In the run-up to Tuesday’s big Microsoft Xbox One reveal, many pondered the fate of the beloved Xbox 360 controller, perhaps the best gaming controller in the business. Would Microsoft make it radically different? Bigger? Unwieldy? Add a touchpad like Sony? Today we have our answer. It’s different and yet, based on what I now know and have experienced firsthand, it’s also somehow better.
Let’s start with the look and feel. Yes, it’s black (obviously, you could always get Xbox 360 controllers in a variety of colors). This is something I guessed at, as most modern-day gaming hardware favors the dark over the light. Despite the brushed finished, the controller is not rubberized. It’s hard plastic that feels good in your hands. It’ll be interesting to see how that finish responds to hours of game play. Will it make your hands more or less sweaty?
At first glance, though, the Xbox One controller is strikingly familiar. At first glance, though, the Xbox One controller is strikingly familiar. The iconic game buttons are virtually the same. The Xbox button is maybe a tiny bit smaller and has moved up into a space that really didn’t exist on previous controllers.
The two analog sticks are slightly smaller and have been redesigned with new ridges instead of strategically placed bumps. On engineer told me they now take 25-percent less force to move. And then there is the D-Pad which got a much needed design – it’s now a much more aggressive “X” or plus sign.
The backwards and forwards pointing arrows that represented “Start” and “Back” on the 360 controller are no more, instead replaced with the icons you see above. Xbox spokesperson Major Nelson confirmed those would have the essentially the same functions, but Microsoft have not settled on their official labels.
I held a few different models; a prototype, a final, non-functioning design, and a near-final controller without batteries. Without those batteries, it was hard to tell the final weight, but I will say that the functioning prototype felt lighter than the Xbox 360 controller. The lightness is actually an illusion; the fact is the new controller is a tad heavier than the last model.
During a tour of Microsoft’s Xbox Scientific Labs, engineers explained to us that a key change—flipping the rear battery pack 90-degrees and putting it inside the controller — has shifted the center of gravity, making the new device “feel” lighter. It’s true, it did.
That battery move, by the way, makes the whole controller feel much sleeker and actually more comfortable to hold. My long fingers no longer bumped into the rectangle protruding out of the bottom of the controller. There are also no visible screw holes: the bottom is just a wide, smooth expanse.
A Test-Drive of Sorts
The new controller is also filled with some new technology, the most noticeable of which might be the new haptic feedback motors in the triggers, (it also now use magnetic sensors instead of mechanical ones). The Xbox One controllers still have the same two larger motors for gameplay vibration (explosions, getting shot, etc), but now there’s a tiny motor in each trigger, which means you can get new, subtle bits of feedback during gameplay. now there’s a tiny motor in each trigger, which means you can get new, subtle bits of feedback during gameplay.
To demonstrate this, Microsoft put me in front of an Xbox 360 connected to an Xbox One Controller prototype. On the screen were a series of canned demos. I used the controller to navigate to each one and then the Y button to start them off. In each one (a car starting, helicopter taking off, magical hand shooting green fire, a sci-fi-looking gun firing) the on-screen action coincided with large and small vibrations throughout the controller. Those at my fingertips were noticeable and quite interesting. While the demo wasn’t particularly exciting, I can imagine the new trigger-based haptic feedback enhancing gameplay.
New Intelligence and Damage Resistance
On the front of the new controller, you’ll find an IR sensor. It allows it to communicate with the Xbox One’s new Kinect controller. While Microsoft didn’t go into great detail about how this will be used in gameplay, it does add one interesting feature. Imagine there are two people playing in front of an Xbox One. The Kinect knows, via facial recognition, who they are. It also knows, thanks to the IR sensors, who is holding which controller. If the two players switch controllers, they do not start controlling each other’s characters. Instead, Xbox One sees that they are each holding different controllers and communicates with the controllers through Kinect to switch player controls.
There is also a high-speed connection port on the Xbox One controller, but Microsoft wasn’t ready to offer any details on what future peripherals might plug into it.
One of my stops on the Microsoft campus was to a testing lab were they’ve built proprietary systems to torture test the new controllers. From the looks of things, these controllers are fairly tough From the looks of things, these controllers are fairly tough: I saw a robot arm swinging a controller around to ensure that no random buttons get hit during intense game play or, I guess, anger.
Microsoft has also been putting the near final controllers through a rigorous test where they replicate 10 year’s worth of button depressions in two days (that’s roughly 2 million presses, which is 4-5 presses per second). Not only were they testing button durability, but the system also read the actuation on the other side to record any and all fails. I also saw a slo-mo video of a drop-test where the Xbox One controller bounced off a hard floor; only section of plastic popped off, as it was designed to do, so so the engineers could see the real-time effects of the drop on internal components. The engineer told us the controller performed as expected.
Overall, the new Xbox One controller appears to be an impressive piece of engineering and design. On the other hand, I won’t pass final judgment until we can test the finished controller with a real game — maybe Call of Duty: Ghosts — sometime later this year.