“If you want something done right, do it yourself,” the saying goes. That’s the strategy Microsoft appears to be taking with its new Surface Laptop SE, by far the cheapest PC the company has ever made (the excellent Surface Laptop Go started at $549). It’s a shot across the bow to Google’s Chromebooks, with which Microsoft is taking matters into its own hands, rather than relying exclusively on partners making budget devices.
For years, Microsoft has tried to stave off Chrome OS’ increasing presence in education. Chromebooks are cheap, reliable, and relatively easy to deploy in an educational environment. Despite Windows’ long history (or perhaps because of it), Chromebooks have been steadily growing in popularity in the few short years they’ve been available.
Chrome OS actually surpassed mac OS in market share this year for the first time, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down. This is especially true with the prevalence of remote learning since the pandemic, as as the education market — in the US, at least — has overwhelmingly favored Chromebooks the past few years.
The Surface Laptop SE and the tweaked Windows 11 SE are the company’s latest attempts to persuade educators to stick with Windows. Mercifully, Windows 11 SE isn’t another hobbled, UWP-focused version of Microsoft’s OS like Windows 10S was; in fact, Windows 11 SE doesn’t even include the Microsoft Store.
Instead, Windows 11 SE is simply optimized to run on lower-end hardware and to simplify some details for educations environments, and tweaking some features that don’t make sense on the small, lower-powered devices typically used in schools.
The above sentence describes the Surface Laptop SE too; it has an 11.6-inch screen and is powered by dual-core Celeron (N4020 or N4120) processors with 4/8 GB of RAM and 64/128 GB of storage. It’s also the first Surface PC with a mostly plastic chassis because… well, it’s $249.
That said, the 720p webcam is a nice touch given the price point, and the clean design is nicer than what we normally see in this category, somewhat reminding me of the old white plastic MacBooks from the aughts. Hopefully, Microsoft is keeping the relatively high-quality microphones typically found in its Surface devices as well. The laptop is also meant to be easily repairable, with readily accessible screws at the bottom.
The elephant in room, of course, is performance. Chrome OS shines because it remains reliable even on the most weaksauce processors. Meanwhile, I’ve had busy Zoom and Teams calls bring relatively modern PCs to their knees. The marriage of hardware and software here means Microsoft might be able to optimize Windows for schools in a way previously not possible, but the proof for that is in the pudding.
Still, I’m glad Microsoft is taking this ultra-budget price point more seriously. While it’s clearly aimed at education markets, I certainly wouldn’t mind if these improvements led to Windows being more usable on inexpensive PCs. The Surface Laptop SE arrives in early 2022, so we’ll learn more then.