Final Analysis & Conclusion
Benchmark Summary: When compared directly to a similarly configured desktop system powered by an AGP Radeon 9800 Pro, the Mobility Radeon 9800 wasn't quite able to catch the full-sized system in any of the benchmarks. It came very close on a few occasions, but the higher-clocked Radeon 9800 Pro was a bit too much handle. Then again, the Mobility Radeon 9800's competition isn't a desktop GPU. It's when compared to other mobile GPUs that the Mobility Radeon 9800 really shines. If we had identical laptops in our possession, each powered by a different mobile GPU, the Mobility Radeon 9800 would likely have been in a class all its own.
ATi has simply been on a roll in the mobile GPU space. Back in May, when we reviewed the Mobility Radeon 9700, ATi already had the fastest mobile gaming GPU available. NVIDIA's GeForce FX Go5700 was the Mobility Radeon 9700's competition at the high-end, but ATi's part proved to be considerably faster in most benchmarks, and it's has also been much more widely adopted. Score 1 for ATi. And here we are, almost 5 months later, and the GeForce FX Go5700 now has to compete with the new, much faster, Mobility Radeon 9800. The Mobility Radeon 9800 improves upon the Mobility Radeon 9700 is almost every way, with double the number of pixel pipelines and the exact same feature set as ATi's current flagship desktop GPUs. So, until NVIDIA launches their counter-attack, it's safe to say ATi is firmly perched atop the mobile 3D GPU food chain. The Mobility Radeon 9800 simply doesn't have a rival at the moment.
There are a couple of niggling issues we'd like to address, however, one of which ATi may not have any control over. First is the fact that most manufacturers offering laptops powered by high-end mobile GPUs like the Mobility Radeon 9800 are well behind the curve with regard to drivers. The drivers available on Dell's web site, for example, were a generation or two behind what is available on ATi's web site. ATi's reference drivers won't install on a laptop without being modified though. If OEMs want gamers to fully embrace gaming on the go, they've got to get on the ball and start updating their drivers with each Catalyst release. Or, ATi could release un-supported Catalyst driver packages that'll install on a mobile GPU without being modified. As someone who has been installing modified Catalyst drivers on a Compaq laptop for the last year or so, I know this is definite possibility.
The other issue is that fact that LCD screens, like the ones used in virtually every notebooks / laptop, produce the clearest images only when running at their native resolution. In the case of the Dell XPS we tested, the native resolution was 1920x1200. If the GPU isn't powerful enough to provide playable framerates at that high of a resolution, the LCD obviously has to be set to run at a lower resolution. The problem is, when an LCD is set to run at a lower resolution, it has to interpolate the pixels and essentially simulate a lower-resolution screen. Even if the control panel says you're running at 1024x768, there are still 1920x1200 pixels on the screen. The interpolation results in a somewhat blurred imaged which is especially prominent when viewing text. Discriminating users who don't want to compromise image quality may want to look for a laptop with a native LCD resolution of 1280x1024 or 1280x800 (widescreen). At these resolutions, the ATi Mobility Radeon 9800 would be a perfect solution. No compromise image quality, with performance that rivals some desktop systems. What more could you ask for in laptop?