I firmly believe that anything you use a lot is worth paying good money for. We sit in our office chairs for hours a day, we wear glasses from morning to night. Similarly, a game controller might see thousands of hours of use over its lifetime. That they only cost around $50 and last as long as they do is its own small miracle. At the same time, I don’t balk at the idea of spending a bit more on a controller if it’s going to do what I expect it to and perform well throughout its life. You get what you pay for, right? And that’s the hope with the – that Microsoft has put out a sturdy product that stands up to the price tag on the box.
My history with controllers
I think it’s worth briefly discussing my history with controllers and, especially, with “high-end” controllers. I own an Xbox One and a PlayStation 4 (and a gaming PC) right now, and I own an Xbox One Elite controller and a SCUF Vantage PS4 controller along with standard Xbox and PlayStation controllers.
Thus far, I’ve been disappointed with high-end controllers. The Elite controller was initially my favorite controller ever, but over time it developed an issue I would later find out is common among them – analog drift. That is to say, an un-pushed analog controller gets stuck in a slightly-off position, causing slight movement in analog games. I walked off so many docks while fishing in Red Dead Redemption 2 before I figured out what was going on.
I sent the controller in for repairs, and the replacement controller developed drift, too. Yikes. I ended up using a standard Xbox One controller.
Over on the PlayStation side, things have been even worse. The controller is an okay controller, but my first one fried and my second one is developing problems, too. The controller was an attempt at making the PlayStation 4 controller feel a bit more like the Xbox controller. I find Microsoft’s controller far more comfortable, so I was eager to give it a go. The end result, though, was a rickety-feeling controller with cheap buttons, and a hollow, weightless feel. I switched back to the DualShock 4 almost immediately.
In other words, I’ve been burned by so-called high-end controllers, but I’m still going into my look at the Elite Series 2 with an optimistic outlook because I’ve enjoyed so much of Microsoft’s other hardware and had a great early experience with the first Elite controller.
What’s new with the Elite Series 2?
There’s a lot that’s identical to the Elite controller here. Enough that if you’re happy with your Elite controller, you shouldn’t feel any temptation or fear-of-missing-out on this one. The core controller is pretty similar to the original.
With that said, there are a bunch of quality-of-life features that make the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller “Series 2” a clear improvement over its predecessor.
Battery Life and Waste Potential
First is the decision to switch to a built-in rechargeable battery rather than having a replaceable pair of as all the other official Xbox One controllers have this generation. This is one of the debatable changes, with both sides having a few valid points. The built-in battery makes for a controller with fewer moving and creaking parts and an overall more solid-feeling controller. On the other hand, the overall life of the battery a hair shorter than a pair of standard AA batteries, checking in at 40 hours instead of 50.
One of the big questions that comes with a decision like this is that of waste. On the one hand, a built-in battery means that once the controller’s battery completely dies, many players will put it aside or throw it out if it’s out of warranty, where a controller with replaceable batteries can be re-used by swapping in a new pair. On the other hand, a built-in battery that recharges without a separate wall outlet means that people won’t be swapping AA batteries in and out all the time. I have a few friends that are committed to using rechargeable NiMH batteries, but many players just swap in new AA batteries when one pair dies.
The parts of that question that I can’t answer is how long the battery built into the Xbox Elite Wireless Series 2 will last and how much waste it’ll save in the long run. Built-in batteries have gotten much better in recent years about retaining life, and if I had to guess, I’d say that most users throw out or recycle their batteries rather than using rechargeable ones.
The other battery-related aspect is that the Series 2 can charge over a USB Type-C cable or through a USB Type-C port in the back of the controller’s included carrying case. I really like this. It turns the carrying case into the kind of thing I want to put on my entertainment center, and it gives the controller a home to live in when I’m not using it. I’m always coming back to a charged controller. The dock can also be removed from the carrying case and set on a table if you don’t want to use the case.
In my experience, the controller’s advertised 40 hours is reasonably realistic. I went through about three full charges while writing this review. I also appreciate the onboard LED that lights up when the battery is getting low.
