Put down your pitchforks! There’s a time and a place for using a controller for PC gaming, sometimes you just want to kick back and lean back, some games are just simply better on controller like sports, Rocket League and games with aim-assist.
Don’t get me wrong, the de-facto control scheme for most games on PC is the keyboard and mouse, which is why I’ve mostly focused on reviews on those products, but controllers have a place.
After putting in some time with Modern Warfare, Rocket League, NBA 2K20 and some old-school emulation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best controller for PC is the Xbox One Controller.
1. Xbox One Controller
The best overall gaming controller for PC
- Out of the box support in most games wireless and wired
- Great colour options
- Great sticks and triggers
- Great ergonomics
- Uses AA batteries, good battery life
- Uses AA batteries, could be a negative
- Rechargeable pack extra
The Xbox One Controller is the easy pick, it works out of the box on Windows through bluetooth or wired connection, all modern games support Xinput with appropriate button prompts, and it doesn’t hurt that the controller itself has a great design too.
If you like offset thumbsticks then there’s no real reason to look elsewhere, this is the controller for most people. Its triggers are solid, the thumbsticks are some of the best in the business, there aren’t really any major shortcomings of the Xbox One Controller for PC gaming.
The Xbox One Controller is the second most responsive controller out of this list with an input delay of 7 milliseconds. You can connect the controller via Bluetooth, USB connection or with a wired dongle, all work equally well.
The Xbox One Controller does not come with rechargeable batteries out of the box, and it uses AA batteries. You can buy a rechargeable battery pack if you want the extra added convenience of plug and charge but swapping out AA batteries isn’t a huge negative for me, especially when the controller lasts 40 hours.
2. Dual Shock 4
Best symmetrical stick controller with the best response times
- Works with some games out of the box wired with appropriate prompts
- Great ergonomics
- Touchpad is handy
- Great symmetrical sticks
- Works wired and wireless
- Lots of great colour options
- Horrendous battery life
- Requires software to emulate Xinput
- Triggers are a little stiff
For those gamers looking for symmetrical sticks, the Dual Shock 4 is a great controller with excellent build quality, ergonomics and design.
The Dual Shock 4 has the fastest response time out of all controllers which is especially important for competitive gamers looking for frame perfection, the Dual Shock 4 over Bluetooth beats out all other controllers wire or otherwise.
The thumbsticks are in the more “old-school” symmetrical arrangement, making the Dual Shock a better controller for d-pad usage. The controller is comfortable for lengthy gaming sessions. The thumbsticks with the raised lip are responsive enough for the most competitive requirements.
Other cool features make the Dual Shock 4 a worthy choice, the touchpad doubles as a mouse in desktop mode and can be handy in a pinch, the controller has an internal rechargeable battery, which is great, except that its battery life is definitively doo-doo at a max of 8 hours out of the box.
Speaking of out of the box, the Dual Shock 4 works well wired without any extra software, most games recognize and support the Dual Shock 4 without any issues. If you want to use your Dual Shock 4 wirelessly, then you’re going to need Steam controller support or DS4Windows the emulate XInput controls.
3. 8BitDo SN30pro+
- Great D-Pad
- Soft triggers
- Great software compatibility
- Can connect to multiple devices at once
- Great rechargeable battery
- USB Type-C port!
- Button layout can cause some confusion for Xinput prompts
- A little wider than of a grip than traditional controllers
- Start and select are harder to reach
For gamers looking to put some time into some retro games then 8BitDo’s SN30Pro+ is a stellar option while still being good for modern games.
The SN30Pro+ probably has the best d-pad available on the market right now, making it the key option for retro gaming.
The controller supports both DirectInput and Xinput making it compatible with a super wide selection of games. It can connect via USB Type-C or wirelessly on bluetooth. 8BitDo’s software can help the controller set stick and shoulder sensitivity
The wireless battery life on the controller is great with a type-C port to move it over into wired mode. The battery itself is rechargeable viable the controller and is included with the controller unlike the Xbox One controller.
The build quality is very good, there’s not a single weak or creaky spot. The sticks rival our top two picks, the SN30Pro+ almost took the #2 spot here with good responsiveness and a convex design with rim like the Dual Shock 4.
The SN30Pro+ can also connect to a Nintendo Switch giving it some versatility in usage.
4. Xbox Elite Controller
- Tons of customization options and buttons
- Great D-Pad
- Swappable thumbsticks and D-Pads
- Magnetic connections
- Reports of durability issues
The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller just gives you everything. It takes what makes the Xbox One Controller great, slaps on a bunch of magnetic paddles, upgrades the D-Pad and gives you multiple thumbstick options. This controller is the end game for controllers, great support, great ergonomics and all the options you could want.
It’s just very expensive, and the difference in price between an Xbox One Controller and the Elite is significant for the extra utility you get. I don’t think this controller makes you 3x better at gaming nor does it give you a 3x better experience, but if you have the free cash, then it’s worth it to squeeze every bit of enjoyment you can out of gaming.
The major downside to this controller is that it seems there are concerns of reliability for the Elite series controllers. There have been reports of bumpers falling out, thumbsticks coming loose and a myriad of other issues, this is something not acceptable at its price point.
5. Logitech F310
- Super cheap
- Xinput compatible
- Solid sticks and buttons
- Not the most ergonomic option
- Only wired option
If you’re looking for a controller for a guest, your kid sibling, or just need to save a buck the Logitech F310 is a great option. Reminiscent of the Dualshock 3 the Logitech F310 is a symmetrical gamepad with convex thumb sticks with an Xbox button layout.
