Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 Review

An extravagant peek into the future of Microsoft’s controller design

Alex Rowe
Alex Rowe
Jan 22, 2020 · 11 min read
Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

When the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 was first announced last year with its awkward name and an extra thirty bucks added to its price, none of us knew we were also getting a glimpse at the naming scheme for the upcoming Xbox Series X.

Nor did anyone know that the refreshed design held some clues about the new console’s controller. The profile button in the center of the Elite Series 2 is in the same spot as the dedicated Share button on the new controller coming at the end of this year. A close peek at the triggers on the teased model reveals the same textured triggers as found on the Elite 2, and some of Microsoft’s other current special edition controllers. And both controllers make use of the bowl-shaped d-pad first featured on the original Elite model.

Further, the innards of the Elite Series 2, as shown in this excellent teardown video from Youtuber 7 Watts, are redesigned as well, with a new board and upgrades to several key components.

Official Xbox Series X Promo Shot, https://www.xbox.com/en-US/consoles/xbox-series-x

I theorize that the Xbox Controller Elite Series 2 is a clever gambit by Microsoft to defray some of the research and development costs for their new console before it even launches by selling a new premium controller product to their most ardent fans. The changes made to this controller will appeal most to that specific group…and if anecdotal evidence is anything to go on, this thing is flying off the shelves.

But should you run out and buy one?

A sticky “A” Button seems to be the most common complaint about these online, but so far mine’s working well. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

OVERVIEW/BUILD PARANOIA

The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 retails for $179 and comes in black. The white controller variant for the original Elite model is nowhere to be seen, and given that it’s so late in the Xbox One life cycle, my guess is we won’t see new colors for a while.

Inside the box, you get a nice hard-shell carrying case, a 10- foot braided USB- C cable that’s a bit stiff and has a ton of shape memory, a collection of analog stick heads, and a second standard cross-shaped d-pad. There’s also a small easy-to-lose tool that allows you to adjust the analog stick tension.

Outside the three levels of adjustable tension on the sticks, the other obvious changes from the first model include a large permanently-installed battery, sleeker and more tactile rear paddles, optional Bluetooth connectivity similar to the current standard controllers, a new rubber grip that covers most of the controller’s body, and a new three- step trigger lock mechanism.

I bought mine at Best Buy, and I spent an additional 38 bucks to get their two year warranty due to internet-induced fear, and my personal poor experience with the original model.

When the controller first launched last fall, a reddit thread almost immediately filled up with reports of build issues and a supposedly higher-than-average defect rate. What followed was rampant speculation about which lot numbers were “good” or “bad,” and to this day the thread is a general mess of bitterness, broken controllers, and guessing.

Microsoft insists that defect numbers are within their expected percentages, and I suspect that the large number of reports indicate a high sales rate as the controller is still regularly selling out in my area (Portland, OR, USA).

I totally love the weird bowl d-pad. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

The fine folks in that reddit thread won’t believe me, but my controller from lot 1949 doesn’t have any of the most commonly reported issues. The face buttons don’t stick and they always respond to presses, and the wireless connection has been solid with zero signal drops.

One issue has shown itself across a week and a half of aggressive play, and it’s a small one that I might just be worrying too much about. But I’m still going to keep an eye on it.

I’ve had the trigger locks fully engaged for most of my testing, and every once in a while, the triggers will feel a little squishy when fully depressed and make a small creaking sound. This doesn’t happen consistently enough for me to reproduce, and it only happens with the locks in the third position. It’d be a bummer if it’s a sign of internal weakness or eventual breakage, because if you have the locks engaged you’re probably playing a shooter, and thus probably pulling the trigger all the time.

It doesn’t happen with every press, but I’d still hope that the trigger locks would be one of the most robust pieces on this tank-heavy controller.

If anything on my controller actually breaks, I’ll come back and update this article right after making use of my Best Buy warranty.

The controller is a champion at picking up dust, unfortunately. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

COMFORT/GENERAL USE

For this review, I spent 10+ hours with Borderlands Game of the Year Edition, another 10 hours with Borderlands 3 (long overdue reviews of both coming soon!) and several hours each with Skyforge, Warframe, Need for Speed Payback, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Black Desert, Star Trek Online, Fable Anniversary, and Dragonball Z: Kakarot. And I also played a dollop of Midway Arcade Origins at the end for some good d-pad workout time.

