The Xbox One's Controller: Vastly Improved
The Xbox One controller is a natural evolution of the Xbox 360's, which was already one of our very favorite designs. We like it so much that it's our go-to-choice on the PC when gaming with a keyboard and mouse aren't ideal. It feels familiar in-hand, yet pleasantly better in all regards. It's hard to articulate exactly, but this is a more refined design. Unlike the 360's controller, the Xbox One's has no bulging battery pack or exposed screw holes. Both changes improve comfort.
Unfortunately, we won't be able to make an immediate switch to the new controller on our PCs. It interfaces with the Xbox One via Wi-Fi Direct, and while Microsoft confirms that the Xbox One controller will offer PC compatibility, that won't happen until 2014.
In the previous generation, there were separate wired and wireless controller models. This time around, the Xbox One controller switches to full wired mode whenever it's connected to the console through microUSB. In that state, the controller shuts off its radios and transmits all I/O through the cable, reducing latency.
New to this generation is a vastly improved rumble system. The left and right triggers now have vibration motors built into them, which provide independent force feedback. We find great examples of this in shooters, where the triggers vibrate when a gun is shot, or driving games, where the texture of the ground feeds back into your finger.
Beyond the discrete rumble capability, the triggers themselves operate more smoothly. In contrast, the face buttons feel mostly similar, and the analog thumb-sticks have a more grippy texture to the edges. One change that may take some getting used to is the renaming of the "back" and "start" buttons to "view" and "menu". In practice, they'll probably be used for the same in-game functions, so there's just a matter of getting used to the new nomenclature as we move further away from the classic "select" and "start". We're sure that some of the humor isn't lost on Tom's Hardware readers when we point out that, like Windows 8, the Xbox One rids itself of the start button.
Vastly improved from the Xbox 360 days is the Xbox One's directional pad. Microsoft tweaked the d-pad a few times throughout the Xbox 360's life, but all of the iterations pale in comparison to this new one. Where it was once imprecise and mushy, the Xbox One's d-pad responds to even the lightest touches accurately.
While the PS4's DualShock 4 controller carries on with the built-in rechargeable battery first introduced in the DualShock 3, Microsoft sticks with the same power source used for the Xbox 360 controller: two AA batteries. The more customer-friendly approach is debatable. As with the power supply discussion, Microsoft's solution makes replacement easier, while Sony's solution is arguably more elegant. But as someone who has had to order aftermarket Li-ion batteries to resuscitate a DualShock 3 controller, my vote is in favor of Microsoft.
We also can't give an advantage to the DualShock 4 for being rechargeable, as there will once again be a Play & Charge kit that puts rechargeable cells into Microsoft's controller. With that said, we're perfectly happy using a set Sanyo Eneloop AAs.
In fact, for extended gaming sessions, the Xbox One's seemingly old-fashioned power source is an advantage. A drained DualShock 4 controller has to be tethered to the console (or some other power source) to charge back up, while the Xbox One just needs a new set of batteries to carry on.
As we saw from the Xbox 360, Microsoft's new headset attaches to the bottom of the Xbox One controller. The port is not backward-compatible, but Microsoft claims that it offers vastly improve sound quality.