Next-Gen Consoles Reignite An Old Argument Over Controller Batteries

Next-Gen Consoles Reignite An Old Argument Over Controller Batteries
Image: Microsoft/Sony

Without electrical juice controllers are just paperweights, and Sony and Microsoft continue to take dramatically different approaches to solving that problem.

Yesterday Sony revealed its PlayStation 5 controller: the DualSense. It’s chunkier than the current-gen DualShock 4 and comes loaded with a number of new features, including haptic feedback and a built-in microphone. People wasted no time swapping out the peripheral’s colour scheme for something more elegant and vibrant, but on paper the changes all look like improvements over the existing DualShock. One question Sony didn’t answer, though, was how long the battery will last.

The DualShock 4 has a notoriously short battery life. One of the more common questions in the comment section of Sony’s blog revealing the DualSense was whether it’s improved on that key flaw. “Can we turn the light bar off?” was another. Players have long blamed the DualShock 4’s front-facing, colour-coded lightshow for mercilessly draining the device’s energy. With the DualSense Sony’s kept the light bar but significantly reduced its surface area. Another thing it’s held onto is the built-in rechargeable battery design, introduced back in the DualShock 3.

Image Image: Sony

A built-in, rechargeable battery seems an unremarkable choice, something we’ve grown accustomed to as our phones, tablets, and laptops all moved away from removable batteries. It’s also a choice that Microsoft didn’t make with its new Xbox Series X controller. Microsoft’s gamepad will still rely on AA batteries, or an external rechargeable battery pack players can buy separately. To me that seems like a backward-looking design at odds with the Series X controller’s strange new shape and next-gen power, and especially when compared to the futuristic-looking DualSense. But this strange move also has its defenders, something Microsoft has been quick to point out.

“What it comes down to is when actually talking to gamers, it’s kind of polarising and there is a strong camp that really want AAs,” Jason Ronald, partner director of program management at Xbox, said last month in an interview with Digital Foundry over on Eurogamer. ”So just giving flexibility is the way to please both [sets of] people.”

If you ask me, this holdover from the Xbox 360 days isn’t archaic: It’s liberating. Sure, I’ve been known to complain (at length, even) about never seeming to have fresh AA batteries on hand when my Xbox controller dies. But when I do, it’s super nice to be able to just stick in new ones, or better yet a backup rechargeable pack, and immediately enjoy a full charge rather than having to spend the next few hours tethered to the console.

“Flexibility” may be a convenient talking point to mask a cost-saving measure, but it’s also a philosophy that comes through in the rest of Microsoft’s approach to the new Xbox controller. It iterates on the Xbox One Elite in the most subtle ways, and at first glance looks almost indistinguishable. As Digital Foundry pointed out, the real changes lay beneath the plastic. Microsoft says a new Bluetooth radio will help the controller connect more easily to devices that aren’t the Series X, while a better wireless interface will help reduce latency. Rather than be a bold new type of controller, it’s meant to play nice with as many current and future devices as possible.

Image Image: Microsoft

It seems of a piece with the company’s growing emphasis on playing games anywhere, whether through the xCloud streaming service or because first-party series like Halo and Gears of War, which used to be exclusive to Xbox consoles, are now available on PC as well. Players desperate to get their hands on Halo Infinite won’t even need to buy an Xbox Series X since it’ll be on Xbox One as well, along with all of Microsoft’s other first-party games that land during the next-gen hardware’s first year.

That makes for a striking contrast with the picture Sony’s been slowly piecing together with the PS5, a next-gen console we still haven’t even seen yet. Last month, hardware architect Mark Cerny delivered an in-depth presentation on the technologies, from graphics processing to audio, that would make the PS5 feel like a truly next-gen games machine. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the console, Cerny’s lecture was convincing enough to the technical experts at Digital Foundry, who called it “a vision for next-gen that recaptures some of the pioneering spirit of [Sony’s] early consoles.”

Of course the proof will be in the pudding as far as which approach works better, and for whom. In the past having to manage AA batteries has been a double-edged sword, but then again I’ve also spent far too many nights tethered to my PS4 via a five-foot micro-USB cord. Both solutions have their strengths and weaknesses like the consoles they’ll eventually come packaged with, showing that while Sony and Microsoft’s gamepads have homed in on a similar sweet spot of size and shape, they’re still emblematic of different plans for the future.

