The best PC controller for gaming rig isn't always obvious. You could argue you've already got the best combo plumbed into your machine with your 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…
Microsoft announced an updated Elite controller during its E3 2019 conference: the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2. The biggest change with the new model is the inclusion of a rechargeable battery, a saving grace for all of you out there who, like me, refuse to buy single-use batteries in 2019. The Series 2 is set for a November 4 launch.
The best PC controllers are:
Winner: Best PC controller
Xbox One pad specs
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
Great offset layout
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. 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.
Sony DS4 specs
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...
Analogue stick supremacy
Pricier than Xbox
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.
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…
Switch Pro specs
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
Fantastic battery life
USB-C and Bluetooth
Lacks analogue triggers
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 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 specs
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
All the paddles
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.
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. And while you’re here, it’s worth noting that the new and improved Elite controller, the Series 2, is set to launch November 4, which could be worth the wait.
A solid wired/wireless controller that's a worthy runner-up to the excellent Xbox Elite pad.
- PowerLi-Polymer 1300mAh
Great build quality
Many companies have tried to match the quality of Microsoft’s Xbox One Elite controller, but very few have managed to nail its mix of serious build quality and ultra customisation. But Nacon’s pad succeeds in both and also manages to mix both the excellent PlayStation thumbsticks and touchpad with the Xbox asymmetrical layout.
The only issue is the software. It refuses to connect unless you’re wired in and some of it’s wordless iconry is borderline impenetrable. But there are a whole host of customisation options buried in there if you really want to go deep.
Read our full Nacon Revolution Unlimited review.
Scuf Impact specs
A decent alternative to the DS4, using the same connectivity, trackpad, and layout, but adding in paddle buttons to the mix.
- ConnectionBluetooth/Micro USB
Best of Xbox and PlayStation
Not quite on par with the Elite
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.
Wolverine TE specs
Desperately trying to be Razer's Elite-beater the Wolverine just doesn't quite have the same impact as the exceptional Microsoft pad.
Clicky as heck
Plenty of added functionality
Not quite on par with the Elite
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. It’s a fantastic pad, but can’t quite hold a candle to the Elite.
Winner: Best cheap PC controller
Easy SMX specs
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
Triggers feel cheap
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
Satisfying clicky switches
Chunky (it’s a good thing)
Fantastic throttle action
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 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
Incredible force feedback
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 Fanatec system has hands-down the best force feedback system I’ve ever used, even down to feedback from the pedals, too. 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
Less than the cost of a car
Solid force feedback
Logitech offer great alternatives
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.
Immersive setup: Grab the best gaming monitor
“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.