Best PC controller

What’s the best PC controller out there? We've covered the classic PC gaming duo with our pick of the best gaming mice and the best gaming keyboards, but if you love a little thumb-play with your PC gaming then we’ve got the absolute best PC controllers for you.

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Blame the consoles. Before they seeped into mainstream consciousness  we were all happy enough with a waggly analogue joystick, a dirty ball-mouse and a beige keyboard. Not so anymore. With the consoles leading game development most cross-platform titles are created with a gamepad as the primary input method in mind (looking at you, nIeR: Altered Tomato) before being retro-fitted to work with the PC’s preferred mouse/keyboard combo.

But just look at how much easier it is to play The Witcher 3 and GTA V with a joypad as opposed to a mouse and keyboard. Everything’s so much more accessible when it’s sat directly underneath your nimble thumbs and adroit digits. There are also certain game types which benefit massively from using a gamepad over mouse and keyboard. The obvious ones are sports games - although FIFA’s innovative mouse support is worth a bash for curiosity's sake it’s the joypad which is likely to make you feel more like Eden Hazard on a good day than Mickey Quinn on, well, any day.

Though I’m obviously not contrary enough to suggest you play an FPS with anything other than a gaming rodent and a mech-switch board. I am still taking my meds.

But there are specific controllers for other game genres too. A flight or space-based sim really demands a quality flightstick, especially one with a separate throttle for those BSG Viper-esque non-Newtonian dogfights. And if you’re a dedicated racer then a steering wheel, with good force-feedback, can shave the seconds off your in-game lap times.

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Best PC controller

Best PC controller - Xbox One Bluetooth

Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller

Connection - Wired/Wireless | Power: 2x AA | Buttons: 17 | Layout: Xbox

Approx. $46 / £42 

The latest wireless Xbox One pad is sublime. For my money it’s the best PC controller you can buy right now. There might be a growing rank of PC gamers lining up behind Sony’s DualShock 4 as the go-to gamepad, but the ever-so-slightly redesigned Xbox One pad’s got it all.

The overall layout has barely changed from the very first Xbox One controllers, but considering how well conceived and solidly-built they were that’s no bad thing. The balance of the pad in the paw is excellent and curved grip’s comfortable and well machined. Where the new pad has been changed, however, shows Microsoft at their canny best.

The introduction of Bluetooth wireless support is arguably the biggest new thing. No more do you have to go and buy the ugly, awkward official wireless adapter when a standard Bluetooth adapter will do the job. Initially there was an issue with input lag on the PC, but that seems to have been fixed. Certainly on my ancient USB Bluetooth dongle I experienced no noticeable difference between Bluetooth, wired USB and the MS wireless adapter.

Microsoft have also ditched the proprietary audio connection from the original controllers, allowing you to jam a standard 3.5mm headphone jack into your gamepad, and added a more textured coating to the back to deliver more grip to your sweat-slicked digits.

Then there’s the fact that because Microsoft are both the Xbox and Windows overlords once you’re connected to your PC everything works seamlessly. With the Sony pad you need extra software and configurations to make like an erstwhile exterminator and eradicate the bugs. The battery life is impressive and because it uses AA batteries it’s easy to swap them in and out during a sesh, or plug in via USB to keep going while you get them recharged.

The Xbox One wireless controller is a beautifully, ergonomically designed piece of peripheral hardware and it’s tough to see how it’s going to be bettered. For now it’s absolutely the best PC controller out there.

Best PC controller runner-up

Best PC controller runner-up - Sony DualShock 4

Sony DualShock 4

Connection - Wired/Wireless | Power: Lith Ion | Buttons: 19 | Layout: Playstation

Approx. $44 / £40

PC support for the Playstation’s DualShock 4 pad is growing, both from gamers and from a technological point of view. Valve have recently updated Steam to allow full configuration of the DS4 in the same way you can mess with the (frankly rubbish) Steam controller. That doesn’t however mean all Steam games will support it equally though.

To get full support across your games you’ll likely need to use InputMapper to get it recognised as an Xbox pad, but that also allows you to use the trackpad as a mouse and turn off the battery-draining LED on the front.

I still prefer the Xbox pad’s offset layout, and those trigger buttons are horrible, but the actual analogue sticks themselves are the best around. If only we could get an Xbox pad with the DS4’s sticks. Time to get modding…

Best PC controller runner-up

Best PC controller runner-up - Speedlink Quinox

Speedlink Quinox

Connection - Wired | Power: USB | Buttons: 23 | Layout: Xbox

Approx. £57

Like the Wildcat below the Quinox pad has taken a lot of its design cues from the excellent Xbox One Elite controller and is aiming to be the most configurable gamepad around without the off-putting price tag.

