Over the last seven years, I’ve used no controller more than the Xbox One controller. Thanks to its ease of use and ubiquitous support in PC games, it has pulled double duty, bouncing between the console in my living room to the gaming PC in my office and back again. I’m very fond of the Xbox One controller. It’s a true workhorse.
So when news came out that the updated version of the Xbox gamepad was striving for quality-of-life improvements over a vast overhaul, I was perfectly fine with that. And after playing a wide variety of games with it over the last few days, I’m still perfectly fine with this measured approach. The question is whether “perfectly fine” is enough these days.
The first thing I notice when picking up the new Xbox controller is that it feels much smaller in the hand compared to the old Xbox One controller. The handles on the new design are narrower, which means my fingers can wrap around more of the surface area. It’s not a dramatic difference, but the smaller size is noticeable. I prefer controllers with smaller handles, as they offer a more secure grip, so I consider this an upgrade. Others with larger hands may prefer the original Xbox One controller’s slightly bulkier feel, but it’ll come down to personal preference. Thankfully both the old and the new controllers are supported by the Xbox Series X and Series S, so folks who prefer the old ways needn’t worry about missing out.
Speaking of grip, the new Xbox controller’s handles are coated in textured plastic. This is another departure from the Xbox One controller’s smooth outer finish. Once again, I consider this an upgrade. Not to get gross, but after a few hours of gaming, a smooth plastic surface can turn into a slippery ice skating rink. The new, bumpy surface provides additional friction and grip, ensuring that the controller doesn’t go flying in a heated moment.
The new D-pad is also a nice enhancement. Rather than the familiar cross, the new Xbox controller’s D-pad is a concave circle with the cross embossed on top of it. Written out, this sounds … awful? But in practice it actually does feel like a traditional D-pad, just with more versatility. Rather than having to split the difference between two points on the cross for a diagonal, there’s a spot for my thumb to push down, ensuring I’m getting the right input.
It should be noted that Microsoft experimented on the Xbox 360 controller with this circular D-pad idea, which was mushy and terrible. By contrast, this D-pad feels clicky and precise, capable of handling fighting games and platformers with ease. This new D-pad design was first introduced on the popular Xbox Elite controller, so it’s nice to see it finally come to the masses.
When it comes to controllers, clicky is good, right? A clicky button lets you know, without a doubt, that your input has been accepted. But perhaps there’s an untold downside to clickiness? Because holy cow, this new Xbox controller is loud. Every button press, whether it’s the face buttons or the D-pad, echoes throughout my apartment like a Smith Corona. (Well, maybe more like a modern mechanical keyboard, but yeah, it’s loud.) If you’re at home, alone, no biggie. But if you happen to cohabitate with someone, it could get grating pretty quickly. And if you’re playing with someone online, the clicks could easily come through alongside your voice chat, which is never fun.
My older Xbox One controller’s buttons are somewhat quieter, though not dramatically so. It’s possible that, through use, the new controller’s clickier edges will get smoothed out, making me less despised within my apartment, but right now it’s like the Wheel of Fortune in here.
Another aspect that may change over time are the triggers. Straight out of the box, the triggers on the new Xbox controller are considerably stiffer than they were on the Xbox One controller. It feels like pulling the trigger on the new Xbox controller takes about twice as much force as I need on the older model. The stiffer triggers aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as they offer more accuracy when finding a sweet spot (like when feathering the gas around a tight corner in Forza Horizon 4), but if you’re more sensitive to hand cramping, you may find that holding these triggers down are a bit of a pain.
But make no mistake: You won’t find any enhanced technology within the triggers themselves. The adaptive triggers in the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, which let games vary the amount of force required for a trigger pull, are absent on the new Xbox gamepad. The rumble technology is also unchanged from what was inside the Xbox One’s controller (as compared to the new haptic technology in the DualSense). While the Xbox One’s rumble was impressive — especially when games took full advantage of it — the DualSense controller’s improvements are literal game-changers, capable of offering immersion that’s beyond the reach of the new Xbox controller.
This new Xbox controller feels like a modest improvement over the already-great Xbox One controller, but it also plays things very safe. When a redesigned D-pad, slightly smaller handles, and a dedicated share button — no, I didn’t talk about this but, uh, it’s a share button — are the standout features on your new piece of hardware, it’s hard to view this controller strategy as anything but “don’t change horses in midstream.” And maybe that’s OK for a controller that’s already so beloved. But after seven years, maybe it’s time for something with a bit more giddyup?
The Xbox Series X will be released worldwide on Nov. 10. For this review, Polygon tested an Xbox Series X (and the new controller) provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.