Xbox One Review Part 2: The New Controller

By November 26, 2013
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The arrival of any new game console brings with it a great deal of baggage, especially if that console is a successor to a previous model. If that previous model’s legacy is positive, than the pressure on the successor to continue that legacy is very heavy. A lot of preconceived notions and expectations will be placed on the shoulders of the new model, for good or for ill. In the case of the Xbox 360, its overall positive legacy lies perhaps in no greater place than that of its controller. Aside from some of the new innovations in the last generation brought about by motion control à la the Wii, gamers largely had little choice but to view the 360’s controller as the tool of choice from a multitude of different perspectives.

The organization of the buttons and the ergonomic layout of the 360 controller doesn’t seem like something that can be vastly improved upon for a player’s interaction with their game of choice, and it’s largely the 360 layout on both of these fronts that cause people to recognize its superiority as the traditional choice of the seventh generation of consoles. Maybe that’s why Nintendo took a lot of cues from it for its own Wii U Pro Controller.

Now, though, we’ve reached the dawn of a new age! A new Xbox means a new controller, which begs the question: can you really improve on the design of the 360 controller for the Xbox One? Well…the jury may still be out on that. The Xbox One controller is by no means a step back from the 360’s as far as gameplay interaction is concerned, but a few new features, and lack of some older features, make me question some of the overall choices made with this piece. First thing’s first, though: let’s open one up.

If you read Part 1 of this series on unboxing the console itself, then you know that some comparisons were made there to the way that Apple presents some of its products in simply opening the box. This wasn’t an admonishment, since it was definitely pretty to look at and helps to present and evoke a simplistic beauty that arises from just the product itself, not necessarily in what it’s supposed to do. While every Xbox One console includes one controller, if you’re like me then you’ll likely want to pick up a second one so you can play with a friend at home. Picking up the green box and cracking it open, you’ll find the controller neatly sitting inside a form-fitting piece of white cardboard.

What you see opening the box to a new, standalone Xbox One controller.

What you see opening the box to a new, standalone Xbox One controller.

This is a great trend to see. As was often common with the last generation of consoles and controllers, before you’d usually have to open the box, then get into the hard plastic inner casing, and sometimes undo twist-ties just to get it out of the box. It was worst when you had to use scissors to cut into a hard plastic molded card shaped around an accessory, at least for me, since I’d sometimes cut my fingers on the jagged plastic edge I created with my own scissors. The style now is clean, elegant, and anything but cumbersome. Simply cut the stickers on the bottom and open it up. Voila, you have your new controller.

When it was first revealed, this was the result I feared from the Xbox One controller. Remember this monstrosity?

When it was first revealed, this was the result I feared from the Xbox One controller. Remember this monstrosity?!

Design

Oddly enough, the first thing I actually thought of when the controller was initially revealed was the original Xbox’s “Duke” controller that was the main peripheral at its launch in 2001. That original bulky design was quickly replaced with the lighter, smaller “Controller S,” so would we be facing something similar with Xbox One? Being such a fan of the 360 design, at first glance the Xbox One controller’s design looked decidedly bulkier than what we’ve grown accustomed to on the 360 over the last eight years. Would this be true in practice?

I actually got my hands on the controller before I got my hands on the console, and right out of the gate I had a positive impression created. Directly comparing the One’s controller to the 360’s highlights some noticeable differences. For instance, the new controller feels just slightly heavier than the old one. Picking up each one feels equally natural, though ergonomically I’m forced to give the One a slight edge over its older brother. This is largely due to the One’s larger and more substantial palm grips, and the nooks on the edges of the triggers that allow your index fingers to rest on them, as opposed to holding them in place as you do with the 360’s.

The overall button placement on the new controller is virtually identical to the 360’s, with two analog triggers, left and right shoulder buttons (or “bumpers”), a large Xbox home button at the top, and the typical A, B, X, Y buttons retaining their positions above the right thumbstick. “Start” and “Back” buttons have been replaced with “Menu” and “View,” the former of which displays a menu of tasks for your current or highlighted application or game, and the latter of which is meant to give specific purpose to certain games by developers. It doesn’t really do anything, otherwise.