The controller performed great throughout. It has a heft and a solid feel to it that’s similar to old bespoke arcade hardware, and it evokes the difference between a mechanical gaming keyboard and a membrane-based one. The controller weighs a good bit more than a standard model, at ~345g vs 280g. This extra weight gives the controller a premium feel, and it also made my gaming posture and method of holding it a bit more stiff and upright than the weird relaxed positions I find myself in when normally playing Xbox games.

That extra weight doesn’t explicitly translate to any real-world benefit, but it’s nice to have some appearance of quality for the extra money you’re paying. The new rubber grip is really good. It doesn’t warm up my hands too much or get gross with sweat after a long session, and it’s a nice contrast to the smooth soft-touch finish on the rest of the controller.

Sadly, if you’re a hater of dust, the all-black finish picks up particles constantly. And the soft-touch coating, while nice to feel, isn’t my first choice for surfaces constantly near finger oils. It’ll probably degrade and wear over time with a strange shiny appearance if my experience with this sort of finish on headphones and other devices is any indication.

Still, there’s no denying that this feels like a true enthusiast product made for long gaming sessions. And people that really want clicky metal paddles.

The paddles are my favorite feature. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

THOSE WONDERFUL PADDLES

The four rear paddles are the main usability feature that separates the Elite controller from the regular model. You can remap then to anything you’d like, and you can also use one as a shift key to enable a second set of mappings.

I have the lower left paddle mapped to “take screenshot,” and the rest mapped to my three most-commonly-used face buttons in whatever game I’m playing. You can play action games without ever taking your thumbs off the sticks this way, which does grant a significant control advantage. Is it cheating? Depending on how good you are, it might feel that way.

When I briefly owned the original version of the controller, I found the paddles slightly in the way of my fingers and too easy to click. Both of those issues are fixed here. The paddles fit very nicely into the ergonomics of the controller, and I’m able to hold it comfortably with minimal adjustments to my standard grip. The paddles are harder to click than the original version’s, which provides just the right amount of feedback.

If you think you’d love these paddles, they’re the best reason to invest in this controller. You can remove them if you want to and store them in the case, but you’d be giving up the most notable improvement over the standard controller.

It’s worth mentioning that PDP and PowerA both sell cheaper wired Xbox controllers with rear buttons if you want to try this concept without spending a ton of money. I’m a personal fan of PDP. I own a Nintendo Switch controller they made with two rear buttons that I enjoy.

The metal analog sticks have a satisfying heft, weight, and smoothness to them. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

STICKS

After numerous tweaks and rounds of testing, I settled on using the “Classic” sticks with the movement tension set to its highest level.

The classic sticks are sort of like Xbox 360 analog sticks, but without the little nubs along the top. They also remind me of the original prototype N64 analog stick, with its larger flat surface.

Tightening up the tension gives the controller even more of a premium heft than it already has, helps the sticks recenter a little faster, and makes small precise control movements easier to accomplish. It’s not quite a game-changer, and by itself it’s not so different as to make the Series 2 worth buying over a regular unit.

I think that, like me, you’ll probably find a set of tops and tightness that you like and play with them forever rather than changing things out constantly. The standard stick tops were my second-favorite, and I don’t really like the feel of the taller stick or the weird PS4-style convex stick but I know plenty of folks do. I wish that Microsoft included two of the tall and convex caps instead of just one, but that’s the price we had to pay for the new classic sticks I guess.

I like the bowl-shaped d-pad. I find it more responsive and satisfying than the standard unit, and I enjoy its cool-to-the-touch faceted surface. It’s easy to quickly find the diagonals, and it has a strong click to it just like the paddles.

SOFTWARE

The Xbox Accessories app is available on both the Xbox One and inside the Windows 10 Store, and it allows you to remap the paddles and most of the other buttons on the controller, save for the Menu, View, and Profile buttons.

You can also select from different sensitivity curves for the analog stick, though you can’t adjust the individual stick dead zones, which seems like an obvious feature that should be here.

