Sony’s VAIO AR-series laptops have long been associated with multimedia use, thanks to big, vibrant screens, feature-packed specifications and cutting edge technology.

The VAIO VGN-AR61E (£650 inc. VAT) is an entry-level machine, however, and can’t rival the others here when it comes to cutting-edge features. It has a 17-inch display, which is colourful and bright, but lacking in sharpness.

Comfortable laptop

Its resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels is quite low among compared to the competition. Screen quality is bright, but you can’t watch high-definition content at full resolution.

In a bid to keep costs down, the Sony uses an nVidia GeForce 8400M GT graphics card. It’s one of the cheaper options, but it still provides adequate performance for most uses, with only the very latest games causing the system to slow.

The keyboard is excellent in terms of usability. The keys are large and have raised centres, responding to the lightest touch.

A good travel prevents mis-strikes, but it rattles under pressure, and the lack of a numeric keypad is an oversight on a machine of this size.

Cramped touchpad

We also found the touchpad cramped, and the mouse buttons – perched on the very edge of the chassis – are some of the most uncomfortable we’ve used, especially if you’re trying to use the machine on your lap.

Build quality is good and the matt black plastics proved more resilient than the glossy finish found on more expensive ARseries models.

The chassis is robust, and more than capable of withstanding the rigours of daily use.

An affordable Sony

In keeping with its affordable price tag, the Sony’s specification looks limited in comparison with the other machines. Its 1.66GHz processor has a much slower clock speed than its rivals, but we found it acceptable for most tasks.

The 200GB hard drive is below average, but is fine for storing loads of files, music and digital photographs. The optical drive is a tri-format DVD rewriter, offering up to 8.5GB of storage space on blank dual-layer DVDs.

Those downloading high-definition movies will be able to output them to a high-definition display, thanks to a neatly concealed HDMI port, and there’s also S-Video and VGA-out ports for older displays.

But the provision of just three USB ports is disappointing.

Good all-rounder

Sony’s VAIO VGN-AR61E proves you don’t have to spend the earth to get a decent multimedia laptop, with its good screen, useful 3D performance and a comfortable keyboard.

It’s not without flaws and the compromised user interface is in need of a refresh.

However, that said, this is a good all-round affordable machine.