Windows 10 has a lot of interesting hooks built into it. My current favorite is the ever-growing integration between the computer operating system and the Xbox One.
If you own an Xbox One controller, you can use it to play games on your PC. Yes, sure, mouse and keyboard, mouse and keyboard, mouse and keyboard. But what about ... gamepad???
A lot of different Windows 10-compatible controllers have come to the market in the past year. Like, a lot a lot. There's the Xbox One Elite controller; Razer has one; PowerA does, too; and let's not forget about Valve's funky Steam Controller.
In this guide we'll walk you through what each of these controllers has to offer and how they feel. But first, let's talk a bit about controller modding.
As some PC gamers have grown to accept, and even embrace, the idea of playing a computer game with a gamepad, the options for those players have blossomed.
Gone are the days when a third-party controller meant something gaudy, cheap or both. Now some of the best gamepads on the market come from companies that specialize in peripherals.
"Before we founded Scuf Gaming 5 years ago, third-party controllers were more about offering a cost effective controller option or a controller with cosmetic enhancements," said Duncan Ironmonger, CEO and co-founder of the controller company. "We felt there was a gap in the market for professional controllers that enabled hardcore gamers to use more of their hand in an ergonomic way. With billions of dollars being spent by game developers, we felt a 'one size fits all' model for controllers was outdated. Our objective was to rethink how controllers were being used and offer hardcore and professional gamers more functionality through increased hand use and reduced latency. We invented several key features to achieve this objective and have since been granted over 17 patents with another 38 filed."
All of that started, though, when Scuf's Simon Burgess hacked together a custom controller using switches and his daughter's hair clips to add paddles to the back of his over-the-counter controller.
Nowadays, the company strips down official first-party controllers and rebuilds them from the ground up with Scuf's own tech and a customer's specifications.
The most popular modification is the paddle control system, which adds paddles to the back of the controller that can be assigned to the actions typically triggered by face buttons. Other popular mods include hair triggers to reduce latency, thumbsticks with different height and shapes, an improved directional pad, and controller grips.
"Over the last 5 years we have educated the professional gaming community on how to use more of their hand and adopt our features to improve gameplay," Ironmonger said. "These features truly work which is why over 90 percent of pros use Scuf controllers in shooters."
While Scuf made its name by satisfying the controller needs of hardcore and pro gamers, these days, the company's customers are designed for a much broader segment of the market.
"A lot [of] very young gamers buy Scuf controllers because they find the paddles intuitive and also their parents are more educated on hand strain and injuries caused by holding a controller using techniques like Claw," Ironmonger said. "Paddles prevent the need to do this. We also find a lot of older gamers, some well into their 60s using Scuf controllers because of the reduced hand movement, providing for a more comfortable gaming experience."
While Scuf does a lot of hardware modifications to its controllers, one thing the company doesn't do is provide an option for software mods or macros.
These modifications can do things like trigger multiple button pushes, or tie a button push to an action. For instance, a popular mod can make a player's character in a first-person shooter automatically drop to the ground every time they fire a weapon. Another popular mod increases the fire rate of weapons.
"Scuf Gaming [is] partnered [with] and endorsed by all the professional gaming leagues," Ironmonger said. "In Console Gaming, macros and rapid fire are cheat functions and illegal. Scuf will never provide cheat modifications."
But that hasn't stopped other companies from selling software-modded controllers.
Evil Controllers got its start in the spring of 2007, when founder Adam Coe was sitting around in his University of Arizona dorm room trying to figure out how to improve his gameplay.
"I was a big Halo 2 player," he said. "I wanted to get better, so I started researching on the web and watching videos. I realized relocating buttons would give me a tremendous advantage."
Over a spring break, Coe reworked a controller with tiny reprogrammable buttons on the back.
"Initially, it was all about button remapping; macros came afterward," he said.
Coe quickly found a market for his hand-rewired controllers, and soon afterward, hooked up with a self-taught programmer in North Carolina who offered to do the work on the mods.
"We've been working together for eight years now," Coe said. "We do it all by hand. We make controllers for disabled gamers, too."
Evil controllers come reprogrammed with the ability to turn on a selection of mods including the aforementioned dropshot, the ability to tweak fire rates and other controversial modifications.
Coe said that any modifications, even the hardware ones, were long looked down upon in the industry. But that seems to be slowly changing, at least for the hardware tweaks.
These days, he said, button remapping is allowed, but not macros, turbo buttons or "anything like that."
