Microsoft’s next Surface device is the company’s latest and most direct attempt to compete with Chromebooks in schools. The $250 Surface Laptop SE is a low-end, 11.6-inch laptop made for basic browsing, document editing, and remote learning. The Surface Laptop SE runs Windows 11 SE, a cloud-focused version of the operating system that preserves the basic look and feel of Windows 11 but allows school IT admins to control which apps are installed and keeps most files and user settings in the cloud rather than on-device.
The Surface Laptop SE’s specifications are uninspiring, and I have my doubts about whether its processor is sufficient for classroom Zooms with dozens of students in them. But the hardware is also about what you’d expect from similarly priced Chromebooks; the machine has a dual-core Intel Celeron N4020 or quad-core Celeron N4120 processor, integrated graphics, 4 or 8 GB of RAM, and 64 or 128 GB of storage. It weighs 2.45 pounds and includes one USB-A port, one USB-C port, a headphone jack, and a proprietary power connector. A netbook-esque 11.6-inch 1366×768 screen, a 720p webcam, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity round out the key specs. This is all largely consistent with leaks from late last month.
One detail that Microsoft provided more information on was repairability. While recent Surface devices have made use of user-replaceable storage and a few other parts, the Surface Laptop SE is meant to be simple to repair. According to Microsoft, “vital components like the display, battery, keyboard—even the motherboard—can be easily repaired onsite, saving time and money for IT admins and schools.”
The Surface Laptop SE includes Windows 11 SE, Microsoft’s latest stab at a stripped-down version of Windows to compete with Chrome OS. Not to be confused with Windows 11 running in S mode—which is still a thing and can easily be switched to a normal Windows 11 installation—Windows 11 SE is meant to be run strictly in schools on hardware managed by school administrators. Microsoft says it has been tuned to run better on low-end devices like the Laptop SE, and it removes a handful of features included in a standard Windows 11 installation in the name of creating a more streamlined, distraction-free experience. The version of Microsoft Edge in Windows 11 SE will also be configured to run Chrome extensions by default, to ease the transition for schools that currently rely on ChromeOS extensions.
Administrators have exclusive control over what apps are installed and run on Windows 11 SE laptops via Microsoft Intune for Education. And as with Chrome OS, user profiles and files are associated with user accounts and saved to the cloud by default, though Microsoft Office and other apps can use local storage when offline and upload to OneDrive when Internet connectivity is restored. And unlike Windows running in S mode, Windows 11 will be able to run third-party apps “including Zoom and Chrome” rather than being restricted to offerings from the Microsoft Store.
The Surface Laptop SE won’t be the only laptop to run Windows 11 SE. Microsoft is partnering with the usual suspects to deliver similarly low-end, low-cost laptops under the Windows 11 SE aegis, including HP, Dell, Lenovo, Dynabook, Acer, Asus, and others. These devices start as low as $219, and cover a wider range of processor types and screen resolutions and sizes; they’ll launch throughout the remainder of 2021 and into 2022.
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