Bringing back sweet memories of ‘80s and ‘90s gaming, some of the best PC joysticks can definitely still have a relevant role in your 2019 PC setup. Although their reputation may now be seen as dated and a bit old fashioned, they still have plenty to offer and they give gamers a largely unique feel that brings hands down beats the comparable experience of a controller, or mouse and keyboard, when thinking about dog fights in Star Citizen and deep space exploration in Elite: Dangerous.
Should one of the best PC joysticks appeal then straight away we would remind you that, if you can, stretching your budget even a little bit to one of the models higher up the scale that are listed here, but, of course, to make sure all options are on the table, we've also rounded up some more budget options. This will give you a good range to choose from.
As a last aside it's good to remember that Logitech acquired and absorbed Saitek—responsible for some of the best PC joysticks—but assured everyone that the quality and durability of Saitek’s products, and the name itself, would be kept.
1. Saitek X-55 Rhino
The best joystick
Were it not for the Thrustmaster Warthog (listed below) I would be holding the Saitek X-55 Rhino up as the pinnacle of flightstick creation. It's an update to the popular X-52, but bears less resemblance to that futuristic-looking peripheral than it does to its rival. That's no bad thing: not only does it look more like a modern fighter-stick-and-throttle combo than the X-52, it's also more usable.
The stick layout is almost identical to the Warthog, although with three hat-switches rather than four. It also has interchangeable coil springs, enabling you to tailor the resistance to your taste. But the star of the show is that throttle: the action is beautiful and it too has the option to alter its resistance on the fly—and to a greater degree than the Warthog. It's also covered in mini-joysticks, hat switches, flick switches and rotary switches, giving you full rein over your game.
The downside is that the X-55 is made out of plastic, not the metal of the Warthog. The stick feels lighter, the buttons less robust. But that's comparing it to a device a good deal more expensive—you'd hope to be able to tell the difference. The X-55 is still miles ahead of the rest of the devices in this test.
Verdict: The Saitek X-55 Rhino is an excellent controller combo, only suffering by comparison to the flightstick/throttle big boy from Thrustmaster.
2. Thrustmaster Warthog
The best high-end joystick
This has been my toughest challenge yet in trying to figure out an overall supertest winner. Usually I've got benchmark metrics to back up any value assessment I make, but with the top two controllers in these pages—the Thrustmaster Warthog and Saitek X-55 Rhino—it's entirely subjective and agonizingly close.
The Warthog is by far the more expensive, but as soon as you start the glorious unboxing process you know you haven't been short-changed. The sheer weight of the device is incredible, mostly because Thrustmaster has used a metal casing for everything from the throttle base to the stick itself. And that stick weighs over a kilogram on its own. The weight not only adds a certain air of robustness, but also means you're not going to be wrenching it off your desk in the heat of battle.
The design matches the build quality, although Thrustmaster cannot take all the credit there as the Warthog is an almost perfect recreation of the controls of the real-life A-10C Thunderbolt II fighter-bomber. That legacy leaves it with more buttons than you have fingers, but also makes it one of the most beautiful controllers you'll ever plug into your PC. Both stick and throttle have an abundance of hat-switches and the throttle base is festooned with flick-switches too.
Sadly that devotion to perfect replication means there's no Z-axis rotation on the stick, one of the very few minus points. With all those additional controls though, it's easy to map rudder control to any number of them.
The action on both flightstick and throttle is impeccable. The stick moves smoothly in all directions and the translation in-game is excellent too. There's enough resistance to stop it feeling loose, but it never feels overly stiff either. The throttle unit gives you the option to change its resistance on the fly if you want, enabling you to create more or less friction to its travel. There isn't a huge amount of difference, but for my tastes it already moves quite beautifully and the distance it can shift adds granularity to speed—perfect for docking in those tricky space stations.
It might seem crazy to be recommending such an expensive item, but if you're serious about sims—or Elite: Dangerous—this stick is the very best money can buy.
Verdict: An incredible device with an equally incredible price tag—but you won't feel ripped off once you get the Thrustmaster Warthog out of its box. It's our pick for a top-of-the-line flightstick.
3. Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X
The best budget joystick
The Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is testament to the fact that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a good stick. It's of a much cheaper build and design than the Warthog, but for a tenth of the ticket price you can forgive the use of plastic and lack of buttons and hats.
The key elements are there. The detachable throttle is probably the neatest feature: given that you're going to need easy access to your keyboard for its extra buttons, being able to split these components around it is a definite advantage.
It's also got the much-needed Z-axis rotation for rudder control, although the press of a switch will enable you to operate the rudder via a rocker on the front of the throttle grip. You get plenty of programmable buttons too, but they feel very much the sort you'd expect to find on a budget controller.
The action on the stick and throttle aren't great either, and you'll likely notice some grunching plastic noises as you push and pull the controller around. But it's still robust and feels solid on the desk. If you can't convince yourself an X-55 or Warthog is a sensible purchase, then this extremely good-value offering from Thrustmaster is not a bad option at all.
Verdict: Definitely a step down from the big boys, but the Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X represents great value and offers a pretty decent feature-set as well. It's our favorite affordable flightstick.
A few years ago, there wasn't much reason to own a PC joystick. Realistic flight sims were rare, and exciting space dogfighting sims were even rarer. But now you don't have to be an elite Battlefield helicopter pilot or a diehard sim addict to need a flightstick. With space games like Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous around, X-Wing and TIE Fighter available for download on GOG, and more space sims on the horizon, it's time for a new stick to take its rightful place on your desk.
Aren't they hideously expensive?
You can spend the sort of money generally reserved for a new graphics card on Thrustmaster's Warthog. But you can get an experience that's very close for a fraction of the price. Check out the broad selection of controllers below.
For serious simulation you're going to need throttle control. This is the biggest thing that separates the joypad from a flightstick setup, and the granularity of speed it delivers when dogfighting can mean the difference between virtual life and virtual death. So that's number one: make sure your stick comes with a decent throttle.
Does that mean I need a separate throttle controller?
No, but the best and most respected flight controllers do come with an entirely separate control for the throttle, with extra toggle switches and LEDs. Others, such as the AV8R, have the throttle control built onto the base of the stick itself. So long as there's a decent amount of travel in the throttle you'll have a good level of control in-game.
How many buttons do I need?
Some of the controllers in this test have gone overboard on that front. But sims do demand a lot of different controls and having them all directly to hand can be incredibly useful. Just don't forget that your trusty keyboard can make up for any buttons lacking on your controller. You will need at least four buttons arrayed around the stick itself and ideally a hat-switch on the top of it.
Anything else I should look out for?
Maybe it's time we spoke about the Z-axis. Traditional joysticks just have pitch and roll control—forward, back, left and right—but some are configured for 3D movement. That means as well as controlling the X and Y axis you can also twist the stick clockwise or anti-clockwise to control the Z-axis. Generally this is used to control yaw and replicate the rudder controls of an aircraft.
In space that three dimensional control can be vital for accuracy, especially when you're zeroing-in behind an escaping Sidewinder in an Elite dogfight. On a stick with other controls which can mimic the rudder that's not such an issue, but on budget sticks which allow no such added control it is sorely missed.
Terms to know
HOTAS: This exciting acronym stands for the rather mundane-sounding 'Hands-On Throttle And Stick' and denotes a dual controller where one hand rests permanently on the throttle and the other remains on the stick.
Hat switch: A multi-directional button akin to the d-pad on a modern controller. On a flightstick, however, the d-pad has a hat on top which the thumb can easily push to activate the switches. They come in 4-way or 8-way flavors.