Enlarge / The default Windows 11 SE background image.
Microsoft is fighting off school Chromebooks with the $ 250 Surface Laptop SE, but cheap hardware is only part of the equation. One reason Chromebooks have been successful in education is because of Chrome OS, which is good for low-end hardware, easy for IT admins to manage, and difficult to break with buggy apps or malware.
Microsoft’s answer to Chrome OS is Windows 11 SE. Unlike previous efforts like Windows in S mode (which is still a thing of its own), Windows 11 SE isn’t just a regular version of Windows with a cheaper license or a stripped down version that runs fewer apps. Windows 11 SE, by default, stores all files (including user profile information) in students’ OneDrive accounts, and some standard Windows 11 features have been removed to provide a “distraction-free” learning environment that works better on low-end devices. The operating system also gives IT administrators exclusive control over the apps and browser extensions that can be installed and run through Microsoft Intune.
If you’re an IT administrator for a school with a fleet of PC laptops or desktops, you may be wondering if you can buy and install Windows 11 SE on existing hardware so you can take advantage of the changes without adding new hardware to have to buy. The answer, Microsoft tells us, is no. The only way to get Windows 11 SE is on laptops that come with Windows 11 SE. And if you remap a Windows 11 SE device with a different version of Windows 10 or Windows 11, you won’t even be able to reinstall Windows 11 SE afterwards.
The situation is similar to the way Microsoft licenses the ARM versions of Windows 10 and Windows 11 – these versions are available on new hardware purchased from PC manufacturers, but individuals and organizations cannot purchase licenses to run them on to install their own ARM hardware, such as the Raspberry Pi or Apple Silicon Macs.
It’s true that the standard editions of Windows can also be managed through Intune, so those older laptops and desktops can still be managed using the same tools that administrators use for Windows 11 SE. However, it seems like a missed opportunity to enable school IT administrators to create a single Windows 11 SE operating system image that is deployed across all of the hardware they manage. And this could have been a selling point for Windows 11 SE over Chrome OS, which also cannot be installed on existing PC hardware; Third-party solutions like Neverware’s CloudReady are as close as possible to a version of Chrome OS that runs on anything.
Microsoft has published a documentation (PDF) that explains the differences between Windows 11 SE and the other editions of Windows (including Windows in S mode) in more detail.