"That's what they consider cheating," Coe said. "The beauty of the modded controller industry is that it is essentially undetectable."
Coe noted that games have tried, but not typically succeeded in, detecting software mods. One shooter, he said, would lock out your weapon if it sensed you were pulling the trigger too fast, but that impacted some players who could do that without modding.
"I believe detection is something you can't do efficiently," he said.
Legally, he added, you are allowed to do whatever you want with a controller you own.
"It's like the car industry," he said. "You can't stop someone from modifying their car."
"It's like wearing better basketball shoes."
Coe noted that game publishers and platform holders don't condone using modded controllers online, but he added that Evil Controllers doesn't, either.
Reached for comment while working on this story, Microsoft officials initially declined to discuss whether using a software-modded controller could result in a ban from Xbox Live. When pressed for an answer, they pointed us to the Xbox Live terms of service agreement with no other comment.
The issue remains, at best, in a gray area.
While Coe said he doesn't condone using Evil controllers in online matches, he also doesn't see it as cheating.
"Anyone can dropshot by pulling the right trigger and pressing the B button," he said. "For people who don't play often and get their butts kicked, [mods make] games more fun.
"It’s like wearing better basketball shoes."
|Extra inputs||Two back buttons|
|Extras||An array of built-in mods|
Founded in 2007 out of a college dorm, Evil Controllers is likely one of the largest branded creators of software-modded controllers in the world. The small business hand-tweaks every controller it sells, reworking all of the inner mechanics of a standard controller to make it better, and then adding in a homemade chip that gives the controller a buffet of special functions — like the ability to fall flat to the ground automatically in a shooter every time you fire, or increase the fire rate of weapons.
The result is a controller with powerful helper macros that so straddle the gray line between what is and isn't allowed by console makers that Microsoft declined to comment about it directly for this story.
The software mods have to be a big part of the initial attraction for these controllers with on-the-fly remapping of functions like dropshot, auto run and auto scope, but after spending some time with the controller, I discovered that the mechanical refinements of the Evil controllers are just as powerful.
But first, those software macros.
The heart of Evil Controllers' mod system is called the Master Mod. The Xbox One and Windows PC version of the Master Mod includes 20 slots for different profiles to be used when playing different games. To set everything up, players first hold the X button and then tap the directional pad to the right to select a specific slot (e.g., five times to the right for slot five). Once a profile is selected, the player holds the D-pad in a specified direction and taps a corresponding button to turn on a mod or tweak the fire rate of weapons. So, a player would hold down on the D-pad and and tap the B button to turn on dropshot. The mod also allows for minute tweaking of the rate of fire. While you can adjust mods by simply tapping buttons on the controller, you probably shouldn't try to do this in game. Results seem to vary, and you're likely to die a lot.
Turning on dropshot alone for a play session or two, I was shocked by how much an impact the mod had on my kill-to-death ratio. Playing a warmup round or two, I was averaging 0.75 or so. (Yes, terrible.) With dropshot on, my ratio rocketed to 3.75 or so.
While a bulk of that was most certainly due to the mod that had me falling to the ground as soon as I fired, thereby almost always dodging initial return fire, the hardware tweaks to the controller also likely contributed to that amazing spike in kills.
Evil starts out with stock first-party controllers and then completely tears them apart to improve a number of things. The face buttons, for instance, are pulled apart and the rubber receiver under each one replaced with a button. This, I was told, makes the face buttons feel and act more like mouse clicks. By shortening the travel distance, it also reduces the time it takes the game to react to a button press. Evil also reduces the travel distance and tension on the triggers, and makes them more sensitive to a pull. And the company adds two extra buttons to the back of its controllers; both look like small black buttons. Evil opts for buttons rather than the paddles seen on Scuf, Steam and Xbox Elite controllers because the company believes they're more comfortable and natural.
Finally, Evil offers a variety of colors and prints for its controllers, as well as lighting effects and colors.
The final result is a slick remake of a controller that features some powerful tools and tweaks.
Because the controller is literally a rebuilt stock controller, it requires little to no time to get used to its design. I found that I adjusted to the better buttons and triggers very quickly, but rarely used those back buttons. It was nice to have them, but I think — as with back paddles — those are creations designed for someone willing to sit down and practice using them.
The downside of the controller is that many people — maybe rightfully so — will view your use of it as cheating. Even turning off those mods, because there's no way to prove you did, won't likely stop those accusations. (You can read a bit more about Evil Controllers' thoughts on that accusation and what it all means in our section on modded controllers above.)
