The Series X Controller on Linux: A Bit of a Hassle

Wow. After unboxing the Series X controller, I realized I might be a bit of a controller freak:

Gamepads

The names Microsoft gives to their products is a bit confusing. First, you have the Xbox One, then the Xbox One X, the Xbox One S, and now the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. To make it even more confusing, the name that they put on their new controller on both the device itself and the box that it comes with is simply “Xbox.”

X Series controller Box front

Naming aside, let’s take a look at the new Series X pad that came out last week on Tuesday, and discover its flaws strengths, as far as Linux is concerned. I was hoping to have this review out sooner, but because I realized I needed some more equipment in addition to the controller, I had no choice but to wait until that equipment was delivered to me by mail. I couldn’t get them in-store anywhere.

What You Get

Unlike the DualSense and the one white color that you can get with it, you have three different color choices when getting the Series X pad:

  • White
  • Black
  • Blue

For some reason, the Blue edition, which I ordered, is $5 more expensive than the White or Black editions. Something I didn’t notice until after I ordered was also the fact that the blue color is only applied to the front of the controller. The back is white. If I had known that ahead of time I would’ve just got the White edition. My mistake. I might just take the back shell off and spray paint it a different color.

X Series controller Pad front

This controller is going to look very similar to the Xbox One gamepad: two clickable thumbsticks, a D-pad, the A, B, X, and Y buttons, a BACK button and a START button, two shoulder buttons and two triggers, a proprietary connection port on the bottom (likely used for charging batteries), a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a slot to put in either AA batteries or a battery pack. However, it does feature some subtle changes, which I will get into a little later on, that Microsoft deems as an overall enhancement to a controller they didn’t want to change too much. Their idea is to “ensure they didn’t change things just for the sake of change; building on the Xbox One controller in smart, evolutionary ways while ensuring the muscle memory players have built up over the years remains intact.”

X Series controller Pad back
X Series controller Pad bottom

The face buttons’ labels — only on the Blue edition — are blue instead of color-coded. However, in the center of the four face buttons is a color-coding guide — so there’s a red dot next to B, a green dot above A, etc.

I’ve noticed the buttons are very clicky and make quite the sound when pressing them. Whether you see that as a good thing or not, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me. You might like the clicky-ness to let you know you hit a button. On the other hand, it may be a bit of a problem if you’re a late-night gamer and don’t want to bother anyone else who is trying to rest.

I found it a little funny the controller still uses traditional AA batteries. Two Duracell batteries are included with the box, including a Quick Start guide with pictures, a Product and Regulatory guide, and a Xbox Game Pass code that’s good for two weeks. The Game Pass is pretty useless to me, since the Pass only works with the Windows Store. So, if you’re reading this, and you have Windows or an Xbox, let me know your thoughts about this review in the comments, and maybe I’ll send you the code.

X Series controller Manual

Like the DualSense, the Series X pad comes with a USB-C connection for wired connectivity or for charging if you’ve got a battery pack. I’m frankly not sure if battery packs for the Xbox One are compatible with this new controller, but I know this battery pack in particular will work.

X Series controller Pad top

Differences Between This and the Xbox One Controller

I don’t currently have an Xbox One gamepad at hand so I can’t compare directly (I did have one some time ago, but somehow lost it after I discovered one of the analog sticks was drifting). However, we can take a look at the interview that Microsoft had with Ryan Whitaker, senior designer at Xbox, that will explain the differences for us. Though the Series X controller looks very similar to it’s predecessor, it includes some subtle changes: “improved ergonomics for a wider range of people, better cross-device connectivity, easier sharing, and reduced latency.”

One such change is how the shell was engineered to fit into smaller hands:

We found we could improve accessibility and comfort for hundreds of millions more people without negatively affecting the experience for those with larger hands. We did that by rounding the bumpers, slightly reducing and rounding parts around the triggers, and carefully sculpting the grips.

It’s barely smaller than the Xbox One controller, and yet, as Whitaker mentioned, the bumpers, triggers, and grips were engineered in a way to fit into the “hands similar to those of an average 8-year-old.”

