Xbox Elite Controller review

by | Sep 17, 2017 | Review

Xbox Elite Controller review

by | Sep 17, 2017

Your brain will say no, but your heart will say yes.

I have been a fan of Xbox controllers since the original “Duke,” the gargantuan model that shipped with the first Xbox and introduced the world to the glory of dual offset thumbsticks. The Xbox One S controller that has been my mainstay for just over a year now (and the regular Xbox One controller before it) is certainly not bad, but nor is it particularly great. Another run-of-the-mill gamepad like so many others from generations before it. I’ve been waiting for the next giant leap in controller evolution, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the first Xbox.

In June 2015, Microsoft answered my prayers with the Xbox Elite Controller, a high-end input device made for the most discerning gamer, seemingly crafted by the hands of Hephaestus himself. The elegant matte black finish, the shiny metal components, the interchangeable thumbsticks and paddles… It was a thing of beauty.

I wanted one immediately, but I held off. And held off. And held off. Until about a week ago, when I had some time to kill in a local Best Buy and bought an Xbox Elite Controller right off the shelf. Yes, this controller has been out for over two years, but I’m going to offer up my opinion on it anyway. After all, I have to justify my purchase somehow, and creating content around it is really the only way I know how.

Xbox Elite Controller back left
Xbox Elite Controller front right

Luxury without reliability is just wasteful

Just about everything that needs to be said about the Xbox Elite Controller has already been said, and while reviewers almost universally love it, most users balk at the price. $150 is a big ask for a controller, but gamers are generally okay paying a premium price for a premium product (collectively, we even spend millions on mostly useless loot boxes). The issue arises in a disagreement over what makes a product “premium,” with Microsoft apparently thinking it is special features and gamers preferring longterm reliability.

If you spend a hundred grand on a luxury automobile but it goes into the shop once a month for repairs, you’re probably not going to be satisfied with your purchase no matter how wonderful the car is when it’s working. That said, there will always be a part of you that really loves that car and wants to drive it as often as possible. The Elite controller presents a similar conundrum.

In a video extolling the virtues of the “claw” grip, the aptly-named Halo YouTuber Luke TheNotable explained that the Elite controller is simply a bad value proposition for enthusiast and pro gamers — the very demographic Microsoft is targeting with the controller. Mr. TheNotable goes on to say that he liked the Elite controller, even mentioning that it helped improve his game… initially. The problem is that, like all gamepads, the moving components and springs inside the Elite controller eventually wear. High-level players replace their controllers at least twice a year because of this, if not more. That’s simply unreasonable when you’re dropping $150 a pop.

As for myself, I’m not exactly a high-level player, but I game frequently enough that the idea of a more comfortable, more capable controller sounds appealing. The Xbox Elite Controller may be better suited to players like me, who enjoy gaming competitively but are well below pro level and don’t replace a controller every year. There is a lot to love about the Elite, even if it doesn’t really make sense for real elite players.

Xbox Elite Controller in hand

Grips and sticks

The Xbox Elite Controller has a lot of features, but the first thing you’ll notice when you pick it up is just how incredible it feels in your hands. The heavier weight is secure and reassuring. The undersides of the handgrips are covered in a rubberized material that is miles ahead of the grips on the standard controller. The top plate is blanketed in a delightful soft-touch finish. It begs to be held. It is so good that I don’t understand how this isn’t the new standard; every controller should have such an excellent exterior.

Rounding out the ergonomics are the interchangeable components. The Elite controller ships with three sets of thumbsticks and two different D-pads, along with a quality carrying case to keep everything together. I don’t play any games that rely on expert D-pad control, so I swapped the 8-way pad for the standard 4-way one. But choosing the right thumbstick combinations is a much more involved process.

The default sticks are the shortest and have concave thumb rests, just like those on the standard controller. The tall sticks also have concave rests, but the medium sticks are convex, or domed. The height is the primary differentiator, though.

Initially, I switched out the right thumbstick for a medium one. This is the “aiming” stick in most shooters, and I figured having a slightly longer throw would increase accuracy, potentially at the expense of aiming speed, but that seemed a worthy trade-off for me. This proved to be a bad decision, not because my intuition was necessarily wrong, but simply because it threw off the ergonomics of the controller. (I found having greater leverage on the aiming stick was also a bad thing, as it actually makes it harder to make small moves.)

