Ignore the PC gaming purists, the best PC controller doesn't always have to mean just the mouse and keyboard combo. There are a lot of games—such as Control, Shovel Knight, and Forza Horizon—which feel better when played with a controller as opposed to a gaming mouse and gaming keyboard. They're also useful in the likes of GTA 5 when you jump into a jet or helicopter. Not to mention a controller will give you the freedom to escape to your couch for a more relaxing overall gaming experience.
Basically, while we'll always come down on the side of a good mouse and keyboard setup—I mean, we really love our boards here on PCG—there is definitely a place for the best PC controller in your arsenal.
If you have the cash to spare, the best PC controller right now is the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2. If you're used to the shape and layout of an Xbox controller, you'll find that this one will feel natural straight away. And while it does come with a seriously hefty price tag, the Series 2 boasts loads of neat extras. If you don't want to spend so much, we've included a few budget options that won't be such a shock to your wallet as well like the PowerA Spectra controller for under $50
If you use the Microsoft Elite Series 2 controller for more than ten minutes, you'll understand why we have it at the number one spot. Everything about the Series 2 screams luxury. The near-endless customization options give you an unparalleled level of control (pun intended) over your gameplay. Being able to tweak, all aspects of the controller, like d-pads, shift paddles, and joystick tension, is an absolute godsend.
The most significant changes in the Series 2 over the Series 1 (which we also loved) include a neat little carrying case that doubles as a charging station for the controller's new rechargeable battery with 40 hours of juice. Finally, with project Xcloud and Apple Arcade bringing some great games to mobile devices, you can easily pair the Series 2 controller via Bluetooth.
Spending $160 for a controller is a tough sell for most people, that's near four times the price of an Xbox One controller, but if you're a serious gamer who values performance and extreme levels of customization, the Series 2 is a no brainer and worth every penny.
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. A third party may make it, 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 gamers, the Astro C40 TR has its own Windows software. With 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.
PowerA's Spectra Enhanced wired controller is the closest thing to an Xbox One controller without it actually being an Xbox One controller, at least in terms of design. According to our Spectra review, this is a budget controller that doesn't feel or play like a budget controller.
The edge lighting gives the Spectra some personality, and the 3-way trigger locks are great for competitive shooters. The Spectra would have scored higher, but the lack of any wireless connectivity is a big let down in the days of untethered gaming.
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 wirelessly. 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 like mouse buttons. This seemingly minuscule detail makes a world of difference. It's like using nothing but membrane keyboards your whole life and then making a 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.
The Xbox One Wireless Controller has been available for years now and is as much of a classic as the old Xbox 360 pad in PC gaming circles. In addition to being cheaper than it was at launch, it boasts a vastly superior D-pad that you won't dread using in fighting games and platformers. In other words, the friendship has ended with Xbox 360 gamepad; the Xbox Wireless controller is now 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 wireless protocol it calls "Xbox Wireless." Though the name could benefit from some creative workshopping, you can take solace in the fact that, after 2016, the Xbox Wireless controller graces us 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.
The PlayStation's DualShock 4 pad isn't necessarily the first controller that comes to mind when thinking PC gaming. Still, thanks to software such as DS4Windows and lately full Steam integration, the Sony controller is now completely PC-friendly.
This is excellent news because, while it doesn't quite have the overall build quality of the standard Xbox One pad, and the triggers are a bit polarising, the thumbsticks are still the most accurate I've ever used. And I've got a Series 2 sat on my desk. There's also the fact that most PC pads are modeled on the offset Xbox configuration, while many people still prefer the symmetrical PlayStation layout.
The battery life is a bit funky (turn that lightbar off, people) when running on Bluetooth, but the DS4 is still a fantastic PC controller with super-accurate sticks.
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.
Microsoft's Xbox One controller sets 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 Series 2 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 necessary for console gamers, we're almost always going to use WASD for any kind of shooter. That in mind, the games I used mainly for testing are the ones mentioned below:
Dead Cells: A game that 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 sufficient to make slight steering adjustments, and comfortably contoured. Hence, my thumbs aren't bloody stumps at the end of a few hours.