Microsoft’s recent Surface Laptop SE offers a new experience to the education market with a small and lightweight laptop that is designed to be easily rolled out and maintained in an education environment. In one way it is not your normal Surface device. In other ways, it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Microsoft.
It’s the SE that confuses me. Two letters that can be tweaked to offer whatever you want to say about the product. “School Edition” feels the most appropriate, but “Specced for Education” could be in there as well. So could “try and make it sound a bit more Apple-y”.
Let’s call it what it is. This is the Microsoft Surface Netbook.
The curious genre that is the netbook started in 2007 before burning out a few years later. The idea of a small and inexpensive PC, that would run a lightweight operating system sounded attractive, and several manufacturers produced some well-known models (the Asus Eee PC range probably being the first to get the package right). After a short flurry, the market decided that tablet computing, along with more powerful sub-notebooks, would be the way forward.\Yet the concept of cheaper and smaller machines with enough power but not too much remains attractive. Step forward the Surface Laptop SE. It is specifically geared towards the education market, and that brings with it several considerations that make the laptop SE a little bit different.
First of all, you can’t just walk into a store, either on the high street or online, and buy a Surface Laptop SE. First of all, the price of $250 means you are not getting top line specifications here. There’s no metal casing, there’s no bezel-free screen, and the performance is not going to run 4K video editing software or the latest version of Portal.
It’s also an education device and as such is only available through suppliers to the education market. If you are looking for a lightweight laptop to do ‘gentle’ day to day work you’re not going to be able to choose the laptop SE. Finally, as an educational device this is not running Windows 11 but Windows 11 SE, a customised version of Windows tailored to deployment in the school environment.
Windows 11 SE is built around two key areas. The first is to run on lower specced machines by reducing the requirements for operations, taking out unnecessary features, and tweaking the UI to be suitable for devices with smaller screens and less processing power. Key education apps are built-in to Windows 11 SE as well, and the Microsoft Store isn’t.
The second is about managing the deployment of devices. That allows IT, admins, who are managing the students’ Laptop SE devices to limit how the laptops are used, what apps can be installed, and to maintain the software on the laptops from a central point.
IT departments will also be happy to note that the Surface Laptop SE continues Microsoft’s move towards making certain Surface hardware easily repairable. In the case of the Laptop SE, a few visible screws and you’ll have access to major elements such as the keyboard to replace on-site.
And so we return to the hardware. It is clear where Microsoft has decided to cut down the specs from the likes of the Surface Laptop Studio to bring the Laptop SE into its low price bracket. The display is only 11.6 inches and a TFT display at that which is just a bit more than 720p resolution. Memory wise you can have a 4 GB AM with 64 GB storage, or an 8 GB / 1287 GB option… both using eMMC rather than SSD. There’s no Windows Hello or any sort of biometrics recognition. The front-facing webcam is just 1 megapixel. 1 USB-A and 1 USB-C port, as well as an old-school barrel charging port (alongside a headphone jack).
That barrel charger is a good illustration of making a device work in the environment. While you can charge over USB-C, the barrel charger is very much standard across the educational environment.
Nothing is stunning on the specs sheet here. It’s a Celeron power, small notebook, that will work quite nicely with the cloud, from file storage through to running the Office 365 suite of apps nicely.
What it does have though is a sense of Surface. Yes, the build cost is lower, but what makes them more expensive devices “Surface” can still be found here. The build feels good, the tactile nature of the material does not feel cheap, and the screen hinge is reassuringly grippy.
A lot of this good feeling comes down to the keyboard and trackpad. Yes, there are compromises in the material, these keys are not backlit, and the material has a slight roughness to it. But the slight roughness makes it easier to sense the keys, the action of the keys is solid with no side to side movement, and the touchpad is sharp and has a satisfying click.
It’s still a plastic machine though, so a hefty press on the trackpad will make it flex enough to see a significant gap, and you can also see the flex on hard sustained presses on the key. In normal use, there’s enough strength to not move the elements, but a heavy-handed user is going to see this once or twice.
The Microsoft Surface Laptop SE does pose a curious question… will it ever go on sale to the public? It’s small, portable, affordable, and would not look out of place in most environments. I love the styling for this price point, but the Celeron processor doesn’t have much performance headroom. Offer this hardware with Qualcomm’s SnapDragon 7c Gen 3 system on chip and run Windows on ARM, and I think you have a winning combination to take on the Chrome OS machines that can be found in the $250-$350 market.
This is a niche device that has been built to fulfil a specific job, and from what I can see it does it well. The education market doesn’t need a whizz-bang processor (the Celeron covers the basics but not much more). What it needs is something robust in hardware and software, something that students will find comfortable to use, and something that fits in with the existing systems. That would be the Surface Laptop SE.
Now read my review of the laptop at the other end of the portfolio, the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio.