Controller drifting: what it is, how it occurs and how it is solved

Controller drifting: what it is, how it occurs and how it is solved

Controller drifting

The problem of the control drift, the so-called controller drifting that sees the joypad send a command to the console or to the PC even when it is not touched by the player, has become more evident with Nintendo Switch, the hybrid of the Kyoto company that suffers to such an extent that it has forced the company to replace Joy-Con for free. But the removable joypads of the Nintendo hybrid console are not the first and will certainly not be the last to suffer from a disease born from the evolution of controllers that are increasingly complex but at the same time increasingly delicate.

Problems related to control drift date back to the first analog sticks, but have intensified with the latest console generations precisely because of this constant increase in hardware complexity. The phenomenon has become so relevant that it led the Chimicles Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith studio to devote itself to class actions related to controller drifting, initiating legal actions both against Nintendo of America, targeted by three other class actions, against Microsoft, for the Xbox One pad, and also against Sony, which encountered this problem first with the DualShock 4 and then with the brand new DualSense of PS5.

Taking advantage of the warnings written in the user manuals, both Microsoft and Nintendo have managed to move the cases from the courts to arbitration, but the lawyers have not given up on seeking compensation for what is undoubtedly a widespread problem and which is still relevant. For this reason we have decided to talk about it more in depth in this special on the drifting controller that will explain to you in practice how the phenomenon manifests itself and how it can be fixed.

What is the controller drifting

All modern controllers suffer from drifting, but the phenomenon has become accentuated with the latest generations of consoles Before talking about the problems it is good to talk about the modern controllers that under the plastic, the buttons, the springs and the joints hide a printed circuit able to read the movements and translate them into information to be sent to the console or to the PC. In the case of the hardware inserted in the first joysticks and joypads, the circuit does nothing but record the contact that occurs between the conductive material of a pressed key and the relative area of ​​the printed circuit, sending the command, but with the advent of controller more and more evolved the question has become more complex. To make analog sticks possible, it was in fact necessary to create controllers capable of reading more complex signals than simple binary information on / off.

Square sensors made the magic possible, with a rod on the upper part, able to allow free movements through two wheels, a potentiometer composed of a strip of resistive material positioned between two terminals and a wiper designed to move together with the stick. By moving the stick from side to side, the wiper moves closer to one of the terminals and the closer proximity varies the flow of current that is sent to the circuit board. Based on this it measures the force with which a lever is pressed, translating it into digital information to be sent to the console.

An Alps Alpine ThumbPointer. Specifically, the RKJXK used in the Joy-Con of Nintendo Switch A real revolution, especially in the case of space or driving simulators, but also a factor that has made the controllers much more complex and that has generated the problem of drifting. Such a mechanism can in fact lose its calibration, can encounter wear problems or suffer from design problems, all things that can lead the potentiometer to send pulses to the console even when a stick is not actually pressed, leading the controller to register a signal that it was not generated by the player but by a malfunction. And this is precisely how the so-called control drifting occurs: a phenomenon that, by causing unwanted movements, makes it impossible to play.

How to identify the problem

A because of the controller drifting, the sticks send input to the console without the player doing anything, making it impossible to play The problem itself is quite evident, as it generates unwanted movements and inputs even when the pad is not in use, gradually aggravating when to generate it it is a factor related to wear or dirt. But the variables involved are many and this makes it difficult, in some cases, to identify the triggering cause of drifting phenomena.

On the other hand, for it to occur, imperceptible construction problems, wear of the conductive material due to various forms of humidity, wear of the graphite of the resistance due to repeated movements of the wiper or even dust finished under the sheath that protects the hemisphere that allows the stick movement. The latter is the most frequent cause of Nintendo Switch Joy-Con drifting and specifically of the left one, almost always the most stressed as it is generally combined with movement controls.

The Xbox One pad and the last two Sony pads have also proved vulnerable to dirt, but in the case of the Microsoft controller there have also been problems related to the wear of a small piece of rubber inserted into the rod on which the stick is fitted in addition to problems related to the springs that return the stick to its place when it is directed or pressed and an internal manufacturing problem to the square sensor, also called the ThumbPointer, which includes all the mechanisms necessary to make a stick work.

Nintendo has not yet expressed itself on the questions about the risks of drifting related to Switch OLED In the case of DualSense, it must be said, calibration problems often occur, which are easier to solve, but this does not solve the others problems, partly common to all controllers. This shouldn't be too surprising as all sensors are made by Alps Alpine.

