Today Microsoft announced the first true Chromebook competitor we’ve seen with the $250 Surface Laptop SE, a cheap Windows 11 laptop with entry-level specs. It’s perfect for students, and it’s exactly the kind of machine Google and Chrome OS device makers have been churning out for years. Why now?
Let’s back up for a second. The Surface Laptop SE sports a 11.6-inch display with a 1366 x 768 resolution, with a measly 135 ppi. However, this is a 16:9 laptop, which departs from the 3:2 ratio typically prevalent on Microsoft’s tablet-like portable PCs. The change in ratio seems to indicate this is a laptop for getting things done. The keyboard and trackpad are the same as Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go.
Unfortunately, the screen seems too small to lose yourself in your work. Compared to the crisp display on rival Chromebook laptops like Lenovo’s upgraded Chromebook Duet, it’s a relatively low-resolution screen. The Duet has a smaller 10.1-inch full-HD OLED display with a 1920 x 1200 display resolution, with a higher pixel density of 224 ppi.
The processor inside the Surface Laptop SE is pretty underpowered, too. You can configure the SE with either an Intel Celeron N4020 or N4120 processor, coupled with 4GB or 8GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB of eMMC storage. There’s also an embedded 720p front-facing camera to do online school (if anyone is still doing that).
But that screen is still so small, which is why you might end up docking the little Surface Laptop SE. The device has a single USB-A port and one USB-C port, so you could hook up a hub with an HDMI connection to get the screen mirrored on a larger display. The laptop also takes a barrel-type DC connector, which feels a bit old-fashioned, especially as Microsoft’s been pushing its proprietary magnetic Surface Connect charging port.
Hopefully, the battery life makes up for the middling specs. Microsoft promises up to 16 hours of battery with typical device usage. The fine print in its press materials indicates that testing is done with 150 nits of screen brightness, which is much dimmer than our battery tests, which start at 200 nits. In reality, most people crank up that brightness when there are things to get done.
The Microsoft Surface Laptop SE is an affordable way to get a feel for Windows 11. The laptop ships with Windows 11 SE, which was developed based on feedback from teachers and school IT administration teams. Windows 11 SE will likely be rolled out on other education-oriented devices from manufacturers like Dell, Acer, Asus, and Lenovo.
Repairability was a top concern for those managing the wallop of laptops turned in at the end of each school year, so Microsoft made the Surface Laptop SE easier to update and take apart, down to the display, battery, keyboard, and motherboard components. This falls in line with Microsoft’s latest pledge to make more of its devices user-serviceable.
It’s an interesting time for Microsoft to go after the education-focused laptop market, considering the slowdown of Chromebook sales. As vaccination rates increase, the sale of these sorts of low-end devices have started to plummet. However, the patterns seem primarily concentrated in the U.S. and Western Europe, where Chromebooks saturate the market. Asia/Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are still working up the demand for classroom-specific devices. An affordable, repairable Microsoft laptop and its counterparts running Windows 11 SE could see some sales success in those particular areas.