If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, or you plan on picking this up for offline campaign play, I'd highly recommend the controller, both for its redesign and its powerful mods.
|Directional Pad||Four-switch D-pad|
|Extras||2.4 GHz USB nano-receiver, XInput/DirectInput support|
While several esports teams use Logitech keyboards, headsets and mice during tournament play, it's unlikely you'll ever find a team using the company's gamepads. That's because Logitech simply doesn't make a high-end controller.
But I was still interested in checking out how its top controller — the $50 F710 — compares to controllers that can cost as much as five times that price.
Unfortunately, even at that price point, the F710 isn't worth picking up. For $10 more you can purchase a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller.
The biggest problem the F710 faces is that it relies on Bluetooth and a tiny dongle to connect to a PC. While I didn't run into any major issues, many of the top retail sites that sell the controller have plenty of reviews complaining about lag and dropped connections. The other chief complaint is the relatively short distance over which the connection will work. The controller does ship with a USB cord to extend the physical reach of that dongle, but it makes for a sloppy solution.
Even if one were to put that major concern aside, the basic controller isn't very well-designed. The design of the controller and location of the batteries give the F710 a back weight that makes it feel like it might flip out of your hands if you let go. The horns of the controller, where you grip it, are more angled down and slightly shorter than most. For me, and I don't have large hands, that meant that my pinkies were gripping the very tips of those horns as I played — an uncomfortable feeling.
The thumbsticks feel a bit too tight, and the face buttons seem to have a bigger drop than even the standard Xbox One controller. The triggers are surprisingly tight, making the pull on them noticeably harder, and the bumpers are small squares rather than rectangles.
The F710 does support both Xinput and Directinput, which means it is likely to work with a broader variety of non-traditional games. That also includes Android TV.
The one major positive for the controller is its directional pad, which relies on four individual switches rather than a single pivot point.
It's surprising that a company that makes such well-designed mechanical keyboards and mice can so thoroughly overlook the burgeoning market for solid, high-end controllers. Even if that is in Logitech's future, the company is going to have to do a lot of work to get over the name it's made for itself as a sloppy controller creator.
|Extra inputs||Four underside assignable buttons|
|Extras||Custom illumination and two profile buttons|
PowerA isn't exactly the brand I think of when I'm considering which high-end gamepad to buy for my Windows gaming needs. The Washington-based accessory company is probably better known for its extensive line of branded mini-controllers, Skylanders play sets, console accessories and smartphone gamepads.
But the company's recently released Fusion Pro controller is a surprisingly solid gamepad, even if you don't consider that it sells for the relatively low price of about $80.
The wired Fusion Pro includes a 9-foot braided USB cable, four buttons on its back, trigger locks, custom thumbstick tops and the ability to change its built-in illumination (or turn it off) on the fly.
The Fusion Pro is shaped slightly differently from the standard Xbox One gamepad, with rounded grips, and a little less weight to the controller. That light weight also means the controller feels a bit hollow, a bit cheap in places.
The controller's directional pad also feels somewhat cheap and too tight for my liking. Fortunately, that's not the case with the face buttons, which feel fairly close to those on Microsoft's original Xbox One controller. The thumbsticks have just the right amount of tension and are topped with oversized, concave "platters." The platter (which is about the size of a nickel, compared to the Xbox One controller's smaller-than-a-dime top) feels like it's made of hard plastic, but the outer edge has a rubberized grip.
The shafts of the thumbsticks are under a plastic sheath that appears to be ringed with a band of extra plastic or metal. The band is where the thumbstick touches the ring around the mini-joystick's base. The effect doesn't really equal the same buttery smoothness I've noticed in controllers like Microsoft's Elite. The design is likely more about the lighting effects that the controller includes than any tweak to how it feels.
The Fusion Pro sports lighting effects around the base of both thumbsticks and from a V-shaped cutout below the start and menu buttons. Small, flat buttons in the very center of the controller's back are used to change the brightness of the lighting effects and shift through more than a dozen color options, including off, color cycling and color shifting. The colors for the thumbsticks and the color for the V-light are set independently.
The triggers on the controller feel a bit larger, a bit flatter, than a traditional trigger, and they feel a bit tighter as well. Separate trigger locks for the right and left triggers allow you to greatly cut down on the travel space for a trigger pull.
Finally, most importantly, the Fusion Pro features four additional buttons on its back.
