The mouse and keyboard will always be our first choice for playing games on PC. But some games are better suited to a controller, and as more and more console games make their way to the PC, it makes sense to have the right controller on-hand. But what controller works best on the PC? We've tested the DualShock 4, Xbox 360 controller, every official version of the Xbox One controller, and a few dedicated PC pads to pick our favorite. These are the best gamepads for PC, chosen for comfort, control, and how compatible they are with PC gaming.
Primary testing by Tyler Wilde, with additions by Wes Fenlon and James Davenport.
The best controller for PC
Triggers and bumpers have a more tactile feel than Xbox controllers
Great analog trigger feel
Some users report damaged analog sticks after prolonged use
Requires unofficial software tool to work on PC
It isn't intended for use on the PC, but the DualShock 4 is my favorite controller anyway. I've used each of its predecessors, the two current Logitech controllers, the Mad Catz C.T.R.L.R., the Razer Sabertooth, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers, and just about every console controller from the NES to present day. The DualShock 4 isn't superior in every way to every one of these competitors, but it's the superior all-around choice.
It doesn't look as durable as the Xbox One controller, but it's durable. When I squeeze the handles with as much force as I can, I can barely hear the strain. I also pushed each of the buttons, triggers, bumpers, and analog sticks down with as much force as I could, and each sprang back as if untouched. Long term, I've heard reports of damaged rubber on the analog sticks and sticking triggers. The former can be fixed with GelTabs, and while the latter sounds bad, the only trigger wear I've personally experienced is a slight creaking after a lot of use. They still feel springy, and I've never had one stick.
The flat, matte face buttons, though not as pronounced as the Xbox 360's bulbous, glossy things, are easy to feel my way around. They feel firm and clicky, but their shape puts very little pressure on my thumb, which I appreciate. I find that extended sessions with the Xbox 360 controller's harder buttons are more likely to give me those calloused gamer-thumbs.
Unlike the 360's triggers, which better take after their name by being long and skinny, the DS4's triggers are short and fat. I haven't found that the design makes any difference to me when I play—both are equally easy to reach and pull. What I do prefer about the DS4's triggers is that completely pressing them down brings them to a clear halt with a click, while the Xbox 360's triggers softly recede into the housing. The same goes for the Xbox One triggers. It doesn't really affect their functionality, but it's a better tactile experience.
The DS4's bumpers also beat the 360 controller in that respect with a clear, firm action. The Xbox One bumpers are better, but I find that their placement requires me to hit them with the edge of my index fingers, which is slightly awkward, and they come down with a meek click to the outer side. The DS4 bumpers are much smaller, but move straight up and down with a more intuitive action.
The Xbox 360's wobbly circle is a functional but mediocre d-pad, and an immediate deduction. The Xbox One's d-pad is a great improvement—a clicky cross that responds well to rapid direction changes—but the DS4's is just as good with the only caveat being that I don't like how soft it is. There's very little feedback, but in practice, I've found that I don't need it. It's accurate, and when muscle memory took over I had no trouble spamming Cannon Spikes in USFIV.
After some getting used to, the DS4 is a nice fit for my hands, and I much prefer it to the smaller (and all-around awful) DS3. The triggers don't quite land on the pads of my index fingers, which I find slightly uncomfortable, but I hardly notice once I'm playing. The Share and Options buttons (Select and Start) are awkwardly placed and recede into the body a little too much, but those are the least important buttons, so that's barely a demerit.
This is a point of much debate, but I find the DS4's analog sticks to be slightly better than the Xbox One's. They're a little larger, which I like, and they have more resistance and spring back to center with more force. I only wish they were offset, as I don't find their close proximity to each other comfortable. I've found, though, that this comes down to personal preference, so it's hard to call it a design flaw.
Drivers and software
The biggest caveat, which doubles as a positive, is that the DS4 is not designed with Windows PCs in mind. Whereas it's very easy to get an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller working, and most PC games will use their ABYX button prompts, there won't be any official drivers for the DS4 until Sony releases the recently announced wireless USB adapter, due in September. In the meantime, the unofficial DS4Windows is excellent. The software essentially tricks Windows into treating the DS4 like an Xbox 360 controller, so just about any game which supports an Xbox 360 controller (basically any game with controller support) should work with the default profile. It also allows for a ton of customization (I love messing with the LED settings).
