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Laptops

3 things you should know before you buy your next laptop

From the Cheapskate: The best laptop deal isn't always the deal you should choose. The most important "feature"? Usability.

CNET's Cheapskate scours the Web for great deals on PCs, phones, gadgets and much more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page.


Asus

A couple months back I reviewed, then bought, an Asus ZenBook UX305 -- a thin, lightweight laptop that, at first glance, seemed an ideal replacement for my aging, slowing, increasingly problem-ridden Samsung Series 9.

Though it was already a very solid deal at $699, I decided to take the leap when the Microsoft Store put it on sale for $599. (Incidentally, that very sale is happening again: You can get the ZenBook UX305 Signature Edition for $599 shipped with coupon code SAVE100.)

Now that I've had the chance to live with it and really make it part of my workday, I have a few regrets -- and I'm going to distill those into three things you should strongly consider when shopping for your next laptop.

1. It should have an SSD

Josh Miller/CNET

Actually, the ZenBook has a solid-state drive, and a generous 256GB one at that. It was chief among the reasons I chose the system. I'll never again buy a PC without an SSD.

I mention this because although laptops that come with SSDs still fetch a premium, it's worth it. So worth it. Solid-state drive run considerably faster than their mechanical counterparts. They generate less heat and consume less power -- important benefits for a laptop.

Yes, you may have to accept less total storage, but how much do you really need? Doesn't the cloud do much of the heavy lifting, storage-wise? Trust me, and heed me: Do not buy a laptop without an SSD.

2. It should have backlit keys

The MacBook Air's backlit keyboard allows you to keep computing when the lights go down.

Apple Inc.

I never realized how important this was until I got a laptop with backlit keys (the aforementioned Samsung). I don't use the feature all the time, but when I find myself in a dimly lit work environment, it's utterly invaluable.

Alas, the Asus has non-backlit keys, and I'm kicking myself for thinking I could be happy without. It may seem like a small thing, but I won't buy another laptop that lacks this feature.

3. You should test the keyboard and touchpad first

When shopping for a laptop, especially online, it's really easy to get drawn in by features: high-resolution screen, big SSD, fast processor, etc.

You know what? None of that matters if the machine isn't comfortable to use. And think about the three things you interact with most: keyboard, touchpad and screen. If you don't like the way the keys travel, you won't like the laptop. If the touchpad feels weird or scrolling is unresponsive, you won't like the laptop.

And the screen? Unless it's a matte-finish display, glare will likely drive you insane. Similarly, is the maximum brightness setting really bright enough? The ZenBook touts a high-resolution screen, but it's not super-bright. So when I work in a room with lots of windows and it's sunny out, the screen seems almost dim.

The moral of the story: Try to get some hands- and eyes-on time with a laptop before you buy it. That's a challenge nowadays, but not impossible. At the very least, buy your system from an online store that offers free returns and no restocking fee. That way, if you find the usability lacking, you can try again.

What features do you consider essential in a modern laptop (besides a half-dozen USB-C ports and a frappucino dispenser, of course)?

Bonus deal: Game time! I'm strongly averse to bathroom humor, yet I find few shows as funny as "South Park." (Hmm, maybe I'm not as averse as I thought I was.) And there are few games funnier than South Park: The Stick of Truth, which is now just $7.50 from Ubisoft's Uplay Shop.

That's the lowest price I've seen for this hilarious action-RPG, which is offered here as a download (and requires a Uplay account). Not sure how much longer this deal will be active, so grab it before it goes the way of Kenny.