There’s not much to say about the Logitech F310 other than it gets the job done, it has a stable wired connection with all the buttons you would need to play most games.
6. Pro Controller
- Great battery life
- Great ergonomics and feel
- USB Type-C connecto
- Bad software support
- Glitched for me through wired connection, random inputs
The Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is a great controller, it has amazing ergonomics, thumbsticks, buttons, triggers, and battery life, the whole gamut.
Its major shortcoming is that there’s not much software support for the Pro Controller, you’ll have to rely on Steam or BetterJoy to emulate the Pro Controller’s Direct Input as Xinput.
Even when emulated the button mappings for a lot of modern games is confusing due to the layout of the ABXY of the Pro Controller.
How we tested
As usual we played a bunch of games, we wanted to make sure the best controller is well suited for all types of games. We played a bunch of NBA 2K20, Modern Warfare, Witcher 3, Sonic Mania and Hollow Knight to put every controller through its paces. 2D games and games with a lot of menus often benefit from a better dpad, while shooters like Modern Warfare need precise and comfortable sticks. All games benefit from lower input lag, while playing we took notes on these factors:
- Software compatibility
- Buttons and triggers
- Battery life
- Input lag
Software Compatibility – Direct input vs Xinput
The best gaming controller is the one that requires the least hassle to get working. While a controller may be great, if it requires multiple custom driver installs and/or plunking down money to properly get recognized on PC, it isn’t really worth it as an overall gaming controller, I’m looking at you Gamecube controller.
The Xbox One controller shines here because pretty much every modern PC game now supports Xinput, Microsoft’s controller API for Xbox controllers in Windows.
Most other controllers can emulate Xinput, while it works well, I like having the button prompts map to my controller exactly, there are countless times where I tried to icon pass to my (X) player while playing on 2K20 on a Dualshock and getting it to the wrong player.
Don’t get me started on the confusion that is Pro Controllers and 8BitDo controllers having differently placed ABXY buttons compared to the Xbox One Controller.
Similar to mouse shapes, we want a controller that’s relatively safe, no aggressive curves or protrusions. While the Xbox Duke controller may have its fans, it was definitely too large for a lot of people. Fortunately, a lot of controllers have great ergonomics, our top 3, the Xbox One Controller, Dual Shock 4 and SN30Pro+ all have great ergonomics, they all have grips that fit the palm well, with shoulders, stick and buttons in natural thumb positions.
Good thumbsticks make a huge difference in fatigue and performance, I couldn’t tell you how many times I fought with the Dualshock 3 smooth convex thumbsticks in COD4. Again, all of our top 3 picks have great thumbsticks, with tacky enough material for grip and rim on the sticks for feel.
Good thumbsticks will last longer, they’ll avoid drifting and wearing of material longer. The last thing you want is to have to jack up your dead zone in-game to avoid accidental movements. Gamasutra has a really good blog post on thumbstick deadzones, basically, in order to avoid accidental drift, games ignore subtle stick movements. The ignoring of subtle stick movements can mean your character can go from 0 movement speed to 15 movement speed without any gradual ramp up due to the deadzone, no bueno.
The key thing for D-Pads to do is to register in put accurately. Good D-pads will minimize the amount of accidental down-right inputs when all you meant to do was press down. The edges of a D-Pad should should feel distinct without being overly sharp, I’ve had many a blister trying to do FADC on PS3 :(.
Buttons and Triggers
Most of the buttons on controllers are solid, there are a couple of factors to look out for. The size and placement of buttons seem to have largely been standardized, but the height, shape and tactility of the buttons can differ. Controllers like the Dualshock 4 have low-profile fat buttons, while the Switch Pro Controller has taller buttons, the Xbox One Controller has rounded buttons that have a more tactile press.
Wireless is the way, I do not want to have more cables on my desk than necessary, plus as a reviewer I need every USB port I can get, there’s an added benefit of wireless actually having less input lag. Battery life is straight forward, more = better, here’s a quick reference chart of battery life for the controllers on our top 6 list.
- Xbox One Controller: 40 hours on AA, 30 hours recharge pack (sold separately)
- Playstation Dual Shock 4 Controller: 8 hours rechargeable
- 8BitDo Sn30Pro+: 30 hours rechargeable
- Xbox Elite Controller: 30 hours rechargeable
- Logitech F310: Unlimited power! (wired)
- Nintendo Switch Pro Controller: 40 hours rechargeable
Input lag varies with controllers in both wireless and wired mode. Fun fact, wireless is generally faster than the wired mode in most controller, who knew!? The reason for the increased wired delay has something to with how the system handles a USB signal.
The Dualshock 4 has the least amount of lag over Bluetooth with the Xbox One close behind.
source: Rocket Science
A good controller should be able to withstand hundreds of hours of gameplay and the occasional angry controller toss into a pillow. The Dual Shock 4 controllers seem to have a strong reputation of holding up with the exception of their thumb stick materials wearing off over time.
Things like colour options and looks play a small factor in picking a controller. I’m looking for controllers with materials that feel good, that don’t get too hot or get too slippery over time. I want a USB Type-C data port for making recharging and connecting easier. I don’t want LEDs that suck battery, reflect on the screen or blind me, but still tell me what’s happening with the controller in terms of connectivity and battery life.