Putting the Transformer Prime in perspective

The Asus Transformer Prime is currently the highest-quality Android tablet on the market. It rivals and sometimes surpasses the iPad 2 in game performance, has a fantastically bright screen, memory expansion, various CPU performance modes, HDMI and a thin, sleek and sexy design.

Outside of CNET's headquarters in San Francisco, using the GPS Test app, we picked up several satellites, albeit at low connection speeds. On the opposite side of the city, we had trouble accessing more than three satellites a few days earlier.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

However, the tablet is not perfect. Since its release, the Prime has been saddled with reports of performance issues, bugs and things that are just outright not working.

How severe are these issues, and — maybe more importantly — just how widespread are they? As a new or potentially new Prime owner, just what are the chances that they'll crop up for you?

We corresponded with Asus' senior technical marketing manager, Gary Key, via email, to get to the bottom of the issues and to help put them in perspective. He also addressed some of the Prime's supply concerns raised around launch.

"The launch demand for the unit greatly exceeded our forecasts, which, while exciting, also created some issues ... for supply," Key said. "We increased production in order to meet this additional demand, and availability for the most part is now widespread and will continue to improve over the coming weeks."

Key also addressed rumours that the Prime is being replaced.

"We firmly believe in the Transformer Prime along with its class-leading features and performance," he said. "Contrary to rumours, it is not being replaced by upcoming products like the TF700 or TF300."

What follows are Key's answers to a number of questions concerning the Prime's technical issues. Please forgive the length of this interview; we wanted to include each of his answers in their complete form, so as to make this as satisfying as possible to those who are curious about the Prime.

CNET: What are the top three Transformer Prime issues, and what has Asus done to address them?

Gary Key: The top three issues in order, as calculated by our service centre on a worldwide basis, is Wi-Fi/Bluetooth [BT]/GPS performance, random lock/reboot and Serial Number Not Found issues.

Wi-Fi/BT/GPS performance

The Wi-Fi/BT/GPS category actually consists of three separate issues. The first area of concern is GPS performance. We discovered that due to the all-aluminium unibody design structure, the GPS performance was not satisfactory for all users, especially those wanting to use the device as a true GPS and not in A-GPS [assisted GPS] mode. We took the only step possible in this case, and removed GPS from the official specifications shortly after the unit went on sale. We apologised for this inconvenience, and offered to assist users who wanted to return the unit after the announcement.

Even though GPS has been officially removed from the specifications, we continued to improve our firmware for A-GPS operation to download LTO [long-term orbits] automatically to assist in GPS lock speeds for users. However, we cannot guarantee robust performance in this mode for all users, due to the unit design.

The second area of concern with users is the performance of the unit with Wi-Fi and BT enabled at the same time. For a very small minority of users, this combination resulted in signal dropouts or severely degraded wireless performance. We are still investigating the root cause of this problem with returned units, but it appears to be a random manufacturing-process issue with properly attaching an antenna.

At this time, we have been reworking or replacing units for customers who have reported this problem. In addition, we will start a standardised repair process shortly to ensure any units that still suffer from the problem are properly fixed, and offer the same level of Wi-Fi performance as the current shipping units.

The third area of concern reported by users is general Wi-Fi performance. A variety of conditions ranging from router signal quality to environmental conditions can affect Wi-Fi performance. In addition, due to the all-aluminium unibody design structure, the Wi-Fi performance of the Transformer Prime might not always match that of other designs in selected situations. However, the normal user experience is not adversely impacted, and performance of this design passes a strict Asus internal qualification test.

In addition, feedback from the vast majority of end users is that the Transformer Prime performs up to expectations within their usage scenario. That said, we are assisting a few users who have experienced a similar issue to those with the Wi-Fi/BT dropout problem. We are reworking or replacing these particular units based on each individual case.