I had to fiddle with the Bluetooth pairing for about 15 minutes before it worked, but once it worked I had no issues. DS4Windows did its job perfectly, and even let me use the controller's central trackpad as a mouse. (Not a very good mouse, but still, it's cool.) If you're willing to do a little bit of setup work, the DS4 is a fantastic wireless PC controller with all the customization you could want. Yes, it's a console controller, but controllers are the domain of consoles, after all, and taking the DS4 for ourselves despite its lack of official support just feels like a very PC gaming thing to do, doesn't it?
The DualShock 4 is my favorite controller, but the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers are still excellent choices. I've had an Xbox 360 controller since 2006 which, aside from desperately needing a cleaning, still works great. The slightly-smaller Xbox One controller feels just as well-made, and has an improved d-pad. Both have official drivers (Xbox 360 and Xbox One) and have required no troubleshooting—most PC games which support controllers are made with these controllers in mind.
And even though the DS4 is my overall winner, I'll probably still use an Xbox 360 controller often simply because I prefer the analog stick layout. I also prefer its triggers and bumpers to the Xbox One's.
The best thing about a wired 360 controller is that it's dead simple to use. Most PC games have button prompts based on the Xbox controller and immediately autodetect that the controller is plugged in. With DS4Windows, the DualShock 4 works just as well as the Xbox controllers, but it does require a bit more setup.
The Xbox One controller with a micro USB cable (there is no wireless option) is the most expensive of the first-party console controllers. If you're not especially concerned with the d-pad (and the 360's is workable, if not great), I'd recommend saving some money and going with a wireless Xbox 360 controller.
Triple the price of a normal gamepad for the same basic shape and feel
The ‘Elite’ nomenclature is typically marketing nonsense, but in this one instance, I think it applies. For those who like their PCs state of the art, clean, and beautiful; for those with Swedish headphones made of volcanic glass; for those who make their PB&J from scratch, the Xbox Elite controller is for you.
It’s a sturdy, configurable, and gorgeous controller for enthusiasts of fancy. The shell and button layout don’t feel distinct from the vanilla Xbox One controllers, though it feels heavier than most pads I’ve used. I like a bit of weight in my controllers and mice, but it might not feel good on tiny wrists after a long play session. The face buttons are large and still mushy, the bumpers and triggers have a responsive click and pull—they just feel identical to using an Xbox One controller.
Four metallic back paddles are easy to swap out via some light magnets. They’re easy to reach, and each pushes with a light, distinct click. The stick thumb pads snap in and out via magnets as well, offering a few sizes and convex or concave options. It’s convenient variability for different finger sizes and play preferences. The paddles are especially useful in games where taking your fingers off the right stick to hit a face button can slow down reaction time. In Dark Souls 2, I mapped the roll button to a paddle. In a few minutes, it didn’t just feel natural—it felt better.
There are two D-pad configurations, one in the traditional four-point design, and another omnidirectional disc that might find good use in fighting games. The four-point pad feels pretty similar to the vanilla Xbox One controller, but the ease of variability between the two designs is hugely beneficial for games (or players) that rely on the D-pad in different ways. They pull out with a light magnetic snap and never fell out incidentally during play.
A subtle rubber texture is layered on the back of the grips to prevent sweat slippage while the face is a smooth, sexy black rubber matte texture. Even though it feels nice, it’s not entirely necessary, which seems to define the Elite controller. It’s made for people who can afford a nicer version of the Xbox One controller with easy customization options.
The addition of some slick software that allows for tweaking of trigger min/max values, stick sensitivities, button assignments, and profile designations makes it even more attractive for PC experimentation. It has a sturdy build, and could probably withstand drop after drop, maybe an angry throw or two (but don’t do that). Everything about the Xbox Elite controller feels precise and considered, so even though its familiar design isn’t stepping outside of what’s tried and true, the configurable, sleek design makes it an easy recommendation for those who can afford it.
