When reviewing a particularly ugly Windows laptop, I often refer to it as having a “laptop wagon” look. If you were a student anytime after the early 2000s, you probably understand why. The laptops that schools provide to elementary and middle school students are notoriously ugly, old, and in many ways awful.
Microsoft is taking a different approach with the education-focused Surface Laptop SE, which is only sold to schools. The Surface Laptop SE is a cute laptop. It looks like a miniature version of the company’s flagship Surface laptop range, complete with the recognizable logo on the lid and bottom bezel. It’s fairly light, at just 2.45 pounds. Unlike a lot of clunky school models out there, this is a device I can easily see appealing to adults in the consumer space.
If it weren’t so damn slow.
I won’t hold back here: this is the slowest computer I’ve ever used. I’ve tested all manner of Chromebooks, tablets, and budget Windows laptops in my time as a hardware reviewer and man, this thing crawls. I know Intel’s budget-oriented Celeron N4120 is basically what’s available at this price point (my model is $329, although I’m sure schools will negotiate bulk pricing and the like), but boy is it slow. It takes quite a while for the pages to load and for the windows to resize to where you want them. Jumping between the dozen or so Chrome tabs I typically use was tedious, and typing into Google Docs was quite laggy.
“Slow” is of course a relative and somewhat subjective term. The speed expectations of an adult laptop reviewer who sits on Zoom all day are likely to be quite different than those of the average third grader. So I called a few teachers and asked what exactly their students were doing on their school-issued devices and how much power they realistically needed.
Whitney Rancourt, a Texas-based elementary school reading teacher, says her students do a lot of their assignments in Google Classroom, as well as some other educational software, which I couldn’t download and test because the Laptop SE doesn’t let users download things themselves (good for schools, a hassle for me). Rancourt allows them to play background music while they work and play math games or listen to audiobooks if they finish earlier. Your students generally do one thing at a time and don’t need to have multiple tabs open.
For such things, the Laptop SE is certainly good enough. A tab or app, while not fast, is fine. And good news for students: I tried Prodigy, a math game that Rancourt’s students love to play. It went reasonably well, although my poor performance was a stark reminder of how long it’s been since I learned algebra.
I’m a bit more skeptical about older children. British Columbia middle school health teacher Robert Puharich generally has his students use their laptops to do research on the internet—read articles, google it, and so on. They also use Microsoft Word frequently and can occasionally edit images in Photoshop. They typically run up to five browser tabs at a time during these research sessions, Puharich says.
Five tabs would do the trick on this laptop I think, especially when you have limited time to get your task done before it hits the cart again. If I were going to do this level of multitasking, I’d much rather be on the $349 Lenovo Flex 3 Chromebook (also Celeron-powered), which I could easily run over a dozen Chrome tabs on.
Microsoft’s own apps like Word and Paint run unsurprisingly much smoother on the Laptop SE than any of the browser-based G Suite things I’ve used. Chrome typically took several seconds longer to open and load documents than Word.
The Laptop SE is also not suitable for video calls, which Puharich’s students sometimes have to do. With every Zoom call I made on the SE, I would eventually get a notification that its CPU was overloaded. The audio was crisp and colleagues would often tell me I was frozen.
When I review a computer, I religiously use that computer for everything I do during that period of testing, regardless of how bad that computer is. The SE is the first time I’ve made an exception and made some important video calls on another device because I couldn’t trust this Celeron not to screw it up. Students certainly don’t need perfect webcam quality, but they should be able to reliably hear what their teacher is saying without distortion.
So when it comes to performance, the SE is a bit of a mixed bag. The results were also different in other areas that Rancourt and Puharich consider important.
For example: durability. This is the feature that both educators identified as the most important feature in a student’s laptop. After all, these devices are used all day, every day, by many different students who may not invest heavily in their longevity. “They have to withstand a lot of drops and abuse,” says Rancourt, whose students use Chromebooks in class. “Even as we teach and re-teach how to carry the laptop from one class to another, slips and falls can happen.”
The Laptop SE is definitely robust. I intentionally handled it roughly during my week of use, throwing it around, smashing it into backpacks, and eating and drinking nearby. (Sorry Microsoft!). No scratches or dents.
I also appreciate that the SE is also repairable, with seven screws on the bottom, easy to access and remove. Microsoft has announced that it will sell replacement parts through its authorized service providers, allowing IT admins to replace components on-site instead of having to ship devices elsewhere for repairs. This is probably the biggest advantage the Laptop SE has over most devices of its size.
But that white keyboard deck…I don’t know. It is very nice. But after just a week of my testing, it already had a few visible spots. I can’t imagine that if dozens of hands soil it every week, it won’t be visibly dirty.
Both educators also mentioned battery life. A student’s laptop that dies in the middle of class can be disruptive, and a device that appears dead in a class because it wasn’t properly charged on the cart leaves teachers missing a unit. Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop SE didn’t reliably survive a full school day of non-stop work – I’ve sometimes seen over six hours on a charge, but often got close to five and a half.
Also, in my conversations with teachers, the start time came up a couple of times. Setting up a classroom full of kids on laptops is already enough of an undertaking without having to wait forever for those computers to turn on. With the current Windows laptops from Puharich’s school (which are “awful,” he says), “you have to get rid of them until you unload the cart, boot up the computer, and find all the problems.” He added, “If you put the thing like that loading as fast as possible would solve most of our problems.”
I’m sure the SE starts faster than the old machines Puharich uses, but I still wasn’t blown away by the speed. After powering off, the SE can take over 30 seconds to bring up the Windows logon screen and another 15 seconds to get to the desktop from there. Even a budget Chromebook or older iPad should be up and running in less than half the time.
But the biggest issue I have with the Surface Laptop SE is its screen size. Puharic and Rancourt recognize the value of portability, but both firmly believe that 11.6 inches is too small. They have both worked with students with visual impairments or learning disabilities who need very large text. I had to constantly zoom out (shrink text) on the Laptop SE to see the content I needed – a device this size probably wouldn’t serve these students well. (The screen is also quite low-resolution, at just 1366 x 768.)
Ultimately, I think the main selling points for the Surface Laptop SE are its design and repairability. It looks and feels a few notches better than most of the clunky Windows laptops schools are currently handing out. It is capable of doing the job that an elementary school student could do. And I don’t want to undersell the replaceable parts — that’s huge for IT departments, and it’s great to see Microsoft committing to such a major repair effort.
However, when evaluating this device, customers need to figure out how to balance the needs of their IT administrators with the needs of their teachers and students. This calculus can be different for each school. But the older a child gets and the more Internet-savvy they become, the more their load can weigh on this processor. There are Chromebooks and iPads with faster performance, faster boot time, and better battery life that are also worth checking out.
And at the end of the day, I would urge schools to spend more money on bigger screen, higher resolution devices if they can, because it is worth investing in accessibility for all students.
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