These aren't the paddles found in an array of controllers, nor the triggers that Razer's Wildcat sports, but flat buttons instead. The design reduces the possibility of accidentally triggering them, but it also makes using them when you want to much harder.
I found the best way to use this controller was to shift my hand down slightly so that my middle fingers could press on the larger two of the buttons and my pointer fingers could press the smaller, higher buttons. When I tried playing with my middle fingers on the top buttons and my ring fingers on the lower buttons, I simply couldn't apply the pressure needed to click the larger buttons.
It's not the best solution, but it does work once you get used to it.
Programming those buttons requires pushing a special button on the front of the controller, tapping the button you want replicated and then tapping the one you want programmed. It's the least complex to change out of all of the controllers I tested.
PowerA's Fusion Pro certainly doesn't stand up to the likes of Evil, Scuf, the Elite or the Wildcat, but it also comes in at a much lower price point. Ultimately, the decision to pick this up over a pricier competitor is going to come down to personal tastes, and how much value you see in higher-end parts and easier-to-use assignable buttons.
|Cable||Quick-release, 10-foot braided|
|Extra inputs||Removable two back triggers and two extra bumpers|
|Triggers||Trigger stops, hair trigger mode|
|Extras||Quick control audio and profile panel, screwdriver, padded carrying case, optional rubber palm grips and analog stick grip caps|
Before companies like Scuf and Evil were making controllers for pro gamers, Razer already had its first pro controller banned and unbanned from Major League Gaming.
That short ban of the Razer Onza controller in 2010 isn't just an odd footnote in gaming history; it also shows how widespread specialized controllers have become in the half decade since. Where in 2010 customizable controllers were viewed with suspicion, today most pro gamers use them.
According to Razer, that story of the Onza ban is also evidence of just how good the company's pro controllers are.
It was such a good controller, Razer says, that it led to that temporary ban.
Last year, Razer released its latest iteration on the pro gaming controller, the Wildcat.
Razer says it took the lessons learned from the Onza and its predecessor, the Sabertooth, to design the Wildcat prototype. Then the company took that controller out to be tested by pro gamers, and refined it based on their reactions.
What the company ended up with is a solid gaming controller that offers a slew of refinement, a few customization options and four programmable buttons on its back.
The Wildcat's body feels a bit more shaped to the hand than the standard Xbox One controller's and, at 260 grams, weighs nearly 100 grams less than the Xbox One Elite controller.
The thumbsticks are made of high-carbon steel and have a smooth feel to their motion, while the clicky face buttons seem to have much less travel than a standard controller's. The directional pad is slightly sunken in, but otherwise unmemorable.
The big differentiator with the Wildcat comes with its back buttons.
Instead of using paddles like the Elite, Steam controller or the Scuf, or tiny buttons like the Evil, the Wildcat has an extra pair of triggers on its back and an extra set of smaller bumpers located between the main bumpers and separated by the detachable braided fiber cable.
Razer says it didn't take the decision to go with triggers instead of paddles lightly. The company said it researched the two options and found that paddles weren't as efficient as triggers and that triggers were easier to adjust to.
Having spent months with a variety of controllers, I can say that using the Wildcat's back triggers was certainly a much easier process to get used to than paddles, but I can't say whether — once learned — the triggers are more efficient or better than paddles.
All four extra buttons can be programmed on the fly with the use of the Wildcat's quick control panel. The panel sits at the bottom of the controller and features buttons for remapping, toggling between profiles, mic mute, and adjusting the volume balance between game and voice.
To set a button up, you simply hold in the remap button and the button you want to trigger, and then tap the button you want it to emulate. It's so easy to do that I found myself adjusting button mapping between matches.
While those extra back triggers never seemed to get in my way while playing — something I ran into with the paddles — they can be removed with an included screwdriver.
The controller's main triggers feature both trigger stops and a hair trigger mode. The trigger stops physically reduce the distance a trigger has to travel to actuate from 18 degrees to five degrees. The hair trigger mode, which is turned on by using the remapping button, reduces the activation time of either or both of the triggers with the controller's firmware.
The Razer Wildcat doesn't include things like interchangeable thumbsticks or extra directional pads, but it does come with Razer green rubber palm grips and two thumbstick grip caps.
It's also worth noting that while the Wildcat's USB cable is detachable, the controller does not function wirelessly. That, the company said, is to ensure the fastest response time while playing.
