Xbox One controller gets programmable trigger buttons, design refinements

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/ Updated: May 23, 2013 8:57 AM PDT

The newly announced Xbox One is getting a new controller to go with it. It looks a lot like the Xbox 360's controller, but with what Microsoft says are 40 "technical and design innovations" on top of its 8-year-old predecessor.

So what's the big new change? Not the action buttons, directional pad, analog sticks, or triggers -- which are all in the same place. Instead, all these things have been refined. The thumbsticks, for instance, now have textured ridges and are now 25 percent easier to move, which Microsoft says will make long play sessions less tiresome. The D-pad is no longer a circular, pivoting design, with Microsoft favoring a simple cross that juts out from the plastic and was pleasingly clicky in our brief hands-on time.

What is new are two buttons that replace the longtime start and back buttons. Microsoft has not detailed just what they do yet, though has confirmed that you'll still be able to use one of them to pause your game. The batteries are still removable, but now go into a compartment that's built into the back of the controller instead of as a pack that sticks out like a camel's hump, so the back of the new controller is a flat expanse for your fingers.

Other changes include a move for the Xbox Guide button, which is now at the very top of the controller and glows with a slight, bluish-white hue. The move makes the Guide button a bit of a reach to get to, but it also means you won't accidentally hit it while trying to pause your game. There's also a new infrared LED on the front of the controller, which can be picked up by the Kinect sensor to figure out where you are in the room, something Microsoft says can be used to position split-screen games and the like if people move around the room.

Perhaps the biggest change is not on the outside, but on the inside. New vibration motors nestled right beneath the triggers can work in tandem with the motors lower down on the controller to create new rumbly effects. The demos we got with a near-final version of the controller were very, very basic -- things like a car engine starting, a gun firing, and helicopter rotors swirling -- but the extra feedback was pleasing. Microsoft didn't provide a demo of this with an actual Xbox One game, or provide details on battery life with the extra shakes.

James Martin/CNET

James Martin/CNET

Compared with the DualShock 4
While we got a few minutes with the Xbox One controller, we probably won't get any with Sony's DualShock 4 for the PlayStation 4 before E3. But there are a few ways in which we can compare them with each other now.

The DualShock 4 differentiates itself with a clickable touch pad on the front -- giving developers an additional option when designing games, although we've yet to see it in actual application.

James Martin/CNET

Also, the light bar on the DualShock 4 includes some Move capability, allowing the PS4 to track the position and identify where the controller is and, if need be, actually adjust the split-screen orientation during multiplayer couch gaming. The Xbox One will accomplish this with assistance from Kinect, as it automatically tracks who's holding which controller.

The DualShock 4 also gets a Share button, a built-in speaker, and a headphone jack. Share allows players to quickly upload game footage to the Internet for others to see. The Xbox One will have this feature, too, but details on just how it works and where you'll be able to share those videos have not been announced. Microsoft has said it's allowing Xbox One developers to program recording features into their games that will kick off a recording when a user gets to a boss or unlocks an achievement.

James Martin/CNET

The Xbox One uses a technology called Wi-Fi Direct to connect its controller, while the PlayStation 4 relies on Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR. On paper, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR's theoretical 3Mbps maximum speed is clearly outclassed by Wi-Fi Direct's 250Mbps theoretical throughput. However, whether this difference will result in any tangible difference remains to be seen. In the Xbox One's case, this could end up being important if Microsoft chooses to release add-ons, like a microphone for voice chat, and an updated version of its keyboard pad.

The problem with comparing the two controllers right now is that we've yet to actually use them for what they're designed for: playing games. Check back in a few weeks during E3, as we're hoping to get copious amounts of play time.

Check out our sister site GameSpot for the latest news on the Xbox One.

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