Microsoft Surface Laptop SE review

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE review
Microsoft Surface Laptop SE review

Whether the student in your life is back in the classroom or still learning remotely, having a good laptop for schoolwork is as important as ever. The $249 Surface Laptop SE is the latest attempt at delivering just that, distilling Microsoft’s flagship notebook into a more compact, affordable and streamlined package that’s designed for K-8 students to be able to pick up with ease.

The Laptop SE does 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 daily commutes to class. But given its limited availability and narrow focus as a device for educators to buy for their classrooms, it’s not the ideal choice for someone who wants to both do homework and hop on some after-school digital hangouts.

Wondering if the Surface Laptop SE makes sense for the student in your life? We worked on it for one week. Here are our thoughts.

The Surface Laptop SE is a decent affordable laptop for K-8 educators looking to outfit their class with computers, but individual users are better off with a Chromebook or 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 unboxing the Surface Laptop SE, which is a more compact, just-the-basics version of Microsoft’s excellent Surface Laptop series. The notebook’s all-white design is simple and elegant, and it feels sturdy for a mostly plastic machine. I especially love how lightweight this 11-inch laptop is at just 2.45 pounds — perfect for throwing 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 more expensive Surface Laptop 4, I eventually got comfortable typing on it for hours at a time.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE

I normally wouldn’t praise a laptop for having only two ports, but the Surface Laptop SE has just the right connections for most young students. You get a USB-C port (ideal for modern accessories and storage drives) and a USB-A port for connecting to the vast majority of mice, keyboards and webcams you may have lying around your home or classroom. Most premium laptops have long ditched USB-A, but it’s a worthwhile port for legacy accessories, and one that’s especially useful on a school-focused laptop. There’s also a headphone jack to hop on a Zoom class or watch 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 at its low 1366 x 768 resolution — especially with those huge bezels — but it’s more than serviceable given the notebook’s purpose and price. An 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 bottom-facing stereo speakers were sufficient, pumping out audio that wasn’t super loud but clear enough to let me enjoy my daily music playlist or hear my colleagues during a video call.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE

The same can be said about the Laptop SE’s performance, which is perfectly fine for a machine designed for light schoolwork. The SE’s Intel Celeron N4120 processor isn’t built to handle heavy multitasking or intensive video editing, and even during basic use, I noticed some slowness and stutters when jumping between Google Chrome tabs or switching apps in multitasking mode. But the Laptop SE was largely reliable for my daily routine of writing in Google Docs, checking email and sending Slack messages, and those looking for something for doing homework or hopping on remote learning sessions should be just fine.

Windows 11 SE has its benefits

The Surface Laptop SE runs Windows 11 SE, a streamlined version of Windows 11 that’s 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 once, as to not overwhelm students with choice. Many apps open in fullscreen mode by default to give students the best viewing experience possible, and since not all kids are multitasking experts (and also because the Laptop SE’s screen is tiny), the Windows Snap feature only lets you split the screen between up to two apps at once. My review unit of Microsoft’s student laptop came preloaded with Microsoft Office essentials like Word and PowerPoint as well as a few extras like Minecraft: Education Edition and Zoom, which all seem useful for a younger user logging into class every day.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE

Windows 11 SE certainly isn’t the operating system for me — because of the strict permissions set up on my unit, I couldn’t download the third-party apps I use daily, including Slack, Spotify and Discord (though I was able to use these services on a web browser). While that’s inconvenient for me, it makes perfect sense for the educator (or parent) who wants to restrict what their students can download to keep distractions at a minimum — and to keep younger users safe from potentially inappropriate or harmful content.

Only IT administrators can download apps to the Surface Laptop SE, and the laptop is built to get automatic updates outside of school hours via Microsoft’s Intune for Education. It’s also designed for easy repairability, with a bottom panel that you can take off to swap out components after removing just a handful of screws with a screwdriver. So while the Laptop SE certainly isn’t built for typical personal use, educators looking for something they can easily manage for their students may 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 (heck, even the cameras on some $1,000-plus models are bad), but considering how prevalent remote learning has become, I need to call out the Laptop SE’s puny 1-megapixel shooter. While I got through a video call with no complaints, the photos I captured on Microsoft’s laptop were extremely pixelated and blown out. It’ll get the job done for basic check-ins, but if you or your student want to look as clear as possible during virtual sessions, you’re better off plugging in one of our picks for the best webcams.

Microsoft promises up to 16 hours of battery life on the Surface Laptop SE, but the notebook fell way short of that in my testing. This affordable laptop tapped out after about six hours of typical workday use, which included jumping between a few dozen Chrome tabs and hopping on a 30-minute video call, the latter of which seemed to be extra hard on the system’s battery. That might be enough to get younger students through a full school day, but for everyone else, I’d recommend keeping the charger handy when you’re on the road.

This isn’t your typical cheap laptop

The Surface Laptop SE and its unique take on Windows are ideal for a controlled classroom setting, but it’s certainly not a laptop you’ll buy off of the shelf for a kid. In fact, you can’t — the only way to purchase this laptop is to contact a Microsoft Education specialist or get in touch with a Microsoft Authorized Reseller and hash out how many units you’ll 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-fledged Windows machine like the Surface Go 3. Better yet, both of those devices double as tablets for sketching and taking notes.

Bottom line

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE

If you’re in the very specific niche the Surface Laptop SE is targeted at — educators seeking an affordable set of laptops for their classroom — there’s a lot to like about this uniquely student-focused notebook. Its display, performance and keyboard are perfectly good enough for K-8 students, and it offers a streamlined version of Windows 11 that has full, uncompromised versions of apps like Word and PowerPoint (rather than the web-based versions you’ll have to 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 for those who want to buy the student in their life a reliable all-purpose work and play machine. If you’re cool with using primarily Google services and Android apps, the $299 Lenovo Chromebook Duet is one of the best Chromebooks we’ve tested. And if you’re willing to pay a bit more for a full-fledged, unrestricted Windows experience complete with better battery life and camera quality, the $399 Surface Go 3 will better serve you.

How it compares to other cheap laptops we tested

Display 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 LCD 10.5-inch 1920 x 1280 PixelSense touch display 10.1-inch 1920 x 1200 IPS touchscreen
Processor Intel Celeron N4020 / N4120 Intel Pentium Gold 6500Y / Intel Core i3-10100& MediaTek Helio P60T
Memory 4GB/8GB 4GB/8GB 4GB
Storage 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 pounds 9.64 x 6.66 x 0.71 inches; 2.03 pounds
Software Windows 11 SE Windows 11 Home (S mode) Chrome OS
Webcam 1-megapixel 720p 5-megapixel 1080p front camera with Windows Hello; 8-megapixel rear camera 2-megapixel front camera; 8-megapixel rear camera