The Wildcat's $150 price tag puts it even with Microsoft's own Xbox One Elite controller. Both are solid, high-end controllers, so ultimately the decision for me would come down to the importance of the Elite's included interchangeable parts and whether I wanted back paddles or triggers on a controller.
|Extra inputs||Four vertical back paddles|
|Directional Pad||Removable control disc|
|Triggers||Adjustable trigger stops|
|Face buttons||Standard gradient black|
|Thumbsticks||Offset, medium-length concave|
|Extras||Screwdriver, electromagnetic remapping for paddles|
Where Evil Controllers splits its time between improving on the stock controller and creating a powerful suite of possibly bannable software mods, Scuf is singularly focused on reinventing the controller.
Over the past five years, the company says, Scuff has helped to educate the pro gaming community about the benefits of custom controllers. These days, Scuf is overwhelmingly the controller choice for not just pro gamers, but increasingly for everyday gamers looking to find the perfect fit for their gaming habits.
The key to Scuf's success seems to be twofold: the over-the-top design choices for customizing the controllers, and the slew of features that the company brings to its creations. (Scuf currently has 17 patents granted and another 38 filed.)
The site (and CEO) quickly rattle off the Scuf controllers' most popular features:
But the thing that really put Scuf's name on the board is its paddle control system, the foundation of a Scuf controller and a selection every customer chooses when building out a custom controller.
The paddle control system is a set of two or four vertical levers that rest on the back of the controller, each tied to a specific button or action on the front of the controller. It's an allowable hardware mod that helps pro players avoid using the "Claw," an uncomfortable method of holding the controller that involves gripping it between your first and middle fingers and using the pointer finger to press face buttons.
With Scuf's paddles, players can avoid removing their thumbs from thumbsticks to press buttons, something that can cost a life in a high-level first-person shooter match. The patented mechanisms are so popular that Microsoft's own high-end controller uses a form of the licensed paddles.
Last summer, Scuf released its Infinity One, the company's controller for Windows PC and Xbox One. The new controller is packed with a broad array of interesting features and is supported by an even more robust line of accessories.
As with Evil, Scuf starts with a standard off-the-shelf body, then tears it apart and tweaks it, reworks it and adds to it. The end result is almost unidentifiable as a Microsoft controller. When designing a custom controller, players have a lot to choose from.
Starting with the body, a player can choose to have the rumble motors removed from the controller to reduce interference during play. Other body options include custom front shell colors, patterns and prints; custom grips and LED colors.
While the face buttons remain untouched, a player can customize the color of the ring that holds the thumbsticks in place, as well as the height and design of the thumbsticks themselves (Scuf offers three stick lengths, domed or concave styles, and five colors). Scuf also sells a pop-on control disc for the D-pad.
Internally, the controller features new switches for a longer actuation life, improved haptic feedback (should you choose to keep it), and adjustable hair trigger and trigger stop mechanisms.
Of course, the biggest addition Scuf brings to the controller market is its paddle control system. The paddles run from the top of the controller to just above the bottom, and in their latest iteration feature a larger surface and slightly tweaked design.
The paddles are fully modular, meaning you can swap them around, add them or remove them on the fly without a screwdriver. The controller is designed to support zero, one, two, three or all four paddles at the same time.
This reliance on quick, easy modification carries through to much of the Infinity One's design.
For instance, the Scuf uses a rubberized, branded magnet to remap the paddles to different buttons on the fly. (That costs about $20 to include.) The thumbsticks can be swapped out by popping off the ring used to hold them in place with an included tiny plastic tool. And the hair trigger can be minutely adjusted with an included tiny screwdriver. Finally, the grips can be popped off fairly easily with another removal tool.
The Infinity One lives up to its name with a seemingly unlimited number of ways to optimize and tweak your own controller. All of it costs money, but the end result is likely to be exactly what you have in mind.
During my time with the controller, I enjoyed the feel of the pro grips, custom D-pad and thumbsticks, but would have liked there to be a bit of work done on those face buttons. The triggers, and the ability to tune them to the exact amount of draw you want, are fantastic.
The D-pad's control disc, while a clever idea, didn't really stay on the controller when I was using it. That habit of popping off while in storage led to its disappearance about a week after I started using the controller.
I like the idea of the paddles, but new to the idea and unaccustomed to buttons or paddles on the back of the controller, I found myself often accidentally triggering different buttons while in menus or even in gameplay. Fortunately, you can pop those paddles off fairly easily, but since they're such an integral part of Scuf's design, it seems like a waste to buy this controller and not use the paddles.