There are six programmable buttons on the Quinox, four paddles on the underside and two extra bumpers either side of the cable. They can be programmed on-the-fly using the OLED display and jog-switches beneath it. Not only can you switch the buttons around you can also record macros too, with a pair of easily accessible profiles for standard button configurations and two more for the macros.

It’s not as beautifully finished as the Elite or the Wildcat, nor are the triggers anywhere near as silky smooth to use, but it’s considerably cheaper yet still retains much of the functionality. As yet the Quinox hasn't found its way Stateside yet, but Speedlink products do generally appear on Amazon and Newegg eventually.

Best PC controller runner-up

Best PC controller runner-up - Nvidia Shield Controller 2017

Nvidia Shield Controller (2017)

Connection - Wired/Wireless | Power: Lith Ion | Buttons: 17 | Layout: PS/Xbox

Approx. $60 / £60 

Okay, it’s not the most beautiful pad around, but it’s a massive improvement over the first, bloated Shield controller. It’s also impressively responsive over the Bluetooth wireless connection too and integrates brilliantly with Steam’s Big Picture Mode (as does the generally superior DS4 pad).

It’s not as comfortable to hold as either the Sony or Microsoft offerings, but despite the odd angular looks it doesn’t ever feel actually unpleasant. The bigger issue though is that at $60 (£60) it is a hell of a lot of money when the better controllers are pretty significantly cheaper. 

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Best high-end PC controller

Best high-end PC controller - Xbox One Elite

Microsoft Xbox One Elite 

Connection - Wired/Wireless | Power: 2x AA | Buttons: 21 | Layout: Xbox

Approx. $139 / £113 

I mean yeah, spending over $100 on a controller might seem pretty crazy but the Elite is one seriously beautiful controller. Almost everything about it has been designed to just scream ‘QUALITY!’ in your face like some peripheral Aphex Twin Come to Daddy nightmare. 

The moment you lift it from its solid carry case cradle you can immediately feel the weight of technology in your hands. It’s heavy, but not so much that it becomes uncomfortable to hold over a long play session. It’s not just its general heft that makes it a pleasure to hold either, the non-slip coating has a smooth tactile feel and the buttons and d-pad feel reassuringly solid too. 

I’m also a little in love with the triggers too. The adjustable sensitivity is a neat touch, allowing you to set each individually as a hair-trigger, where the travel is reduced only to the initial actuation point, or you can leave the full analogue travel in place. When you’re switching between a shooter or a racer that can be incredibly useful. As can the extra four paddle switches on the reverse. The paddles are magnetically attached - meaning it’s easy to swap them out when you don’t need them - and can be configured to replace any of the other buttons on the controller. 

They’re not the only magnetic parts of the Elite either. There are two different d-pads and three sets of thumbsticks you can switch around in an instant. The magnetic attachment is seriously sticky and there’s never a feeling they’re too loose. 

Where I have a slight issue with the Elite is over those thumbsticks. They’re still not as good as the DS4’s analogue sticks and on a couple of samples I've tested are even a touch more waggly than the more-rigid standard Xbox One pad. I would prefer they were stiffer, but that still never affects their responsiveness in-game.

It’s beautifully built, impressively responsive and ultra versatile too. But I’m still not 100% sure that it’s worth that hefty a price premium over the standard Xbox One controller, which is why the Elite isn’t down as our absolute, must-have, best PC controller in this test. Money-no-object though it would be the Elite every time, but it is such a lot of cash.

 

Best high-end PC controller runner-up

Best high-end PC controller - Razer Wildcat

Razer Wildcat

Connection - Wired | Power: USB | Buttons: 21 | Layout: Xbox

Approx. $92 / £75 

The Wildcat is Razer’s response to the brilliant Xbox One Elite, but just falls short of the quality of the Microsoft pad. It has extra configurable buttons on the underside of the controller and around the detachable USB cable, with two profiles allowing you to switch and configure on-the-fly. It also has adjustable triggers, with variable travel and actuation points.

Where it goes a little further is in the additional audio controls which let you adjust voice comms and master volume from the pad when you’ve got a headset plumbed directly into it. Sadly it’s a resolutely wired controller which does negate some of the benefits of routing your headphones through your pad. I also think the ultra-low travel A,B,X,Y buttons are a little too quickfire - I found myself hesitating, unsure whether it had registered my click as there’s little tactile response.

