Is a gamepad worth $150? That's the question Microsoft is asking with the Xbox One Elite controller, a revamp of its almost two-year-old paddle that shipped with the Xbox One. The company isn't targeting this as a device for the mainstream, though. Rather, the Elite is instead for highly competitive gamers -- the type that'd mod their controllers with third-party accessories for greater precision. The customization it offers comes at a steep price, costing over twice as much as the standard $60 controller.
Why should you care? Because the vanilla Xbox One controller feels like a cheap knock-off of the vaunted Xbox 360 pad that came before it. Microsoft said it spent over $100 million designing it, considering smell-o-vision and even a built-in projector for the gamepad, only to wind up with a mostly inferior clone. It has too many sharp edges, feels incredibly hollow and seems, well, cheap. Honestly, one of the biggest reasons I don't play my Xbox One much as my PlayStation 4 is because I prefer the latter's DualShock 4 controller. Keep all that in mind when you consider the following statement: I've been using the Elite controller for almost a week and I haven't wanted to put it down; this is the Xbox One gamepad we should've had from the outset.
Out of the box, the Elite looks like a superficial upgrade. Aside from the 3.5mm headphone jack up front and the new slider control underneath and equidistant from the Menu and Options buttons, you'd be forgiven for confusing the Elite pad with the standard one. It's when you start futzing around with the different thumbstick options or snapping metal levers into the underside that the gamepad starts looking unique.
The Elite comes with a clamshell case that has a molded space for the controller, a cargo pouch for spare earbuds, batteries and the pack-in, braided micro-USB cable (a requirement for most tournaments) that will tether the pad to a console. There's also a molded rubber holder that keeps the four control levers, two sets of thumbsticks and spare directional pad in place. The idea behind the latter is that it'll keep your extra parts secure during travel so they don't fall out after unzipping the case. In practice, everything stayed in place for me aside from the faceted directional pad -- its section is too loose to keep that from bouncing around. On the flip side, the cross-style option fit incredibly snugly.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the controller to pair it with my console was how heavy it was compared to the standard gamepad. Microsoft says that with all four levers attached, a pair of included Duracell AAs and standard thumbsticks, the Elite weighs 348 grams, give or take 15. That's 12.3 ounces compared to its predecessor's 9.9 ounces. Honestly, though, the only time I noticed was when I picked it up since more often than not, when I'm gaming, my hands rest in my lap.
That heft likely comes from the Elite's revamped innards. The thumbsticks feel incredibly springy and precise, thanks to their metal construction. I've never been a fan of the sticks on the Xbox One pad. They've always felt rough and just weren't comfortable to me. With the Elite, I had the option of choosing among three different sets (standard, tall and a pair of convex heads) and changing them on the fly, but most of the time I was perfectly happy with the standard set. All are incredibly comfortable, though, and have the same premium feel as the rest of the controller.
Depending on the game, I opted for different configurations. For Halo 5: Guardians, I stuck a standard stick on the left and one of the twice-as-tall options on the right. With Forza Motorsport 6, I reversed that. Why? With shooters, the extra height gave me more leverage and ensured I wouldn't hit a face button by accident while aiming my assault rifle at my quarry. In a racing game, the added height made steering a lot easier.
Not only have the thumbsticks gotten an overhaul, but also the pots they sit in did too. Microsoft added a low-friction ring to where the stick makes contact with the faceplate and the result is pretty dramatic. Movement just feels smoother because the metal shafts glide effortlessly around when you're pushing them toward the edges. It makes using the controller a bit quieter, too.
The sync button's now sharing a lime green hue with the d-pad socket, hair-trigger locks and contact points for the control levers. What are those? Metal pieces between an inch and an inch and a half long that act as secondary inputs for any button on the controller. There are four total (two angled, two straight) and you can arrange them in a number of different ways, some correct and others less so. It's possible, for example, to arrange them in a way where they'll overlap. Like the rest of the custom options, these hold in place magnetically and if you'd rather not use them, that's entirely up to you.
One of my biggest complaints about the standard controller is how stiff the right and left shoulder buttons are. They have an incredibly narrow sweet spot to register a depression and using them has always felt really hit or miss to me, with the innermost edge being damn near impossible to press in. With the Elite, that gripe's been eliminated. Here, they're a little easier to press at their outermost edges, but even at the opposite end (where the actuators reside) it takes dramatically less effort and is more even all the way across. Both the shoulder buttons and the triggers below feature a matte silver finish versus the standard's slippery black gloss, and the latter's throw is about 3/16 of an inch shorter. And rather than the standard triggers' squishy feel, these make a firm click when you bottom out.
