ASUS Transformer Prime Impressions Part 1 – The Bad

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Introduction – Excellent, but flawed

If ASUS has shown us anything, it’s that they make good to great products but, at least when it comes to tablets, they have a hard time launching them. Like the original Transformer before it, the Transformer Prime has been playing hard to get. Anecdotal evidence (i.e., forum posts) also tend to support the conclusion that initial runs of ASUS tablets tend to be problem-prone, and the Prime maintains this pedigree.

If ASUS has shown us anything else, at least in my experience, it’s that they’re also quick to fix issues. So, while I have some negatives to report, I do believe that in most cases ASUS will resolve them over time and the Prime will settle in as the excellent device it clearly has the potential to become. The bottom line: if you’re an early adopter, prepare to pay the price in potential early build issues.

Because of the launch craziness, specifically the initial delays, cancelled preorders (at Amazon, specifically), and then spotty inventory at pretty much every retailer, I personally have two Primes in my possession. One is an Amethyst Gray model that I purchased from Best Buy, and the other a Champagne Gold model from Abt Electronics. They differ in more ways than just color, and I’ll note those differences below.

In many ways, the Prime is an excellent device. If everything worked as it should, I could recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s what the original Transformer hoped it would be when it grew up. The nagging issues (some large, some small) mean that anyone considering the Prime as a purchase today should either wait to see if the issues are resolved in future builds, or accept that they’re getting a great but potentially flawed device. This could said for just about any modern gadget, however—there’s a price to pay for being an early adopter.

The Problems

I’ll start with the negatives to get them out of the way. From scouring various forums, I feel fairly confident that these problems are widespread enough to warrant mentioning. Nobody—not Apple, not Samsung, not Dell, not HP—can make thousands or millions of perfect devices. There will always be problematic devices, up to and including complete lemons. But the issues I’ll cover here seem to be more than mere outliers—they seem to be experienced by more than just a few units.

Also, some problems are clearly hardware-related, while some might be fixable in software. In the latter case, I’m confident that ASUS will issue the requisite firmware updates. It’ll be interesting to see how ASUS addresses some of the more common hardware issues—hopefully ASUS will rethink their policy of requiring customers to pay for shipping to get things fixed. I don’t mind sending in my gadgets for repair (assuming that the repair is conducted professionally and I get my property back in at least as good a shape as I sent it in), but paying shipping seems a bit much.

As I mentioned earlier, these defects are (hopefully) just issues with the earliest builds. If ASUS does their job, subsequent runs should use better components and any manufacturing problems should be ironed out. Therefore, if you order a Prime today, you should at least theoretically have some hope of getting a device without any of these issues.

Light Bleed

The Prime uses an IPS display, and from what I’ve seen IPS displays can suffer from light bleed issues no matter whose device they’re in. It seems to be a tradeoff for the excellent viewing angles they provide, and apparently, the Prime’s display is no different. My Gray unit has some minor light bleed in the upper right corner in landscape, while my Champagne unit has none.

Wifi Signal Strength

Speculation is rampant that the Prime’s all-metal backing attenuates the wifi signal, and Anandtech did verify that ASUS added a second antenna to the Prime to boost signal strength. I can testify that both the Gray and Champagne units exhibit similar and reduced signal strength and bandwidth at various distances compared to other devices (including the original Transformer). I put together a quick video to demonstrate the effect (this is with the Gray, but the Champagne performs equally):

Whatever the cause, the Prime does seem to have relatively poor wifi performance. Does it impact the tablet in actual use? My experience so far has been that it still performs well in browsing and streaming video, while downloading files seems to be slower than the original Transformer. I noticed this after installing a game that required additional files—these downloads took about twice as long, and this was when Speedtest showed close to the same speed on the Primes and the Transformer. An update was pushed this morning (1/2/2012, 8.8.3.33) that seems to have resolved any issues with download speeds. So, although wifi benchmarks seem to be lower, real-life performance seems to be fine. We’ll see if ASUS can make any further improvements in future firmware updates.

GPS

A bit of a controversy is brewing around the Prime’s GPS performance. Some people appear to be unable to lock onto GPS satellites at all, for some it takes awhile, and for others the Prime seems unable to maintain a signal while moving (thus rendering the Prime useless as a navigation device). My experience is that both the Gray and Champagne units will lock onto GPS if outside and given enough time. I’ll need to test further, however, including testing in my car, to draw a firm conclusion. Unfortunately, a flu bug makes this impossible at the moment, and so I’ll have to update later. Update: the update to 8.8.3.33 also seems to have improved GPS, at least how quickly the Prime can get a lock. The jury is still out on using the Prime as a navigation device.

Update 2: ASUS has issued a statement indicating that the Prime’s all-metal design is indeed the culprit and GPS will likely never be fully functional. Note that I’ve found GPS to be sufficient for everything except using as a navigation device. My original Transformer shared that limitation as well, and so for me personally this isn’t a deal-breaker.

Haptic Feedback

A number of people have reported that the Prime’s haptic feedback mechanism (e.g., vibrator) either works poorly or not at all. My experience bears this out: the Gray’s haptic feedback works but is so weak as to be largely useless, and the Champagne’s most often makes an unattractive noise rather than actually vibrating. I’d speculate that ASUS chose an inferior component in this particular case. Turning off haptic feedback is an option, but even when turned off in settings the thing still insists on trying to work in some instances (e.g., when manipulating home screen elements and selecting images in the Gallery app). I’ll be looking to get this fixed if I decide to keep the Champagne.

Audio

Some people report that the Prime’s external speaker produces inferior audio than some other Android tablets. I hesitate to call this one a problem, however, because although I’ve found the Prime’s audio to be a bit on the quiet side, it’s also better to my ears than the original Transformer’s. In general audio seems richer, with more bass and a less “tinny” sound than other tablets I’ve used. And, although there’s only one speaker, I didn’t find audio to be isolated on one side of the tablet unless I really paid attention.

I installed the excellent Volume+ app and it was able to significantly increase volume without creating distortion. Therefore, I think ASUS could improve things with a firmware update. Note that audio via the headphone jack is excellent, with plenty of volume and a nice clean sound.

Conclusion – Part 1

Other problems have been reported with the Prime, such as stuck pixels, laggy performance, and such, but those seem to either be typical (what LCD design has never produced a stuck pixel or two?) or highly subjective. Personally, both the Gray and Champagne units have perfect screens outside of the Gray’s minor light bleed, and they both perform extremely well.

The problems noted here, however, outside of the Prime’s audio, seem to be very real and relatively widespread. They also seem to represent the usual problems that often occur during a new gadget’s first few manufacturing runs. We can only hope that ASUS will resolve these issues as they tweak manufacturing, implement any required redesigns, and then, just as important, come up with good solutions for those who’ve already purchased units.

If you can accept the early adopter’s risk of getting a device with a defect or two, then go ahead and get the Prime. As you’ll read in Part 2, the Prime has some very real positives that makes it arguably the best Android tablet on the market. If you want to be (relatively) assured of getting a perfect device, though, hold off awhile. Let ASUS work out the kinds and then circle back and see if things have improved.

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