This has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It has long been known that Google Chromebooks are the go-to student devices for most schools (especially if they are running Google Workspace). I wrote a two part series that you can read here and here about it back in 2018. Interesting about those articles is that there is a lot of student feedback in there which is something you don’t normally see.
How did we get here?
Apple’s answer was creating a low priced iPad and while they are nice to have in a learning environment, if pushed comes to shove a laptop would be better. It is just more productive. Microsoft offered the Microsoft Surface Go. The problem is that it was running full on Windows but didn’t (still doesn’t) seem to have the power under the hood to actually pull that off in a convincing fashion. On top of that – it’s pretty pricey too.
When Microsoft made their new Edge browser on Chromium (what Chrome OS on Chromebooks is built on) many people felt that this would end up with a Microsoft Edge Chromebook like competitor. We kind of got it. This new Surface SE device runs a special version of Windows 11, so it isn’t running a version of Edge that runs the whole show.
So what is it?
It’s a $250 (USD) laptop that only schools can purchase to deploy to their students. Here is a picture of what it looks like.
It looks very much like a $250 Chromebook. Here are the highlights:
11.6″ display that has a resolution of 1366 x 768 (no touchscreen)
Intel Celeron N4020 or N4120 processor (like in a lot of Chromebooks)
64/128 GB of storage (something you do not see on Chromebooks at this price point)
USB-C, USB-A, headphone jack, Power adapter connection
Windows SE and Microsoft Office for Education
When you purchase it you can have it auto-enrolled in your deployment program to make it very easy to get it up and running with students. This will also allow you to remotely manage it as well (push out/remove apps, extensions, bookmarks, etc.)
I’ve never managed Windows devices in a school, but it I would bet dollars for donuts that it is pretty similar to Apple or Chromebooks with what you can do with them (which is a lot).
Windows 11 SE
The SE probably stands for Student Edition though it doesn’t say that on its website. Like Chrome OS it is a cloud operating system. For Chromebooks this means that it needs to be online in order to do most things (browse the web, open Google Docs, etc.) That is probably the case here.
Though it looks like it will have a standalone Microsoft Office Suite installed, so as long as the document is also stored on the device, students should be able to work on them.
Unlike other versions of Windows, this version has no app store and students cannot install apps of their choice. They have to be pushed out it looks like. There might be a future update where students will have access to an app store that is populated with only school approved apps (Chrome OS has this option), but it is unclear right now.
You can only have two windows open at a time side by side. Regular windows will let you have Windows all over the place. This is probably a good decision, especially with an 11.6″ screen. As expected, students cannot create other accounts on here – this is very typical.
Windows 11 SE is also pretty stripped down, so a lot of features or programs that you will find in regular Windows will be absent. This, again, is probably a good thing. It will help keep students focused and without all those other programs taking up space, hopefully Windows 11 runs a lot more efficiently.What I like?
There is a lot to like here
If you are in a school district that runs Microsoft Office for Education, then this is what you’ve been waiting for. This is definitely a Chromebook alternative. It’s cheap, it’s managed by the school or district, it gets kids connected with just the apps they need and it’s repairable.
According The Verge, you should be able to easily get inside and repair screen, keyboard, battery, mother board (I am also assuming you could replace the trackpad too). This is huge for schools. It will allow them to do this repair work themselves and not have to outsource it. We’ve been using Chromebooks here for 4 years and we have never had to send a Chromebook out for repair. We either fix it or we replace it (the latter happens very rarely).
I like the storage options. Chromebooks at that price point you are usually getting only 32GB of storage – here you get 64. That is nice.
I also like that it is a Surface device. If you’ve ever used a Surface device, you know how well built they are. My Surface Book lasted me a good 5-6 years and I bequeathed it to my dear mother and so it is still going strong! I doubt these will last that long, but for 4 years – I bet they’ll last that long pretty consistently.
Questions I have
I still have questions about this whole venture though. Though it is very repairable, how easy will it be to get parts? This is a Microsoft device after all so will you have to go through them to purchase these parts? Chromebooks are great – you can get parts all over the place. No screens available at Stores A, B or C? No problem, let’s look at stores D, E and F. Also, since you can buy these parts from so many different vendors, the price of the parts is reasonable. You’re not going to find a $200 screen replacement for a Samsung, HP, Dell or Lenovo Chromebook. Though if you can only get the parts from Microsoft, you may have to pay more. We will see.
