What’s the best PC controller you can plug into your gaming rig? You could argue you’ve already got the best combo plumbed into your machine when you’ve got a trusty keyboard and mouse. But, sometimes (and only sometimes) having a specific gaming controller to hand can be quite useful.
Whether it’s a great wired or wireless pad, an official or third-party device, having a well-built, comfortable controller can really make the difference to your game. So it’s important you make the right choice.
We’ve checked out the official Microsoft Xbox One and Elite pads, as well as the excellent Sony DualShock controller. But the likes of Scuf and Razer are all making decent alternatives if you’re looking to peacock with a funky design or just want a host of different buttons at your thumbs’ disposal.
But the biggest gamepad decision is about whether you favour the Xbox’s offset thumbstick design or the symmetrical PlayStation layout. There are die-hard fans in either camp, but for our money the offset design gives you the best balance between control and easy access to the buttons.
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 valuable seconds off your in-game lap times. And may even save your life, as I found out…
The best PC controllers are:
Winner: Best PC controller
Xbox One Wireless
A close race between this and the Sony DS4, but Microsoft's pad just about edges ahead for solid PC compatibility.
- ConnectionWireless/Micro USB
- Power2x AA batteries
The latest wireless Xbox One pad is sublime. For my money it’s the best PC controller you can buy right now. There may 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. That said, the new Microsoft Wireless Adapter is 66% smaller and a lot prettier… whenever that arrives.
Initially there was an issue with input lag on the PC via the Bluetooth connection, 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 has 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 is 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.
The DS4 is a fantastic pad, with hands-down the best analogue sticks in the market. If only those triggers weren't quite so lame...
PC support for the PlayStation’s DualShock 4 pad is growing, both from gamers and from a technological point of view. Valve has updated Steam to allow full configuration of the DS4 in the same way you can mess with the (frankly rubbish, yes it is… yes it is) 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 hands down the best around. If only we could get an Xbox pad with the DS4’s sticks. Time to get modding…
With its own Steam profile Nintendo's Pro controller will happily hook up with the PC. But beware the lack of analogue triggers...
- Buttons 18
The Nintendo Switch Pro has been made specifically for the diminutive console, but has been given its own Steam profile and can be connected to your gaming PC with either a wireless Bluetooth connection or, if you want to get configured in Steam, via a USB-C cable.
And it’s a quality pad too, feeling solid and reassuringly robust in the hand. The Pro controller feels like a proper pad, made by a proper company with a gaming heritage. The thumbsticks feel good and the buttons satisfying. It’s also got an unprecedented 40-hour battery life via Bluetooth too.
Unfortunately it does suffer for being designed for the Switch because it lacks proper analogue triggers, something that’s important for a growing number of games, and is absolutely vital in any arcade racer that isn’t Mario Kart.
Winner: Best high-end PC controller
Xbox One Elite
The money-no-object PC controller of our dreams. It's reassuringly weighty, robust, configurable, and oh-so pleasing to hold.
- ConnectionWireless/Micro USB
- Power2x AA batteries
I mean, yeah, spending this much on a joypad 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. When 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 in love with the triggers. 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 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-being-no-object though, it would be the Elite every time, but it is such a lot of cash.
A decent alternative to the DS4, using the same connectivity, trackpad, and layout, but adding in paddle buttons to the mix.
- ConnectionBluetooth/Micro USB
Scuf Gaming does a whole host of serious gaming controllers, in both Xbox One and Playstation 4 trim. That means it will connect either via the Microsoft wireless dongle or Bluetooth. But you do also get a whole bunch of paddle switches on both the Impact and the Infinity 1 controllers. They’re solid, and require quite a bit of force to actuate, but that means you won’t end up hitting them by accident. And they also come in designer threads too. Shiny.
But they’re also the most expensive pads we’ve checked out so far. The Golden Dragon version especially – and you really are paying over $200 for the privilege of sweating over some fake dragon scales. The fancy colours and the paddles switches are the only things which mark these controllers out from the competition. But if you want to peacock with your pad, then Scuf will have you covered.
Desperately trying to be Razer's Elite-beater the Wolverine just doesn't quite have the same impact as the exceptional Microsoft pad.
The Cult of Razer… from its Texas compound… has obviously taken one look at the Xbox One Elite controller and said, we can do better than that. It can’t. It’s added in some extra microswitched buttons to the Wolverine, some adjustable hair-triggers, dropped in a pair of pseudo paddle switches on the underside of the pad and kept it otherwise very clean. Unlike the
Winner: Best cheap PC controller
Based more around the classic Xbox 360 pad than the Xbox One, the Easy SMX is nevertheless an excellent budget choice for a wireless pad.
- ConnectionWireless 2.4GHz
- Power2x AA batteries
The EasySMX Wireless is proof positive you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a well-built PC gaming controller. Sure, it’s losing some of the finesse of the other, more expensive pads, and is more aping the original Xbox 360 controller than the modern Xbox One version, but it’s got a decent battery life and the wireless connection is solid.
It’s also an absolute bargain, even if the triggers maybe don’t feel quite as accomplised as you might want them to be. But it’s still a solid, reliable controller that doesn’t cost the earth, and you can’t really ask a lot more than that.
Winner: Best PC flightstick
There has been no better flightstick created before or since the Warthog. Modeled on the actual A10's throttle and stick it's the ultimate Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen companion.
- Programmable buttons22
- Hat switches4x 8-way, 2x 4-way
- Z-axis rotationNo
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 right in to the danger zone.
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 real flightstick-y competition.
Winner: Best PC steering wheel
The pinnacle of PC racing perfection. Fanatec's expensive setup delivers incredible feedback fidelity both through the steering wheel and even the pedals.
- Adjustable pedalsYes
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.
A quality second-tier option after the Fanatec, and one that is still able to offer an excellent level of force feedback to aid your racing.
- Adjustable pedalsNo
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 has 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.
So there you have it. Microsoft’s Elite Controller is the very pinnacle of PC controller goodness. But, if you have a little cash to spend the standard Microsoft Xbox One Wireless controller can’t be otherwise beat. With sublime design and well-machined construction raring to go, Microsoft has the best PC controller top two on lock down.
But that doesn’t completely disqualify some of the tough competition. Personal preference can’t be cast aside, and no doubt some of you out there prefer the parallel thumbstick design of the Dualshock 4. We’re also well-aware of a vocal dozen or so gamers who even pick the Steam controller as their weapon of choice.
“It just takes some time to get used to,” or so they say – with misplaced confidence, might I add. They’re obviously wrong and are mostly trying to justify their purchase, and the hours they’ve put into ‘perfecting’ their profiles. Those people are often best avoided…
And for the budget-conscious of you on the lookout for the best cheap PC controller, it doesn’t get much better than the Easy SMX wireless. While it may not have the flashy lights of the Razer peripherals or the functionality of the Elite, you just can’t beat the solid construction and simple plug and play functionality that the Easy SMX offers up for just a little dosh.