I'm sure that given the time and interest, I and anyone could master using them; I just didn't find that necessary.
If you're the sort of player who wants to customize the look and feel of your controller and still maintain the ability to tweak it easily over the course of its lifetime, Scuf is perfect for you.
That obviously means it is a big draw for pro players, but its intricacy of tweakage and refinement of controls may be lost on less serious, less refined gamers.
I haven't talked about the standard Xbox One controller in this look at Windows PC gamepads because there's a high likelihood that if you're into gaming with a gamepad and own a Windows PC, you either own one or have tried one. But what about the PlayStation 4 controller?
As Polygon's Dave Tach pointed out way back in 2013, the DualShock 4 is hands down the best controller Sony has ever made.
"It blends the familiarity of a PlayStation controller with some positively charged evolution," he wrote.
Dave — all of us, really — loved everything from the more tactile, rubbery feel of the body, to the longer grips, to the reworked buttons and triggers.
Sure, the DualShock 4 doesn't feature any programmable back buttons, trigger stops or retuned face buttons, but if you're a big fan of the controller, it's great to know it works on Windows 10 pretty much straight out of the box.
How straight out of the box?
All I had to do was plug mine into a USB port using the standard cable, and it was instantly recognized and worked. The games I tested even showed the right visual cues for the buttons (triangle, circle, X and square instead of Y, B, A and X, respectively).
The games used the clickable touchpad as a giant start button and the options button as an options button. The DualShock 4's Share button and PlayStation button didn't do anything, though while testing it in settings Windows did recognize the inputs.
At $60, the DualShock 4 comes in at the same price as the Xbox One controller, so it's a great alternative if you're just looking for a better handgrip and different design. (Don't forget the DualShock 4's thumbsticks are parallel, not offset).
|Extra inputs||Two, back paddles, gyroscopic and accelerometer sensors|
|Face buttons||Smaller, shifted down|
|Thumbsticks||Just one, concave|
While 2015 was a banner year for Windows PC controllers, the mix of gamepads didn't necessarily offer much in the way of variety.
Sure, we saw more controllers with back-of-gamepad inputs and tweaked, more sensitive buttons and triggers, but that's just about refining an existing standard.
There was one major exception, though: Valve's Steam Controller.
Instead of working to eke more performance out of the existing standards, Valve did what it does best: It reinvented the wheel.
The Steam Controller is like nothing I've tried before, an input device meant to both mimic the controls of a console gamepad, but also give a sense of using the much more precise mouse and then throwing in significant motion controls to the mix.
The controller still features twin grips and a rectangular body, but even the overall shape is a tweak on what you might expect.
Most significantly, the entire controller feels almost upside down when you pick it up. That's because the grips, which typically curve down on a controller, curve up slightly on the Steam Controller. This gives you a bit more stability and makes motion controlling a bit more precise, but it also takes some getting used to.
The face of the controller has also been completely redesigned.
The Steam Controller has a single thumbstick placed where you'd usually find the D-pad on a standard Xbox One controller. To the right of that, where the Xbox One controller usually has its right thumbstick, the Steam controller has its tiny face buttons, labeled A, X, Y and B, just like on the Xbox One. Moving up and toward the outer edges of the controller, where you'd typically find the left thumbstick and face buttons, are two oversized circular pads. The one on the right is completely smooth, and the one on the left has a giant plus sign sunken slightly into its face. These are touchpads that can also be clicked in different directions.
In the center of the controller is a Steam button, with smaller rectangular buttons on either side of it.
The top of the controller features two very clicky bumpers and two triggers, and the back of the controller has a large, oddly-shaped piece of plastic that sticks out slightly from the body and wraps around into the grips. It can be clicked on either grip.
A release switch on the bottom of the controller pops off that piece of plastic to give you access to the two AA batteries used to power the controller.
When the Steam Controller first hit, I wasn't very impressed with how it performed when I used it as a standard controller in games like first-person shooters.
At the time, I wrote that the controller was bound to be a polarizing gamepad, one players would either love or hate.
As odd as the controller's oversized touchpads feel and look initially, it didn't take me long to fall in love with them. I spent way too much time in Steam's menus just tooling the pointer around with the right thumbpad, feeling it rumble under my thumb like a drumroll. There's something very satisfying about controlling a mouse pointer with the pad. Maybe it's the feedback, maybe it's the sense of reinvention — that somehow Valve has figured out a way to build a better mouse — but I couldn't get enough of it.
