The lines between console gaming and PC gaming have blurred. With controller-friendly games like Nier: Automata and Sonic Mania coming to PCs the same day they hit consoles, many people are looking for a good way to play these games as they were originally designed. Likewise, if you're a former PS4 or Xbox One gamer crossing over into the PC space, you might be looking for a more familiar way to play your games. Thankfully, that's easier to do today than ever before.
With several first- and third-party controller options, you'll need to choose which controller is the best fit for you and the games you play. Gamers who play a variety of game genres would be best served by picking up Microsoft's Xbox One Controller, which offers better comfort, build quality and ease of use than anything else we've tested.
Other controllers offer better support for more specific kinds of gaming, so we took some of the most popular pads available today and ran them through their paces in games of various disciplines. After playing a variety of platformers, shooters, role-playing games and racing titles, we found some controllers that are great for specific genres, and others that are all-around excellent.
Compatibility and Emulation
Xbox and native PC controllers are generally plug-and-play on Windows, and it's gotten pretty easy to use a PS4 controller on PC. You can even use the Nintendo Switch's Joy-Cons on your PC to control your favorite games. If you're having issues with your gamepad of choice, emulators such as X360CE will trick your PC into thinking that just about any USB controller is an Xbox 360 one. For more on compatibility, check out our guide to using any controller on PC.
Wheels, Fight Sticks and Retro Pads
Need something more niche? Driving game aficionados seeking total immersion can check out dedicated racing wheels. Driving wheels such as Thrustmaster's Ferrari 458 ($89) are just that — a wheel — while others, like Logitech's G920 Driving Force ($399) include pedals and stick shifts for the full experience.
Fighting game fanatics looking for a more authentic way to play games like Tekken 7 and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite should consider fight sticks, which feature the kind of joysticks and extra-large buttons you'd find on a classic arcade cabinet. Be sure to check out our round up of the best fight sticks for PC, PS4 and Xbox One to find the right fit for your style and budget.
Feeling old-school? Hyperkin's $29 X91 controller and 8bitdo's $42 NES30 are great for playing retro games on your PC. Hyperkin is even releasing a remake of the infamously huge Xbox Duke Controller this fall, for folks who have huge hands or just really love having cramped fingers.
Microsoft's Xbox One controller takes the impressive build quality and ergonomics of the Xbox 360 pad and improves upon them in a few key areas, making it the best all-around controller for any type of game. The controller's D-pad has moved away from the 360's disc style to a more traditional four-way cross style, which allows for better accuracy.
The shoulder buttons (which have been made snappier on newer models) are as comfortable to press as they are to rest your fingers on, and the triggers now rumble, which provides improved force feedback. The sticks are topped with a smooth center and rasped edge to reduce slipping, and the Xbox Guide button has been moved up and away from the center menu buttons to avoid accidental inputs.
The Xbox One Controller forgoes fancy extra features, instead focusing on being the best-built and most comfortable option for gaming across all genres. Since the device has the same instant plug-and-play support as the 360 pad, it will work natively with just about any modern PC game with controller support. The Xbox One pad works on PC via a microUSB connection; if you want to go cord free on older versions of the controller, you can buy Microsoft's $24.99 wireless adapter.
The latest version of the Xbox One Wireless Controller sports textured rear grips as well as Bluetooth support, which promises better range as well as wireless support on Windows PCs without a dongle.
Logitech has long offered PC users a wide range of quality accessories, both economical and high-end, and the F310 matches that pedigree well. The button layout is similar to that of a PlayStation controller, with symmetrical, bottom-aligned control sticks. The F310's D-pad, which is sometimes an afterthought on other controllers, features a responsive design that lends itself well to platformers such as Shovel Knight and simple menu surfing and button combos in Final Fantasy XIV.
Compared to the flashier GPX LightBack, the F310 may seem spartan. Although it lacks the bells and whistles, including rumble, its more practical added features make up for those shortcomings.
By including support for as many games as possible, Logitech aims to make the F310 (and its wireless cousin, the F710) the only PC gamepad you'll ever need. The controller installs and operates instantly out of the box with most modern PC titles, as do most PC controllers, but it has other pack-ins to allow for use with other games. If you're looking to game with older PC titles that existed before current input standards, such as DirectInput, you can toggle a physical switch to swap the device into the previous standard for use with older and PC-exclusive titles.
Even if a game does not natively support a controller, you can use the disc that comes with the F310 to install a profiler program that assigns any keyboard or mouse input to a button of your choice on the controller. It's a great alternative to using third-party controller wrapper programs that reconfigure buttons on other controllers, and it includes several options for saving preset profiles for repeated use, or for use with multiple titles that might require different setups.
The Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller is a pro gamer's dream. This premium gamepad is a cozier, sleeker and more durable version of the standard Xbox One controller, complete with a wealth of swappable parts that allow you to tailor the pad toward your personal style of play.
The Elite offers multiple thumbsticks with different heights and grips, as well as an optional disclike d-pad that lets you better feel each point of articulation. The pad's triggers can be locked for faster firing in shooting games, and its optional rear-facing paddles let you execute an abundance of actions without taking your thumbs off the stick.
Of the third-party solutions we tested, the GPX LightBack was the most compelling. While it features the same standardized button layout and core functionality as its peers, there are some significant differences between the GPX LightBack and its competition.
The body and grip are made of comfortable matte plastic, and the staggered control-stick placement instantly makes the layout familiar to anyone who's used an Xbox 360 controller. There's no installation required, and any game that works with a 360 controller (i.e., most of them) will work with this device instantly.
The real standout feature is the set of front-facing lights that indicate how far the shoulder triggers have been pressed, as well as the inlaid lights behind the control sticks that flash red when the rumble feature kicks on. In precision racing games, for which these features seem designed, the lights can help indicate how hard you're braking or accelerating, which can be crucial info for shaving off a few seconds in a rally racing game such as DiRT 3.
If these features don't interest you or apply well to a specific game, they can be toggled off with a physical switch on the top of the device, leaving you with a still-solid Xbox 360-style controller.
Dating back to the original Sony PlayStation, the DualShock's design is largely responsible for some of the layout standards enjoyed by gamers today. The PlayStation 4-based DualShock 4 makes some major departures from its predecessors, and they mostly translate well to the PC space. The DualShock 4's layout and grip are more comfortable than ever, with triggers and sticks that are particularly well designed compared to their PS3 counterparts. There's also a new front-facing touchpad, which brings some interesting possibilities to the familiar design.
The application of this nifty touchpad, as well as the built-in light sensor and gyroscopes, is limited on PC, however, and sometimes, games won't recognize the controller at all. The DualShock 4 worked with both Shovel Knight and Final Fantasy XIV, as both games were programmed with native support for the DualShock.
Fortunately, Steam now officially supports the DualShock 4, meaning you can use it with most major titles and enjoy many of the same customization options found on Valve's own Steam Controller. As an alternative, you can use a third-party program like Input Mapper to make Windows think the DS4 is an Xbox 360 pad.
If you play a ton of fighting games on PC, PDP's Mortal Kombat X Fight Pad is a reliable and fairly affordable tool for crushing your friends with deadly combos. This lightweight controller's d-pad is much more precise than that of the standard Xbox 360 controller, and its arcade-style six-button layout allows you to access all of your main attacks without relying on the shoulder buttons.
Despite its Mortal Kombat branding, the Fight Pad's button layout is especially ideal for Street Fighter-style games that use three punches and three kicks. The micro-switch face buttons have a clicky, immediate feel to them, though they're a bit sensitive and can take some getting used to compared to the higher-travel buttons on the standard Xbox pad. The pad's shoulder buttons are a bit hollow (fortunately, you won't need them much), but on the plus side, its start and select keys are tucked away at the top to prevent accidental pausing during heated fights.
PDP's controller also works with both Xbox 360 and Xbox One, making it a good value if you also game on a console. Considering that Hori's pricier, PS4-based Fighting Commander 4 will require extra software, the PDP Fight Pad is your best bet if you just want to plug and play on PC.
Macs may not have as many gaming options as their PC counterparts, but those who game on Apple machines still deserve a high-quality controller. Enter the SteelSeries Nimbus: a simple, refined, relatively inexpensive controller, made specifically with Apple devices in mind. Whether you want to play third-person action games on Steam or more casual fare through iTunes, the Nimbus offers a foolproof setup and top-notch performance.
If you've used an Xbox 360 controller before, you'll find the Nimbus to be almost exactly the same. It's a little lighter, though, meaning that gamers won't have quite as much heft as they're used to. Furthermore, the A button is red and the B button is green, which can be confusing if you rely on color memory to confirm or cancel commands. The trade-off for its long battery life is a long charging time on a relatively short Lightning cable.
While the Nimbus works well with Macs, it's optimized for iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs. As such, if you have one of those devices, it may be worth the price of admission just to have a quality controller for mobile- and console-style games. As Apple fans have limited options when it comes to controllers, the biggest thing to say in the Nimbus's favor is that it works, and works well. That may be reason enough to pick one up.