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Microsoft's $249 Surface Laptop SE takes on Chromebooks

Microsoft hopes its new 11.6-inch Surface, running Windows 11 SE and starting at a low price, will appeal to schools teaching grades K-8.

microsoft-surface-laptop-se
Microsoft

Microsoft's trying to shoulder Google out of the way for a spot at the education trough -- again -- with a low-end Surface sibling. The Surface Laptop SE is a clamshell laptop priced between $249 and $329, depending on the configuration, which will sell via education suppliers. It's designed to run only Windows 11 SE, the company's new pared-to-the-bone operating system that's been tweaked for the K-8 crowd, plus Microsoft 365 for Education and Office apps. If you're a teacher or IT administrator who's been complaining about Chromebooks for the past year, congratulations: You'll now have the opportunity to complain about Windows.

And before you break your brain trying to figure out what "SE" stands for, it doesn't stand for anything, Microsoft says. It also has zero in common with the Surface Laptop.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: An inexpensive notebook with a 2.5-pound (1.1 kilogram) plastic body; 11.6-inch, 1,366x768-pixel LCD screen; dual-core Celeron or quad-core Pentium M CPU; 4GB or 8GB of RAM; 64GB or 128GB eMMC storage; Wi-Fi 5; and a 720p webcam. If you've shopped for a Chromebook for your tween-and-younger kids in the past year, you're probably familiar with the species. 

Toss in one USB-A and one USB-C port, with support for an external monitor, plus an audio jack, and you've got the Surface Laptop SE. Microsoft rates the battery life at up to 16 hours; it doesn't charge through USB-C, but it doesn't require the Surface Connector either. The Surface Laptop SE is repairable but not upgradable, with easily accessed screws and the ability to replace the screen, keyboard and battery, but soldered memory and storage.

Chromebooks are now a staple for schools, in part because Chrome OS can run on a lightweight -- and therefore lightly priced -- configuration. Software and deployment tools have grown around them to provide necessary tools for teachers and IT managers to keep up. 

So it's not surprising that Microsoft's trying to mimic the experience with its own closely integrated hardware/software package at similar prices, and the roll call of manufacturers who bring you the Chromebooks -- Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Dell, HP and more -- will also be offering Windows 11 SE models, which are likely variations on their Chromebooks. 

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Like clothes, kids quickly outgrow 11.6-inch screens. But bigger screens drive up prices, a big reason laptops that size remain so popular. Presumably, we'll see a range of sizes and prices of laptops running Windows 11 SE like we do Chromebooks, but third-party laptop vendors may wait to see what the reception is to the operating system before committing. 

Though schools will be able to deploy standard images of Windows 11 SE, and Microsoft claims one of the benefits of the OS is that the default image includes all the important apps, so admins don't necessarily need to do anything. Admins also won't be able to install Windows 11 SE on systems currently running anything else, just the ones it ships with. That's how Chromebooks work, along with the same completely cloud-based (plus temporary offline capabilities) operation. 

Lest you're worried about the e-waste factor, Microsoft says:

[We] and our partners have done considerable work to reduce the environmental impact of PC replacement via the Microsoft Device Trade-in Program, the Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher Program, and the Microsoft Voluntary Recycling Program, as well as encouraging customers to seek out recycling programs in their local communities.  

Further, Microsoft and many other PC manufacturers have adopted targets to reduce the carbon footprint of new PCs available to purchase compared to older PCs. 

More information on Microsoft's sustainability efforts can be found in the Microsoft Sustainability Report. Information on sustainability efforts specific to Microsoft Devices can be found in the Devices Sustainability Report

It does seem improved over the Windows 10 S (and now Windows 11 S) operating system -- the company's last attempt to "retake the classroom" -- which also launched with some laptop poster children. Unlike the "S" versions, there's no upgrade path to Windows 11 Pro, even if you could run it on this hardware.

I'll leave you with Microsoft's take on my request for clarification about the advantages it thinks Windows 11 SE and related hardware have compared to Chromebooks, beyond simply tighter integration with Office apps:

Windows 11 SE devices like Surface Laptop SE provide great web-first experiences. But these products also offer comprehensive offline experiences, including full use of Microsoft Office applications and a broad set of other offline education experiences, as well as the ability for IT to secure, manage and repair with relative ease.

For example, educators can distribute homework with OneNote ClassNotebook that includes all the material embedded even videos. Students can read and watch videos offline and then type up their responses in OneNote, PowerPoint and/or Word (all of which are pre-installed). Once they reconnect at school their assignments will automatically sync to the cloud and can be turned in.

UK and Australian prices were not announced, but $249 converts to about £185 or AU$340.