I noticed that if I slid my thumb sideways across the pad, the pointer could pick up a little speed. Then I noticed that if I did it quickly enough and let go, it continued to rumble, as if I had just passed my hand quickly across an old-school controller ball in an arcade game like Marble Madness or Tempest. I sat on my couch for a bit, popping my thumb across the surface, first one way, then the other, feeling the controller roll along without me.
Problems arose, though, when I tried using the controller to play shooters.
The problem seemed to be in my thumb's ability to deliver fine precision movement. The thumbstick, I believe, takes slightly bigger movements and translates them, at the end of that stick, into those tiny motions. The settings I tried with the thumbpad didn't seem to do that, at least not in the same way. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive felt like it was being too persnickety with my movements, making it hard for me even to hold the aim steady. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel felt like it wasn't sensitive enough. The good news is that there is a vast array of programmable functionality built into SteamOS and the controller that allows you to adjust just about anything. You can save these control schemes and even share them. And Valve itself is working to create some solid templates as well.
I was also blown away by how well the controller replicated mouse movement in a game. I set up the controller to work with Nuclear Throne, which isn't specifically designed for a controller, and it worked almost flawlessly. I also, more recently, tried my hand at Dota 2, and was surprised at how well the controller worked in the MOBA.
Since I first tried the controller, Valve has released a seemingly endless stream of updates for it. Each tweak of the controller, increased your ability to use it and added features asked for by gamers.
Valve has done an amazing job of supporting this controller, and that's really its biggest draw. It's obvious that Valve wants to make this thing work, and the company is willing to put in the effort and time to both listen to its community and do what it can to deliver on requests as quickly as possible.
Just last month, Valve updated players both with news on changes coming to the controller and also a lot of tips on how to get the most out of it.
Ultimately, the Steam Controller is worth picking up not just because it offers a unique way to play your computer games (especially if you're sitting on a couch and not at a desk), but because of Valve's tremendous work to make sure it remains as innovative today as the day it was launched.
|Extra inputs||Four horizontal back paddles|
|Directional Pad||Includes two options|
|Triggers||Switchable hair triggers|
|Thumbsticks||Offset, includes three sets|
|Extras||Carrying case, cable, downloadable app|
There is no clearer a sign that custom controllers are coming into their own than Microsoft's decision to create a high-end, customizable controller for the Xbox One.
The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller is meant to be an improvement on the $100 million design of the standard Xbox One controller that ships with most Xbox One consoles. It is the byproduct of 18 months of research conducted in Microsoft's own research centers and in gamers' homes.
The result is a controller that Microsoft says is designed for the top 1 percent of players, but attractive and useful to everyday gamers as well.
The new controller features stainless steel thumbstick shafts (it ships with sets of standard, tall and domed sticks); reinforced rings around the thumbsticks; interchangeable faceted and standard directional pads; four removable horizontal back paddles; and a rubberized grip. The controller also includes a case and a braided cable.
Instead of relying on tools to switch out the parts, everything that is interchangeable on the Xbox One Elite controller can be done quickly with your hands. Magnets hold your choice of thumbsticks and D-pad in place, making it super simple to swap them on the fly. The triggers each have physical trigger locks on the back of the controller that can be switched on or off at will. And the four back paddles are designed to be interchangeable and quickly added or removed.
The Xbox Accessories app adds to the customization options by letting players adjust trigger minimum and maximum values, tweak thumbstick sensitivity, and assign essentially any input to any face button, paddle, trigger, D-pad direction or thumbstick click. While you can save an unlimited number of profiles on your Xbox One or Windows PC, you can only store two on the controller. A profile switch, below and in between the menu and options buttons, allows you to flip between the two at any time.
It's a slick package, one that delivers a robust slate of options at a relatively low price. Better still, it feels like a solid upgrade from the packed-in Xbox One controller.
That said, many core components of the controller remain mostly unchanged. The face buttons feel just like standard face buttons; the bumpers too don't feel like they've been noticeably redesigned.
While Microsoft seems to have left most of the controller's inner workings alone, the company did add the sort of tweaks that will be most noticeable, like the reworked grips and that ring around the thumbsticks. That ring was designed specifically to both increase the life of the controller and smooth out the feel of using those thumbsticks. The result is smooth, effortless sweeps of the thumbsticks in games.
