710q with kernel 5.15.0. (As of this writing.) For legacy reasons, I’m still dual booting with Windows, but it boots to Linux by default. I fired up Steam, enabled Proton support, made Steam start in Big Picture mode, and Kubuntu automatically logged me in using a generic “steam” account using the latest Mesa drivers for the Intel.

Steam Big Picture

Oh, and the problem with my F710 gamepads not being recognised simply vanished under Linux; they appear after boot as expected, and I no longer have to worry about them dropping off. a welcome (positive) unintended side effect.) 

Some tweaks

To be honest, the only changes I’ve made have been cosmetic. Wallpaper, the KDE taskbar, the start-menu icon (using the Steam logo), and minimal desktop icons are examples. The rest is standard Kubuntu. I know there are performance kernels available, and I can experiment with Proton versions, but for the games I’m playing (mostly platformers and the occasional FPS), the performance is adequate.

I did make GRUB’s bootmenu more visually appealing by using Distro Grub Themes from the KDE Store (I went with the Ubuntu theme, in case you’re curious). Grub Customizer (sudo apt-get install grub-customizer) provided me with a nice GUI-based tool for updating GRUB menus and themes.

Kubuntu Desktop

One final addition was KDE Connect, which allows me to remotely control the machine (shutdown, send update commands, etc.). I also added it to my Home Assistant’s ping functions to notify me if it was left on. (My son occasionally plays and then turns off the TV.) Because the unit fits neatly behind the wall-mounted TV, there’s no way to tell if the PC is turned on or off.

What’s the performance like?

To be fair – and generally speaking – not great but playable. @1080p, the Intel 630 just can’t cut the mustard for constant 60fps. I did try dropping resolution in some titles to 720p in most games but it made such little difference I opted for the better looking 1080p. Keep in mind that I’m not attempting to play Battlefield 2042 or Forza Horizon 5 here, let’s be clear about the machine’s capabilities: it’s for Retro gaming and the odd older game like Left 4 Dead 2, or 2D platformers.

Head over to Passmark for a comparison against latest cards.

RetroArch

At default settings, NES, SNES, SMS, 32X, PSX emulation, and everything below those generations run like champions on this processor and GPU at stock emulator settings (ie: no filters, shaders, etc.). The Dreamcast and Saturn push the limits but are still very playable with the proper settings. The N64 also performs well, but don’t expect it to be flawless and reliably at 1080p or above.

So, there you have it

Was it worthwhile to make the switch to Linux? Certainly, and then some. I didn’t expect Windows-only games to perform better under Proton, but there you have it. While the machine isn’t capable of 4K, I’m content with FHD for most games, though I do sacrifice overall quality at that resolution. Some games (like Grid) and high-motion titles I still need to turn down, but for a quick belt around the odd SNES or Genesis title under Retroarch, it’s great.

All in all, it might not be a replacement for your gaming PC, but as an emulation device and as an experiment, it’s been fun.