What Is Controller Drift and How To Fix It
Updated: December 21,2022
Controller drift is one of the most frustrating issues console players and PC controller enthusiasts can face when gaming. But what is controller drift, and how can you prevent it from happening or fix it if you encounter it?
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this article, so stick around to find out more.
Controller Drift Basics
Before explaining controller drift, we must first talk a bit about how controllers work. To figure out why your controllers are suffering from drift, it helps to understand the underlying cause, so that’s where we’ll start.
How Does a Controller Work?
Whether we’re talking about graphics cards, smartphones, gaming keyboards and mice, console controllers, or any other high-tech gadget or device you can think of today, they all share a core design principle: a circuit board that sends current through the device to perform different tasks.
These actions can range from turning the lights on to detecting analog movement and even providing force feedback. The important thing here is to direct the current accurately by using conductive materials like copper and control it to avoid overheating and component damage.
At this point, you may wonder how any of this relates to the problem of a drifting controller. Well, the way we control the flow of electricity through the circuit board is by using gaps or resistors to break up circuit flow or direct it through button presses or joystick inputs.
Of course, the latter is a much more complicated process than using simple on/off button switches, which is where potential problems can occur as a result of extended use.
What Is Controller Drift?
As many of us have sadly witnessed, even the top controller models on the market aren’t immune to stick drift after prolonged use. It’s also the reason why many gamers prefer using a keyboard and mouse to a controller. But what is it exactly, and how can we tell if it’s affecting our controller?
We’ll get into a more detailed explanation in a bit, but in layman’s terms, controller or stick drift is simply an occurrence where your right or left analog controller sticks stop functioning as intended.
They could be off-center, they might not snap back when released, your in-game character or camera could be moving without you making any inputs, or you might experience inaccurate aim due to spotty tracking.
Most commonly, though, it’s the issue of your “Xbox controller moving on its own.” Or rather, any of the modern controllers with an analog stick, we should say. PS4 stick drift was notorious back in the day, but the fancy new DualSense controllers seem to be having even more reported problems, while drift issues with the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con controllers have been the topic of many angry Reddit posts in the last few years.
As hardware manufacturers keep making new controller models more complex and skimping out on quality control, we can imagine we’ll be seeing more and more disgruntled PS, Xbox, and Switch owners.
Analog stick drift is quite an aggravating issue that affects many controllers on the market, and it makes precise control in FPS or driving games all but impossible. How long controllers will last before facing the issue depends on numerous factors we’ll cover below, but with the inevitable wear-and-tear that comes over time, even the most looked-after models may experience drift at some point.
So, what is stick drift caused by, and what can we do about it?
What Causes Controller Drift?
Remember when we talked about the circuit board and resistors? Analog sticks are a bit of an evolution of that idea, utilizing a track of resistive material that can precisely direct the current by determining the wheel's orientation and movement.
They use two small wheels (for the X and Y axes), and a passive variable resistor called a potentiometer to translate thumb movements into in-game actions. There’s also a tiny metal part called a wiper that follows these movements and determines where the circuit connection will be made on the resistive track.
This affects how much resistive material the current has to flow through, determining how far our in-game camera or character will move. And thus, we come to the root of the problem: under normal circumstances, our inputs are read one-to-one, and letting go of the analog sticks resets them to a neutral position.
Controllers suffering from drift, though, don’t work like that. This can happen for numerous reasons: the conductive material may get damaged over time, resistance values could change, a faulty manufacturing process could create bad potentiometers or wipers, and so on.
Most commonly, though, whether it’s Joy-Con drift or a problem with your new DualSense controller, the issue may simply be a clogged-up resistive track or a damaged or blocked wiper, which will be much easier to fix, as we’ll talk about in a bit.
How To Deal With Controller Drift
Now that we’ve covered the basics and explained why stick drift is such a common problem in modern controllers, let’s talk prevention and repair. It’s always better to stop the issue from happening in the first place, but if you’re already dealing with a faulty controller, we’ll also show you how to fix controller drift or, at the very least, void your warranty like a boss trying.
Preventing Controller Drift
Just like with any tech equipment, proper maintenance can significantly prolong your controller's life. Keeping your fancy new gaming desk clean is one thing, but high-tech peripherals such as your controller need to be dust and grime-free in order to function properly.
One of the most common causes of controller stick drift is tiny environmental debris such as dust, skin flakes, or food crumbs falling into your controller and damaging or clogging up the sensitive electronics inside. A simple way to prevent that is to avoid eating while gaming and ensure that you cover your controllers after you’re done using them.