And then there are the optional Razer green rubber grips, which you’re never, ever going to be able to fit properly however grippy the bumpy ping-pong paddle rubber is.

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Best budget PC controller

Best budget PC controller - Speedlink Torid

Speedlink Torid

Connection - Wireless | Power: Lithium Polymer| Buttons: 17 | Layout: Xbox

Approx. $30 / £22 

I really don’t know what the Speedlink marketing department was doing when they came up with the name ‘Torid’ for their controller, I can only assume it was a half-day. But that doesn’t change the fact that this Xbox 360-esque wireless controller is still a surprisingly good pad. 

With a 2.4GHz wireless connection it runs cable-free straight away without needing either the supplementary Bluetooth connection the Xbox or DualShock pads need, or the official wireless dongle necessary to set the Elite controller free. Bizarrely though the Torid has to run wirelessly - if you run the battery dry you can only charge from the USB cable not run input data across the connection.

The Torid isn’t as well-built or finished as either the official Microsoft or Sony controllers, and feels rather lightweight too. You can also feel the difference in quality in the analogue sticks and triggers, but considering the price you’re getting a whole lot of pad for a pretty minimal outlay.

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Best PC flightstick

Best PC flightstick - Thrustmaster Warthog

Thrustmaster Warthog

HOTAS: Yes | Programmable buttons: 22 | Hats: 4x 8-way, 2x 4-way | Z-axis - No

Approx. $444 / £333 

Thrustmaster’s Warthog flightstick is a replica of the controllers in the classic A-10 Tankbuster, seemingly hewn from the same military-grade materials, and probably only slightly cheaper than a second-hand plane. Yes, the Warthog is frighteningly expensive, but if you’re already looking to pick up a dedicated flight-sim joystick then you’ve probably got pretty niche tastes - and this is the best way to satisfy them.

The HOTAS acronym stands for 'hands-on throttle and stick' and means there’s discrete controls for each that ensure you never have to remove your hands from either during combat. Both throttle and stick are festooned with buttons, triggers and hat-switches as well as the most satisfying flick-switches ever mounted on a PC peripheral. For the serious flight/space-sim aficionado those extra buttons will come in handy - the multi-positional switches almost seem purpose built for Elite: Dangerous

And I’ll give up my heavily upgraded Cobra Mk III if you can name me another, weightier controller (without checking out the Fanatec steering wheel below). The throttle alone weighs about the same as my car and you could easily kill a man with the stick.

But forget about the weight and the myriad buttons and switches, the action on the throttle and stick are almost worth the sticker price alone. The stick feels sublime, with just enough resistance to make tight docking manoeuvres easy and with enough travel to give you an edge in a dogfight. The split throttle is immensely satisfying to use too - it also has an impressively long travel, giving you both fine grain control over your speed and the ability to do the whole Maverick ‘feel the need for speed’ thing as you push it to the limit.

The Warthog has been around for a while now, but I’ve still seen no other flightstick come close to the feeling I get when using it. It’s a lot of money, but still manages to feel worth it when you’re hurtling through an asteroid belt, flipping on a pirate and reducing their ship to tiny bits of melty scrap. That said I’m still keen to see what Logitech does with the Saitek brand in the future, then we could see some competition.

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Best PC steering wheel

Best PC steering wheel - Fanatec Clubsport

Fanatec Clubsport

Rotation: 900° | Pedals: 3 | Buttons: 17 | Adjustable pedals: Yes

Approx. $1,300 / £1,280 

Sooo, yeah... the Fanatec Clubsport setup is the price of a powerful gaming PC, but it is also the stuff of gaming peripheral dreams. NSFW dreams. I mean, this is serious tech pr0n stuff right here and it’s all down to just how beautifully designed, created and finished the Clubsport kit is.

If you don’t go for one of the pre-configured bundles you’ll have to create your own, picking and choosing from a very long list of goodies. The main wheel base is the same across the board, but then you can fit different steering wheels, gearshifts and pedals to the mix. And they’re all built out of solid lumps of metal and precision engineered components. The tactile sensation you get from using them in-game is second to none. The wheelbase is called “a masterpiece of Germaneering,” on the Fanatec site and they even claim to have a registered trademark on their own little Teutonic portmanteau there, but I’ll forgive them that because the action on this thing is glorious.

