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“Ohoho, a $150 Xbox controller?” I said. “What needless luxury will you try to sell me next, Microsoft? Gold-plated toilet paper? A dolphin that sings happy birthday? Socks that clean themselves?” For months I’ve laughed at the Xbox One Elite controller, with its 300-percent markup price and all its removable metal bits. Such extravagance. Such indulgence.
Then I got my hands on one, and damn, I think I actually like it. A lot.
To know it is to love it
Some people need a $150 Xbox controller. I am not one of those people. You are probably not one of those people either.
Which is why, traditionally, this type of controller has been exiled to the fringe. The Xbox One Elite controller is not the first high-end, “tournament-grade” controller. It’s merely the first to be labeled as a first-party accessory instead of coming from SCUF or Razer or Mad Catz or any of the companies that typically build this stuff.
The connotations are different. Third-party controllers, no matter how reputable, always seem to carry this “illicit” reputation. I think it’s because everyone’s gone to a friend’s house at one point and been saddled with the cheap, off-brand controller where one of the buttons sticks and the triggers are half-broken.
But a first-party controller? That’s an official endorsement of high-end gaming hardware. With the Xbox One Elite controller, Microsoft is saying “We recognize there’s a significant niche for this, and we hope other people will randomly buy one too.” Like buying Air Jordans even though you suck at basketball.
I do not think you should buy it, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The Xbox One Elite controller is a gorgeous piece of hardware. And this is coming from someone who dislikes the stock Xbox One controller and, up until this week, continued to use a wired Xbox 360 gamepad on the PC.
This week I swapped out that well-worn and well-loved wired 360 controller for the Elite (which comes with a nine-foot braided USB cable), and I think it might be a permanent change.
The Xbox One Elite’s obvious changes—the D-pad, the paddle buttons—draw the most attention, but the analog sticks are the biggest improvement. And not just the interchangeable stick caps, though we’ll get to those. It’s the way the sticks glide.
I know that’s maddeningly vague, but there’s no good way to describe it. The Elite’s analog sticks simply move smoother than the stock controller’s sticks. They roll smoother, they flick side-to-side smoother, they’re just a pleasure to move.
There are three interchangeable pairs of sticks. The standard, shipping pair is essentially identical to the stock controller—two short, concave nubs with grip around the edges. Then there’s a taller pair of concave nubs, measuring about twice the height and giving increased leverage. Finally, there’s a pair of domed sticks, a la Sony’s DualShock 3.
I’ve been using the domed sticks and love them, but you can pair any two together—no need to use a matched set. Replacing sticks is as simple as pulling them off. They’re magnetically attached.
You can also adjust the stick sensitivity in Microsoft’s software, but fair warning: It’s Windows 10 only. The controller works on Windows 7 if you download the drivers from Microsoft’s site—there’s no automatic installation offered—but as far as I can tell you’ll be stuck with the defaults. I’m not 100-percent sure because the remapping software doesn’t drop on Windows until October 27.
The rear paddle controls are great too, though. I liked them on Valve’s new Steam Controller and I like them here. I know all the arguments for why rear controls aren’t standard—gamepads are confusing enough, and there’s no way to know what you’re pressing except for memorization. But as someone who’s been playing games on essentially the same dual-stick layout for nearly twenty years, a bit more complexity is fine with me.
Microsoft’s metal paddle controls run horizontally, fanning out along the newly-textured grips like two pairs of butterfly wings. They’re not quite as ergonomic as the Steam Controller’s, but they’re a lot quieter and there are four instead of two.
The main issue is that Xbox games will still be built with the original controller in mind, meaning you’re not really getting four new buttons as much as you’re just assigning standard buttons to the rear. The default assigns the A/B/X/Y buttons (which, I should mention, feel identical to their stock controller counterparts) to the four paddles, though you can use Microsoft’s remapping software to change this.
Even then, it’s limited. Microsoft has, for instance, built a Halo 5 preset that maps pressing the left stick to one of the paddles to sprint, but it’s not like the Steam Controller where (at its best) you’d literally map the “Sprint” command to the paddle. The Xbox still interprets it as pressing the left stick, because that’s the way the Xbox is set up.
This means you won’t, I don’t think, be able to map additional functions to the controller. If a game uses a weapon-wheel on consoles, for instance, you won’t be able to treat the four paddles as four additional hot-swap buttons.
A caveat: Without Microsoft’s software available for PC, I have no way of knowing whether the paddle remapping is more extensive or whether it merely mirrors the functionality of the Xbox software. Ideally it would allow me to map any keyboard controls to the rear paddles, but I don’t expect that to happen. At the very least, you should be able to use third-party software like Joy2Key to emulate this behavior, though setting it up is a bit more of a pain.
The one thing I will say about the stock Xbox One controller is it definitely improved on the 360’s terrible D-pad. The Elite controller doesn’t change much, but gives you the option to swap between what Microsoft’s calling the “Faceted D-Pad” and the standard cross-style.
I can see why the faceted (read: round) version would be popular—it makes diagonal inputs much easier. But I hate it. Because there’s a dedicated switch under each of the four D-pad arms, the faceted pad feels less like “hitting a diagonal” and more like “clumsily hitting one arm and then the other.” It doesn’t rock into place the way I expect.
So I’ve stuck to using the cross-style D-pad.
Two minor changes here. One: Hair Trigger Locks. Next to each trigger is a nub which, when slid down, cuts the trigger travel in half and bottoms it out with a hard click sound. This is primarily useful for shooters where you don’t need the long travel and analog read of the trigger. You just need it to know you want to shoot.
Microsoft’s also changed the bumpers, which is a much bigger deal to me. The overly-stiff, clicky bumpers were one of my biggest complaints with the stock Xbox One controller. That stiffness has been dialed back for the Elite controller, resulting in not only a much easier but a much quieter pull.
My biggest fear, with the Elite controller, is losing parts. The sticks, D-pad, and paddles are all held in place by weak magnetism, to make it easy to swap pieces in and out. Which is great! Except at any given moment you’ll have at least five loose pieces floating around, and potentially nine if you ignore the rear paddles.
The Elite controller comes with a bag for you to store all the extra components in, but I’m still nervous I’m going to leave a piece lying around or drop one into the couch. And I’m a (reasonably) responsible adult. I can’t imagine having this thing around kids. Especially because at the moment there’s no way to replace a part if it’s lost.
When Microsoft released the Xbox One controller, I was disappointed. Not only had they failed to improve on the Xbox 360 controller, but I honestly felt like it was a step backward. The trigger rumble was a nice touch, but otherwise I disliked pretty much everything about it.
I’m still not sure the Elite controller is better than the 360 controller, but it’s closer, and it opens all sort of customization doors for serious controller-wielding gamers. Of course, it’s also one hundred and fifty freaking dollars. If you’re not a pro-gamer or aiming to be a pro-gamer, that number will no doubt give you pause—and for good reason. The Elite controller is better, but I don’t know if it’s “Three Times As Expensive” better.
Then again, I spent that much on a keyboard so I’m not one to talk.