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Xbox Adaptive Controller retail impressions: A bold start for limited gamers

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Enlarge / The brand-new Xbox Adaptive Controller, posing on top of its black-on-white gaming sibling, the Xbox One S console.
Sam Machkovech

Microsoft’s newest game accessory, the Xbox Adaptive Controller, probably isn’t for you. That’s just an odds game, when counting the percentage of people who fall into the “limited mobility” camp that this strange, unique controller is aimed at.

But that’s the incredible thing about the XAC: that it’s targeting a particularly fractured audience. Limited mobility is a giant, vague category, after all, with so many physical ailments to account for (let alone psychological ones). And previous answers in the gaming sphere have typically been specialized, one-of-a-kind controllers for single hands, feet, heads, and more.

XAC wins out in an odd way: by leaving some major work in users’ hands. This $99 lap-sized device is truly incomplete on its own, as it’s designed from the ground up to require add-on joysticks, buttons, and more. As a result, there’s no way to fully review the possibilities Microsoft’s XAC opens up for disabled gamers. Still, we’ve put a retail unit through its paces to see what kind of accessibility canvas this revolutionary “controller” opens up—and exactly how it works—to help limited-mobility gamers and their caretakers decide if its functionality, ease-of-use, and practical cost is right for them.

Cables, ports, boxes, and feet

On Tuesday, Microsoft surprise-announced that the XAC is now for sale. $99, via either the Microsoft Store or GameStop, will net you the base kit, which we received days before its retail debut.

The base kit, seen above, includes one lap-sized, button-covered slab and a single, nine-foot USB Type-A to Type-C cable.

To start playing, no batteries are necessary; the XAC comes pre-charged to some extent. If you’d rather use the XAC wirelessly, any Xbox One console can be synced using the same sync-button protocol found on standard XB1 gamepads. This method also lets you wirelessly pair with Windows PCs, so long as they support Bluetooth 4.0 or have an Xbox Wireless Adapter dongle. Otherwise, the 9-foot USB-C cable doubles as a wired connector and a charging option.

The 1.2lb (550g) device measures 5.0 × 11.5 inches (13.0cm × 29.5cm), and its height maxes out at 0.87 inches before shrinking slightly via a 5-degree slope. This slope is a nice touch for anyone who wants to rest palms or hands either on the controller itself or at the base of a supporting table.

In terms of basic design, function, and feel, nothing appears to have changed since our last hands-on. To review: the two giant buttons, which default to A and B on an Xbox gamepad, have a 4-inch diameter and withstand quite the pounding. Foot stomps and heavy elbow-blasts work as well as basic palm presses, thanks to loud and responsive click-push action. The XAC wants to make clear to users, through touch and sound alike, that they’ve successfully pressed or let up on a button. (These are simple on-off buttons, as opposed to pressure- or location-sensitive touchpads.)

Anybody who has paid no less than $150 for a good “fighting stick” controller will appreciate how these buttons offer a squish-then-resistance feel. And in a clever move, Microsoft carved the interior of these two buttons in such a way that each makes a slightly different noise when pressed down. It’s not enough that I could pick the sounds out if you blindfolded me and flipped the controller randomly, but it’s a cute touch all the same.

The XAC’s other five buttons are far less satisfying, though that’s perhaps by design. These are all basic menu-manipulation buttons: the “view” and “menu” buttons (what normal people call “select” and “start”), the big “Xbox button,” an oversized D-pad, and a button-preset picker. These are all at least spaced apart well enough to accommodate imprecise taps, but they’re recessed enough to feel designed less for accessibility and more for durability. I would have liked more exposed and squishier buttons, particularly for the D-pad, but those kinds of constructions may have proven too sensitive for what kind of wear and tear Microsoft has built for here.

At this point, you may be confused. A video game controller with only two gameplay buttons? How does that work? Look above, and you’ll see the XAC difference: an array of 19 3.5mm jacks on its back. As we learned from Microsoft in May, the company wanted to tap into an existing accessibility-controller ecosystem, defined largely by devices that use the 3.5mm protocol to send simple on-or-off pulses to an electronic hub. This protocol came to prominence thanks to smaller companies and DIY tinkerers being the primary helpers in the limited-mobility niche.

In XAC’s case, that means you can plug a huge variety of switches into ports, and each one is dedicated to a particular Xbox controller button. A, B, X, Y, bumpers, triggers, directional taps: they’re all exposed.

Microsoft sent us two 3.5mm devices to test: a hardy foot pedal, made by StealthSwitch, and a fingertip-sized button. Setting these up was as easy as looking at the back of the XAC, finding the port for the button we wanted to use, and plugging it in. Boom: our foot pedal could become the “right trigger,” and our finger switch could become a “Y” button.

Of course, if plugging and unplugging 3.5mm jacks is “easy” to do with your hands, the XAC might be moot. How easy are these to insert and swap, particularly for users with hand and finger issues? In good news, Microsoft has implemented one design tweak to help limited-mobility users: a set of small, physical grooves on the top of the device. If you’re using the XAC with the ports facing away from you (the default position), you can press a 3.5mm jack on the top and get it to match an icon for the button assignment of your choosing, and this makes it easier to find the right jack when looking at its backside isn’t possible.

But the XAC opts for a tight-fitting series of 3.5mm jacks, perhaps to guarantee that cables don’t dislodge during frantic gameplay. As a result, these require far more exertion to insert and remove than an average smartphone’s jack. You’ll need to have force, leverage, or both to swap jacks on the fly.

ARS T

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