Stay For the Third Party
Third-party controllers have gotten such a stereotypically bad rap that it’s pretty much a meme nowadays. With official controllers for consoles often being quite expensive, though, it was pretty common for someone to own just one or two standard controllers, leaving their siblings, friends, or enemies with horrifying, yet affordable monstrosities.
It’s not to say, though, that all third-party controllers are inferior to the originals. You may be hard-pressed to find one that people would commonly say is better than an official controller, but there are still plenty out there that are plenty serviceable and often near-equal to their first-party brethren.
Case in point, the product we are looking at today. Gleaning from their website, PowerA has been in the business of making third-party controllers since the previous console generation, releasing a handful for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. In the move to the current generation, though, the company has greatly expanded their styles and selection, focusing on the Xbox One and the Nintendo Switch.
A couple of months back, PowerA released into the wild what they call the “Enhanced” controller for the Xbox One. The appearance of it is strikingly similar to an official Xbox controller, but there are two main differences. First, the controller hosts a couple of extra buttons on the back a la Microsoft’s Xbox Elite Controller, or the Steam controller. Secondly, this is a wired controller, so you’ll have to be relatively close to your set up to use it.
Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke
First thing’s first, I do not own an Xbox One. Thusly, this entire review is from the perspective of a player using the PowerA controller exclusively on PC.
The first thing I noticed when picking up the PowerA controller is how surprisingly light it is in the hands. With modern controllers integrating so much tech into them, I’ve become used to how heavy by comparison the PS4 controller I’m usually holding is. I weighed a few controllers to test this out, and the PowerA came in at 203 grams, while the DualShock 4 was slightly heavier at 215. For further comparison, the Switch’s Joycons in their standard grip were the closest to the PowerA at 196g, and the Steam Controller is a whopping 281g.
Despite the lightness of the controller, it still feels quite sturdy when holding it. It’s quite sturdy in general build as well, considering how many times throughout the review period I’ve accidentally dropped the controller off the top of my computer tower (and my cat assisted a few times in this so-called “durability test”).
The controller comes with a nearly 10ft long USB cable, which should accommodate most Xbox One living room setups, although it was a bit overkill for use on my PC. However, the controller itself uses a standard micro USB connection, so I was able to swap out this cable for a shorter one to avoid getting tangled up.
In terms of the controller’s actual design, it’s almost exactly the same as the standard Xbox One controller. The button layout is instantly familiar, and the new additional buttons on the rear of the controller fall naturally underneath my middle fingers. The bumpers up on top are flush with the top of the controller, rather than raised like on Microsoft’s controller, but it really didn’t feel different in actual usage.
At a quick glance, the only major difference you’ll see on the front of the controller is the fact that the XB1 home button doesn’t light up – rather, there’s an LED directly below the home button that turns on when the controller has power.
Lastly, PowerA also seems to want to highlight the different colors they have available for the controller. The one you see in the picture above is the unit we received for review, with the “Solar Fade” design. The colors have a pretty hard-line gradient rather than what I’d call a fade, but I’d still call it pleasing to the eye…not that I’m ever really sitting around admiring the artwork on my controller while playing games. There are a few other fade styles available, a camo print, and some solid colors. MSRP on the fade colors comes at a $5 premium, which is odd to me…but I can imagine a few people out there willing to shell out a couple bucks for a nicer-looking controller.
Right At Home
With look and feel out of the way, now we’re at the important part: how well does PowerA’s controller actually work? For these tests, I primarily used the controller in three games that offer up three different situations.
With D-Pads usually being a weak point of modern controllers, I wanted to make sure I tested it out. For that, we tested against La-Mulana 2 (review coming soon!). For testing the analog exclusively, we loaded up last year’s rhythm shooter Aaero, a PC title that requires an analog controller. To test the controller to its fullest, I decided to use this review as an excuse to finally load up Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition.
First off, there isn’t really much that I have to say about the face buttons. With a short travel distance and same same satisfying “snap” most Xbox family controllers I’ve used have, I had no trouble with the ones on the PowerA. They act the same as pretty much every other high-quality controller out there, and they function…so that’s a positive, of course.
The D-Pad, though, I did have some issues with. La-Mulana 2 is a side-scroller that often requires precision when navigating and jumping, and the sensitivity of the D-Pad on the PowerA left something to be desired. The controller had issues registering light presses on the pad, making some situations requiring quick switches between moving left and right much more difficult.
Moving into the analog test with Aaero, I am happy to report I had no issues with the analog sticks at all. In fact, I really loved the sensitivity of them, with a very small dead zone before movement is registered. I found using this controller with this game to be even better than my go-to DualShock 4, which was surprising. The only thing that put me off the sticks initially was how they seemed to feel taller under my thumbs than what I’m used to. Doing most of my PC gaming with the comparatively “short” PS4 analog sticks or the non-existent height of the Steam Controller touchpads, this took me a short time to get used to.
I also want to remark quickly on the trigger buttons here. Pulling the triggers on the PowerA controller is weirdly satisfying, with a long travel distance and just a bit of stiffness to them to provide some good tactile feedback.
Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition is where I put this controller’s gimmick to use – the so-called “Advanced Gaming Buttons” on the back of the controller. There’s one button located on the underside of each grip, and a third button located in the center of the controller’s rear. All face buttons (as well as analog stick clicks) can be mapped to the two buttons on the grips. The third button is used for mapping – pressing the center button activates mapping mode, after which you press which face button you want to map, and lastly you press which grip button you want to map to.
For FFXV, I mapped sprinting to one grip button (so I wouldn’t have to keep clicking the left analog stick) and Noctis’ warp strike to the other. The buttons are easy to reach and use and give a satisfying click when depressed, although they are a bit sensitive, easily depressing when just brushing my fingers across the back of the controller.
While it is nice to have the remappable buttons built into the hardware…I honestly don’t see them as too useful. You can’t map button combinations to them through the hardware, and Steam doesn’t recognize them as inputs either, so you can’t remap them using Steam’s controller software. Your only option is to use them as a secondary face button, which, unless you have some mobility or dexterity issues on a standard controller, isn’t all that useful.
No Need For Gimmicks
Overall, despite some issues I had with the D-Pad, the PowerA is a solid controller and I would say it’s an excellent alternative to the standard Xbox One controller. While it’s grip button gimmick seems relatively useless in my usage, everything else about it stands as a quality product.
With official controllers running around $60, and Microsoft’s Xbox Elite controller running at an inane $150, the PowerA is most definitely worth a look for anyone who needs some extra controllers without breaking the bank. Pricing here is between $30-$35 at the time of writing, making this an even easier recommendation for purchase.
As a PC controller, while it lacks the customization options I’ve come to enjoy in the Steam Controller, I can easily see PowerA’s offering becoming a regular part of my PC setup. I already use my Steam Controller almost exclusively with my Steam Link in the living room, making the PowerA an excellent choice to keep next to my computer tower for desktop gaming.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review unit provided by PowerA. Header image and camo-print controller photos provided by PowerA.