For years, Microsoft has pushed cheap Windows laptops as the ideal school computers. They can do everything a comparable Chromebook can, while also running traditional Windows software. But now, Microsoft is finally ready to jump into the affordable, kid-friendly PC fray with the $249 Surface Laptop SE. It's one of the first PCs to run Windows 11 SE, a stripped down OS that's targeted at K-8 students (and their beleaguered teachers). You can also expect to see Windows 11 SE devices are coming from Dell, HP, Acer and ASUS, among other PC makers.
Microsoft hasn't had the best luck with Windows variants over the years: Windows 10 S was a limp attempt at delivering a simpler experience for the original Surface Laptop, while the dual-screen focused Windows 10X was eventually cancelled. (Windows 11 basically rose from the ashes of Windows 10 X.) But according to Aaron Woodman, Microsoft's General Manager of Windows, this latest OS is more focused on solving a specific problem: How can Microsoft create the ideal OS experience for students and teachers?
Windows 11 SE attempts to do that by focusing on simplicity. There's no Microsoft Store for installing apps (though IT departments can deploy whatever Win32 and Universal apps they'd like). It's optimized to run on slower hardware. And Microsoft even stripped down the window snapping options by only allowing apps to be on the left or right side of the screen. One of the best parts of Windows 11 is the easy way you can easily shove an app to different corners of your screen, but that's probably too complicated for elementary school-aged kids running notebooks with small screens.
The Surface Laptop SE is similarly basic by design. It's a plastic-shelled notebook that vaguely resembles the Surface Laptop line, especially the previous cheap entry, the $549 Surface Laptop Go. It has an 11.6-inch TFT LCD screen with a 1,366 by 768 resolution — a step above 720p, but below the Laptop Go's sub-1080p display. And don't expect any powerful gear under the hood, as the Surface Laptop SE is limited to dual-core Celeron chips (either the N4020 or N4120), and either 4GB or 8GB of RAM. For storage, there's a choice between 64GB or 128GB eMMC cards.
But really, what else do you expect for a starting price of $249? What's more intriguing about the Surface Laptop SE are the more premium elements that still managed to find their way in. Microsoft brought over the Surface Laptop Go's excellent keyboard and trackpad, as well as its easy-opening lid, Woodman tells us. The Laptop SE also sports a 720p webcam, which is sharper than what we see on most similarly-priced notebooks. And, judging from a brief Teams video chat I had with Dave Alles, General Manager of Surface Laptop SE, its camera and microphone quality are shockingly solid too. (It was easily better than $1,200 laptops I've reviewed.)
For the most part, the Surface Laptop SE appears to be more than enough for a typical grade-school kid. It weighs 2.45 pounds, so it shouldn't be too tough to lug around in tiny backpacks. And its onboard storage, however meager, should be enough to work on Microsoft Office projects offline. Microsoft claims it'll get 16 hours of battery life with "typical device usage." Woodman tells us that the designers had students without reliable internet access in mind. They could download assignments at school, work on them at home, and have their work automatically synchronized when they're back in class.
IT departments would likely appreciate the easily accessible screws on the bottom, making it simple to open up and repair notebooks on-site. The Laptop SE's low price should also make it easier for schools to acquire enough units for every student, instead of sharing a handful of PCs in class.
I'm curious to see how well Windows 11 SE performs on the Laptop SE's slow hardware. And a part of me wonders if giving kids a more limited version of Windows will hurt their ability to tinker with PCs when they're older. But as a former IT support jockey, the Surface Laptop SE appears to be the cheap notebook I've always wanted grade-school students to have. Sure, it's not as flexible as the $400 Surface Go 3, but for basic coursework that won't matter too much. And while I liked the Surface Laptop Go, it starts at $549—so schools could buy two Laptop SEs for around the same price.
At this point, Microsoft is only planning to sell the Laptop SE to schools through education resellers later this year. Normal consumers and businesses won't be able to order them at all. But if it's wildly successful, I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft finds some way to bring this cheap computer to the masses.