How do you improve on what was, for many gamers, the definitive console controller of a generation?
Such was the challenge facing Microsoft as they threw hundreds of millions of Dollars into research and development over the last few years. A woefully poxy D-Pad notwithstanding, the Xbox 360 controller was a masterpiece of form and function, an ergonomic delight that provided countless hours of comfortable convenience.
Though I'm still fighting off sleep deprivation to bring you a full Xbox One hardware review and launch title verdicts, we're well-placed to pass judgement on the new peripheral, having spent plenty of time with it both before and after launch.
In short? It's lovely.
Initial Impressions, Build Quality & Comfort
The Xbox One controller makes a fantastic first impression. Upon removing it from the plastic pouch, you'll discover a sleek and compact bit of kit that's both stylish and practical. The gaming equivalent of a dinner jacket or little black dress with deep pockets, perhaps. Attractive floating lettering within the face buttons and an executive matte finish make it look like a professional piece of gaming technology rather than a toy, an opinion cemented by solid build quality and squeak-free articulation. There's a slight rattle when shaken, and it's slightly heavier than a DualShock 4 when batteries are installed, but it's difficult not to be impressed by the controller upon first inspection.
In terms of feel, that new matte surface is notably more grippy and satisfying to hold (a godsend for those sweaty-palm moments), while the controller is light, pleasingly solid and perfectly-weighted. I do mean perfectly weighted. Having spent some time finding its centre of gravity and balancing point - because that's how I roll - I was delighted to discover that it's in the exact centre of the peripheral.
Most importantly of all, though, Microsoft have somehow managed to make a controller that's even more comfortable than its predecessor - no small achievement. Its shell is even more ergonomically sculpted than before, an organic and fluid shape that fits perfectly into the palms, as if it was always supposed to be there. Bereft of recessed screws and a bulging battery compartment (the AA batteries are now housed deep within the controller itself), it really is a supremely, sensuously comfortable peripheral.
It feels, in fact, like the Xbox One controller was sculpted specifically for me, and my gaming pleasure.
First things first: let's talk repositioning. The face buttons are slightly closer together than before, instantly-responsive and convenient, while the start and select buttons have been replaced by 'Menu' and 'View' respectively (though they both offer much the same functionality in practical terms). They're placed further away from the face buttons and thumbstick, so aren't quite as easy to hit accidentally in frantic button mashing moments. The iconic Xbox button has also migrated to the very top of the device; more difficult to quickly jab at, but encouraging you to use Kinect's voice commands to multitask between menus and applications. Saying "Xbox, go to achievements" is quick and painless, after all.
Our all-important thumbsticks are noticeably smaller compared to the Xbox 360 controller in terms of width, but feel precise and tactile, newly capped with textured plastic rims that stop your thumbs from slipping off during intense gameplay. Once again, their asymmetrical layout means that your thumbs naturally gravitate to them at rest: putting the left thumbstick exactly where you need it and exerting no strain whatsoever over long sessions.
The new triggers are brilliant. Silent and buttery-smooth to push (no tacky squeak here), they offer a perfect amount of resistance and wrap around the side of the controller, fitting snugly beneath your fingers rather than jutting out from behind. Better yet, they're also equipped with "impulse" rumble motors that let you feel the report of a bullet in Call Of Duty: Ghosts or the juddering tyres in Forza 5 directly in your fingertips. Future games are likely to make even more of this feature, though it's undeniably already impressive at launch.
Mind you, the rumble motors are a little on the noisy side. Every once in a while, the controller makes you a little too aware that you're holding it, occasionally bringing us out of the virtual world with a distracting whine from the real one. A decent sound system more than masks it, mind.
Xbox One's bumpers (or shoulder buttons, call them what you will) are situated higher up near the very top of the controller, which proved to be a serious bone of contention over the last few months during preview events. They now can't be pressed with a fingertip, due to an uncomfortable stretch and a new diagonal axis - you push them diagonally towards the centre of the controller rather than directly backwards towards yourself. You'll have to get used to mashing them with your middle phalanx (the fleshy bit in the middle of your finger, in layman's terms - goodness knows I'm not a doctor), which feels natural enough after an awkward learning curve. Overriding your muscle memory will take a few hours, but it eventually becomes second nature. Phew.
