Valve's new Steam Machine controller keeps touch pads, adds face buttons (hands-on)

The new Steam Machines controller prototype is a step in the right direction, but its haptic touch pads still take a lot of getting used to.

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While the previous prototype for Valve's Steam Machine game controller looked functional enough, the lack of a traditional face button layout was troubling. With its latest iteration, Valve keeps the unique design of the haptic pads, while offering an immediately familiar button layout.

Valve's Steam controller prototype now looks more like your father's controller (pictures)

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This new iteration gets both face buttons and Valve's version of a D-Pad. It's not really a D-Pad in the traditional sense, but more like four separate buttons for up, down, left, and right. I wouldn't exactly opt to play any fighting games with it.

The A, B, X, and Y buttons are located to the lower left of the right touch pad. It's an awkward position, and it doesn't help that the buttons are a lot smaller than, say, the Xbox 360 controller's. Several times, when I thought i was pressing A, I was actually pressing B. I'd love to see it enlarged and moved a bit to the right. A proper D-Pad would also be ace.

Josh Miller/CNET

There are no analog controls on Valve's Steam Machines controller. It eschews traditional analog sticks in place of haptic touch pads, which really threw me for a loop when I first picked up the controller. The touch pads offer 360 directional control and the sensitivity of the pads can be deeply customized. And sensitivity was definitely an issue in my playtime.

While playing the new Strider game, there were many instances where the character would move without me actually touching the touch pads to make him move. At least, I don't think I was touching the 'pads.

Josh Miller/CNET

This issue may have been due to this particular controller's sensitivity calibration, but it happened several times. I also had trouble with precision. Trying to jump up and swipe at an enemy was more difficult than it should have been. However, I will say that the more I used the controller, the more natural it started to feel.

However, at this point it seems a stretch that the touch pads could ever approach the control fidelity of a high quality analog stick; at least not on a side-scrolling action game like Strider. Other types of games might feel more natural, but I've yet to have a chance to try them.

Josh Miller/CNET

The shoulder and triggers buttons look as if they're made from wood. It's weird. The shoulder buttons seemed functional, but the triggers were too shallow and didn't offer enough physical resistance; however, I did appreciate the satisfying click they deliver when pressed down all the way.

Overall, the controller fit into my hands comfortably and struck a very balanced weight. I'm not at all sold on the touch pads, and the button layout can use some definite tweaking, but it may be more appropriate for the types of games you'd more likely see on the PC: first-person-shooters and real-time strategy games. I plan on returning to Valve's booth later this week and spending more time with different types of games.