An Officially Licensed Competitive Contender
Ask a hundred gamers what their favorite mouse or keyboard manufacturer is and you’ll likely get a bevy of answers. Ask the same group what their favorite gamepad is and the responses are likely to be less varied. It’s not that there aren’t a number of good ones, it’s just that Microsoft and Sony have both been making pretty darned amazing controllers for decades now. Since I split my time pretty equally between my PC and Xbox Series X, I always have at least one Xbox controller around, and I haven't had much reason to explore other options. Enter the Nacon Pro Compact, an officially-licensed Xbox controller (for use both on the console and PCs) targeting high-level, competitive players, hoping to prove that there’s room at the top for more than one gamepad.
The Pro Compact’s packaging is fairly no nonsense. Besides the controller, which is snuggled nicely with its cable into a form cut/folded cardboard enclosure, the accoutrements include directions for downloading both the controller’s customization app and full manual. Also included is an information sheet about downloading and unlocking Dolby Atmos for Headphones, which is one of the controller’s big selling points, and a small sheet of three stickers, which I suppose some people probably do something with. It’s all very clean and economical, and, while it doesn’t have the “premium unboxing experience” feel of more expensive devices, it’s certainly more pleasant than the plastic clamshells you sometimes see.
Small, but Sturdy
As its name clearly implies, the Pro Compact is a smaller controller than first party Microsoft ones, though, after I first got it out of its packaging, I was surprised that it actually didn’t look that much smaller. According to the controller’s designers at RIG, the slightly smaller form-factor is intended to improve players’ performance by minimizing the time it takes to reach from one part of the controller to another. Now, I don’t personally think that there’s likely much real advantage afforded by this small shrink, at least not that anyone playing any more casually than all-world finals in a given game will notice, but I can definitely see it as a great shape for people with small-to-average hands. The width is about the same as an Xbox One/Series X controller, but it is noticeably shorter. It’s got a sort of unfolded-staple shape similar to a Dualshock 4 as opposed to the rounded capital A. The size difference becomes a bit more pronounced in-hand, as a big chunk of the smaller silhouette come from the relatively stubby hand grips.
Once in-hand, it quickly becomes clear that the Pro Compact is pretty darned robust, already putting it a few steps above many other controllers in its price range (MSRP $49.99 USD). It’s hard to describe, but it’s just one of those things that you can tell when you hold something. It’s got a nice weight to it for a wired controller, and the plastic feels thick and sturdy. There’s no play in any of the buttons, triggers, or joysticks. It just plain feels good to hold, which is a huge positive in its favor. The controller comes in two colors, white and black, and, while I’m sure the black also looks good, the white version that I was given for review looks just as good as it feels. While the front face is smooth, the back half has a fine triangled texture that both gives the controller some subtle visual complexity and makes it easier to hold without appearing gaudy or feeling too rough. The triggers, though, are completely smooth, and I’d have liked the light texturing to also make its way to the finger rests there like it does on Microsoft gamepads. To round out the visual design, the joysticks, black and also textured, are encircled by copper rings that give the controller a welcome little pop.
Satisfying Presses, Awkward Angles
Enough about how the thing looks, though; how does it actually play? Pretty darned good, if not without a few annoyances. For starters, set-up is a breeze. I downloaded the aforementioned Pro Compact and Dolby Atmos apps from the Microsoft store (both on my PC and Xbox, as I tested the controller on both), plugged the controller in, and everything worked right away without having to fiddle with any drivers or settings. I kept all the customizations at their default settings first and bounced between some quick sessions of Overwatch, Mortal Kombat, and The Division 2. For each, everything felt super responsive and crisp. The controllers are tight with absolutely no play, and, best of all, I quickly grew to love the larger-and-flatter-than-usual A/B/X/Y buttons, which press with a satisfying feel. I never really did get comfortable with the size of the hand grips, though, and I always felt like I was holding the thing with my fingers instead of my palms. Again, it’s a subjective taste thing, but I kept subconsciously choking up on the controller as I played. This has a sort of chain-effect that played into my lack of fondness for the bumpers. With my hands, and therefore fingers, sitting fairly high because of the controller’s smaller size, I often felt like my fingers were out of position to press the bumpers like I wanted to. Instead of pressing them with the pads of my fingers, I was sort of rolling into them with the body of my fingers. Depending on your hand shape and size, your experience may be different.
Customization and Better Audio
If the above was the end of the story, the Nacon Pro Compact would still be a controller worth consideration, but the customization options and free Dolby Atmos integration give it a marked advantage over similarly priced game pads. The app, which handles all said customization, is super intuitive and easy to use. For those like myself not used to customizing their pads, there are a number of trigger and joystick sensitivity/curve presets based on popular genres like fighting and shooter. They aren’t going to be game changers for everyone, but I did think that the joysticks had a particularly noticeable effect in Mortal Kombat (though I normally use the directional pad) and changing the trigger sensitivity curve let me shoot just a little bit more quickly in Overwatch.
The inclusion of auto-unlock for Dolby Atmos is a more exciting feature for me, personally. For those not in the know, Dolby Atmos is what many movie theaters (remember those?) use for top-quality surround sound. Dolby Atmos for controllers, which is downloadable via the Microsoft store, attempts to use “special audio” to deliver the highest possible quality surround sound, simulating a true multi-speaker experience in any pair of headphones. Normally the application costs $15 USD, but the Pro Compact automatically unlocks the software when it’s plugged in (you do have to download the Atmos app first). My pessimistic self was worried that it’d be difficult to get the application to recognize the controller, but it did so completely automatically seconds after plugging the controller in (note that the headphones need to be plugged into the controller, not your PC or external microphone). It really does sound quite nice, just make sure that you play a game that actually supports the tech. The list is growing, but it’s far from all-inclusive.
While I have a few complaints with the Nacon Pro Compact, they’re largely issues of personal feel and are overshadowed by when the controller does right. At the $49.99 USD price point, it strikes a nice balance where it’s cheap enough to be attractive to just about anyone looking for a second controller while still having fantastic build quality and desirable amenities. It’s worth seeing if you can get your hands on a smaller controller to test out how they fit in your hands, but, if the size works for you, it’s definitely one of the better wired controllers currently on the market.
Pros: Sturdy construction, clean visual design, easy set-up, large face buttons, intuitive customization options, free Dolby Atmost access.
Cons: The hand grips are slightly too small for my liking, I wasn’t able to get completely comfortable with the bumper positions.
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