Oh gosh, the D-Pad. That D-Pad. Though it's still a little flat and low-action for this reviewer's tastes, it's a revelation compared to the horrific tacky disc of old, a shiny cruciform affair that rewards a successful press with a satisfying click. Wonderful.
A Micro USB port allows you to operate the peripheral as a wired controller, exerting no strain on the batteries whatsoever, whereas the base is dedicated to the proprietary 'expansion port' used for plugging in a headset headset. Frankly, this is one area we wish Microsoft had copied Sony's example of including a 3.5mm headphone jack, because the official Xbox One headset is pretty nasty: plasticky, uncomfortable and difficult to recommend for long periods despite pleasingly chunky volume control buttons and decent sound quality. Since its tiny rubber cushion focuses an uncomfortable amount of pressure onto your temple, wearing the headset for long periods feels a little like locking your head in a D clamp.
Better With Kinect
The Xbox One Controller leverages Kinect in some smart and useful ways thanks to barely-noticeable infrared LEDs mounted on the rear of the peripheral, a much more subtle approach than the DualShock 4's obtrusive light gem. When passing a controller around the room, such as when playing Killer Instinct locally in 'winner stays on' bouts, Kinect recognises when the peripheral has changed hands and signs in the appropriate player. Simple and effective - and incredibly powerful since eight controllers can be synced with the system simultaneously according to Microsoft's official specs.
Kinect will also notice when you put the controller down and remotely activate a power-saving standby mode to minimise the strain on your batteries, a truly lovely flourish that deserves its own mini-paragraph. Oh look. That was convenient.
Wait, batteries? Ah, yes. It's time to have a little chat about...
Batteries vs USB
Though Sony's inclusion of integral onboard USB-charged battery packs in the DualShock series is doubtlessly very convenient, Microsoft has staunchly refused to follow in their footsteps, instead stalwartly falling back on a pair of AA batteries (Duracells included). The battery compartment has been recessed back into the case, meaning that there's no unsightly or weighty bulge to consider, and you'll get an enormous amount of active play time out of each new set. A long weekend of solid play has barely dented my first two Duracells according to my handy battery tester.
I daresay that most dedicated gamers will want to source a Play & Charge Kit as soon as possible, though we haven't yet been able to thoroughly test it yet. With luck, it won't lose its zero point quite as quickly as the Xbox 360's charging solution. For gamers on a budget, two rotating pairs of decent NiMH rechargeables might be an eminently affordable alternative. Microsoft are actively discouraging users from using rechargeable batteries, though I suspect that this might be an attempt to push up Play & Charge sales.
You can also plug in a Micro USB cable to use the controller without any batteries inserted, in case you're ever caught short.
- Profoundly, wonderfully comfortable and ergonomic
- Satisfyingly solid, light and perfectly weighted
- Tactile squeak-free rumble 'impulse triggers'
- Effortless common-sense Kinect features and battery saving
- Precise non-slip thumbsticks
- D-Pad is finally fit for task
- Long battery life
- Packed with little meaningful improvements that all add up
- Did I mention that it's unbelievably comfortable?
- Repositioned bumpers require new muscle memory, learning curve
- Additional cost of batteries or Play & Charge kit
- Rumble motors can be surprisingly noisy (on a game-by-game basis)
- Uncomfortable official headset
The Verdict: As you'd expect, the Xbox One controller is a profoundly comfortable and impeccably engineered peripheral that feels as if it's been perfectly sculpted for each individual player. Though not quite as feature-rich as Sony's DualShock 4, it's a case of adding to a near-perfect original with smart and substantiative improvements backed up by unimpeachable build quality.
Indeed, Microsoft's new controller is the gaming equivalent of a sharp dinner jacket or little black dress with deep pockets and bespoke tailoring; both stylish, practical, comfortable and built to last. Premium luxury for everyday use.
"Xbox, game on."