With both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, some users have experienced performance issues.
(Screenshot by Eric Franklin)

Random lock/reboot problem

After the launch of Android 4.03 (Ice Cream Sandwich), we had reports of users suffering from a random lock or reboot problem after the OS update. We aggressively investigated this problem, including swapping units with customers for further analysis. We are continuing to work on this problem with our valued technology partner Nvidia. We just released firmware to address this problem, and early reports indicate widespread success. We will continue to optimise this new firmware to ensure the problem is solved and to further improve performance of the unit.

GPS works well when Wi-Fi can be used to augment its performance.
(Screenshot by Eric Franklin)

Serial Number Not Found

After the launch of Android 4.03, we had reports of users not being able to update to the new OS via the OTA system. We discovered that an extremely small population of units was not properly recognised by our servers based on their MAC address. We set up a customer-care address for users affected with the problem to contact our service group, who then assisted the users in manually updating to Android 4.03 and ensuring their unit information matched the database.

After the manual update and match, those systems are now performing OTA updates without a problem. We have not completed root-cause analysis of this problem yet, but in the last three weeks we have not had any reports of problems with units produced during that timeline.

You say that "the normal user [Wi-Fi] experience" is not adversely impacted by the unibody design. How exactly do you define the "normal user experience"?

Normal user experience is that [the users are] using their tablet, streaming Netflix or surfing the web or other activities, and the tablet works. It does not matter if the maximum throughput is 36Mbps or 32Mbps as indicated by a benchmark program. If the user is not impacted, and does not know if the tablet is 10 per cent slower at 20 feet from their router, then I think the actual user experience is what matters the most.

What are the chances that the current version of the Prime could see an OTA update that would noticeably improve GPS performance?

The GPS performance varies depending upon region, environmental conditions and, of course, the unit. Due to the all-aluminium unibody structure, it restricted certain GPS performance optimisations that led to lower-than-expected performance in several regions. Even with the removal of GPS from the feature specifications, we are still working on A-GPS optimisations with firmware updates that allow automatic downloading of LTO information. This can improve GPS lock speed and allow a certain level of functionality from the unit. At this point, we believe additional performance and stability through firmware changes might still be possible, but in the end we are limited to some degree by the hardware design.

What about Wi-Fi performance? What hopes does a software update have in significantly improving it?

In certain situations, the all-aluminium unibody structure can affect absolute throughput of the unit. Location, environmental conditions and router set-up can also affect performance, so we usually suggest that users check their router settings and tune for best performance with the unit. Of course, this is not always possible, but, based on strict Asus internal qualification testing, we do not believe the normal user experience will be impacted by the new design.

In addition, feedback from the vast majority of end users is that the Transformer Prime performs up to expectations within their usage scenario. That said, we are assisting a few users who have experienced a similar issue to those with the Wi-Fi/BT dropout problem. We are reworking or replacing these particular units based on each individual case. In addition, we are constantly reviewing if the antenna performance on the unit can be further optimised.

What percentage of Transformer Primes have been returned, citing one or more of these issues as the reason?

As of 6 February, the top three problems discussed in the first question were also the top three reasons for returns or replacements. The majority of customer returns were due to the removal of the GPS specification from the unit, or poor GPS performance in general. We continually feed failure-analysis information from our service group back to the engineering and manufacturing teams to ensure any problems are identified and fixed as quickly as possible.

Top three customer complaints for RMA/returns

Symptom Worldwide fail rate
Serial number not found 0.07 per cent
Wi-Fi/BT/GPS performance 0.57 per cent
Random lock/reboot 0.15 per cent

Breakout of Wi-Fi/BT/GPS performance complaints for RMA/returns

Symptom Worldwide fail rate
Wi-Fi/BT dropout 0.03 per cent
Wi-Fi dropout/performance 0.04 per cent
Wi-Fi/GPS performance/return for GPS spec removal 0.51 per cent

Have there been any revisions to the hardware, and, if so, which issues did each revision address?

