First, the obvious attraction: The new "transforming" D-pad. With a not-so-simple twist of the D-pad, the corner quadrants drop out of the way leaving just the cross-shaped D-pad. I say "not-so-simple" because it actually requires a little bit of effort; after all, you don't want to go from cross-shaped to old-fashioned in the middle of a hadouken. Using two thumbs to spin the D-pad improves the process though, when not being twisted deliberately, it remained firmly in place. We were told that engineering the transforming D-pad was no easy feat and the final product is not only the result of several prototypes, but all sorts of stress testing.
We also learned that the included Play & Charge kit is improved as well, though these improvements were also evident in the newly redesigned black Play & Charge kit. The new battery pack commands an extra five hours of e-juice if charged over the Play & Charge cable and an extra 10 hours if charged using the wall-mounted Quick Charge kit. If you, like me, are a fan of plain ol' AA rechargeables (might I recommend some Sanyo Eneloops?) the kit comes with a standard battery cage so a fully charged controller is just a battery swap away.
When asked if we'd be seeing the newly designed controller make its way into console bundles, we were told that for now they were eager to see how the audience (that includes outspoken Xbox D-pad haters like you guys, they told us!) respond to the changes. Changes like the greyscale face buttons are clearly an aesthetic shift intended for a more hardcore player; we can't imagine any pack-in controller would eschew the traditional colored face buttons. The controller has a sort of Pleasantville-esque vibe: it looks like all the color you expect has been stripped from its world. It's a stark, attractive finish, but prepare to feel color-blind.
The one thing we weren't able to do is actually play a game with the new D-pad ... so luckily we were able to borrow this prototype. We'll be making our way around PAX tomorrow and we'll try to sync it up with some of the Xboxes on the show floor to get some proper in-game perspective. In the interim, check out our guided video tour.