If you turn the trigger locks on, the software now automatically adjusts the range of your trigger movements accordingly, and Microsoft promises that the Xbox will also automatically calibrate the sticks to compensate for any potential drifting issues over time…though I haven’t used my controller long enough to say whether this is actually working.

Battery life is displayed in the software as well, though it’s not a percentage and instead uses “natural” terms like “Full” and “Medium” that don’t really tell you anything useful. Oh well!

This little plinth in the case serves as both a magnetic holder to keep the controller secure, and as a charging dock. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

BATTERY/ETC.

Traditionally, Microsoft has relied on either AA batteries or user-replaceable batteries for their controllers, but with the Series 2 they’ve gone to a fully integrated design. The only way to get the large 2050 milliamp hour battery out of the controller is to rip it apart.

On the plus side, the battery is almost twice as big as the currently available play and charge kit. It’s rated by Microsoft for “Up to 40 hours.” You can easily hit that mark if you turn vibration down and don’t use a headset. Even with those features on, you’ll still sail past the 20 hour mark without breaking a sweat.

You can get similar battery life out of a current Xbox controller with high- capacity rechargeable AA batteries, but at least the new Elite series 2 isn’t a step backwards.

I hope that Sony learns from this for the Dualshock 5. If I have to put up with an integrated battery, at least make it long-lasting. The Dualshock 4’s 1000 mAh battery is crushed by this one.

The inside of the carrying case has a little plastic plinth that magnetically sucks onto the back of the controller every time you put it in there. This plinth doubles as a recharging dock. You can either remove the whole thing and put in on your desk, or you can connect the USB-C cable to the back of the case itself and charge the controller while it’s stored and protected from dust.

This is a great premium touch. Just don’t forget to remove the small piece of felt covering the plastic plinth when you first open the box, or the battery contacts won’t line up properly.

The thicker body of the controller makes the rumble on both the impulse triggers and the main motors feel smoother and more satisfying, something I appreciate as a fan of controller rumble.

The Elite Series 2 and my second-favorite Xbox One controller, the Hyperspace Special Edition. Photo taken by Alex Rowe.

FINAL THOUGHTS

After somewhat-hating the original Elite controller, and spending months being worried I’d buy a broken Series 2, I’ve had a great time with this controller.

Go figure!

The paddles are wonderful both for gaming and for my screenshot workflow. I take a ton of screenshots to write game coverage, and this is a much easier method than the standard options of using the home menu or shouting at a voice assistant. And I love that the controller shares some design DNA with the beefy arcade hardware I grew up enjoying back when arcades were more of a thing.

Still, this controller costs one hundred and eighty dollars. That’s enough money to buy three normal controllers, or two custom controllers with fast shipping from the Xbox Design Lab, or three full-priced modern video games.

Can I recommend spending this much for this thing? Not enthusiastically, no. It’s a solid-feeling piece of tech and so far neither of my trigger locks has broken. The steel shafts of the sticks feel much nicer than the standard sticks. And the paddles have extreme utility.

But this is not an experience that feels three times better than playing on any of my “normal” controllers. It’s about one-and-a-half times better. It’s good, but it’s not “buy without hesitation” good.

You already know in your heart of hearts if you’d benefit from the extras here. And with the build quality uncertainty, you might find yourself spending even more for a warranty like I have, which makes the value proposition worse. I intend for this to be my main controller well into the next generation, at least until a Series 3 unit comes out and has a triumphant return of AA battery support, or something.

If you want exceptional paddles, need USB-C on all the things, and are constantly grinding away the plastic on your analog sticks from hours of competitive play…then sure, this is an okay buy. It’s fair to say that you could subjectively feel like there’s $180 worth of controller here.

This is the best controller currently available for the Xbox One, and it’ll likely outperform the “standard” Xbox Series X controller, too. But it’s priced at the very top of what I’d consider “a reasonable value” for what it offers. And the buttons on yours might be sticky.

I love mine. But I also still enjoy my standard Xbox One controllers nearly as much.

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Alex Rowe

Written by

Alex Rowe

I write independent tech, game, music, and audio reviews and analysis from a consumer perspective. Support me directly at https://ko-fi.com/alexrowe

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