It’s now more than four years after the launch of the generation, and that means it’s time to settle this argument once and for all. Which console controller is better: the DualShock 4 or the Xbox One Controller? And given the popularity of the Switch, let’s throw the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller into the mix as well.
A lot of people didn’t get on with the DualShock 3 – “It’s too small! The analogue triggers suck! The sticks are too slippery!” they cried– but Sony hit it out of the park with the DualShock 4. Longer hand grips and a lightly textured underside helps it be more easily held in hand, analogue triggers that are longer and concave to let your fingers sit in them more easily, and while the first year of controllers had flaky rubber, the indented analogue sticks were much better for increasing the surface area that your thumb can grip to. Even if you got used to holding the DualShock 3 with a “claw grip” like I did, it was a great step forward in controller design.
What the controller retained is the familiar spongey feeling of the buttons. Whether it’s the D-pad, face buttons, touchpad or shoulder buttons, there’s a clear point where you know that you’ve pressed the button, but you can depress the button even further. It’s a little easier on your thumbs because of this, even if it no longer serves the purpose of allowing analogue input as on the DualShock 2.
The controller does have a few gimmicky features that vary in their value. The Share button has become synonymous with this generation of gaming, with the role of the old Select button now typically taken over by the touchpad. The touchpad is something that’s unsurprisingly underused these days; after a year or two of developers adding swipes and touch inputs to their games, it’s an all but forgotten curio and generally just used as a generic button the vast majority of the time. The same can be said of the little loudspeaker, which only ever seems to get used when someone’s trying to chat to you over a radio. That’s a neat idea and one that’s been cribbed from the Wii remote, but it’s also not the best quality speaker and practically useless for anyone gaming with headphones – speaking of which, Sony led the charge on featuring a standard 3.5mm jack for headphones and headsets.
And so we come to the light bar on the controller. It makes sense in retrospect, now that we have PlayStation VR and the need for PS Camera tracking of the controller in virtual reality, but its downward angle means it’s not ideally placed and easily obscured. Outside of VR, games often try to provide feedback through changing its colours, such as your character’s health or when some ability or attack is charged, but the light faces away from the player and even the controller revision with the strip of light that lets light through the touchpad is far too subtle and barely even registers in your peripheral vision.
Worst of all, it’s still a huge drain on the controller’s battery. While the controller features a built in battery and standard micro USB for charging, you’ll be reaching for that charge cable all too often if you game with any regularity.
Sony’s revisions have been minimal at best, though this does emphasise how much they got right with the controller from the off. A change to the thumbstick rubber compound here, a tweak to let light through the touchpad there, the controller you can buy now is practically the same as the one from 2013. This means it still has the same flaws, right down to the somewhat creaky plastic construction and the less than ideal battery life. While the controller features a built in battery and standard microUSB for almost idiot proof charging, you’ll be reaching for that charge cable all too often if you game with any regularity.
While the DualShock 4 is a great controller, it’s also full of gimmicks that range from great to innocuous and through to annoying. Is it the best controller of the generation? Let’s move on to the other challengers
Xbox One Controller
My first impressions of the Xbox One controller around the console’s launch were a bit mixed, but just as Microsoft have dramatically improved their console design, they’ve also overhauled the controller. It might look practically identical to the controller from 2013, but they’ve significantly refined it under the hood.
The fundamental design and shape is the same, with a form that might look somewhat bulky, but actually sits nicely in hand and feels absolutely solid and rigid. The asymmetrical thumb stick layout isn’t for everyone, but the sticks themselves are great and the indentation combined with the rough edge mean your thumb won’t slip. The buttons on the whole are still a lot more clicky than those on DualShock 4, and the jewel face buttons aren’t my favourite form, but there’s still a good degree of travel to them.
There’s also a feature that nobody ever really talks about, the one gimmick the controller design does allow for. Rumble motors are hidden in the big and comfortable analogue triggers to more sensitive feedback into your fingertips. It feels strange initially, but with so many more nerve ends in your fingertips, this is one of the better innovations in the controller’s design.
At release there were a number of clear drawbacks that Microsoft have addressed. Successive revisions have improved the shoulder buttons so they’re not as obscenely noisy and clicky and can be depressed more evenly across the button. The proprietary headphone port now sits alongside a standard 3.5mm jack so that you don’t need a headset adapter, and it now features Bluetooth alongside the Wi-Fi connection, making it much easier to sync and use with a PC. Those last two factors greatly reduce the cost of getting the most out of the controller.