Speaking of the triggers, they have been padded, in addition to part of the shoulder buttons and the back of the controller grips:

We added a tactile dot pattern on the triggers and bumpers, which provides grip to improve feel and performance during gameplay… A similar, yet more subtle pattern is on the grips. The D-pad, bumpers, and triggers now have a matte finish to maintain a smooth consistent feel, whether your hands are wet or dry.

The dots on the pattern are so insignificant in size, it probably wouldn’t make any difference in terms of how dirt might be collected compared to a non-padded design.

The addition of the padding on the triggers supposedly makes it less difficult to lose your grip. I said that the bumpers are only partially padded due to the fact that the dotted pattern only covers the area where the LB and RB labels are.

A new button that’s located just a little under the BACK and START buttons is SHARE. As far as the console side is concerned, it seems to behave in much the same manner as the SHARE button on the PlayStation 4:

Capturing and sharing epic or meme-worthy moments…should be as quick and unobtrusive as possible. Adding a Share button is the best way to make capturing and sharing instantaneous. It’s easy to just grab a screenshot or record a video without needing on-screen menus. Then you can easily access and share content with your favorite social platforms or directly with friends.

What is probably the biggest change, at least on the physical side of things, is the design of the D-pad. It uses a hybrid design between the cross-style pad the Xbox One used and the easier-to-press-diagonal pad that was included with the Elite controller:

Building on what we learned from Elite and watching how people use the D-pad, we designed a hybrid to deliver the best of both. It feels great.

Meaning, it should be pretty easy inputting the command for “Hadouken,” or “Shoryuken!”

The D-pad also “sinks” a little deeper with your thumb:

The slightly deeper dish gives your thumb a nice little “home” to sit in. The angles are finely tuned to give you a good amount of leverage with minimal movement. Gamers will notice a performance boost right out of the box.

When the Xbox One controller originally came out, it had no Bluetooth connectivity, although it could still be used wirelessly with the Xbox One, and it could be used on PC with the wireless adapter Microsoft provided. When the Xbox One S came out (not to be confused with the Xbox Series S), Microsoft updated the controllers to also include Bluetooth connectivity. The new Xbox controller has carried on with that compatibility:

We’re supporting cross-compatibility between Xbox Series X and Xbox One consoles and controllers…Gamers can also play on more devices including PC, Android, and iOS. We’re implementing Bluetooth Low Energy (BTLE) so that pairing to these devices is much easier. The new controller also remembers multiple devices so switching between them is more seamless.

Microsoft has been trying to reduce latency with this controller:

We’re introducing a system-wide set of improvements we call Dynamic Latency Input (DLI), which includes specific technology in the console and the HDMI connection to your TV. And it all starts with the controller. Essentially, information is sent more frequently from the controller and matched with exact frames of your game on-screen. The result: we shave off precious milliseconds at every step of gameplay, and actions are even more instantaneous.

Whether that is true, or if this also applies to PC, we have yet to see.

In a way, these subtle changes are a good thing in that you don’t have to worry about your games needing to get updated to reflect a newer button layout. On the other hand, I can’t exactly agree on everything Whitaker said.

For one, I don’t like the fact that, for someone who’s got big hands, the buttons are a little too close together for my liking. Heck, the controller itself feels a bit too small, even though he mentions it’s still good for the bigger hands out there. The D-pad, while it’s more comfortable inputting diagonal directions than the D-pad on the DualSense, it’s pretty small and I could easily press the wrong direction.

Another point I strongly disagree with is when he mentioned about the device using BTLE, therefore making it easier to pair with devices. I have had the opposite experience, as I’ll get into later on.

Whether the padded triggers actually help reduce friction on the fingers… I mean, I never really had a problem with my fingers slipping on a trigger in all of the gamepads that I’ve used over the years, so I couldn’t tell you if this actually improves in that area or not. For those with sweaty hands though, this may give them an upper hand.