Comments

  • I honestly had no idea the XBox One controller still uses AA batteries.

    I see the appeal of the rechargeable battery packs, but are there gamers who would legitimately prefer continuously popping AAs? Why not come with a rechargeable external pack as standard and offer to sell them separately for people who want to game for longer than 30 hours (the amount of time you can get on one charge, according to Microsoft)?

    • So you are all set to game on (insert favorite game) you go grab a big ol’ 2 liter drink out the fridge, maybe grab a snack (if you’re a heathen – makes the controller greasy, ew) and you plonk in your big ol’ comfy chair and start playing. 5 minutes later shit starts blinking or warnings start popping up – “YOUR CONTROLLERS BATTERIES ARE LOW” – so you stand up, grumbling – go to the drawer and pop those suckers in and your back to the game – full charge HERE WE GO.

      OR

      You get up – go grab the cord out off the console, which is probably only 1.5 meters long and now you have to go sit on the floor while the idiot thing recharges for 2 hours and its awkward and a pain and now you’re mad.

      I sit in the later mind you – so just saying I can see the appeal to just getting instant power right there and then. Personally I have 2 controllers for each system and have one on charge most the time so stops this in 80% of cases – but 20% of the time I’m a ball of fury.

      I’ve noticed that my PS4 controller wont even let me use it if its charging – that’s even worse!

      • Well the 80%-20% for batteries is you go to the draw and your out of batteries so you either clean out your remote and kids toys or get in the car and go to the supermarket.
        I would honestly prefer the second option except in the extremely rare occasions where my secondary controller is out of juice I just grab the extension cord I use for recharging my phone on the couch and play off that.

  • Who are these people that think constantly replacing AA batteries is a good idea? I want their names and, preferably, their addresses.

    • I suppose you could use rechargeable AA batteries. I try to use these for most battery-operated appliances I have.

    • I’ve got eneloops in my xbox elite controller, goes empty I replace.
      My dual shock 4 controller only lasted a few hours of play time when I got it and now doesn’t hold a charge. My DS3 was great however.

      I definitely prefer AA batteries since batteries degrade over time and Sony’s option is to buy a new controller or DIY the replacement.

    • I’m one of those people. The thing is, the AA batteries last about ten times longer than my PS4 Controller batteries, if I’m not constantly having one controller on charge I often times go to play and both controllers are dead flat. I just buy cheap alakaline batteries from Target for $5 for 16 and the last like half the year. Charging the dual shocks is far more of a hassle.

      • Generally I just plug the PS4 controller back into the cable that I have permanently plugged into the PS4 after each use. That seems to solve the problem for me.

    • There is nothing in the rule book that says they can’t allow the batteries to be charged without replacement. (many appliances already do this, my k800 keyboard does this)

      The issue is DUMB PEOPLE think it might be a good idea to try and recharge ordinary batteries in this manner (which you can do a few times at low currents) which presents a headache legally for companies, even if its labelled everywhere NOT to do that.

      I’d prefer if they just let you recharge those AA batteries, and dumb people can suffer the consequences (normally ordinary batteries will just break and not explode).

  • I’ve literally never heard any of my mates commend AAs in the Xbox. All of them, almost instantly, bought the recharging battery that replaces the back panel so it could be charged on a dock.

    This is just a cop out from the design team.

    “But you can just pop in two new batteries!”

    Yeah but I can also just plug my DS4 in with a cable and play while it’s charging. Shit I could even plug it into a portable battery power pack and charge it while playing.

  • I have 2 DS4’s for occasional local multiplayer, but usually it’s just me. So most of the time I’m playing with one controller while the other charges, and just swap them around when the battery gets low.

  • Battery user here. Having both an Xbone and a PS4, I still much prefer replacing batteries than trying to charge up a Playstation controller. 30secs of fiddling has me at full power again and ready to go.

    • What’s the benefit of replacing AAs to having a spare rechargeable pack? I just think it’s weird not to have that as the default and still have the option to purchase another. It’d work out a lot cheaper than constantly shelling out for AAs (I assume).

