Thursday, September 29, 2022

Why PS5 Controller Joysticks Drift And How To Fix It

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By Peter Cao/Sept. 11, 2022 9:45 pm EDT

Unfortunately, joystick drift is a common occurrence among all of the major gaming console makers — for example, Nintendo is notorious for joystick drift with its line of Switch controllers. While it’s an inevitable problem that impacts both Sony and Nintendo, there are do-it-yourself (DIY) fixes you could try that will hopefully solve the issue if you experience it. Unfortunately, there’s no concrete way to tell ahead of time whether your controller will eventually develop drift problems, but there are steps you can take to try and prevent it.

The issue with joystick drift is that it’s not guaranteed to affect any given controller and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to it. Some controllers will develop drift issues within the first year of ownership, and other controllers will never run into the issue. Drift is most commonly a hardware problem, but sometimes it’s the result of a firmware bug that may be solved by updating your controller. It’s possible that the issue may be entirely eliminated by future controller design refinements, but until that fabled day arrives, Sony’s solution may be very similar to that of Nintendo: continue replacing faulty controllers until the next generation DualSense comes out.

Why does controller joystick drift happen?

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A big reason joystick drift is a thing is that current controller designs allow dirt, grime, and dust to get into the tiny space that connects the joystick and the controller. The joysticks on the DualSense have a small gap to allow for smooth motion and that gap is large enough that smaller dust particles can get into the joystick assembly. If dust, crumbs, or something similar gets in the sensor component called the potentiometer, it could cause the controller to register stick movement when none is taking place.

Unfortunately, this means there really isn’t a guaranteed way to prevent the issue short of never using the joysticks on your controller. Though most people think debris is the most common cause of drift, that’s not necessarily the case. iFixit investigated the phenomenon and found that the vast majority of drift issues originate from mechanical problems like wear and tear, which naturally happens over time when the controller is used. The team also detailed a potential permanent fix for the issue, giving gamers hope for a less frustrating future.

This is similar to an issue that plagued Apple’s butterfly keyboard design. The gap, though small, was large enough that dust particles could get wedged between the keys, causing some either to become stuck or to register a double press even if the user only pressed the keys once. The two issues are more or less one and the same — though, in the case of the DualSense controller, instead of involving keys getting stuck or double pressing, you have to deal with phantom joystick movements.

How to fix joystick drift on your PS5 controller

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The easiest way to (hopefully) avoid drift caused by a dirty potentiometer is to make sure your controller is in a place that’s free of dust and other fine particles like crumbs that may result from nearby snacks. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s the least hassle (and, more importantly, free) way of making sure you reduce your odds. When it comes to drifting caused by wear and tear or potentiometer damage, you can attempt to prevent it — or, at least, delay its onset — by being a bit less aggressive while gaming. We know it’s tempting to push your joysticks aggressively, but that also leads to them getting worn out faster than usual (via iFixit). 

If you don’t want to deal with Sony’s warranty process, the last thing you can do is try cleaning the joystick housing. Grab a dry lint-free cloth and start wiping around the joystick’s joints. Avoid using water, cleaning solution, or rubbing alcohol, as those can damage your controller. Alternatively, if you have a can of compressed air handy, you can spray it around the lip that sits between the joystick and controller to see if you can dislodge any trapped debris.

If all else fails, you may need to contact Sony for replacement. If you call the company, a customer service representative will give you directions on how to send your controller in for evaluation. Be prepared to wait about a week for a replacement to arrive, assuming Sony sends you one.

It may not be a hardware problem after all

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If you’re still having issues after trying to clean the joystick housing, the issue may be related to the controller’s firmware, especially if you often skip the update when prompted. Usually, your PS5 will ask if you want to install a controller firmware update when one is available and it gives you an option to ask again in 24 hours. You can select to update the controller directly from this screen, but if you ignored that prompt as well, here’s what you’ll need to do:

Head to Settings> Accessories> Controllers and select Wireless Controller Device Software.
Connect your DualSense controller via a USB-C cable to your PlayStation 5.
Your PS5 should now prompt you to update the firmware on your controller. Wait for your update to complete.

Note that you’ll need to have a USB-C cable handy as firmware updates require you to plug your controller into the console. Installing updates takes only a few minutes, and once you’re done, you can unplug the controller and use it wirelessly as you normally would. Alternatively, as outlined by Sony in a support document, you can plug your controller into your Windows PC and update it manually.

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