One possible drawback is that it still runs on standard AA batteries, though this is both a positive and a negative. You can get a pricey Play & Charge kit from Microsoft that charges through the controller, or any number of cheap knockoffs that don’t, or you can use plain batteries. A set of good quality Eneloop batteries are easy to pop in and switch to get right back to wireless gaming, and any battery pack can have capacities that far exceed the lifespan of the DualShock 4.
In addition to this, Microsoft have brought a staggering array of custom controllers to the table, many of which look great. It started with the Elite Controller, and while that’s long overdue an update, some of its ideas have spread to other custom designs. The Tech controllers have better grips underneath the pad, and these feature in the Xbox Design Lab for creating your own custom designs, which can let you tweak the colours and even materials of the different parts of the controller.
The Xbox One controller does have a few tricks up its sleeves with the analogue trigger rumble, but here’s a controller that eschews the now fairly standard gyroscopic sensors found in all its rivals. This is really a no frills design that emphasises simplicity and build over flashy gimmicks.
Switch Pro Controller
As great as portable gaming is, a lot of people will want to dock their Switch for longer sessions. While the Joy-Con in the grip or held separately are still great for this, the need for portability means that they have smaller buttons, strip-like shoulder buttons, and more diminutive analogue sticks. They’re still good, but for more serious gaming sessions you might be drawn to Nintendo’s latest Pro Controller.
It’s something of a halfway house between Xbox One and DualShock 4, I feel, with the form and layout of the former and the style and function of the latter. You have the somewhat boxy look, the offset analogue sticks and joined up D-pad, but the buttons are fairly flat in design and a bit mushy in their travel – mushier than on the Joy-Con. Even the analogue sticks themselves are in the middle ground: they have the same outer ring as the other controllers, but combine an Xbox-like ribbed outer ring and smooth inner section with a convex bump in the middle from the DS4. You do have some quirks to the design, with grippy dimpled plastic on the grips and 90s style translucent plastic on the main body. It does make the glossy black plastic between the shoulder buttons feel rather odd.
As on the Joy-Con, the biggest control difference is that there’s no analogue triggers, just digital buttons that hinge in a trigger-like fashion, and this hampers the console when considering certain types of game, like racing games and GameCube backward compatibility. It makes up for it with sensitive and accurate gyroscopic motion sensors that crop up for things like motion aiming in a number of the console’s biggest games.
Most importantly, the Pro Controller has to keep all the features that you have on the Joy-Con and in handheld mode. That means there’s HD Rumble, which isn’t quite as effective as in the Joy-Con, but still a more nuanced rumble than found elsewhere. You also have the NFC patch behind the Switch logo for tapping in Amiibo, and this leads me to one of my criticism of the controller: this NFC sensor is not as well placed and not as reliable as the sensor in the right Joy-Con’s analogue stick. it’s also led to four central buttons – home, screenshot, plus and minus – that are flat to the controller’s body and not terribly easy to identify through touch.
Another missed opportunity is in the lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack that could have been used for letting you play on TV and keep your gaming private. It’s all part of Nintendo’s rather flawed thinking on party chat for online gaming
Rounding out the controller, you have a built in battery that’s charged using the forward looking USB-C – don’t worry, you get a cable with the controller and it’s the same port as the Switch itself uses. Where the DualShock 4 fritters away energy on making light, the battery here lasts seemingly forever. I’ve never run down the battery through play, only through neglecting the controller for months at a time because of playing exclusively in handheld mode.
As much as Nintendo love to experiment with their controllers, they also have a habit of backing up their wackiest ideas with solid, all round controllers. It was true of the Wii – albeit with the need to plug the Classic Controller Pro into the Wii Remote – the great Wii U Pro Controller and now the Switch Pro Controller. The amusing thing to note is that Nintendo have yet to retain the same stick and button layout from one generation to the next.
So, who wins in this round up? You may find it surprising, but the Xbox One Controller has developed and matured to the point that I’d call it the best console controller of the generation. Since 2013, Microsoft have added features that improve its flexibility and probably should have been built in from the beginning, and really only had a single gameplay gimmick to its robust design. Speaking of design, they consistently knock it out of the park with limited edition controllers and the custom Xbox Design Labs.
The DualShock 4 was a great step forward over the last generation and it’s a great controller, but it’s stood still since 2013, so that it still has a creaky design, poor battery life and some generally wasted features. On the other side of the fence, the Switch Pro Controller, is a great all-rounder that matches the features of the Joy-Con, but it could have gone further with analogue triggers and a headphone jack.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. What do you think? Let us know your favourite or post your rebuttal in the comments below.