While the PC peripheral market has been flooded with high-end gaming mice, keyboards, and headsets over the past few years, there’s been surprisingly little expansion when it comes to controllers for gaming laptops and PCs.
Still, there are a few options out there, from dedicated PC gamepads to console controllers that are happy to connect to your Windows machine, and as eSports and pro gaming continue to expand we’re expecting to see more and more crop up.
Part of the reason that PC controllers haven’t expanded as fast as you might expect is that plenty of PC gamers are happy to stick with the mouse-and-keyboard setup, which is still the most effective way to play many first-person shooters, and pretty much essential if you want to be competitive in games like League of Legends or StarCraft.
Still, with the proliferation of major multi-platform games, and the fact that a decent gaming rig can still blow even the Xbox One X out of the water when it comes to performance, you can see why you might still want a solid PC gamepad to play games like For Honor or Gears of War 4 that were designed with a controller in mind.
There are other reasons to invest in a good gaming controller for your PC though. For one, if you want to make the most of services like PlayStation Now or PS4 Remote Play, you’ll need a controller to play those games through your PC.
You’ll also almost certainly want a pad if you’re using streaming devices like the Steam Link or Nvidia Shield TV to bring PC gaming into your living room – it’s much more relaxing sitting back with a gamepad than it is trying to balance a keyboard on your lap on the sofa.
We’ll be comparing the following PC game controllers based on a variety of factors, including build quality, durability, battery life, whether they’re wireless or wired, game compatibility, and whether they feature any additional buttons or functions for more advanced gameplay options.
Oh, and we’ll be bearing in mind price too, to make sure we’re only recommending controllers that give you plenty of bang for your buck.
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Xbox One Controller
The Xbox One controller is undeniably the gold standard for PC gamepads right now, and it’s easy to see why. It’s comfortable, attractive, reliable, and just works with pretty much any PC game you can name out of the box – and the Xbox One too, if you have one.
It features the standard four face buttons, D-pad, and two analogue sticks in Microsoft’s trademark offset positions. You also get two shoulder buttons and two ‘Impulse Triggers’ – which feature rumble motors so you can actually get haptic feedback when you press down on the trigger buttons – great for racing games or shooters.
As you’d expect from the official controller for Microsoft’s games console, build quality is great: the One controller looks and feels great in your hands, with a comfortable size and contouring that leaves it feeling comfortable even during mammoth gaming sessions – there’s some subtle texturing on the control sticks so you don’t lose your grip too. When it comes to actually playing, the pad is responsive and slick, though fans of 2D and fighter games might find the D-pad slightly imprecise compared to some of the competition (though a massive improvement from the 360) – it’ll be fine for most players, but if you’re looking for total 2D precision, you might want to look elsewhere.
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One of the other big benefits of the Xbox One controller is that Microsoft has really outdone its competition when it comes to sheer variety, with pads available in a multitude of colours and patterns, so there’s no need to settle for plain black or white. US gamers have it even better, with the ability to design their own custom controllers in the Xbox Design Lab.
Still, there are downsides. For one, the controller inexplicably runs on AA batteries, and you’ll have to pay an extra £17 for a Plug-and-Play Kit if you want to kit it out with a rechargeable battery. For another, only the latest version of the controller (which we’ve linked to above) supports Bluetooth. If you’ve got an older pad, you’ll either need to use it as a wired controller, or buy the official wireless dongle.
SteelSeries Stratus XL
The chief draw of the SteelSeries Stratus XL is that in addition to working as a great PC controller, it’s also fully compatible with Android, so you can step away from the touchscreen and enjoy some enhanced controls on your phone or tablet.
Despite the XL in the name, this is about the same size and shape as the Xbox One pad (the XL is in reference to the Stratus pad for iOS, which is more SNES-esque). That means it should prove pretty comfortable to anyone who’s happy enough with Microsoft’s controller, though we found it slightly less ergonomic – not enough to really complain about though.
Despite the visual similarities to the Xbox controller, the control stick layout here is all Sony, with both analogue sticks down at the bottom. They feature bright orange undersides, a welcome touch of colour against the otherwise black-and-grey design. It’s simple, understated, and both looks and feels like a premium gamepad.
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The D-pad is tight, if a bit large, and for the most part the rest of the controls are responsive and well-built. You can also use the free SteelSeries Engine software to adjust and customise details like joystick sensitivity and trigger actuation points – something few other pads at this price point offer. The only real downside is that no amount of software customisation will get around the mushy trigger buttons, which include no tactile feedback or click when fully depressed.
The Stratus XL can be used wirelessly with either PC or Android, though will likely need an out-of-the-box firmware update before it can do either. That involves connecting it to PC via a Micro-USB cable (not included) – though for some baffling reason the Micro-USB port is hidden away inside the AA battery compartment. You can in theory also use the controller wired to your PC like this, but we couldn’t make it work reliably, so we’d only recommend the Stratus XL if you’re expecting to use it over Bluetooth. Oh, and speaking of battery, Steelseries promises 40 hours from two AAs, and though we didn’t manage to use it enough to run it down to empty, our testing suggested that estimate was pretty fair.
If you’re just looking for a wireless PC pad, the Xbox One controller is better value and quality than the Stratus, and now includes Bluetooth out the box – though doesn’t boast the same software customisation. If you want a controller that you can also use with your Android smartphone or tablet though, the Stratus XL is a great bet – it looks and feels great, despite a couple of minor niggles, and should keep you happy whether you’re gaming at home or on the go.