As for the D-pad, I played a little bit of Them’s Fightin’ Herds (which, by the way, the Linux port is coming really soon) with it. The good news is, my thumb didn’t develop any calluses during gameplay. However, inputting quarter-circle movements, such as when executing a special move, were somewhat cumbersome, in a way that’s hard to explain. I found I had to switch to the left thumb stick to input specials more easily.

Connectivity on Linux and General Thoughts

On to the part that everyone here is more interested in. It works through a wired connection. Both jstest and Steam reported the controller as a generic device. Most of the buttons were working as expected, as well as the analog sticks. There was no need for me to reconfigure the controls in Steam Big Picture. It’s also nice to have a “native” button layout for when playing the majority of Steam games out there on the market, instead of having to figure out, “What button do I press here?” when using a PlayStation controller. The triggers have pressure sensitivity — this is where the Series X pad also has an upper hand over the DualSense, for now.

Only button that isn’t working is Share. The same day the controller came out, Phoronix reported that the mappings for this pad have been added to SDL2, so I imagine getting this button to work would be as simple as compiling the latest commit on my system.

Another advantage that the Series X pad has right now over the DualSense is that vibration is working out of the box. I did find a workaround for the vibration for the DualSense though — with paprefs, or PulseAudio Preferences, you can enable multiple sound output devices. So you can enable speaker output on the DualSense to get vibration according to sound while it’s connected over USB, and still get audio from your headphones or your desktop speakers. It’s a bit of a weird hack though, and you’re probably going to be better off having actual “native” vibration that reacts according to actions made in-game.

I spent thorough time testing this gamepad last night and the day before. I played some games that require fast reaction time, including Super Smash Bros. Melee, Mega Man X Legacy Collection, and Cuphead. I honestly don’t have that many complaints during all the time that I used it, except for the fact that the controller occassionally disconnected. I’m not sure if it’s because of the way the USB connection will sometimes get angled and will break connectivity, or if it’s on the software side.

Bluetooth/Wireless Connectivity

Now here comes the frustrating part: Bluetooth connectivity. Pairing mode can be achieved by holding the RECEIVE button on the top of the controller for three seconds. Put simply, it wouldn’t connect to my Linux box. It works on my Android phone, but I had no success on any other device. After doing some research, I found out that, at least as far as the Xbox One controllers are concerned, ERTM — a DRM module for Bluetooth — has to be disabled. Thinking this could also be applied to the Series X controller, I did that. After restarting the computer, nothing changed.

I later learn about xpadneo — an “Advanced Linux Driver for Xbox One Wireless Controller.” This essentially enhances your experience with Xbox One pads on Linux, while also disabling ERTM. It will load some unsigned kernel modules into your system, so you will need to disable Secure Boot in your BIOS. Alternatively, you can sign the modules.

The developers have just added support for the Series X controller as of a few days ago, and after installing from the latest commit from kakra’s fork, restarting the computer (already had Secure Boot disabled), and trying again, still nothing.

One of the developers commented on the Series X pull request this:

It [the driver] will support this [Series X pad] as long as your Bluetooth dongle supports the BLE profile (Bluetooth Low Energy). I think the XBXS controller is BLE-only (or the proprietary 5 GHz dongle but that’s not covered by xpadneo currently).

After looking at the product page for my Bluetooth card, nowhere does it say that it’s low energy. So I’m pretty sure it’s because of that that the controller won’t connect. Now, I’m forced to buy a new LE adapter, and it’s something that I couldn’t find in-store anywhere. A list of compatible BT adapters can be found on the xpadneo website. More devices are compatible: you just have to make sure the adapter you’re looking at says it uses low energy.

So I got this Sabrent Bluetooth adapter from Amazon. It’s one of the devices that is listed in the compatibility list. As noted in said list, I had to reconnect several times in the hopes the controller will finally be detected.

A few bash scripts and many unsuccessful attempts later, I finally feel a rumble coming from the controller. I refresh the gamepad list on jstest, and low and behold, the controller is now on the list.

