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Putting the Transformer Prime in perspective

The Asus Transformer Prime has seen its fair share of performance complaints, particularly concerning GPS and Wi-Fi. But what are the root causes of these problems and just how widespread are they?

Outside of CNET's office, using the GPS Test app, I picked up several satellites, albeit at low connection speeds. On the opposite side of San Francisco, I had trouble accessing more that three satellites a few days earlier. Josh Miller/CNET

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

All that said (and I bet you saw this coming), it's not perfect. Since its release, the Prime has been saddled with reports of performance issues, bugs, and stuff 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 they'll crop up for you?

I corresponded with Asus' Senior Technical Marketing Manager Gary Key via e-mail to get to the bottom of the issues and to help put them in perspective. Unsolicited, he 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 around the holiday season 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 rumors that the Prime was being replaced.

"We firmly believe in the Transformer Prime along with its class-leading features and performance," he said. "Contrary to rumors, 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. I wanted to include each of his answers in their complete forms, as to make this blog as satisfying as possible to those 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 center 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-aluminum 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 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 apologized 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 standardized 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-aluminum 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. Eric Franklin/CNET

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 optimize 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. Eric Franklin/CNET

'Serial number not found' problem
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 recognized 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.

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

GK: 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 percent slower at 20 feet from their router, then I think the actual user experience is what matters the most.

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

GK: The GPS performance varies depending upon region, environmental conditions, and, of course, the unit. Due to the all-aluminum unibody structure, it restricted certain GPS performance optimizations 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 optimizations with firmware updates that allow automatic downloading of LTO (long term orbits) 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.

CNET: OK, what about Wi-Fi performance? What hopes does a software update have in significantly improving it?

GK: In certain situations, the all-aluminum unibody structure can affect absolute throughput of the unit. Location, environmental conditions, and router setup 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 optimized.

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

GK: As of February 6, 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
a. 'Serial number not found' 0.07 percent
b. Wi-Fi/BT/GPS performance 0.57 percent
c. Random lock/reboot 0.15 percent

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

Symptom (Wi-Fi/BT/GPS) Worldwide fail rate
a. Wi-Fi/BT dropout 0.03 percent
b. Wi-Fi dropout/performance 0.04 percent
c. Wi-Fi/GPS performance/return for GPS spec removal 0.51 percent

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

GK: 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.

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

GK: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 Web site for the latest information, product updates, community support, and direct assistance if required before contacting our service group via phone. Other forum communities that specialize in Android-based products are another avenue of information and experienced users who often 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.

If you live in a large, metropolitan area, just how important is GPS on a tablet? Josh Miller/CNET

Final thoughts
Going by the numbers Asus provided, less than 1 percent 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? As cited in the Prime review, I was 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 I see it, if Prime owners' tablets 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 percent 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 I think they also support my opinion that the Transformer Prime's sales would not have been significantly affected 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.

My goal for this blog post was to determine the facts of the Prime's reported issues and relay those facts to as many people as possible. Judging from Key's insight, my 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 I hope I've succeeded in putting the Prime's issues into clear perspective.