Let's face it, some games are better off with the best PC controller in-hand. As is apparently the case with Rage 2, certain games have garbage default keybindings. Others like, say, most third-person action games just aren't cut out for that mouse and keyboard life. I know it's not ideal to play a fighting gmae with anything other than a fight stick, but can you imagine how awful it is playing Mortal Kombat 11 on a keyboard? We've tried it, and it sucks.
Likewise, you can't tell us every Grand Theft Auto or Far Cry game isn't enhanced when you switch over to the best PC controller 2019 can deliver. Driving controls simply do not work well without it. But how do you determine what is the best PC controller for you? Well, turn your head to someone who's tested them all, that someone being the PC Gamer hardware collective. In all our favorite games, we've tried our hand at everything from the PS4-intended DualShock 4 to its third-party superior, the Astro C40 TR.
Of course, assuming you want the best of both worlds, you'll almost certainly want the best gaming keyboard and best gaming mouse to go with it, as ideally you'll still have a desktop you can use as a server for streaming to a Shield TV or Steam Link. But for the optimal experience AFK, always up to date, we've thoroughly tested a variety of potential candidates for the prestigious title of best PC controller. After narrowing them down to the finest picks, you'll find our definitive rankings below.
PlayStation DualShock 4
The best controller for PC
Weight: 7.4oz (210g) | Connectivity: Bluetooth | Battery: 1000mAh rechargeable
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.
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, you have to purchase Sony's expensive USB adapter or use the free unofficial DS4Windows software. 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). 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.
Microsoft Xbox Elite Wireless Controller
The best luxury controller
Weight: .85 lbs (348g +/- 15g) | Connectivity: Xbox Wireless | Battery: 2x AA (included)
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.
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. 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.
Razer Wolverine Ultimate
Clicky with a side of Chroma
Weight: .6 lbs (272g) | Connectivity: USB wired | Cord length: 10 ft (3m)
Although we'd prefer to have a choice in the matter, Razer does has a point with its Wolverine Ultimate controller. In a competitive setting, wired is better than wireless. Compatible with both PC and the Xbox One family of consoles, the Razer Wolverine Ultimate is similar in many ways to the Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller, customizable back paddles included. And for the price you may be wondering: why not just buy one of those instead?
Well, it's not for everyone, but the Wolverine Ultimate does have its fair share of unique, downright enticing features. For starters, the face buttons – the ones labeled A, B, X and Y – click in like a mouse. Coming from a standard Xbox controller, this seemingly minuscule detail makes a world of difference. It's like using nothing but membrane keyboards your whole life and abruptly making the move to mechanical switches. So while the enclosed 10-foot braided micro USB cable takes some getting used to, tactile button presses are a worthy trade-off.
Of course, no Razer product would be complete without a healthy dose of Chroma, the three-headed green snake company's signature brand of RGB lighting. However, rather than integrating it into the existing Synapse 3 app for Windows, Razer decided to develop an app specifically for Xbox One. So if you do plan on using this controller for your PC, bear in mind you'll need to tether it to a console for all your cosmetic personalizations.
The controller for games that don't support controllers
Weight: .63 lbs (287g) | Connectivity: 2.4GHz wireless | Battery: 500mAh rechargeable or 2x AA
Valve’s first attempt at making the living room a viable PC gaming space doesn’t feel complete yet. Sure, the Steam Controller can control games, but it still feels like an awkward midpoint between gamepad and keyboard-mouse control.
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. 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.
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.
Astro C40 TR
Primed for PS4, compatible with PC
Weight: .68 lbs (320g) | Connectivity: 2.4GHz wireless, USB wired | Cored length: 6ft (1.8m)
It's a little known fact that, early in the development of the Xbox 360, Microsoft outsourced the chassis and controller to a pair of reputable industrial design firms at the time. One of those companies was Astro Studios, a tech lifestyle brand which later spun off into peripheral maker Astro Gaming. After creating one of the best PC controllers of its time, Astro was predominately responsible for developing some of the best gaming headsets. But the itch to make a new controller never quite went away. Thus, the Astro C40 TR was born.
Positioned as a premium alternative to the DualShock 4, you could say it's to the PS4 what the Xbox Elite wireless controller is to the Xbox One. However, we realize that, unlike the Xbox Elite, the C40 TR a third-party joypad, and for console players that's a tough sell. It doesn't matter as much in the PC space, where nothing is technically first party. And because most PC games now boast native support for the PlayStation button layout, the Astro C40 TR delivers on all fronts. To an extent, it's modular, so you can swap out the left thumbstick for the D-pad and rock an asymmetrical Xbox One-esque controller. Or you can be a complete anarchist and make it left-handed.
Distinguishing itself from other primo controllers in the same price range—like the Scuf Impact, for example—the Astro C40 TR has its own Windows software, too, called the Astro C40 TR Configuration Software. In it, you can remap buttons, create and edit profiles, and adjust stick and trigger sensitivity, among other things. Of those other things, the fact that is has an audio equalizer for the headphone jack on bottom is perhaps the weirdest, most impressive aspect of the whole controller. It's too bad it costs so much because, after using ourselves, we don't want to go back.
Xbox Wireless Controller
A top-shelf budget controller
Weight: .62 lbs (281g) | Connectivity: Xbox Wireless; Bluetooth | Battery: 2x AA
After a precarious relationship with the long-championed Xbox 360 gamepad, it is finally time to let go. The Xbox One Wireless controller has been available for quite some time now, and in addition to being cheaper than ever before, it boasts a vastly superior D-pad that you won't dread using in fighting games and platformers. In other words, friendship ended with Xbox 360 gamepad, now the Xbox Wireless controller is my best friend.
We capitalize Wireless for a reason, not because the word is a proper noun per sé, but because the Xbox Wireless controller of late leverages Microsoft's own wireless protocol it calls "Xbox Wireless." Though the name itself could benefit from some creative workshopping, you can take solace in the fact that, after 2016, the Xbox Wireless controller was graced with a much-needed helping of Bluetooth compatibility. And now it's practically standard fare for console transplants deterred by the learning curve mouse and keyboard gaming presents.
Logitech F310 Gamepad
Lightweight and ultra-affordable
Weight: .4 lbs (181g) | Connectivity: USB wired | Cord length: 6.5 ft (1.98m)
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.
How we test controllers
CONTROLLER SETUP GUIDES
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.
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 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.
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