The overall shape of the controller is a little bit sharper, which is most notable at the edges of the hand grips. Where the 360’s effort tended to be smooth all around, the One looks a little bit more menacing in its overall shape (not unlike the Duke), but actually feels comparatively better when being held. I was kind of shocked by this, but I definitely like it.

Pressing and pulling on the thumbsticks also felt smoother on the Xbox One controller, largely because there’s just the slightest reduction in resistance on them, making overall movement a little easier.

The thumbsticks also have a slight tread on them now, minimizing any possible slipping off of your finger and conceivably making it easier to maintain your grip with the tops of your thumbs. Probably one of the single largest improvements to the design of the Xbox One’s controller is in its directional pad (or “d-pad” for short). For both the original Xbox and the 360, Microsoft has favored a d-pad design on a circular “wafer” of sorts that some gamers cursed to high heaven. As good as the overall design of the 360 controller is, most people were a little perplexed as to why Microsoft didn’t create a d-pad that delineates all four different directions as console creators like Nintendo and Sony have always done. Most should be pleased to see that the Xbox One d-pad finally does away with the wafer design, instead placing the new d-pad in an inner-beveled circle with clearly delineated directions. The new d-pad is also nicely responsive as well, with a new “click” for each direction pressed.

The Xbox One (top) and 360 (bottom) controllers compared.

The Xbox One (top) and 360 (bottom) controllers compared.

Function

All of these I see as improvements, but I do have a couple of gripes when it comes to actual functionality. After you get over the design differences and turn the thing on for the first time along with your new console, there are a few notable limitations of some functions that I enjoyed on the 360. I don’t know how many of you have Windows 8.1, but the “Windows” button now takes you to a tiled Start page instead of bringing up a Start menu. Microsoft did something similar with the Xbox One and the controller. Now, the Xbox button at the top pulls you home in a fashion not too dissimilar from an iOS device, whereas on the Xbox 360 you would press it to see a number of different options and commands. On the 360, you could press the button and see what the controller’s current battery life is, from a game you could access your friends list and even check your download queues. Many of those useful features are gone from pressing the One controller’s Xbox button, which right now feels like a negative.

Microsoft touts over 40 improvements made to the new controller. Only about ten of them feel substantial, but good.

Microsoft touts over 40 improvements made to the new controller. Only about ten of them feel substantial, but good.

I also got used to the fact that the 360 controller would display its player number in the illuminated circle surrounding the Xbox button, with 1/4th of the circle being illuminated and showing you which player you’d be onscreen. Although I understand why this feature is now absent from the Xbox One, I still kind of miss it. One of the reasons this is gone is because, unlike the 360, the Xbox One supports up to eight controllers all being hosted on one console. While I don’t really intend to buy six more, this is definitely useful in a setting where you head over to a friend’s house to engage in a future Halo 5 marathon.

The rumble features of the One’s controllers are one of the most touted improvements, since it now features rumble motors inside both of the hand grips, as well as small motors located directly behind the triggers (which, as a result, are now called “impulse triggers”). Logging some time in Dead Rising 3 has created some new, interesting sensations while driving, shooting, and using melee attacks, and I look forward to seeing how this kind of interactivity is explored in future titles. It feels slightly more powerful than the 360, but the amount of motors in different places spreads it out further instead of just pounding your hand while you’re trying to carefully make your way through a delicate situation. It feels pretty refined.

All in all, the Xbox One controller is sleek in most places, but stutters in others. Since we’re talking about a new console at launch, though, the elements I consider drawbacks may be done away with in a future software update. Remember how the 360’s interface operated at launch? Compare that with where it sits today, and you’ll see both a marked improvement as well as an inference of potential in the new console’s lifespan. I think the Xbox One controller is largely a winner with some room for improvement, but it plays very well, and that’s pretty much all you could ask for from a human interface device.

Unless you count the Kinect.

Click below for part 3 of our look at the Xbox One, where we’ll go over the new user interface, and how Kinect allows you to command your Xbox without even picking the controller up!

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.