Well-known for its affordable prices, UK based Hi-Grade recently diversified its range to offer more choice to the consumer. Providing a well-specified home entertainment laptop for the entry-level buyer is the Hi-Grade Ultinote A9700 (£1,174 inc. VAT).

Packing mid-level performance and features into one of the two most affordable systems in this group test, the A9700 provides value for money. However, the system is fl awed in a few key areas, leading to a lower level of ability than would be preferred. Avoiding the use of a Pentium or Turion CPU, the A9700 instead uses an AMD Athlon 64 3400 processor running at 2.2GHz.

Effective support comes from 1GB of DDR memory. A 100GB Fujitsu hard drive provides ample storage space and its 5400rpm rotational speed is quick. Performance was predictably high, but comes at the cost of mobility. Scoring 219 points from MobileMark 2005, the Hi-Grade provides strong performance for many tasks. However, its battery life under test of just 148 minutes is less impressive and won't suit frequent travel use.

Equally poor is usability. Although the keyboard is well built and consistently comfortable to use, the touchpad and mouse buttons are badly designed. With no border to the touchpad, it's easy to lose cursor control, and the mouse buttons need overly precise contact to function, limiting usability

Since a home-entertainment laptop must power a range of multimedia tasks, the use of an integrated ATi Radeon Xpress 200M chip is an unusual choice, again intended to keep costs down. Scoring just 1,110 points from 3DMark 2003 tests, this GPU will only suffice for the bare minimum of graphics needs.

Media Center bits

More pleasing is the inclusion of a digital TV tuner and S/PDIF output for connecting external digital audio equipment. In combination with the 17-inch TFT screen of the A9700 - which lacks a Super-TFT coating - the Hi-Grade provides sufficient ability for its entry-level multimedia aims.

Rounding out its abilities are the highspeed network options of the A9700. With 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, the Hi-Grade stays in line with all but the lower specified HP laptop in this test, allowing users to share media files throughout a home network with ease.

While limited in comparison to its peers, the Hi-Grade provides adequate ability entirely expected from its entry-level price tag. For comprehensive performance you will need to look elsewhere, but for an affordable first-step towards multimedia convergence, the Hi-Grade Ultinote A9700 may well fit the bill.