Whether the student in your life is back in the classroom or still learning remotely, a good laptop for school work is as important as ever. The $249 Surface Laptop SE is the latest attempt to deliver just that, transforming Microsoft’s flagship notebook into a more compact, affordable, and streamlined package designed for K-8 students to use with absorb lightness.
The Laptop SE gets a lot right, packing a good-enough display, decent performance, and a student-friendly version of Windows 11 into a compact design that’s perfect for your everyday commute to class. But given its limited availability and narrow focus as a device that educators can buy for their classrooms, it’s not the ideal choice for someone who wants to both do homework and participate in some after-school digital hangouts.
Wondering if the Surface Laptop SE makes sense for the student in your life? We worked on it for a week. Here are our thoughts.
The Surface Laptop SE is a decent, affordable laptop for K-8 educators who want to equip their class with computers, but individual users are better off with a Chromebook or a traditional cheap Windows laptop like the Surface Go 3.
what we like
A compact, lightweight design
“Wow, this thing is adorable.” That was my first thought when I unboxed the Surface Laptop SE, which is a more compact version of Microsoft’s excellent Surface Laptop series that just does the basics. The notebook’s all-white design is simple and elegant, and feels sturdy for a primarily plastic device. I particularly like how light this 11-inch laptop is at just 2.45 pounds – perfect for tossing in a bag on the way to school or quickly lugging between rooms when it’s time to do homework . And while the keyboard isn’t as satisfyingly snappy as that of the pricier Surface Laptop 4, I eventually got used to typing on it for hours.
I wouldn’t normally credit a laptop for only having two ports, but the Surface Laptop SE has just the right ports for most young students. You get a USB-C port (great for modern accessories and storage drives) and a USB-A port to connect to the vast majority of mice, keyboards, and webcams you might have lying around your home or classroom. Most premium laptops have long abandoned USB-A, but it’s a worthwhile port for legacy accessories and one that’s particularly useful for a school laptop. There’s also a headphone jack for taking a Zoom class or watching a presentation with minimal distraction.
The display, speakers and performance are just good enough
The Surface Laptop SE’s 11.6-inch LCD display isn’t going to wow anyone with its low 1366 x 768 resolution — especially with those huge bezels — but given the notebook’s purpose and price point, it’s more than serviceable. 8K nature video looked decently detailed on Microsoft’s small screen, and the oranges and greens of various wildlife and foliage were vibrant enough. The Laptop SE’s stereo downward-firing speakers were adequate, delivering audio that wasn’t super loud but was clear enough for me to enjoy my daily music playlist or hear my co-workers during a video call.
The same goes for the Laptop SE’s performance, which is perfectly fine for a device designed for light schoolwork. The SE’s Intel Celeron N4120 processor isn’t built for heavy multitasking or intense video editing, and even during basic use I noticed some slowness and stuttering when switching between Google Chrome tabs or switching apps in multitasking mode. But the Laptop SE has been largely reliable for my daily routine of writing in Google Docs, checking email, and sending Slack messages, and those looking for something to do homework or attend distance learning sessions should look into be okay.
Windows 11 SE has its advantages
Surface Laptop SE runs Windows 11 SE, a streamlined version of Windows 11 designed to eliminate distractions while being easier to use for younger students. For example, the Windows Start menu only shows up to four recommended apps at a time so as not to overwhelm students with choices. Many apps open in full-screen mode by default to give students the best possible viewing experience, and since not all kids are multitasking experts (and also because the Laptop SE’s screen is tiny), the Windows Snap feature lets you use the screen only share between up to two apps at once. My review unit of Microsoft’s student laptop came preinstalled with Microsoft Office essentials like Word and PowerPoint, plus a few goodies like Minecraft: Education Edition and Zoom, all of which seem useful for a younger user who logs into class every day.
Windows 11 SE is certainly not the operating system for me — Due to the strict permissions set up on my device, I couldn’t download the third-party apps I use every day, including Slack, Spotify and Discord (although I was able to use these services in a web browser). While that’s impractical for me, it makes perfect sense for the educator (or parent) who wants to limit what their students can download to keep distractions to a minimum – and to protect younger users from potentially inappropriate or harmful content .