      • I think it’s about giving the option to people especially if spare controllers aren’t used often. Getting rechargeable AA + charger can be cheaper. In a pinch you can grab the AAs to use for something else. Can’t easily do that if it’s integrated like the dual shocks.

        • Fair enough. I just always charge my controller overnight or give it a burst during a meal break or something so it’s never been an issue for me.

  • All these comments on PS4 controllers battery life being bad. I must be the exception as I have never had any issues with mine! I do run 2 controllers so when ifinish my play session i will plug in the controller and have the othewr one fully charged ready to go for next time.

    As far as Xbox controllers go, I just went out and bought a battery the day i got mine, anyone who says AA’s are good really must hate the environment.

    • I’m with you i didn’t play my ps4 for like 2 months contoller unplugged and had like a 5-6hr sesh battery was still full every sesh I have on Xbox I need to charge

  • Personally had more issue with an Xbox360/Xbox one controller never charging/not detecting connection (with actual MS cables). Never had the same issue with any PS2/3/4 controller. What they should be doing is going the way of the Nintendo Switch and use fully rechargable USB3.1 controllers. (you know with the nice usb connection)

  • I bought a rechargeable battery straight away for the xbox controller for my pc.

    The ps4 controllers, I generally am using one and charging one.

    Switch pro controller? What’s charging? I think I charge it once a month?

  • I’m not sure there’s much of an issue either way as you can always keep a spare controller around for PS5 battery issues.

    I’d be more worried about whether the PS4 controller is compatible with the PS5 (does anyone know?). Xbox has already confirmed controller compatibility both ways (Series X controller on One and the other way around) which is good if you have a few lying around.

  • No one stating the obvious: that you can have a controller plugged in to an outlet far away from your console. Being tethered to the console is by no means the only option available.

  • Some people complain so much about the battery life of the ps4 but after six years, I have never had a single gaming session end because my controller ran out. if that is happening maybe they are skipping every single warning about playing too long.

    Even if the controller dies, it barely takes any time at all to recharge.

    Where as I have always had constant issues with the XBox recharger ones, and the fact that it still comes with batteries at all is frankly ridiculous.

  • I’ve literally never had an issue with dualshock battery life, I don’t get why people say it’s bad, I have a Xbox controller too(worst design in the world BTW) and it never lasted more than a week, even with quality rechargeable batteries, my DS4 lasts 2 to 3 weeks and that’s playing once a day at least, and really is it that much of a pain to recharge the controller, I mean no one’s life is that jam packed they can’t take 2 seconds to plug it in.

  • I guess people like the least economic, most destructive version of buying more lithium batteries.
    Why would your PS4 remotes run out if you charge it when you have the PS4 in rest mode? Surely you aren’t playing 8hrs straight without some break in between.
    Usually a 15 to 30 min charge would give me another few hours worth.
    Would you rather mobile phones have swappable batteries?

  • 4 rechargeable AA batteries cost about $12.
    You put 2 in the controller and when they go flat you put them in the charger, grab the other 2 batteries, put them in the controller and keep playing.
    The absolute worst thing about the PS3 and Wii U pro controllers was that they HAD to be connected to the system to charge, not a regular usb port, the actual console itself.
    If controllers are gonna come with their own batteries they need to be able to be charged from any USB port and also have a replaceable battery pack. Not everyone feels confident unscrewing the back of a controller to replace the battery pack.

  • For me it’s about options long term.
    As someone who collects old consoles, ii am planning on still playing these consoles ten, twenty years down the track.
    So the idea of having to eventually crack open a controller and solder in a (most likely) third party battery kind of sucks versus having the option of just popping in another rechargeable battery, or, if you can’t get them anymore, a couplenof rechargeable AA’s seems much easier, and safer to me.
    And in case anyone thinks this is fanboy stuff, I am console agnostic, but use my PS4 more than my ‘Bone.
    I use the optional rechargeable battery pack in my ‘Bone controllers, so they charge just the same as Sony’s do.
    But I still think that Sony using hardwired batteries really just means they want you to buy another controller rather than swapping the battery out for a new one.
    How is that better than using replaceable batteries?
    And why wouldn’t you want options?

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