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The best controllers for PC gaming

If you plan to ditch your mouse and keyboard, the next natural step in PC gaming is picking out your controller. Unfortunately, finding the right controller for PC gameplay isn’t always so easy. 

A high-quality PC controller can make all the difference in the world. We’ve tested a wide variety of options out for you.

Further reading

Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 – The best PC controller

xbox elite series 2

The Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 is everything players could want in a PC gaming controller, with tremendous build quality and customization options to make it exactly what they need for games of all genres. A revised version of the earlier Xbox Elite Controller, the Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 features removable analog sticks with adjustable tension, a removable directional pad that can be replaced with a circular design, hair trigger stops, and four back paddles that can be programmed to perform any button’s function.

Aside from the customization options letting players tailor the controller to fit their specific needs, it feels wonderful. The analog sticks’ three levels of tension all feel distinct enough to serve different players, and the shoulder buttons have a sturdier feel than the ones on the standard Xbox One controller. Still, the biggest upgrade is the directional pad, which provides the perfect amount of clickiness without being difficult to press, so there is little guesswork when performing big combo attacks in fighting games.

Even the case the controller comes in is impressive. It contains slots for all accessories, which include four additional analog sticks, an extra directional pad, and the stick adjustment key, as well as a charging cradle so that players can charge the controller without even removing it from the case. It’s certainly pricey, but it will be tough to go back to using anything else after spending time with the Xbox Elite Controller Series 2.

8BitDo SN30 Pro+ – The best controller for retro gaming

8bitdo sn30 pro

A great option across everything from PC to Nintendo Switch and even Android, the 8BitDo SN30 Pro+ is the perfect controller for retro-minded players who don’t want to lose out on the functionality of modern gamepads. Its design is based on the Super Nintendo’s controller, with the same face button and directional pad setup, but it includes two handles to make it more comfortable for adults during long play sessions.

Connected via Bluetooth or USB-C, the SN30 Pro+ is playable as a wireless or wired controller on PC, and 8BitDo’s Ultimate customization software lets players change button assignments, stick precision, trigger range, and vibration, and they can even assign complicated button macros to one button for less frustrating gameplay.

Like some of 8BitDo’s other controllers, the SN30 Pro+ includes a turbo function, and it’s easy to map it to the player’s button of choice on the fly. This makes it ideal for switching between PC games with different control schemes, keeping players in the game and out of the controller’s customization software.

Despite the retro aesthetic, the analog sticks and shoulder buttons on the SN30 Pro+ are also more than capable of handling modern shooters or action games. It can definitely serve as a PC player’s sole controller, and at only $50, it’s not going to break the bank.

Xbox One Wireless Controller – The versatile choice

xbox one controller

One of the most common controllers used for PC gaming today, the Xbox One standard controller is proof that refining a design can be better than radical change. Sporting a similar form factor to the Xbox 360 controller but with more ergonomic angles and a much better directional pad, the Xbox One standard controller works well across nearly every PC game, including first-person shooters for those who don’t want to use a mouse and keyboard.

The Xbox One standard controller supports wireless play through Bluetooth on newer models, and it can switch to wired play by attaching a Micro USB cable. It’s easy to set up in Steam, as there is already a preset configuration in the software, and it runs on AA batteries without eating through them at a ridiculous rate. Should players prefer a rechargeable option, there is also a Play and Charge Kit, and it supports rechargeable AA batteries.

Perhaps the only major downside to the Xbox One controller is that it’s fairly easy for grime to build up. The concave sticks have a habit of collecting dirt around their inner edges, as do the seams on the controller’s shell. It’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things but can make it a little unsightly after a longer play session.

SteelSeries Stratus Duo – The thrifty choice

An inexpensive controller that has a remarkably different feel than competitors like the Xbox One controller or DualShock 4, the SteelSeries Stratus Duo is a jack of all trades gamepad that can serve as a primary controller for nearly every genre. It functions across Windows, Android, and certain VR devices. On PC, setting it up is as simple as plugging in the included USB dongle and turning it on via a switch on top. From there, it’s recognized like any other controller and also functions in Blizzard’s Battle.net service.

The analog sticks on the Stratus Duo are a little deeper than other controllers we tested, which gives players great grip when playing intense games, and the triggers and shoulder buttons feel similar to the excellent Switch Pro Controller. Though it uses a one-piece design and is a tad chunky, the directional pad is also responsive and easy to use.

The Stratus Duo is fairly light, partially because it lacks a rumble function. This cuts down on price and can be nice for competitive gaming. It also helps extend the charge to around 20 hours. However, players who will be playing first-person shooters may need the haptic feedback that more expensive options offer.

Retro-Bit SEGA Genesis 8-button Arcade Pad – The fighter’s friend

For players who prefer to play retro games and 2D platformers on PC, the Retro-Bit SEGA Genesis 8-button Arcade Pad is the perfect option. The controller was designed to emulate the look and feel of Sega’s classic Genesis controller, and its directional pad and face buttons should feel nearly perfect to those who used the original. It also includes two shoulder buttons, which allows it to be used with slightly more complex or modern games.

