First, a couple caveats: we didn't play a game with it, nor did we play anything interactive. Instead, Microsoft handed over the controller and ran three tech demos as a way to demonstrate the new rumble motors in the triggers, which give developers more options on where to make the controller shake and with what strength.
In the first of the three, a person's heartbeat moved across their body from left to right on screen, and the rumble in the triggers followed, initially being stronger on the left and then gradually moving to the right. In the second, a helicopter moved around on the screen and the rumble in the controller followed its placement. And in the third, a car revved up and the rumble took over the whole controller.
None of these were designed to be released to the public - in the demos, for instance, the rumble felt a lot stronger in the triggers relative to the rumble in the rest of the controller, but Microsoft hardware accessories General Manager Zulfi Alam tells us that's because these demos were designed by the hardware team to showcase the new motors rather than any limitation on rumble in the rest of the controller.
Beyond the rumble, the controller features a number of refinements over the Xbox 360 controller. The analog sticks feel firmer, the D-pad — now in the shape of a plus sign rather than a disc — clicks when you use it and, the triggers have a slightly steeper curve than before. The handles also have more of a boxy and thin design, looking a bit like the handles on the Xbox Controller S, but feeling less bulky. And the new controller weighs roughly the same as the 360 controller, though it looks smaller because the AA battery pack no longer sticks out in the back.
Like the console itself, the controller's visual design is split between matte dark gray and glossy black. That means most of what your hands touch has a modern, cold, clean feel, which seems like it will help the controller from accumulating dirt over time. The screw holes from the back of the 360 controller are also gone, presumably moved inside, which gives the back a smoother feel.
All in, it's hard to come to firm conclusions before using the new controller to play a game, but it feels like a nice evolution of the 360 controller based more around refinement rather than big new ideas.