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Microsoft launching Windows 11 SE and $249 Surface Laptop SE to take on Chromebooks

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE on a pale orange background
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Windows 11 SE has been unveiled by Microsoft today as a new, student-focused version of Windows 11 aimed squarely at the education market. As with Windows 11, it will be rolled out this year alongside a fresh crop of low-cost Windows 11 SE laptops marketed to schools, led by Microsoft's own new $249 Microsoft Surface Laptop SE. 

This confirms rumors we've heard that Microsoft was working on a Chromebook competitor codenamed Tenjin to try and break into the market for affordable laptops K-12 students can use to do schoolwork and attend classes remotely. 

While the specs of Microsoft's new $249 Surface Laptop SE are pretty meager, they should be more than enough for surfing the web and doing homework — which means Microsoft may have a decent shot at carving out more of the K-12 market for itself.

In addition to the new Surface Laptop SE, get ready to see low-cost Windows 11 SE laptops hitting shelves this year from vendors like Acer, Asus, Dell, Dynabook and more. 

Windows 11 SE: What's different

Windows 11 SE appears to work much the same way as Windows 11, albeit with some unique hooks aimed at the education market. First and foremost, Microsoft says Windows 11 SE has been "optimized for the most-used education experiences", including Microsoft Office apps like Word, Excel, OneNote, OneDrive, and Powerpoint. Those Office apps will be available to use offline on Windows 11 SE if you have a valid Microsoft 365 license, so students without Internet access at home can still do schoolwork. Relevant files will be stored locally by OneDrive, with the goal of syncing them to the cloud once a student returns to school and has Internet access.

Windows 11 SE screenshot showing two windows snapped into place, each with some schoolwork on it

Windows 11 SE will work much the same way as Windows 11, just in a more limited and monitorable fashion (Image credit: Microsoft)

Windows 11 SE will also, according to Microsoft, be easy for school IT admins to set up and configure via the company's extant Windows Autopilot deployment service and Intune for Education device management toolset. Windows 11 SE users will be blocked from downloading and installing apps without IT admin approval, which should give kids a good idea of what to expect from their future office jobs.

However, Microsoft took pains to note Windows 11 SE will support third-party apps like Chrome and Zoom, and the company will continue to try and expand support for the most common apps used in the classroom. So if schools have a favorite test-taking app or monitoring solution, Microsoft wants to make sure it works in Windows 11 SE.

You won't be able to buy a copy of Windows 11 SE, or upgrade to it from Windows 10 or Windows 11. Right now, the only way to get Windows 11 SE (according to Microsoft) is to buy a compatible device with Windows 11 SE pre-installed. Said devices are expected to roll out throughout the rest of the year and into 2022, though they'll be sold through education channels.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE: Specs, price and more

Speaking of Windows 11 SE devices, Microsoft has added a new laptop to the Surface family: the $249 Microsoft Surface Laptop SE. It's an 11-inch plastic laptop with basic specs and what appears to be a thicker, simpler design than its Surface siblings. 

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE open and showing Windows 11 SE on the screen

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE specs
Price$249 to start
Display11.6-inch 720p TFT LCD (1366 x 768)
CPUIntel Celeron N4020 | N4120
GPUIntel UHD Graphics 600
Memory4-8 GB DDR4
Storage64-128 GB eMMC
Ports1 USB-A, 1 USB-C, 1 3.5mm headphone/mic jack, DC power port
Connectivity802.11ac (2x) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Wireless 5.0 LE
Cameras1MP front-facing camera, can capture video @ 720p 30fps
Battery16 hours battery life (advertised)
Size11.7 x 7.6 x 0.7 inches
Weight2.45 lbs

But with a starting price of under $300, what you get is a pretty solid deal. The Intel Celeron N4020 SoC that comes on the default model isn't very fast, but it should be plenty powerful enough to handle light web browsing and homework duties. Its underpowered integrated graphics capabilities won't let you run most PC games on this machine, but for many parents and teachers that's probably a good thing.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE being used by a student in a staged press photo

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The Surface Laptop Studio SE's paltry 4 GB of RAM is about what we expect from Chromebooks and other laptops in the $200-$400 range, though if you splurge on the upgrade to 8 GB you should be rewarded with improved performance. Likewise, it's nice to see the SE ships with 64 GB of storage by default, as that's the bare minimum you really need given that a chunk of it gets eaten up by installing Windows 11 SE. It's better than the 32 GB that you get on an entry-level student Chromebook like the Acer Chromebook Spin 311, though Chrome doesn't take up as much space on the hard drive as Windows 11 SE presumably does. Still, it's probably a good idea to consider upgrading to the Surface Laptop SE's 128 GB storage option if you don't want to worry about managing and deleting files to free up storage space.

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE on a desk

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The laptop itself comes in only one color, Glacier (aka white), and its all-plastic chassis should prove reasonably durable when thrown in a backpack. Microsoft claims the 40W battery should last up to 16 hours of usage on a single charge, though based on our experience testing laptops you'll likely get less than that under real-world conditions.

Microsoft hasn't set a firm date yet on when we can expect the Surface Laptop SE to become available for schools to purchase, saying only that it and other Windows 11 SE devices will roll out throughout 2021 and into 2022.

Outlook

Students around the world are still doing a lot of remote learning due to the global lockdowns enforced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. That's caused a huge spike in demand for cheap laptops that can handle video calls and schoolwork, two things Windows 11 SE and the new $249 Microsoft Surface Laptop SE should be able to handle very well. If they prove popular among educators, this could be a big success for Microsoft.

However, Chromebooks have already eaten Microsoft's lunch in the education market, and it will likely be an uphill battle to convince schools entrenched in the Chrome ecosystem to switch to Windows 11 SE. And it's not like this is Microsoft's first attempt at the market, either: the company has taken a few swings at selling versions of Windows customized for low-powered laptops, from Windows RT to Windows 10 S, and so far none have really matched the popularity of Chromebooks among educators. 

Of course, it may be some time before we know how popular Windows 11 SE and the slew of devices which run it will be, as Microsoft says it expects the majority of new Windows 11 SE devices to become available for ordering through education channels later this year and into 2022.

Alex Wawro

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. He currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.