I wonder about Windows 11 SE – how well will it run? My guess is that it will run just fine out of the box and since schools will control what is installed and what updates are pushed out, I expect this thing to run . . . fine. I don’t expect it to be a blazing fast iPad but I do expect it to chug through its jobs consistently without too much of an issue.
A big question is what happens with these devices when a school is done with them? What we do with our Chromebooks is to de-provision them and then give them to the families. This means, that it is reset to factory settings, it removes all restrictions. It basically becomes another, regular old Chromebook you would buy.
With this – I don’t know. I think it can only run Windows 11 SE. This means no Microsoft Store. If it is deprovisioned, does it get Windows 11 Home? That would be sweet, but if not can it be used outside of a school environment? If not, this seems like a waste – even at the $250 price point.
If you are not a Microsoft school, then obviously don’t use this thing. I mean – why would you? If you are however – you owe it to yourself and your students to look at this as an IT option. We will know more later this year and certainly next school year when schools start deploying these bad boys in the thousands. Until then I’ll keep my ear to the ground and try report back what I hear.
What do you think of the Surface SE? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
I am definitely a big supporter of Google Apps for Education. There are no ifs,ans, or buts about it. However, when I took a new job in China I promised myself, as well as the school, I would focus on solutions that were 100% legal and, when possible, payable with local currency.
Aside from supporting Google Apps, I am more of a supporter of cloud computing and collaborative networks. This was the spirit which powered the original concept of the internet, and although it died for awhile, it has now come back. Working with servers that can be virtually deployed and expanded in minutes if amazing. Each one the same, with all standards and security set and ready to go.
So here I am, in the land of the Anti-Google. My search, as you know from previous posts, was exhaustive for collaborative groupware. I thought that we were going to have to license and host our own system, but I was wrong. A chance meeting with Microsoft on the eve of making a purchase changed the direction we were going. They let us know the free tier for Office 365 for Education was available in China.
I was excited, because it was a product I knew enough about to know it would meet our needs and allow us to use a variety of interconnected web applications. So, the process began. The first step was to find a school, similar to ours, using Office 365 for Education here in China. Microsoft had told us the data center was actually in China. We needed to test the speed, features, and look for limitations.Luckily we found a school, and the assessment began.
Using Office 365 this last week reminded me of the first time I really started liking Google Apps. This is a positive point, because my actual initial Office 365 experience was awful. The first thing that occurred to me was that the Skydrive Pro was actually just Sharepoint. This was annoying because I actually like the Skydrive interface. Also, the un-user-friendly features of Sharepoint are right in the face of all the users. My overall dislike of Sharepoint in an educational environment still has not changed, but at least there are now ways to avoid some of the Sharepoint specific issues.
Overall, feature for feature, Office 365 is still lagging behind. There is still an obvious focus to keep users on the desktop. Some options required a shared item to be downloaded, worked-on, and then re-uploaded. For example, moving a file straight from email to Skydrive Pro for editing is not always possible. The collaboration tools are there but slow and not as fluid and flexible as Google Apps. The menu system is a copy of the desktop based software, and that seems odd to me considering the various interfaces which are proven and being used all over internet.
If I wanted to be critical, I would be here all day. Instead I will say this, if you are already paying for MS Office Licensing, and you can afford it (and the upcoming rise in prices), then Office 365 is not that bad. You can move to a more collaborative philosophy leveraging its features without too much time spent training on a new system.
I forgot to mention, Office 365 is not really free. There are various levels of the Office 365 package. If you want to have desktop software for the users, then you will be paying a per user fee. It is not the same as Google Apps, so keep this in mind. The normal model is to use the free tier, tier 2, for students and tier 3, the cheapest paid tier, for teachers and staff. This means the students will have to acquire their own desktop software if they need it.
The licensing game can get complex. Anyone on Office 365 should really be either 1-1 devices with students or heading there. There is no need to pay licensing for teachers, staff, and shared hardware. Savings will come only if you are not paying for licensing for shared student equipment.
The overall experience of Office 365 left me feeling as I did many years ago when I first started experimenting with Google Apps. I had to keep my desktop software, but sometimes, I could do something cool with Google Apps. Now of course, if I had Google Apps, I would dump my paid desktop software and use something free or cheap for specific desktop processes.
At first I felt nostalgia, but eventually just some nausea from the time travel. Oh well, how does it go…? If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with ~ Stephen Stills via Billy Preston.