PlayStation DualShock 4
While plenty of people own the Xbox One, sales of Sony’s PlayStation 4 have eclipsed those of Microsoft’s console, and by extension there are a lot more DualShock 4 pads out there too. The good news is that you can use your DualShock 4 on your PC too – the bad news is that it’s a bit more complicated than just plug-and-play.
But first, the controller itself. For our money, great as the Xbox One gamepad is, Sony’s DualShock 4 just manages to edge it in comfort and quality. The slightly larger thumbsticks provide a little more control, the rounder grips are just slightly more comfortable, and it boasts a rechargeable battery, which really feels like it should be the standard by now. It’s also now available in a few colour options, though not quite as many as the Xbox One.
One of the other big benefits of using a DualShock 4 for your PC gaming is that if you plan to use Remote Play and PlayStation Now to stream PS4, PS3, and PS2 games to your PC, using a DualShock controller guarantees both compatibility, and the appropriate on-screen button prompts (no trying to figure out if ‘Square’ should be ‘B’ or ‘A’ on your controller).
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So what’s the big downside? If you want to play normal PC games using the DualShock 4, you’ve got a bit of extra work to do. That’s because the Sony controller uses DirectInput drivers, rather than Microsoft’s preferred XInput, and most PC games are only compatible with the latter. The good news is that an increasing number of major games are offering DualShock 4 support, and for older games you can use free software to help you use the PS4 pad – read our guide to using the PS4 controller on PC to find out more.
In short, the DualShock 4 is a fantastic controller, and if you already own one for your PS4, you can use it on your PC too if you don’t mind a little extra work. But if you’re looking to buy a new controller for PC gaming, there are easier options.
The Horipad Pro sits in a slightly odd position in the market, attempting to offer pro controller features at a budget controller price. Compatible with both PC and Xbox One, the Horipad features all the standard control sticks and face buttons, but also includes additional buttons on the back of the pad – a feature usually reserved for much more expensive controllers.
There are four new buttons, shaped like elongated triggers, each of which can be assigned to replicate one of the existing controls – or used for headset audio control. That means you can use the back triggers to control some of the face buttons for games when you don’t want to move your thumb from the right control stick, or move the control stick buttons in case you find them awkward to push down in the middle of a fight. Assigning buttons is quick and easy, though sadly there’s no ability to save configurations for specific games.
Getting beyond the back triggers, the Horipad is more of a mixed bag. One big positive is the D-pad – manufacturer Hori is best known for its renowned fighting sticks, so it’s no surprise that this boasts top notch directional controls, which could make this a compelling choice for fighting fans on its own.
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The controller itself is very light, which initially made us worry about build quality, but in fact it feels tough and sturdy, and all of the buttons are secure in their housing – never a guarantee with a budget pad. The shoulder triggers are pressure-sensitive, but feel a bit mushy, and this is strictly a wired controller – though at least that means no worries about battery life. It also boasts rumble and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Our main frustration with the Horipad is its size and ergonomics. It’s noticeably smaller than your average gamepad, and our hands felt cramped and uncomfortable after a well. Then again, anyone who finds default controllers too large could find that the Horipad is a great fit. We’re also not big fans of the transparent design, but that will likely come down to personal preference.
The Horipad doesn’t feel like a premium controller, but at this price it would be unfair to expect it to. Instead, it offers solid quality and the sort of functionality usually held back for high-end offerings at a fraction of their price – ideal for competitive players on a budget.
Nintendo Switch Pro Controller
The Switch Pro Controller is unlikely to ever be your first choice for a PC controller, but if you already have one – or are considering the purchase for your Switch anyway – it’s a good option.
The Pro Controller uses Bluetooth to connect, so will pair with your PC as you as you have a Bluetooth receiver – and it will also work with Android and iOS devices too.
Still, it’s not all smooth sailing. For one thing, it uses DirectInput rather than Xinput, so there are some compatibility problems, and you’ll have to use remapping software for the buttons. Oh, and for some reason the Bluetooth connection won’t work while the USB-C cable is connected, and it won’t use that to transfer input, so you can’t use the controller while it’s charging.
You also need to bear in mind that the Pro pad doesn’t have analogue triggers, so it’s no use for finely tuned throttle control in driving games, or anything else that makes use of pressure-sensitive triggers.
What you do get is a comfortable, well-made gamepad that will also elevate your Switch gaming, and boasts a seriously impressive 40-hour battery life – one of the best around. At £65/$70, and given the flaws listed above, it’s not likely to be anyone’s first choice for PC gaming on its own, but it could be a great value choice for Switch owners looking to kill two birds with one stone.
Xbox 360 Controller
OK, sure, the Xbox 360 might be 12 years old by now, but you know what? It had a pretty great controller that offered reliable plug-and-play support for PC games. And, you can still get a new pad for some very affordable prices.
It’s not as attractive as the Xbox One pad (wow, those coloured face buttons have aged badly, haven’t they?) and it feels slightly less comfortable to hold, but for the most part the functionality and performance is similar. You will have to deal with a famously slippy D-pad though, so beware if you’re hoping to use this for 2D platforming or fighters.
As with the more modern Xbox controller, it runs on AA batteries unless you have a play-and-charge kit. By default it will also only work as a wired controller – you’ll need to spend a little extra for the version with a wireless receiver if you want to use it unplugged.
Once you’ve factored those in the price creeps up high enough that you’re probably better off buying a modern controller though, so the 360 controller is mainly an option if you’re looking for a budget pad and don’t mind wires and AA batteries – or happen to already have one lying around the house.