The battery tray is in the same place as before, but now it has markers indicating what position the hair-trigger locks are in. Immediately on either side are the recessed metal knobs that take the analog triggers and dramatically reduce the distance you need to pull before your on-screen gun fires.
I couldn't find a use for the faceted d-pad during my review, but supposedly it's better for pulling combos in fighting games. As a button masher (rest assured I'm not quitting my day job for eSports) it felt like the magnet was barely able to hold the concave piece of metal in place. Sure, it looks cool, but once I installed the metallic cross d-pad, I never took it out. The A, B, X and Y buttons changed from green, red, blue and yellow, respectively, to all black. And the aforementioned standard headphone jack rests off to the side of where the previously required headset adapter did on the standard controller, while a legacy connection for purpose-built headsets like the Astro A40 Xbox One Edition sits next to it. It's a smart move because it doesn't alienate anyone who bought a specific headset previously.
To me, the standard controller has always felt like a prototype rather than a final product -- with its rough edges and other questionable design choices. That isn't the case here. The Elite features a soft rubber finish on a majority of its surface, with a more aggressive diamond-pattern grip where your palms rest underneath. The DualShock 4 has a textured underside too, but it can't hold a candle to this. For example, sliding the Elite across the glass desk in my home office proved pretty difficult. I might as well have been dragging a pencil eraser across it. Even after a four-hour Halo 5 session, the controller didn't feel like it'd slip out of my moist palms.
The customization options don't stop with the hardware -- there's an app that gives you the chance to completely rebind every button's function (aside from Menu and Options) to a different one. Want the digital shoulder buttons to perform the trigger duties? I can't recommend that, but go right ahead. How about adjusting the A, B, X and Y buttons so they mimic Nintendo's non-standard layout? Have at it. Effectively, this gives you complete control of how your gamepad works, without being subject to the tyranny of pre-defined control schemes on a game-by-game basis.
Beyond that there's a raft of other custom settings. The new slider button allows for swapping between two onboard control schemes, but you can create and save as many as you want to your system profile and access them from anywhere with an internet connection. There are independent adjustments for thumbstick sensitivity (slow start, fast start, instant, default) that govern how much distance the sticks need to travel before in-game movement registers. An option for adjusting trigger sensitivity and dead-zone is here too. Also, if you've ever wanted to turn down the haptic feedback, or turn it off completely, there's an option for that as well. Really, all that's missing is the ability to turn the guide button's light off completely and the option to permanently invert the right stick's Y-axis. The latter's especially puzzling considering you can swap left and right thumbstick assignments (so movement maps to the right stick and aiming goes to the left) within the app.
Let's say you're like me and are incredibly overwhelmed by the complexity of remapping every button on the controller. That's where game developer-made presets come into play. There are only a handful available right now and they're all for first-party games like Halo, Forza 6 and Gears of War, but Microsoft promises more are en route for Star Wars: Battlefront III and Call of Duty: Black Ops III. The Halo 5 preset tailored to campaign mode, for instance, liberates squad commands and waypoint location from their cumbersome position on the d-pad to the control levers. Reaching down to the d-pad to tell Team Osiris to attack an enemy is awkward, but assigning that task to the levers makes perfect sense because it's always within reach.
More dramatic is the difference the levers make in Forza 6, where they serve as paddle shifters and a clutch for manual transmissions. They're really useful; I've never been comfortable using a stick shift with a gamepad, but since I don't have the space in my apartment, a racing wheel isn't feasible. That isn't the case anymore. But, having all four levers in place (manual requires two; manual with clutch doubles that) clutters things up a bit. Anytime I put all four on regardless of the game, I ran the risk of accidentally pressing a few simultaneously. What's more, of everything on the controller, the levers feel most likely to fall off while playing because the magnets don't seem as strong as elsewhere on the gamepad.
The previous controller's battery life is incredible, and after roughly 15 hours during my review, the fresh set of standard AAs had only worn down to 75 percent capacity. I have no doubt that the Elite will match or best its forebearer's battery lifespan, especially considering the options for adjusting haptic motor intensity.
Again, is all of this worth $150? That answer depends on how much and what you play on Xbox One -- regardless of your pro-gaming aspirations. Even disregarding the hardware customization options, there are considerable improvements. Were the Elite a $30 premium over the standard controller instead of $90, my recommendation would be a lot easier. Instead I'm hesitant: One of the controllers will set you back almost half of what the console you'd use it with costs. Sure, the Elite doesn't feel like a cheap toy, but everyone else might want to hold out for a price drop considering that the customization app is coming for the standard controller too, and the rubber handgrips I'm so fond of exist on another official gamepad. If you've been waiting to buy an Xbox One, go for the upcoming Elite bundle that packs the controller and a console sporting a 1TB hybrid drive for $499 because for now the controller's price is too hard to justify on its own.