We have not revised the Transformer Prime's hardware specification [GPS was removed from feature specifications] since retail production started in December. We continue to implement manufacturing-process improvements based upon quality and operational requirements, as do most manufacturing companies, but the hardware specification has not changed at this time.

If you're a Prime owner experiencing any of these issues, are the forums the best place to get help?

Our support forums are a great place to start if you are experiencing any issue with the Transformer Prime. We highly suggest users visit our website for the latest information, product updates, community support and direct assistance if required before contacting our service group via phone. Other forum communities that specialise in Android-based products are another avenue of information and experienced users who oftentimes offer friendly support. We are excited to be one of the very few companies offering interactive support or information at several of the leading forums. While we might not be able to answer or solve every single problem posed at these forums, we can usually direct the user to the proper support group if needed, or provide information on updates and fixes.

Final thoughts

Going by the numbers that Asus provided, less than 1 per cent of Primes sold worldwide have reported issues associated with the top three problems. Accepting that, we also have to accept the possibility that there are Primes in the wild with the same or similar issues that have simply not been reported.

So, why would a Prime owner, whose tablet shows symptoms of one or more of these problems, not report these issues? In our tests, we were disappointed with its web speed compared with that of the iPad 2; however, on the same router, from the same distance, Netflix streams are clear and smooth.

So, the way we see it, if a Prime owner's tablet does have these problems, it's either not that big of a deal to them, or they simply have not noticed it.

But what about GPS? GPS on a tablet is obviously important to certain individuals, but since less than 1 per cent have returned their Primes because of GPS problems, it must either prove, as the evidence supports, that the problem isn't that widespread, or that most people just don't care.

The numbers above support the notion that people care about getting what they pay for, but we think they also support the opinion that the Transformer Prime's sales would not have been significantly impacted had GPS been held from the specs list initially.

That's not to say that Asus should have ignored the issue, however; far from it, in fact. Any technical issue reported by even one user should be thoroughly investigated by Asus or any manufacturer. A persisting problem that affects even just one person not only sours that user's experience, but potentially his/her relationship with the manufacturer.

Our goal for this article was to determine the facts of the Prime's reported issues and relay those facts to as many people as possible. Judging from Gary Key's insight, our own experience and CNET's user reviews, the Prime remains an excellent tablet. A certain percentage of any and all products will have issues, but we hope that we've succeeded in putting the Prime's issues into clear perspective.


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jamesee posted a comment   

A disturbing article for many reasons but primarily as it accepts the position of a marketing person and their dubious statistics without question.

Whilst the Prime certainly has some excellent features, the current cnet user rating of 6 would indicate that users generally do not see this as an 'excellent tablet'.

In regards to the statistic that fewer than 1% of tablets have been returned for GPS issues, the Asus rep states they 'offered to assist users who wanted to return the unit after the announcement.' This is true for some markets such as the UK but no such offer has been made available to Australian or US owners.

Thank you for for obtaining acknowledgement from Asus that Wifi performance is substandard due to design and manufacturing flaws. A superficial review of Prime forums would seem to indicate that this is a widespread concern of users and that the problem goes beyond router configuration and set up. Until this article, the official word from Asus seemed to be 'everything is ok'. The times i have called the help desk they have insisted the issue was with my router and not the Prime despite the fact that it is the only device of 8 in my home that can't pick up a signal in several areas of the house. Asus will say it is not impacting the user experience i guess...

I think readers may have appreciated greater detail on the topic of " In our tests, we were disappointed with its web speed compared with that of the iPad 2" and how this can be reconciled to the comment from Asus that " "We firmly believe in the Transformer Prime along with its class-leading features and performance,". Additionally, it is worth noting that the CNET review of the Prime didn't test the GPS - an approach that Asus itself may well have adopted based on 'user experience'. My device has never found a satellite!

I am keeping my Prime. Again it has some excellent features and a months worth of data and apps on it now. Whilst I can live with its connectivity flaws, they should be properly acknowledged. I seriously doubt i will be making any further Asus purchases.

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