Due to the offset nature of the Xbox controller thumbsticks, it makes more sense to have a longer stick on the left side, which is positioned farther from you. With the short stick on the right and the medium stick on the left, the Elite controller is a masterpiece of ergonomics, yielding a far more comfortable and secure handholding position than the standard controller. I’m sure each person will have their own opinion on the proper setup, but this is what I’ve landed on as the best for my hands.

Xbox Elite Controller hands on

Triggers and paddles

The two big usability improvements found on the Elite controller are four removable paddles mounted on the underside and the option to reduce the travel on the trigger buttons to make them act as “hair triggers.” These are fantastic innovations, although the hair triggers are really more about feel than function, since actual sensitivity is controlled via software and is independent of the length of travel. You can dial in the perfect settings through the Xbox One Accessories app, and doing so is absolutely necessary if you want to pull off a noob combo in Halo with the hair triggers engaged.

The Accessories app is also where you can remap every button on the controller, including the paddles. You can create multiple configurations, two of which can be acccessed by a swtich on the top of the controller. For me, position one is for Halo, while my control scheme for Destiny is in position two. Button remapping makes it possible to use the same controls across multiple games, at least to a certain extent, and this is a great function for anyone who commonly switches between games.

The idea behind the paddles is to take over the functions of the A, B, X, and Y buttons on the face of the controller. Without adopting the aforementioned claw grip, these buttons can only be pressed if you remove your thumb from the right stick. However brief, you give up aiming control for a moment every time you reach for a button. The paddles allow your thumb to remain on the right stick where it belongs, while the jobs of the ABXY buttons are delegated to fingers that previously just sat there.

This sounds like an all-win scenario, but there are some drawbacks.

The paddles, as well as can be, are correctly positioned for easy access with your middle and ring fingers on both hands. In practice, this setup is indeed faster than hitting the ABXY buttons with your thumb, but there is little in the way of clench protection; grasp your controller tightly during an intense firefight and you’re going issue all kinds of random commands to your player character.

The front paddles are also needlessly long, projecting lower than the grip itself, so if you set the controller down on something that isn’t a perfectly flat surface, you will again press a button you didn’t mean to press. I can’t tell you how many times I inadvertently activated my super ability in Destiny 2 when I set my controller down on my lap just to grab a drink, much to the chagrin of my fireteam members.

In time, I suppose, you’ll get used to it. You’ll learn not to clench (or not to take a drink). You’ll find the perfect resting place for your fingers where they won’t toggle the paddles accidentally. For me, the most ergonomic solution was to simply remove the front paddles and roll with just the two in the back, which gives a sturdier grip and greatly reduces the chance of accidental input. I still run with at least one front paddle most of the time — because pro status — but the setup is more comfortable without them.

Simply retraining your brain to send new commands to new fingers will also take time. The Elite controller comes with a learning curve that may be much steeper than you expect, at least to old dogs like me. You will make a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes won’t be limited to figuring out which paddle is mapped to the A button — I often hit a paddle eroniously when I ment to hit a bumper, for example, because who knows what I was thinking? So while the controller has the potential to improve your game, you likely won’t notice this until after many hours of play, unless you’re a young gun who hasn’t spent the past two decades having a single control scheme imprinted on your brain.

The Xbox Elite Controller shows us what’s possible

I really, really like the Xbox Elite Controller. I don’t even mind having to relearn how to play my video games; in fact, I kind of enjoy it. It reminds me of the first time I picked up an original Xbox controller and ran around in circles staring at the ceiling of the Pillar of Autumn until I eventually trained my brain and fingers to work together.

I do wish it wasn’t so expensive. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s worth it, not based on all the user reviews I’ve seen that mention similar failure and wear rates to the standard controller. Being asked to drop $150 on a product that only carries a 90 day warranty is just short of legal robbery. I picked up a two-year extended warranty to be safe, but come on, this shouldn’t be required.

The Elite may be aimed at gaming enthusiasts, but there’s no reason its innovations, comfort, and style should be limited to any one demographic. I know it’s asking too much for this to become the standard controller, but I’d love to at least see interchangeable sticks and rubberized grips on all future models. It would also be nice if the Elite was included with the new Xbox One X. I have no doubt this would help move some units, especially since much of the power in the “world’s most powerful console” is wasted on most gamers. It would also help Microsoft gain an additional edge on Sony and the PlayStation 4 Pro.

A sound investment the Xbox Elite Controller is not, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t put a smile on my face every time I picked it up. We can hope that, at the very least, it is a herald of things to come, that its advancements will trickle down into future base model controllers. You might not get the reliability out of it that you’d expect for the price, but like a german sports car, it sure is enjoyable while it runs.