The grips are huge, part of an intentional convex design meant to arch your thumbs over the touchpads comfortably. Problem is, they’re too bulbous and jut out a bit too hard into the heel of each hand. My fingers tense up after a few minutes of play, which leads to a few too many accidental back paddle presses and thumb cramps.
The circular track pads work pretty well as a mouse replacement, especially with a bit of practice. In an FPS, if the gyroscopic sensor is enabled, using the pad to look around and the acceleration to tweak cursor precision feels like a viable way to play twitch games, just maybe not competitively. For RTS games, it’s possible to assign certain macros to buttons, while using the trackpads as mice and camera substitutes, but it would take no short amount of time to acclimate to a very particular control scheme just for the sake of sitting on a couch.
Beyond the novelty of living room play, the face buttons feel too small and indistinct for big thumbs, and the bumpers and triggers don’t always have the responsive surety required for some games. In Super Hexagon, the paddles and triggers wouldn’t respond once out of every fifty or so presses because the buttons were too slow to recoil.
It’s not possible to outright recommend the Steam Controller, even though with enough tinkering and patience, it’s a completely viable way to control a ton of PC games from the couch. Give Valve a few years to iterate, and maybe they’ll nail down the design and give a bit more incentive to make the leap to the living room.
So why is it listed here, instead of at the bottom with the rest of the controllers we tested? Because the Steam Controller does ultimately occupy a unique space: it's the only gamepad specifically built to let you play games that don't support controllers out of the box. For games that do support controllers, we prefer the DualShock and Xbox pads. But if you insist on playing PC games away from your mouse and keyboard and want to replicate their functionality as closely as possible, the Steam Controller is the best game in town.
Adjusting to the Steam Controller does mean a steep learning curve, but it's a cheaper gamble than the Xbox Elite or Razer Wildcat. And even if it’s not your favorite controller, maybe it’ll be your favorite midi player.
Ignore those who seem to think every game is best with a mouse and keyboard. Grid Autosport is not best played with a keyboard. Super Meat Boy is not best played with a keyboard. Ultra Street Fighter IV is ridiculous with a keyboard. True, we play most games with a mouse and keyboard, but for PC gamers with ranging tastes, a good controller is a must.
Microsoft and Sony’s own console pads, the Xbox One controller and the DualShock 4, set the standards by being the default, first-party options for the two most popular consoles, while third-party controllers tend to mimic them. In this case, the standard is the best: I haven't found a controller better than the DualShock 4 for PC gaming, though the wireless Xbox 360 controller is very close.
It's a slightly surprising conclusion when the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers are the industry's accepted Windows controllers, and even contradicts a previous article I wrote in which I recommended the Xbox One controller over the DualShock 4. In that article I explain that I prefer the shape and layout of Microsoft's controllers, but after further testing I've decided that when I put aside my personal preference for offset analog sticks, the DS4 stands out. The older Xbox 360 controller is still great, but the DS4 is slightly better in a few areas, and the Xbox One controller can't currently be used wirelessly on PC, which is a major flaw.
My hands are an average size for a man: 7.5 in long (from the base of the palm to the tip of my middle finger) and 3.5 inches wide across the palm. Obviously, I can’t test controllers with your hands, but I have asked around to ensure that others find the same controllers comfortable. Most notably, both women and men have told me that the DualShock 4 feels comfortable to them.
What I can test is the quality of the materials and construction, how the buttons feel and if their placement makes sense with my average man hands, the feel of their d-pads and analog sticks, and their software. I tested the three most commonly used console controllers—Xbox 360, Xbox One, and DualShock 4—as well as two Logitech controllers, a Mad Catz controller, and a Razer controller.
Though I've done some testing with first-person shooters, I've largely ignored the genre. While it may be important for console gamers, we're almost always going to use WASD for any kind of shooter. That in mind, the games I primarily used for testing are the ones I mentioned above:
Super Meat Boy: A game which requires excellent d-pad control and responsive face buttons.
Ultra Street Fighter IV: I've put a lot of hours into SFIV with both controllers and fight sticks, so I know how it ought to feel. If I can't crush an AI opponent as Cammy, something isn't right.