It has a full 900° rotation, giving you a huge amount of travel between opposite locks and a super smooth transition between them. Well, depending on the force feedback that is. The Fanatec system has hands-down the best force feedback system I’ve ever used, even down to feedback from the pedals too. Racing around in Project CARS I began to really understand my cars and the tracks I was hurtling around, even down to knowing exactly where the potholes were and the traction limits of my chosen tyres.

I would question why anyone at all would even consider plugging this stunning bit of hyper-expensive kit into an Xbox One, but for the well-off racing nut the Fanatec Clubsport system has me running out of superlatives. 

Best PC steering wheel runner-up

Best PC steering wheel runner-up - Thrustmaster T300RS

Thrustmaster T300RS

Rotation: 1080° | Pedals: 2 | Buttons: 15 | Adjustable pedals: Yes

Approx. £384 / £245 

When it comes to the more realistically-priced racing wheels it’s a toss-up between Thrustmaster and Logitech. The T300RS isn’t Thrustmaster’s most expensive option, but it is still a fantastic wheel nonetheless. It might not have the faux-luxury, faux-leather of the G920 or G29 Logitech setups, but in terms of its force feedback Thrustmaster have just about got them pegged. I do prefer the pedals of Logitech, but it’s the racing feel you want from a good wheel and that’s why the T300RS crosses the finish line just ahead of them.

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How to buy a PC controller

How to buy a PC controller

The best PC controller should mix functionality with excellent build quality and a price that doesn’t make your wallet shrivel up in fear. We used to have to deal with poorly-made, ergonomically weak gamepads that barely worked across the breadth of games available on the PC. That meant the mouse/keyboard combo was the go-to control method for most gamers with a few flightsticks thrown in for the sim/X-Wing crowd.

Since Microsoft started making their excellent Xbox controllers PC-compliant and people have hacked the PlayStation’s DualShock pads to work on their gaming rigs, things have changed. Now there are a host of quality joypads, whether wired, wireless, Xbox-aping or PlayStation pastiching.

Accuracy vs. analogue

Sony DualShock 4 analogue stick

Why would you use a gamepad on a PC when the mouse/keyboard combo delivers the most accurate, sensitive control method around? That’s certainly true when you’re talking about first person shooter - the mouse will deliver a headshot far more readily than a waggly thumbstick - but different genres require different things. There’s also the fact that while the mouse is supremely accurate the keyboard is not.

Movement in games is usually governed by the WSAD keys which means for a stealth or driving game you can’t adjust how slowly you can move around or how aggressively you’re steering. An analogue stick can give you all that under your thumb. And with analogue triggers in most controllers the same is true for acceleration and braking.

Wired or wireless

Xbox wireless adapter 

This might be the biggest question to answer before making your choice on controller. If you’re happy enough trailing a USB wire across your desk/bedroom/living room floor then a wired controller is likely to be the cheaper option, but if you were worried about input lag wireless controllers these days feel little different to their cabled counterparts.

They do mostly need more than just the pad though. The Xbox One controllers (and the older 360 ones) require a separate proprietary Microsoft-made dongle to give you wireless connectivity. The Xbox One adapter is rather frustrating, requiring regular plug/unplug action to get it to register and adds a fair chunk of cash onto the ticket price of a compatible pad.

You can still get 2.4GHz wireless controllers, using the same sort of connection as a wireless mouse, but Bluetooth is becoming more widespread now too. The impressive Sony DualShock 4 pad uses Bluetooth and Microsoft have finally caught up and released a compatible wireless Xbox One pad too. The benefit is that you can also wire audio through the Bluetooth connection which you haven’t really been able to do via the traditional wireless setups. Though you are still going to need either built-in Bluetooth compatibility (a rarity in desktop motherboards) or a discrete USB dongle.

Layout

Xbox controller layout

There are essentially two different kinds of controller layout: Xbox or PlayStation. The PlayStation pads were the first widely copied design and so fathered most of the first PC gamepads - that means you get symmetrical analogue sticks and symbols on the main buttons. Then Microsoft introduced the offset stick design for their pads, and A,B,X,Y as their main buttons.

Which is best for you though is entirely down to your personal preference. Me, I prefer the offset thumbsticks for the simple reason that it stops my fat thumbs from bumping into each other on either stick or button.

But since Windows is a Microsoft platform games often assume that whatever controller you have installed is an Xbox-style pad and therefore will display on-screen help relating to that layout rather than offering an alternative PlayStation one. And that can get quite confusing if you’re not familiar with the Microsoft design.


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