The Retro-Bit SEGA Genesis 8-button Arcade Pad ditches the classic connector in favor of standard USB, allowing it to function in everything from PC to the Genesis Mini and even Nintendo Switch. It also has a 10-foot cord, which is far longer than most wired controllers and means it will work if playing PC games on a television through Big Picture mode. The cord is thick and sturdy and should be able to take any punishment from shoes or pets.

It lacks the frills of some of the other controllers on this list, but at around $20 per controller, it’s tough to beat the value offered with the 8-button Arcade Pad. It can even function with RetroPie software if players want to build an emulation machine or run the software on their current PC.

Xbox 360 standard controller – The old standby

123RF/Sebastien Coell

One of the cheapest options on this list, the Xbox 360 standard controller isn’t perfect, but it’s a great choice if players need multiple controllers for local cooperative play. With a curved design and excellent triggers, analog sticks, face buttons, and bumpers, it’s a solid option across most genres, with the notable exception of fighting games that use the directional pad – the Xbox One fixed the 360’s directional pad, which is squishy and imprecise.

That is pretty much the only issue with the Xbox 360 controller, though. It’s comfortable for long play sessions and the asymmetrical sticks feel ideal for shooters and action games. After several years, the analog sticks can start to experience drift, but they’re so inexpensive at this point that it’s a very small concession. It’s even worth buying a few extras as backups.

Adapters are available for the wireless version of this controller, but it is much easier to get running on PC with the wired version. It should automatically begin installing drivers after plugging the controller into your PC. The wired controller also features a special inline release that prevents it from bringing down a PC if someone trips over it, making it a great option for houses with pets or smaller kids.

DualShock 4 controller – The jack of all trades

Sony

Another controller supported by nearly every game on Steam, the PlayStation 4’s standard DualShock 4 controller is a versatile controller that works well across nearly every genre, including fighting, first-person shooters, platforming, and action. It uses a symmetrical design, which sets it apart from Microsoft and Nintendo controllers, and there really isn’t a right answer on which is better — whatever is most comfortable is what players should use.

Compared to the DualShock 3, the newer DualShock 4 has a more concave design on its analog sticks and more traditional triggers. This helps to keep fingers from slipping, and its split directional pad is one of the best available at its price point. It’s recommended that covers be placed over the analog sticks to avoid tearing the rubber, but it’s otherwise constructed very well and can easily last for several years.

The only major downside compared to alternatives is the DualShock 4’s internal battery. It simply doesn’t hold a charge for very long, so having a spare controller resting in a charging dock can help to avoid downtime. It also supports wired play, which might be a preferable option if the monitor or television isn’t too far away from the PC.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller – The surprise

Using a Nintendo controller on a PC? Doing so would typically get players strange looks and jeers, but the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is designed similarly to the Xbox One and PS4 controllers. It features excellent face buttons and analog sticks, as well as four digital shoulder buttons instead of the traditional two shoulder buttons and two triggers. This makes it a little less useful for shooters, but great for complex fighting games with very long move combinations.

Because Steam officially supports the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, players can choose to enable Nintendo Switch button configuration for PC games, swapping the X to Y and A to B. This can also be disabled if it ends up being too confusing. A powerful internal battery can keep a charge for long marathon sessions, and it uses USB-C for charging if players don’t have a separate dock.

The Nintendo Switch Pro Controller’s directional pad is excellent, with a firm click that makes it ideal for platformers. It’s not cheap at around $70, but it’s a great alternative to the Xbox and PS4 controllers most PC players choose. It’s also very easy to reconnect to a Nintendo Switch if players want to continue using it for the console, as well.

Razer Wolverine Tournament Edition – The curious case of PC-like buttons

One of the strangest controllers available on PC – or any other console – is the Razer Wolverine Tournament Edition, which feels like it was made for PC players who are more familiar with mouse and keyboard gameplay than controllers. The face buttons click like a mouse, offering a distinct sound Digital Trends has never encountered in a controller before. It takes some adjustment, but it feels less odd after using it for just a few minutes.

Much like the Xbox Elite Controller, the Razer Wolverine Tournament Edition is highly customizable, with proprietary software that lets players reassign nearly every action, including mapping special buttons on the back to any other button’s function. It features fully-adjustable analog stick sensitivity through the software, which can be changed to different sensitivities on the two sticks.

Razer didn’t stop with functional customization, however. It also included an RGB strip on the top of the controller that can feature more than 16,000 different colors and a variety of movement patterns. One of these automatically activates when any button is clicked, giving it more character than any other controller on this list.

The only major drawback to the Razer Wolverine Tournament Edition is that it is only available in a wired configuration. For PC, this isn’t a big deal, but those who also play games on Xbox One will need to make sure they’re relatively close to their console.

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