Grid Autosport: I chose Grid primarily to test the analog sticks, which according to my preferences need three qualities: springy enough to quickly snap back to center, sensitive and resistant enough to make slight steering adjustments, and comfortably contoured so my thumbs aren't bloody stumps at the end of a few hours.
Wrapping up: competitors and future testing
I tested several controllers before choosing the DualShock 4 as the best. None were quite as good in all aspects, though Logitech's wired controller is cheap enough to make it noteworthy.
It’s hard to recommend the Razer Wildcat specifically for gaining an advantage in competitive eSports, even though that’s the marketing message behind it. The pad feels very similar to the Xbox One’s controller design in terms of size and shape, and with optional adhesive grips, holding the controller for long periods of time is made a bit more comfortable. I can’t speak much to the build, as it looks and feels like a similar plastic to most standard controllers, which may make it more prone to damage from an accidental fall or angry throw than the denser Xbox Elite controller.
The triggers have an easy pull, which can be shortened via two sliders on the back of the controller. Every other button presses with a satisfying and super responsive click, exactly like using a mouse. A caveat: the negligible amount of pressure required for a press means accidental button bumps aren’t out of the question.
D-pad design does away with omnidirectional inputs and sticks to four buttons. That means fighting game inputs might be hit or miss, but at least the cardinal directions are harder to fudge. The addition of two inner bumper buttons and two rear-positioned trigger buttons mean you can spend more time with your thumbs on the sticks, but for smaller hands, they might be a bit awkward to reach.
The optional adhesive grip is awkward to attach, similar to putting on a decal without air bubbles or wrinkles around the edge. It feels cheap and the harsh green is a bit garish, but probably won’t bother most. It gives the controller a mushier, comfy grip, which could do wonders for those who tense up while playing games. While it feels nice, I preferred the simpler black look before throwing it on. Fashion or function? A difficult choice.
It’s not an impulse buy, but the Wildcat definitely carries the features and build to warrant a higher price point— especially when the Xbox Elite costs the same. The Wildcat has a few of the same customization options and extra buttons, but the implementation isn’t as elegant. The optional back triggers need to be unscrewed and detached with tiny switches as opposed to the Elite’s simple magnetic swap design. It’s a time consuming process, and actively discouraged me from experimenting with different controller layouts as I played. As a result, the Wildcat settled into feeling more like an expensive, slightly customizable take on Xbox controller design.
The Elite, for the same price, felt like a luxurious, highly customizable take on Xbox controller design that consistently encouraged me to play around with its bits and pieces. Its software customization took things a step further, and the Wildcat can only save trigger/bumper button mappings to a pair of profiles.
Wireless Xbox One controller (Xbox One S update)
The latest version of the Xbox One controller comes with a few new features that PC gamers are sure to love, at least on paper. Most notably, it comes with Bluetooth connectivity, so it no longer requires a wireless USB dongle as long as your computer has Bluetooth functionality. Like the Elite, there’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack built into the bottom. The triggers are snappy and don’t feel nearly as squishy as the old controller’s. And the hand grips are now lightly textured, which gives sweaty palms a bit more to hold on to. It feels like a lighter, plastic version of the Elite—without the customizable d-pad and sticks of course. But with a few steps forward in supposed convenience, the new Xbox One controller takes a few steps back in ease of use.
Connecting through Bluetooth is no simple feat. First, you’ll need Windows 10, and then you’ll need to install the Anniversary Update, which isn’t automatically rolling out to all users until November. () Next, you’ll need to install the Xbox Accessories application and make sure the controller firmware is updated. If your experience is like mine, it still won’t work. I was able to get the Bluetooth connection working on a PC at work, but even after scouring forums and troubleshooting for hours, I’ve had no luck at home. I keep it wired.
That said, a Bluetooth connection may not be up to snuff for some users’ expectations. Audio devices aren’t supported through the Bluetooth connection, so that new 3.5mm jack doesn’t mean jack unless the controller is plugged in via USB. Multiple controllers aren’t officially supported via a Bluetooth connection either. , stating, “Connecting more than 1 controller to your device with Bluetooth may be possible, but performance can vary, depending on your PC.” The days of USB dongles don’t sound so bad in retrospect.