Only IT admins can download apps to the Surface Laptop SE, and the laptop is designed to receive automatic updates outside of school hours via Microsoft’s Intune for Education. It’s also designed for easy repair, with a bottom panel that you can remove to swap out components after removing just a handful of screws with a screwdriver. While the Laptop SE is certainly not built for typical personal use, educators looking for something they can easily manage for their students will find a lot to like about Microsoft’s student laptop.
What we didn’t like
The webcam and battery life aren’t great
I wasn’t expecting a great webcam from a $249 laptop (hell, even the cameras on some $1,000-plus models suck), but considering how widespread remote learning has become, I have to buy the measly 1-megapixel Highlight the Laptop SE’s shooter. While I got through a video call with no complaints, the photos I took on the Microsoft laptop were extremely pixelated and blown out. It gets the job done for easy check-ins, but if you or your student want to look as clear as possible during virtual sessions, you’d better hook up one of our picks for the best webcams.
Microsoft promises a battery life of up to 16 hours for the Surface Laptop SE, but the notebook fell far short of that in my tests. This affordable laptop had failed after about 6 hours of typical workday use, which involved hopping between a couple dozen Chrome tabs and hopping onto a 30-minute video call, the latter of which seemed to be particularly draining on the system’s battery. That might be enough to get younger students through a full day of school, but for everyone else I’d recommend keeping the charger handy when you’re on the go.
This is not your typical cheap laptop
The Surface Laptop SE and its unique take on Windows are ideal for a controlled classroom environment, but it’s certainly not a laptop you buy off the shelf for a kid. In fact, you can’t – the only way to buy this laptop is to contact a Microsoft Education Specialist or go to an Authorized Microsoft Reseller and find out how many units you need for your school.
Those who want something that can be easily bought for an individual and used for both schoolwork and personal playtime are better off with a Chromebook like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet or a full Windows computer like the Surface Go 3. Better yet, both devices double as tablets for sketching and note-taking.
If you’re in the very specific niche that the Surface Laptop SE caters to – educators looking for an affordable set of laptops for their classroom – there’s a lot to like about this unique, student-centric notebook. Its display, performance, and keyboard are perfectly good enough for K-8 students, and it offers a streamlined version of Windows 11 with full, no-compromise versions of apps like Word and PowerPoint (instead of the web-based versions you need). use on a Chromebook).
But unless you’re buying in bulk for a business, the Surface Laptop SE isn’t for you, and there are plenty of worthwhile sub-$300 options out there for those who want to buy their student in their life a reliable all-purpose work and slot machine. If you’re okay with using mostly Google services and Android apps, the $299 Lenovo Chromebook Duet is one of the best Chromebooks we’ve reviewed. And if you’re willing to pay a little more for a full, unrestricted Windows experience with better battery life and camera quality, the $399 Surface Go 3 will serve you better.
Comparison to other budget laptops we tested
|Advertisement||11.6 inch LCD with a resolution of 1366 x 768||10.5 inch 1920 x 1280 PixelSense touch display||10.1 inch 1920 x 1200 IPS touch screen|
|processor||Intel Celeron N4020 / N4120||Intel Pentium Gold 6500Y / Intel Core i3-10100&||Mediatek Helio P60T|
|Storage||4GB / 8GB||4GB / 8GB||4GB|
|warehouse||64GB / 128GB||64GB / 128GB||64GB|
|ports||USB-C, USB-A, headphone jack||USB-C, MicroSDXC card reader, Surface Connect, headphone jack||USB-C|
|Dimensions||11.17 x 7.6 x 0.7 inches, 2.45 pounds||9.65 x 6.9 x 0.33 inches, 1.2 lbs||9.64 x 6.66 x 0.71 inches, 2.03 lbs|
|software||Windows 11SE||Windows 11 Home (S mode)||ChromeOS|
|cam||1 megapixel 720p||5 megapixel 1080p front camera with Windows Hello; 8 megapixel rear camera||2 megapixel front camera; 8 megapixel rear camera|
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