The best PC controller is a precious piece of kit for the PC gamer with varied tastes. Simply put, there are a lot of games—from Shovel Knight to Forza Horizon—that are better played with a gamepad than a gaming mouse and gaming keyboard. The best PC controllers also give you more freedom to lean back from the desk and relax into a chilled gaming session.
It’s also true that some games end up with a monumentally confusing control system when mapped from console to PC if you end up using a mouse and keyboard. And that’s true even for games held to be PC classics. The Witcher 3, for example, actually has a far more straightforward control system when played with the best PC controller.
In the end then, while the mouse and keyboard setup is great for a lot of things, especially shooters, there absolutely should be a place for the best PC controller in your arsenal. That’s why we’ve tested today’s top console controllers and PC pads to find out which is worthy of your cash.
The Best PC Controller 2021
If you use the Microsoft Elite Series, 2 controllers, 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.
PowerA’s Spectra Infinity Enhanced wired controller is a step up over the Spectra Enhanced we used to rate in this guide. The latest version has more similarities to the Xbox Series X|S controller, with notably more bright lights. It’s a pretty swanky controller nowadays, considering its budget price.
The edge lighting gives the Spectra some personality, and the 3-way trigger locks are great for competitive shooters, too. The Spectra would have scored higher, but the lack of any wireless connectivity is a big let down in the days of untethered gaming.
A worthy sacrifice for a cheaper price, though. No doubt about that.
The original Xbox One Wireless Controller was a staple for PC gaming. With the Xbox Series S/X release, we were all curious to see how Xbox improved on an already killer gamepad.
This controller retains a lot of what we loved about the original. Keeping it very comfortable overall design with texturized rubber grips makes you feel extremely great in your hands. Much like the original, it boasts a vastly superior d-pad that you won’t dread using in fighting games and platformers, taking cues from the Xbox One Elite Series controllers. You might have noticed a new button in the center of the controller; a much-requested Share button now lets you capture screenshots and gameplay footage without diving too much into the menus.
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 5 DualSense has a “you have to touch it to believe it” quality thanks to its new haptic motors and “Adaptive” triggers, which can offer resistance under your finger. Firing a bow can actually feel like firing a bow, for example. The rumble is also easily the best and most nuanced we’ve ever felt in a controller. It really is as good as people say.
The bad news: the DualSense’s most advanced features don’t work in PC games yet, since games will need to be programmed to take advantage of them. But Steam already offers full support for the controller, so it’s at least a breeze to plug in and use like any other pad. It’s a hair less comfortable than the Xbox Series X controller, and not as simple to use in non-Steam games, but if you prefer Sony’s analog stick layout or love gyro aiming, this is the one to get.
And maybe someday we’ll see PC games take advantage of those new triggers and haptics, too.
Scuf doesn’t mess around with its controllers, offering some of the best premium pads outside of Sony and Microsoft. And the Instinct Pro is the absolute best controller should you wish to eschew the two big bois of the console world.
There are more customisation options on offer with the Instinct Pro than with pretty much any other pad you could name. Though that will definitely impact the price—with my own choices I managed to bump the cost up to just shy of $250. But did create a gloriously pink pad without the distraction of rumblepacks.
The tough thing is that both Sony and Microsoft’s controllers are just so good, and if you want something premium the Elite Series 2 absolutely ticks that box. The fact the Instinct Pro makes that look like good value makes it a real tough sell. It is, though, a fantastic controller that feels great in the hand and is as responsive as you could wish for. It’s just painfully pricey.
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.
Can you use a console controller on a PC?
How to set up your controller on PC:
Is PC gaming better with a controller?
Sports games are the most obvious, as anyone who has tried to play FIFA using the strange keyboard/mouse control scheme can attest to. But there are other titles, specifically those which were primarily designed for consoles whose control schemes are so unwieldy away from a pad that playing them any other way is a pain.
You could play Witcher 2 without a controller, for example, but it actually felt far better using a pad on PC.
How do we test controllers?
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. With that in mind, the games I used mainly for testing are the ones mentioned below:
Katana Zero: A game that requires excellent d-pad control and responsive face buttons.
Street Fighter V: I’ve put a lot of hours into Street Fighter V with both controllers and fight sticks, so I know how it ought to feel. If I can’t crush an AI opponent like Ken, 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.