The update may beat out the older Xbox One controller in some respects, but it still doesn’t approach the Dualshock 4 in terms of comfort or functionality. Even if the DS4’s Bluetooth solution requires using unofficial software, it’s still highly configurable and doesn’t myopically lock the user down to a specific operating system with a specific update. At $60/£45 there are better options available, but we wouldn’t blame you for dropping $80 to customize its colors. Using the (not available in the UK yet) you can choose from a variety of chromatic arrangements and pay a bit extra to get it engraved. Sometimes fashion comes before function.
Logitech F310 Gamepad:
This controller is my favorite if you're on a tight budget—say, if you want two controllers for the price of one. At half the cost of a DualShock 4, you lose the wireless capability but still get a solidly-constructed gamepad, and it worked as soon as I plugged it in. The thing is light, but feels like a tank, so I have no fear of abusing it.
That said, the d-pad is nowhere near the quality of the DS4's—it feels loose and I had trouble accurately maneuvering in Super Meat Boy. The triggers and bumpers are housed on outcroppings that the knuckles of my middle fingers rub against uncomfortably, and the analog sticks, while pleasantly springy, have a convex shape that isn't great for sweaty hands. I also found that the triggers offer too much resistance. In Grid Autosport, my finger got tired from holding down for the gas, which I didn't experience with the DS4, Xbox 360, or Xbox One controllers.
Logitech F710 Wireless Gamepad:
I just can't recommend the Logitech F710 over the wireless Xbox 360 controller, which is only slightly more expensive. Aside from the batteries making it heavier, it's almost identical to the F310. It's not as comfortable as the Xbox 360 controller, and the triggers are small, shallow, and again, have too much resistance.
Mad Catz C.T.R.L.R.:
I absolutely love the look and design of Mad Catz's controller, which is like an Xbox One controller but with bigger analog sticks, a bigger d-pad, and better bumpers. I don't recommend this version, though, because it's immediately clear that it's targeted at Android devices. None of my testing games recognized it properly. Super Meat Boy got halfway there, accepting input from a few buttons, but I ended up having to use Mad Catz's slow-loading, minimal software to map buttons to keyboard commands. That's not what I want from a PC controller.
However, there is the Mad Catz Pro Controller for Xbox 360. It's not the one marketed for PC gaming, though as an Xbox 360 controller, it should work fine on PC—actually, it should work a lot better than the C.T.R.L.R. controller. It's expensive, but with that you get something unique: the analog stick and d-pad can be swapped. That's great, but unfortunately I wasn't able to test it this time around. Once I have one in, I'll put it through its paces.
This is a popular, well-reviewed third-party Xbox 360 controller, but I haven't found much to like about it. One of its big draws are two extra bumpers, which mean you can do most of the things you need to in a shooter without lifting your thumbs off the analog sticks. But that's why we have keyboards, and when you ignore the extra buttons and novel LED screen, it's a more angular Xbox 360 controller with clicker triggers (which are a little better), awkward bumpers, and individual d-pad buttons that feel designed for supplementary actions more than precise platforming control. The face buttons are my biggest issue: they barely depress and do so with a weak, pitchy click that makes me cringe the way finger nails on a chalk board do.
There are tons of controllers out there to try, including the Mad Catz Pro I mentioned, but for now I'm very confident in recommending the DualShock 4. Sony is far from new to this game, and its years of R&D show. Meanwhile, tinkerers have made reliable tools to get it working on the PC with loads of customization options.
The Xbox 360 controller is still a great choice (and the offset analog sticks are my preferred design), as is the Xbox One controller, though I mark it down heavily for having no wireless PC support. Logitech's cheap wired controller is sturdy and comfortable enough for the price, but that's the best it can muster—it's just not as well-designed as Sony and Microsoft's controllers.
We've also found out that both the Pro Controller as well as the Joy-Con remotes for the Nintendo Switch are compatible with PC. We're planning on playing around with both of those in the coming weeks, and will report back if either manages to dethrone any of our picks here.
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