Monday, May 16, 2022

Microsoft Surface Laptop SE review: Just buy a Chromebook

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

When I’m reviewing a particularly ugly Windows laptop, I’ll often refer to it as a “laptop cart” look. If you were a student sometime after the early 2000s, you probably understand why. The laptops that schools give to elementary and middle school students are famously ugly, old, and awful in all sorts of ways.

With the Surface Laptop SE, which is tailor-made for education and sold only to schools, Microsoft is trying to take a different path. The Surface Laptop SE is a cute laptop. It looks like a miniature version of the company’s flagship Surface Laptop line, complete with the recognizable logo on the lid and bottom bezel. It is quite light, only 2.45 pounds. Unlike many clunky school models out there, this is one device that I can easily find appealing to adults in the consumer space.

If it wasn’t so slow.

I’m not going to hold back: this is the slowest computer I’ve ever used. I’ve tested all kinds of Chromebooks, tablets, and cheap Windows laptops in my tenure 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 (my model costs $329, though I’m sure schools will negotiate bulk pricing and the like), but boy, it’s slow. It takes a while for pages to load and windows to resize to where I need them. Jumping between the dozens of Chrome tabs I usually use was a pain, and typing in Google Docs was rather slow.

‘Slow’ is of course a relative and somewhat subjective term. The speed expectations of a mature laptop reviewer who spends all day on Zoom are likely to be very different from those of the average third-grader. So I called up some teachers and asked what exactly their students are doing on their school-issued devices and how much power they realistically need.

The Surface Laptop SE with The Verge homepage.

You might not expect Celeron here.

Whitney Rancourt, a reading teacher at an elementary school in Texas, says her students complete many of their assignments in Google Classroom, as well as some other educational software that I was unable to download and test because the Laptop SE doesn’t allow users to download things themselves (well for schools, a hassle for me). With Rancourt, they can play background music while they work and play math games or listen to audio books when they finish early. Her students generally do one thing at a time and don’t have to open multiple tabs.

The Laptop SE is certainly good enough for this sort of thing. One 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 ran fine, although my poor performance was a stark reminder of how long it’s been since I took algebra.

The Surface Laptop SE closed, seen from above, on the edge of a wooden table.

Maybe Microsoft should market this as a “Prodigy-playing machine”.

The lock slot on the left side of the Surface Laptop SE.

Lock lock on the left.

The ports on the right side of the Surface Laptop SE.

Audio jack, charging port, USB-C, USB-A on the right.

For older children I am a bit more skeptical. Robert Puharich, a high school health teacher in British Columbia, generally has his students use their laptops to do research on the Internet — reading articles, Googling, and so on. They also make extensive use of Microsoft Word and can occasionally edit images in Photoshop. They usually run as many as five browser tabs at once during these research sessions, Puharich says.

Five tabs would push it on this laptop I think, especially if you have limited time to complete your assignment before it gets back on the cart. If I were doing that level of multitasking, I’d much rather be on the $349 Lenovo Flex 3 Chromebook (also Celeron powered), on which I could use more than a dozen Chrome tabs without a problem.

Microsoft’s own apps like Word and Paint are unsurprisingly a lot smoother on the Laptop SE than any of the browser-based G-Suite stuff I’ve been using. Chrome usually took a few seconds longer to open and load documents than Word did.

The Laptop SE isn’t great for video calling either, which Puharich’s students sometimes have to do. During every Zoom call I made on the SE, at some point I got a notification that the CPU was overloaded. The audio was cracking and coworkers often told me I was frozen.

When I review a computer, I use that computer religiously for everything I do during that test period, no matter 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 as I couldn’t rely on this Celeron not to mess it up. Students certainly don’t need perfect webcam quality, but they do need to be able to hear what their teacher is saying reliably, without distortion.

The Surface Laptop SE keyboard seen from above.

All apps launch immediately in full screen – useful for younger kids too, and likely more of a nuisance as they get older.

The Microsoft logo on the bottom edge of the Surface Laptop SE.

I can’t deny that it’s a beautiful logo.

So when it comes to performance, the SE is a bit of a mixed bag. In other areas that Rancourt and Puharich find important, results also diverged.

For example: sustainability. This is the quality that both teachers considered most important for a student laptop. After all, these devices are used all day, every day, by many different students who may not have really invested in their lifetime. “They have to fall a lot and withstand bad handling,” said Rancourt, whose students use Chromebooks in the classroom. “Even when we teach and relearn how to carry the laptop from one class to another, we can slip and fall.”

The Laptop SE is absolutely sturdy. I was intentionally rough with it during my week of use, throwing it around, pounding it into backpacks, and eating and drinking nearby. (Sorry, Microsoft!). No scratches or dents.

I also appreciate that the SE is also reasonably repairable, with seven screws on the bottom that are easy to reach and remove. Microsoft has said it will sell spare parts through its authorized service providers, allowing IT administrators to replace components on-site rather than having to ship devices elsewhere for repair. 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 about that. It’s very nice. But after only a week of testing, there were already a few visible marks on it. I can’t imagine it won’t be visibly filthy with dozens of hands wiping it out every week.

The lid of the Surface Laptop SE is closed.

Rounded corners don’t sting like laptop corners do.

Both teachers 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 the classroom because it wasn’t properly charged on the cart leaves teachers a unit short. Unfortunately, the Surface Laptop SE didn’t reliably last an entire school day without interruption — I sometimes saw more than six hours on a single charge, but often got closer to five and a half.

Start-up time also came up a few times in my conversations with teachers. Installing a classroom full of kids on laptops without having to wait ages for those computers to turn on is already quite an undertaking. With the current Windows laptops from Puharich’s school (which are “terrible,” he says), “by the time you’ve unloaded the cart, booted the computer, and found all the problems, you should clear them up.” He added: “If you can load the thing as fast as possible, that would solve most of our problems.”

I’m sure the SE boots up faster than the old machines Puharich uses, but I still wasn’t blown away by the speed. After shutting down, the SE may take more than 30 seconds to open the Windows login screen and another 15 seconds to get to the desktop from there. Even a budget Chromebook or an older iPad should be up and running in less than half that time.

The Surface Laptop SE webcam.

Microsoft apps such as Teams, Office, and OneNote are preinstalled.

The Surface Laptop SE half open on the edge of a wooden table.

Only IT administrators can download and install apps.

But the biggest issue I have with the Surface Laptop SE is the screen size. Puharic and Rancourt recognize the value of portability, but they both also strongly believe that 11.6 inches is too small. They have both worked with students with visual or learning disabilities who need text to be very large. I had to constantly zoom out on the Laptop SE (make text small) to see the content I needed – a device of this size probably wouldn’t serve those students well. (The screen also has a pretty low resolution, just 1366 x 768.)

Ultimately, I think the main arguments for the Surface Laptop SE are its design and reparability. It looks and feels a few notches nicer than most of the clunky Windows laptops schools are currently handing out. It is capable of doing the work that an elementary school student could do. And I don’t want to undercut the replaceable parts – that’s huge for IT departments, and it’s great to see Microsoft commit to such a big effort for repairability.

But when evaluating this device, customers will need to figure out how to balance the needs of IT administrators with the needs of educators and students. That calculus can look different for every school. But the older a child gets and the more savvy they become with the Internet, the more their load can put a strain on this processor. There are Chromebooks and iPads with faster performance, faster boot times, and better battery life that are also worth checking out.

And at the end of the day, I’d urge schools to spend more on bigger screen, higher resolution devices if they can because it’s worth investing in accessibility for all students.

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