During the last decade, the Xbox 360 controller became the de facto controller for more or less any third-person action game or racing title on the PC, especially ones that were adapted from a console game. Lately, however, PC gamers have far more options. In addition to the aforementioned Xbox 360 controller and the updated Xbox One controller, there’s the PlayStation 4’s Bluetooth-powered DualShock 4. Valve has even thrown its hat into the ring with an innovative controller of its own, dubbed the Steam Controller.
But which one should you choose? All things being equal, Xbox controllers tend to be plug-and-play, so they remain the best option for those who want to avoid headaches. The Steam Controller’s extensive customization options and the DualShock 4’s ergonomics, however, offer plenty to recommend. Let’s break it down.
Making the connection
The Xbox 360 controller comes in an inexpensive wired model, but the wireless version with its USB adapter is the clear favorite among players. Its dongle is discontinued, unfortunately, but you can find it for re-sell online. It can connect up to four controllers at once.
The 2016 version of the Xbox One controller, on the other hand, includes both the standard “Xbox Wireless” connection (which requires the Microsoft Xbox Wireless dongle) and a Bluetooth radio. That makes it handy for laptops and mobile devices. At the moment, the Bluetooth-enhanced version of the controller only allows one controller to be connected at a time.
Note that the dongles for the 360 and the One are not cross-compatible. So you need the 360 version for 360 controllers, and the One version for One controllers.
The Steam controller is similar, and indeed probably inspired, by the Xbox 360 wireless pad in that a single USB dongle can be connected to up to four pads. The dongle comes with the controller.
The DualShock 4 uses Bluetooth, so it requires either a built-in Bluetooth radio — which is included in most laptops — or a dedicated adapter, which is sold separately and supports multiple devices. The advantage is that the DualShock 4 can connect to Sony-branded mobile devices, and others with some extra work. You can connect multiple controllers, but you may have mixed results. It seems the controllers can often overwhelm the Bluetooth connection, causing lag or drop-outs. Expect to use two reliably, at most.
Ease of setup
Because they’re made and supported by Microsoft, the Xbox controllers are basically plug-and-play. Once connected to your computer and powered on, they become the default controller for any game that uses the appropriate APIs. Though Windows 7 and earlier releases also require a driver and manager program, Windows 8 and 10 feature built-in drivers.
The Steam Controller can also work in a plug-and-play capacity, but customizing any of the controls or the more sensitive touch inputs requires Steam. Anyone who’s likely to buy the Steam Controller probably already has it installed. Most games with Xbox controls will work with it out of the box, too, but any fine tuning will require use of the Steam Big Picture Mode (see below).
The DualShock 4 is the less user-friendly option. In addition to requiring a Bluetooth connection, the controller has no official drivers for Windows. Setting up a DualShock 4 isn’t exactly difficult, however, thanks to the work of a few aftermarket developers. DS4Windows includes both a driver package and a manager app, for instance, and allows users to customize control layouts and set game profiles.