Another obvious solution is to develop a softer touch. Some games (twin-stick shooters, for example) put extreme stress on the analog sticks, and rough handling of your controller can significantly increase the chances of the sticks developing severe drifting issues.
All that said, sometimes no amount of care will help, and wear-and-tear or poor construction will inevitably lead to stick drift. What can you do if that happens?
Fixing Controller Drift
Just as there are numerous reasons why your controller joysticks might be malfunctioning, so too are there many options for fixing it. Most are fairly simple, quick to perform, and won’t risk any permanent damage to your controller. With that in mind, here are your options.
Restore the controller’s default settings. The good old “have you tried turning it on and off again” works for a surprising number of people. Whether it’s a new firmware or custom game configuration you’ve tinkered with, you might just be dealing with a software issue, which can easily be fixed by resetting your controller to default values.
Recalibrate your controller. A similar tweak involves using your console software or an interface like Steam to recalibrate your left and right analog sticks. This can be a bandaid-type solution even for physically damaged controllers, as you can set up larger deadzones (zones where no input is registered) if your controller has more drastic drift and the sticks register slight movement in the neutral position.
Check and replace the batteries. If you’re looking to fix Xbox controller drift, the solution may be as simple as replacing the old batteries with new ones and resetting the controller. Of course, this solution won’t help when it comes to models with inbuilt batteries, such as the Xbox Elite 2 or Sony’s DualShock and DualSense controllers.
Clean your controller. Perhaps the most obvious solution will prove to be the most successful one, as long as you take care during the cleaning process. Start by turning your controller off and using a bit of rubbing alcohol or Asepsol on a soft cloth to wipe down the entire controller gently.
Once everything is dry, you can move on to a more thorough clean, ideally using a can of compressed air. Start rolling the base of the stick slowly while spraying it with canned air.
To fix controller drift, you’ll want to want to cover all angles, which also means gently pushing the sticks down and pulling them up while applying the compressed air. This should help dislodge any micro debris that may have gotten stuck inside and clogged up the wiper.
Perform advanced repairs or simply replace your faulty joysticks. If the wiper itself has gotten damaged or the internal circuitry has malfunctioned, your controller will need a more serious intervention. This may require opening it up and removing the sticks for a more thorough cleaning or even replacing them entirely with new ones.
Here’s where we’d suggest that all our readers, except for the most tech-savvy ones, take the controller to a professional, especially if it’s still under warranty. While some esports-centric models like the Scuf Instinct make joystick or joystick cap removal a breeze, for the most part, you don’t want to mess around with your controller, and many models are deliberately made difficult to open and tinker with.
Controllers can be finicky gadgets, and just like a lot of other modern tech, they keep getting stuffed with more complicated and fault-prone electronics with each new iteration. We hope that our guide has been educational and that you now have a better idea of how to stop controller drift or prevent it from happening in the first place. Happy gaming!
Frequently Asked Questions
Simply put, controller drift means that your analog sticks don’t behave as they should. Your in-game camera or character may move on their own, the sticks may not center properly, or simple right and left movement actions may require more or less force in order to be precise.
Unfortunately, yes. Drifting can happen even with the best controller models, including Nintendo’s Pro controllers and professional esports-oriented models such as the Xbox Elite 2 and Scuf Instinct controllers.
Controller stick drift should be easy to notice, as it affects the precision of your left and right analog sticks. In essence, the controller movement takes a life of its own, going too far or too little in a chosen direction or not snapping back to the neutral position correctly.
If you’re wondering how to prevent controller drift, the simplest answer is to take good care of your controller. The issue usually occurs due to wear-and-tear, which can be significantly hastened by leaving your controller out in the open or by using it while your hands still have traces of food on them. That said, drift is sometimes inevitable, as the controller sticks get damaged over years of prolonged use.
That depends on how severe the issue is and whether there is physical damage to the controller. Check out our guide “What Is Controller Drift and How To Fix It” for a more detailed guide on the possible causes of stick drift and solutions for fixing it.
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A true tech and gaming savant, Ivan has been fascinated by the digital world since the early days of gaming on antiques such as the ZX Spectrum and Commodore’s beloved Amiga. Whether you’re interested in the latest PC and console gaming news, antivirus software, or smartphone reviews, or simply want to learn about the newest geeky gadgets around, we at KT have you covered, and Ivan’s likely the one we’ll ask.