The Xbox Series X controller is kind of getting a raw deal. From countless unboxing videos, to general commentary on the pad itself, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft’s controller hasn’t changed at all.
But it has, and the refinements that have been made are well-worth celebrating, particularly as they will fundamentally enable more people to game than ever before.
While it might not be as technically impressive as the PS5 DualSense controller, which can provide a transformative experience in games such as Astro’s Playroom, Microsoft already had a superb foundation to work from when creating its next controller.
And that, in itself, creates its own host of problems: how do you improve on what many consider to be one of the best controllers of all time? Tinker too much, and there's bound to be backlash. Don't change it at all, and people will lament the lack of innovation.
Microsoft's Senior Designer Ryan Whitaker eloquently sums up the challenge in a blog post on Medium (opens in new tab): “Gamers are always looking for the fastest, most powerful console, but for what they hold in their hand? You’d better not change it without good reason” laughs Senior Designer Ryan Whitaker.
So how did they change it, then? Well, it all comes down to millimeters and a couple of degrees, apparently.
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The Xbox Series X controller, or the Xbox Wireless controller as it’s now known, is deceptively smaller compared to the Xbox One’s pad. It’s not that its dimensions are drastically different in any way – the pad itself weighs the same as previous generations too – but in the hand there’s an instant familiarity combined with an acute sense that things have changed.
Hold on tight
The thing that struck me most about the new Xbox wireless controller is how the triggers are now smaller, stumpy even, and coated in pleasing tactile microbumps that provide extra grip. The same is true of the shoulder bumpers, which, although seemingly the same in terms of overall size as far as I can tell, have a new matte finish that gives you a lot more purchase than the glossy predecessors used on the Xbox One controllers.
The handles of the controller are also covered in a coarser plastic material than you might expect, and ultimately help to keep the gamepad from slipping about when things get hectic… and rather sweaty. It’s a welcome change, particularly for my clammy palms which have a habit of perspiring during long gaming sessions.
Click, click, boom
The face buttons and analog sticks are thankfully unchanged, as you might expect, but the next noticeable addition, and one that has been rightly highlighted, is the brand-new D-pad.
Xbox hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to designing a functional directional pad, but honestly, this is its best one yet. That still won’t stop it from being divisive, of course.
I found my thumb gravitating to the new circular D-pad often, where it rests comfortably thanks to the new concave design. Inputs feel reassuringly solid with every press, too – unlike the Xbox 360’s mushy, floating, disgrace of a D-pad – but it comes with an odd trade-off.
The satisfying tactility of each press is offset by an obnoxiously loud clicking noise. It’s immediately noticeable, and I’m convinced it’s the loudest D-pad I’ve ever used. It’s not a deal breaker by any means (the clickety-clack of a mechanical keyboards has become soothing background noise to me after so many years) but it was a shock nonetheless.
The final new addition to the Xbox Series X controller is, of course, the share button. It’s a no thrills and obviously expected change thanks to its success on PS4 and its adoption by Nintendo, but it’s an obvious surface change and a nice-to-have more than anything. You no longer need to double tap the guide button and press either 'X' or 'Y' to capture your best gaming moments, and for some, that will be reason enough to use the new pad over the old.
All within my hands
So is the Xbox Series X controller the same? Clearly not. In fact, the decisions that Microsoft has made result in a dramatic difference in how many people will actually be able to play.
The previous generation of Xbox One controllers targeted the 5th to 95th percentile of hand sizes, while the new Xbox Wireless Controller now extends to comfortably fit the 3rd percentile. That’s an impressive achievement, without a doubt, and represents tens of millions of people across the world. With Xbox Game Pass now on Android, and Xbox controllers often being the wireless pad of choice, it will only have positive ramifications in the long term.
The end result of these painstaking design decisions is a controller that’s fit to succeed the Xbox One’s illustrious reputation, but its changes will largely go unnoticed. Maybe that’s what Microsoft wanted... however, great design is always worthy of recognition, no matter how small.
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