DIY Xbox Controller Repairs Just Became Much More Appealing
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DIY Xbox Controller Repairs Just Became Much More Appealing

Stick drift: Not this fun—but basically inevitable with any joystick that uses standard potentiometers relying on sliding parts.

What a huge difference a piece of software can make. Microsoft’s recalibration tool—recently added to the Xbox Accessories app—means that it’s actually possible for a normal human with basic soldering skills to replace their controller thumbsticks when they inevitably begin to drift. 

Joystick drift is when the characters in your game seem to be moving on their own, because the stick no longer returns properly to its zero position when you let go. Daisy might always drift to the left in Mario Kart, for example, or your crosshairs may drift off target in your favorite murder-simulation game.

It’s all down to the potentiometer being worn down over time. If you want to know the details, check out our explainer blog post on Stick Drift. There are a lot of hacks to alleviate the issue momentarily, but the only real fix is to replace the stick. Unfortunately often, people decide to replace the whole controller instead, which is obviously expensive and wasteful. 

Device Page

Xbox Series X Wireless Controller

The third revision of the classic Xbox Wireless Controller was released in November 2020, bundled with the Xbox Series X and Series S. This controller is backwards compatible with previous Xbox One consoles, and PCs.

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While it is possible to replace Xbox Wireless Controller thumbsticks yourself, there are two problems here.

One is that they’re soldered to the board, so there’s no way to do this repair without some desoldering and soldering skills. 

The other problem is calibration. Up until now, calibrating the thumbsticks in an Xbox controller had to be done at the hardware level. This involved soldering the thumbsticks into place, testing them to see if they were correctly placed, and if not, removing the solder and doing it all over again. Or, more likely for most people, melting the existing solder while trying to move the pins a tiny bit in the right direction. All in all, a pretty time-consuming operation.

Recalibration Tool

This is where the new software tool comes in. You still have to remove the old stick and solder in the new one, so you’ll still need a soldering iron, desoldering braid and/or a solder sucker, flux, and of course solder, plus the skills to pull this off (it’s not micro-soldering, but you might want to practice a little before you tackle a fiddly project like this).

But now you can calibrate the newly-installed stick in software, instead of having to manually hot-shimmy the thing into place. The app runs on both Xbox and Windows PCs, and while Microsoft says that it cannot solve drift caused by wear and tear, it’s definitely worth trying it on an errant controller before opening it up. You never know. 

Drift Fix

There have been other fixes over the years. One ingenious workaround is a drift fix adapter. 

This is a tiny circuit board that you solder onto the back of the controller’s circuit board, behind the thumbstick. It has two potentiometers that allow you to compensate for the loss of resistance in the thumb stick’s own potentiometers. It’s an ingenious solution, and it’s pretty long term, as you can make further adjustments as needed, in the future.

In this case, the soldering job is pretty easy.

Another long-term fix is to replace your controller or thumbsticks with a different kind of sensor, one that can’t wear out. A controller with Hall Effect thumbsticks works by using magnets and electrical conductors. When a conductor carrying a current moves in a magnetic field, it induces a tiny voltage. This can be measured and used to determine the position of the stick. 

Hall effect controllers don’t wear out because the sensing parts don’t touch each other. The physical stick can wear out eventually, but that will take much longer. Some gamers prefer Hall-effect controllers for their accuracy. 

Either way, the real fix is obvious. Thumbsticks are wear parts, and should be easily accessible. They should not require soldering to replace. They should be modular, easy to buy, and just screw or clip into place. If we have mechanical keyboards where you can hot-swap entire key mechanisms, it can’t be too hard to build a modular analog joystick.

With the (premium) DualSense Edge Controller, Sony showed that modular thumbsticks are possible, even though they still opted for classic potentiometers instead of going for Hall effect sensors. 

Still, Microsoft seems eager to catch up. As part of their repairability push, they now provide replacement parts and repair information for their Xbox controllers. Furthermore, information released last year as part of the FTC’s court case suggests that Microsoft will release a redesigned Xbox Wireless Controller with modular thumbsticks this year.

Given how widespread joystick drift is—it’s all but guaranteed to happen to every controller—there is a pretty clear need to fix this at the source. Manufacturers are seeing increased pressure from users and legislators, and it’s clear that they know what’s going on. We’re very happy to see Microsoft’s modular controller, which should really be the default for all games controllers. Your move, Nintendo.