While the paddles still remain a bit of a mystery to me, the Elite controller's horizontal design seems to make them a bit less obtrusive than Scuf's vertical design. And removing them if they get in your way is certainly simpler.
Part of the licensing deal with Scuf that gave Microsoft the ability to use those paddles on the Elite controller also promised rights to Scuf to make accessories for the Elite.
With a $150 entry price and the promise of a line of Scuf accessories, the Elite is a strong contender for step-up use, especially if you're not as worried about the nuance of color and control as some pro players might be.
|Price||$59.99 to $89.98|
|Face buttons||Standard, remappable through Xbox Accessories app|
|Extras||Textured grip, Bluetooth support, 40-foot range with Xbox One S|
Earlier this year, Microsoft added a wrinkle to its growing line of Xbox One controllers: The new Xbox One controller, which both ships with the Xbox One S and can be purchased on its own for $59.99.
Where the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller remains one of the hands-down best high-end controllers you can pick up for the PC, the S controller introduces some much-desired features that the Elite doesn't yet offer.
Chief among the changes is the new controller's Bluetooth support, a wonderful addition for PC gamers to allow for quick, easy connection to their gaming rig.
The controller is also currently the only one that can be customized through Microsoft's Design Lab, allowing a player to select from a wide range of colors for everything from the bumpers and backing to the thumbsticks and directional pad.
It's unclear how this new controller is going to fit into Microsoft's collection or if it will eventually replace the standard-issue Xbox controller, but I've been impressed with what it delivers at its price, so far.
The new Xbox One controller looks very much like the original Xbox One controller initially. It feels very familiar as well, with one major exception. Where the grips of the original controller are smooth, the new controller has a subtle pattern to its horns. The grip is not nearly as noticeable as the rubberized, patterned grip found on the Elite, but it's a nice touch that seemed to help when my hands started to get a little sweaty.
The thumbsticks, according to Microsoft, now feature a more durable design. They did feel a touch stiffer than the sticks on my original controller, but that's more than likely due to age. The real question is how the rubberized heads of the sticks will stand up over time. I've never had an issue with mine wearing down, but I know it's a problem for some gamers. If the rubber or the underlying plastic of the sticks has been upgraded, I couldn't tell.
The directional pad feels slightly stiffer and has a much deeper click to it, instead of the original controller's louder, snappier sound. That said, they felt about the same. The same was true for both controllers' bumpers. The triggers on both sounded and felt identical to me.
The weight and balance of the controller feels about the same. It doesn't come with a cable, but it does include a set of batteries and supports the accessories that are used by the original controller. That means you can still use your Play & Charge kit, chat headset, stereo headset, chatpad and more with it.
The controller supports both Xbox One's proprietary wireless connection and Bluetooth. Connecting to a Alienware Alpha 2 was as simple as turning on the rig's Bluetooth and holding down the connection button on the new controller until the Xbox logo light started flashing. Once the controller was identified and accepted, the PC found and downloaded the software, and I was up and running.
The Xbox Accessories app adds some layer of controller customization by letting players adjust trigger minimum and maximum values, tweak thumbstick sensitivity, and assign essentially any input to any face button, trigger, D-pad direction or thumbstick click. While you can save an unlimited number of profiles on your Xbox One or Windows PC, you can only store two on the controller. Unfortunately, while the new controller supports the app, it doesn't have the same profile switching button found on the Xbox One Elite controller.
Another big attraction for this new controller is the deep customization any player can do through the Xbox Design Lab. Currently, this new controller is the only one a player can customize through the lab.
The website, which anyone can use and save designs on, has players select colors for the body, bumpers and triggers, D-pad, thumbsticks, ABXY buttons, view and menu buttons, and the back of the controller. While there are currently 15 colors to pick from for most of the parts, the thumbsticks have to match and are limited to eight colors. The ABXY buttons offer four variations on black, white and gray or the traditional colored buttons. The view and menu buttons only have gray, black and white options. And designers can't slap on any images or patterns.
I was happy with the end result of my controller, which I designed to look a bit like the original Game Boy with an off-white body and red thumbsticks.
The customization feature bumps the price of your controller up by $20 and adds another $10 if you want to have words laser-etched in the bottom center of the body.
It's a smart move by Microsoft to reinvigorate its entry-level controllers with color customization options and a few very useful extra options.
The new Xbox One S controller isn't my favorite among the one's I've tested, but it's one of the most affordable. I'm just hoping these color and custom options come to the Elite.