Myriad Minor Modifications
There are a ton of minor physical changes to the controller itself, too. The rubberized grips wrap all the way around the controller instead of just being on the back, and I think this will go a long way toward mitigating the issues that many people had with the grips eventually peeling off. They feel great to hold from the get-go and make the controller more comfortable to use over long periods, too.
The power-on button is now a click button instead of a mushy one, and it feels much sturdier as a result. The mushy power button always felt like it could get stuck in the down position (even if it never did).
Down the middle of the controller is a column of three pill-shaped lights and a button. This is for switching controller profiles, of which 3 can now be stored instead of just two.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a pro controller without tons of customization options, and this is one place where I think Microsoft really nails the whole thing. I keep thinking back to how rickety the SCUF Vantage felt. You could pull off the front of the controller and replace the faceplate, take out the vibration motors, swap sticks, and even swap out the rings around the analog stick bases. The Series 2, in comparison, feels like a rock – totally solid throughout. Nothing moves or creaks.
And yet, the controller is packed with customization options. Everything you could customize before you can still tweak, but there are a ton of improvements. You can still set different trigger depths on the controller itself with trigger-specific toggles, but the Xbox Elite Wireless Series 2 has three depths instead of two. More interesting, though, is that you can go into the Xbox Accessories app and set how deep those actually go. Regardless of the depth, you can set the pull to go all the way up to a full-depth trigger pull. The previous Elite controller could not do this, and it caused issues with some games.
Another new feature concerns the controller sticks. Not only does the Xbox Accessories app include more detailed stick settings for the Series 2 as compared to the original (allowing you to set things like sensitivity through the app), the controller comes with a small key that lets you adjust the physical tension of the sticks themselves. I typically like the tension on Xbox sticks, but they can get looser over time, and this will mitigate that. It could also help lessen some of the stick drift issues that plagued the original Xbox Elite Wireless controller, though that’s admittedly just a guess.
Another neat feature of the Series 2 is the “shift” functionality. This seems like something that could be patched into the original Xbox Elite Wireless controller, but it hasn’t been yet. What it does, though, is allow you to set one of the buttons or paddles on the controller as a shift key, exposing a second set of functions for all the buttons. For example, a serial screenshotter could set a shift paddle and then assign the screenshot function to it, among many other options.
One of my few real gripes with this controller is that even as it adds more profiles, the Series 2 still can only sync to one device at a time. If you have, for example, an Xbox, a computer, and a phone that you play games on, you’ll be re-syncing it to each of those devices each time you swap. This is a tough one to engineer around, admittedly, but Microsoft has solved bigger problems than this.
Most of this works really well. Swapping out parts is still super easy, and adjusting the tension is, too. Setting up the different controller preferences is simple and straightforward, and the amount of insight you get into how the controller is working is stellar. On my old Elite controller, the one with analog drift, I can actually see the analog drift in action in the analog test screen, and see how that doesn’t present on the new controller.
In general, holding it feels better. The full-wrap grip is great to hold, and the analog sticks feel good out of the box. The weight is still great, as is the overall solid feel.
I do have to go into a sort of “consumer reports” mode for a moment, though. The Xbox Elite Wireless controller had tons of manufacturing issues that I mentioned above. Before I received a review unit from Microsoft, I went to the store and picked one up. Initial reports showed users dealing with sticky buttons, and I ran into the same thing. My “A” button simply would not return fast enough for multiple presses no matter what I did. The review unit, which came in a retail box, worked perfectly, and I haven’t had any problems with it.
Overall, I still really like the Xbox Elite Wireless Series 2 controller. I love the way it feels to use and customize; the improved grips feel really nice. I love the new features both in the app and on the controller. The carrying case shows huge improvement, and the charging base makes it an integral part of the controller moving forward. The move to USB Type-C is forward-looking and will make for a more sturdy connection for those who prefer wired gaming and charging.
But with the previous manufacturing problems and the fact that I ran into one on my purchased unit, I would be remiss and not putting a “caveat emptor” on this piece of hardware.
Pick it up – it’s really good. But either get a warranty or maybe wait a few months.
DISCLAIMER: We received a review unit from Microsoft and spent about 110 hours playing various games with this controller before starting this review. Games include Sea of Thieves, Control, No Man’s Sky, Ori and the Blind Forest, Outer Worlds, Outer Wilds, and more.