Will the buttons work? No. None of the buttons lit up on the screen. Tried going into Steam BPM. The controller is detected there too. But the buttons aren’t working there either.

At this point I’m far too aggravated to try out another adapter or look for other ways to connect through Bluetooth. I don’t need to spend any more time or money than I have on this. However, if any of you are able to connect on your side, please let me know so I’m not slamming my head into the wall.

As for wireless connectivity with Microsoft’s adapter, it doesn’t work out of the box. You will need to install xow, a driver for the adapter. You might need to restart the computer as well.

I’m happy to (finally) report after a couple of tries, changing USB ports and such, the controller connected to the wireless dongle:

xow can make the x series controller work on Linux

jstest correctly reported 10 buttons, as well as the trigger sensitivity and analog stick sensitivity. Share isn’t currently working as it would be the 11th button on the pad. Vibration is working here too. No visible latency with button presses as far as I’ve tested.

Man. That was a painful experience.

Final Thoughts

It’s really not that bad of a pad. I do like the extra padding on the grips/triggers, the extra Share button, and the D-pad is fairly comfortable. Unlike the DualSense on Linux, it has vibration and trigger sensitivity.

In terms of technological advancements, the DualSense is definitely where it’s at, with the built-in mic, haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, etc. But half of those features haven’t even been supported in the kernel yet, so playability is pretty much the same as the Series X pad for now.

Microsoft seems to have made the Series X controller even more troublesome in regards to wireless connectivity than the Xbox One pad, as far as Linux is concerned.

The instant replacement of AA batteries in the event they die can be seen as a convenient advantage to some over having to charge a battery pack, yet, because I have less and less devices that are using AA batteries for power, I don’t exactly have a pack of those type of batteries lying around. And though you can use rechargeable battery packs, you end up spending an additional $25 to the $60 or $65 that you already spent on the controller. Add to that an extra $10 or so for a low energy BT adapter if your computer doesn’t already come with one, or $25 for an official wireless adapter.

By that time $100 has been spent if you get both the battery pack and the official adapter. Now you wonder if the $70 really was expensive on the DualSense, when there’s already a built-in rechargeable battery, out-of-the-box Bluetooth connectivity, and more advanced features.

So, were you to ask me whether I like the Series X pad more than I do the DualSense, or vice versa, I don’t think it’s fair to answer that now. I do like the vibration on the Series X pad and the native, zero-configuration-needed button layout, but I don’t like how close the buttons are together, and it’s been a hassle to get wireless connectivity. The DualSense provides a decent out-of-the-box experience but needs some time to mature before games can incorporate its features. Either way, both controllers need more time before I make conclusions. I’ll let you know my decision by the end of the year or early next year, provided both controllers get the support they need.

Summary:

The good:

  • Padded triggers and back grips, comfortable D-pad — albeit small
  • Vibration and trigger sensitivity, unlike the DualSense currently
  • Controls do not have to be re-configured in Steam
  • No confusion as to what button to press when playing a game, in contrast to the DualSense’s layout (doesn’t make much sense, does it? HalfSense?)
  • In addition to Bluetooth support, there’s support for Microsoft’s wireless adapter for lower latency

The not-so-good:

  • USB connection sometimes disconnects abruptly mid-game
  • Buttons and controls a bit too close together for comfort; feels small in my big hands
  • Bluetooth connectivity requires a low energy adapter and third-party support via xpadneo — and even then, good luck trying to connect
  • Getting an official battery pack in case you don’t want to use AA batteries will tack on another $25
  • $25 extra for the wireless adapter, if you insist on lower latency and don’t already have one, and will need the xow driver

Somewhere in the middle:

  • You can either look at this in a positive light or negative, depending on your viewpoint: a legacy look and feel to the Xbox One controller without needing to adapt to new changes, but the lack of changes means no mic, no haptic feedback, no adaptive triggers, etc.
  • The use of AA batteries allows the player to quickly change batteries if they suddenly die, unlike the long time it takes to charge a battery pack, but you may not have a pack of AA batteries lying around
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