With the litany of multi-platform releases bombarding the market today, most titles are going to be designed with the best controllers for PC gaming in mind—and in some cases (I'm looking at you Rage 2) are better suited to controller layouts than a traditional mouse and keyboard. Not all inputs are created equal—have you tried playing Mortal Kombat 11 on a keyboard? Furthermore, there's something to be said about lounging with a controller that just can't be replicated with a mouse and keyboard.
Gaming with a controller really gives you the opportunity to have your cake and eat it too. You're getting the streamlined inputs of an analog controller paired with all the power and performance of a beefy gaming PC. While the PC has never really had an official peripheral, apart from the controversial steam controller, third party manufacturers have made it easier than ever to enjoy the perks of controller-based gaming on your PC. Premium controllers like the Astro C40 TR provide a highly customizable controller experience, and peripheral giants like Logitech still provide lower-tier entry points for those on a budget.
Couch potato PC gaming has never been closer to reality, and while this list is a solid roster of alternatives for AFK gaming, make sure to check out our guides for the best gaming keyboard and best gaming mouse to make sure your rig is complete.
1. 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.
Everything about the Xbox Elite controller feels precise and considered. 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 isn't perfect, though: I like a bit of weight in my controllers and mice, but the elite is a bit heavier than the average gamepad, and might not feel good on tiny wrists after a long play session. Plus, the face buttons have the same mushy feeling as the standard Xbox One controller.
Despite those flaws, it's still an incredible, if expensive, piece of kit. Even though its familiar design doesn’t step far from what's tried and true, the configurable, sleek design makes it an easy recommendation.
2. Razer Wolverine Ultimate
Clicky with a side of Chroma
Weight: .6 lbs (272g) | Connectivity: USB wired | Cord length: 10 ft (3m)
Razer's Wolverine Ultimate could very well be the best gamepad available today, save for one critical disqualifying factor—it can't connect to a PC over wireless. The Xbox-style gamepad offers many of the same luxury features as the Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller, like a swappable D-pad and customizable back paddles. It's also nearly the same price, which begs the question: 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. This seemingly minuscule detail, but actually makes a world of difference. It's like using nothing but membrane keyboards your whole life and then 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 a separate app to configure it.
3. Astro C40 TR
Primed for PS4, compatible with PC
Weight: .68 lbs (320g) | Connectivity: 2.4GHz wireless, USB wired | Cored length: 6ft (1.8m)
Positioned as a premium alternative to the DualShock 4, you could say that the Astro C40 TR is to the PS4 what the Xbox Elite wireless controller is to the Xbox One. It may be made by a third party, but the Astro C40 TR delivers a premium controller experience in that familiar DualShock form factor.
What makes the C40 TR unique is the ability to not only swap parts, but move them around. The modular design will let you swap out the left thumbstick for the D-pad and rock an asymmetrical Xbox One-esque controller, if you like. Or you can be a complete anarchist and put two thumbsticks on the left, with the D-pad on the right. (The face buttons can't be swapped to a different position.)
For PC players, the Astro C40 TR has its own Windows 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. Like the Elite and its contemporaries, It costs a lot, but after using it ourselves we don't want to go back.
4. 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.
5. Logitech F310
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 Xbox Wireless Controller, 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 Microsoft'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 any of our other controllers.
6. Steam Controller
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.
How we test controllers
Ignore those who seem to think every game is best with a mouse and keyboard. Forza Horizon 4 is not best played with a keyboard. Dead Cells is not best played with a keyboard. Mortal Kombat 11 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.
CONTROLLER SETUP GUIDES
Microsoft's Xbox One controller set the standards by being the default, first-party option for one of the most popular consoles, while third-party controllers tend to mimic that. In this case, the standard is the best: I haven't found a controller better than the Xbox One Elite Controller for PC gaming, though the Astro C40 TR controller is very close.
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:
Dead Cells: A game which requires excellent d-pad control and responsive face buttons.
Mortal Kombat 11: I've put a lot of hours into MK11 with both controllers and fight sticks, so I know how it ought to feel. If I can't crush an AI opponent as Sub-Zero, something isn't right.
Forza Motorsport: I chose Forza 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.