The model equipped with the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con uses linear potentiometers instead of curved ones and stops at 1 million cycles of guaranteed duration, or the complete movements of the stick along one of the two axes, against 2 million of sensor cycles of the Xbox and PlayStation pads, but the type is the same and all, in general, last longer, especially if the joypad is used gracefully. But it is clear that a few hundred hours of gameplay are enough to increase the risk of running into hardware malfunctions.

The problems related to dust and mechanical malfunctions, it should be specified, also depend on the design of the controllers that can force the sensor, or the stick, to undergo greater pressures or levers, but basically the biggest problem is related to the autonomy of these sensors and this factor leads us to face a speech already brought up by several illustrious voices of the industry: that of savings.

The nature of consoles is to combine high-level gaming and affordable prices, but to the costs of the internal hardware, over time, has been added that of pads that must be more and more complex, more and more equipped, more and more reactive and more and more precise. They are therefore increasingly expensive, so much so that the relatively low price of the sensor is also a problem. Hence the suspicion that the reliability of the joypads has been sacrificed to save a few dollars in the assembly phase.

In any case we find ourselves in a situation where the controllers can stop working without warning and given the complexity reached may not necessarily be an easily resolvable problem.

How to solve drifting

A complete stick for Nintendo Switch Joy-Con, available for bulk replacement Waiting for someone finds a way to solve the root problem, perhaps by rethinking the operation of the sensors or by making it easier to replace the internal components of the joypads, we can only arm ourselves with patience and try to solve the drifting controller independently. We clearly do not take any kind of responsibility for damage or other occurrences as none of the practices described below are approved or authorized by the hardware manufacturers. So take action at your own risk.

If dust is causing drifting, you just need isopropyl alcohol, a cotton swab and a lot of patience to avoid doing damage by lifting the rubber cover at the base of the stick in order to eliminate debris, dust, skin and so on.

Another method is that of compressed air that we have explained in our guide on how to fix the problems of the DualSense, including all the precautions related to the calibration, updating and connectivity of the PS5 pad. These measures obviously also apply to the Xbox pads and to any controller designed in a similar way and probably equipped with Alps Alpine switches.

The sensory apparatus of a stick, among the mechanically more complex components of a pad A further modality involves the purchase of products to improve the electrical transmission and the fluidity of the mechanisms such as the WD40 or the CRC which found respectively for less than 3 € and just over 10 € on Amazon. With the can in hand and the straw to use the product in confined spaces, you simply have to spray the liquid at the base of the analogs after having folded them completely to one side and having lifted the rubber that protects the base of the stick. The goal is to let the liquid penetrate inside the pad passing through the small space on which the analogs rotate so that the product ends up on the circuits, cleans them and reactivates the oxidized contacts.

The last way is that of the replacement of worn components, including those inside the sensors that can be replaced in its entirety at a cost of just over 10 euros. But by choosing this path it happens to cause damage and the warranty, usually one year, is compromised, which is the simplest way. However, it is not certain that the problem of drifting, whatever the cause, intervenes first, especially in the case of those who do not play a lot and carefully store the controllers. And this is where Nintendo stands out, which has decided to replace Joy-Con for free in case of drifting.

How to prevent drifting

Controllers that are increasingly complex, but also more delicate How we have seen, some of the problems related to drifting cannot be prevented. But in many cases it is dirty and we can do something about this to reduce the incidence of the problem. In fact, we can protect the pad when not in use, which is definitely recommended in the case of dusty environments or environments full of animal hair. And we can also avoid eating foods that can generate crumbs around a joypad. It is also advisable to keep your hands clean to avoid problems related to human waste, sweat and so on.

The same goes for transport. A bag may be fine for keeping a pair of glasses, but it can be a hell of a lot of dust, tobacco, and lint that can end up in the pad if deposited inside. Much better to use a dedicated case, preferably resistant and padded.

On the other hand, the increase in complexity of the joypads has raised both the price and the delicacy of the internal and external components and this also concerns the risk of breakage. to blows, bumps and shocks. Better to avoid making comparisons with the pads of the NES or the MegaDrive, often still perfectly functional despite decades of mistreatment, to take into account how today a controller is much more than a set of springs and contacts.

Nel in the meantime, however, nowadays we expect some change, if not in the design or in the quality of the sensors, at least in the communication linked to the guaranteed duration, a factor that has become decidedly important also in this field as has been the case for some time for mouse and keyboards.

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