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Friday, February 16, 2024

Best PC controllers in 2023

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The best PC controller is the perfect gaming counterpoint to the classic mouse and keyboard combo. While the latter is the most accurate setup for shooters, there are plenty of games out there designed primarily with controllers in mind. You can bet the best gaming mouse and best gaming keyboard will win out in pretty much every PC exclusive ever made, but add a great controller to your inventory and it’ll keep you covered where they fall short.

It’s been a tough one, but the best PC controller today is the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2. It’ll see you through when you’re confronted with Elden Ring’s half-assed mouse and keyboard controls. Similarly to the rest of those we’ve rigorously and ranked below, it’ll keep up with driving games too. Since most keyboards don’t offer pressure-sensitive key switches, an analog stick is your best bet for accurate movement. Console ports end up with frustratingly confusing control systems, so joining the best gamepad club is our best advice.

Many will begrudge the fact, but the truth remains: controllers are sometimes the best tool for the job. This is 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, as opposed to a mouse and keyboard.

Just think, with the best PC controller, you don’t have to hunch over your gaming keyboard. Instead of ruining your posture, you can get into a laid-back gaming session. It’s also a great option if you need pressure sensitive triggers, which your mouse can’t deliver. We’ve tested boatloads of today’s top console controllers and PC controllers to find out which ones are worth cheating on your trusty keyboard and mouse with. 

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1. Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2

The best PC controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 0.76lbs (345g) (+/-15g)Connectivity: USB Type-C, Bluetooth, 2.4GHzFeatures: 3-step trigger modes, replaceable thumbsticks, paddle switchesBattery: Internal Rechargable Battery (40 Hours)

Reasons to buy

+ Lots of customization options+ Detachable Charging Dock via USB-C + Bluetooth-enabled (finally)  

Reasons to avoid

Heavy compared to most controllersSeriously expensive

If you use the Microsoft Elite Series 2 controller 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 portable USB Type-C powered  charging station for the controller’s new rechargeable battery, which has around 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.

It comes with a bunch of custom bits: 6 thumbsticks, 2 d-pads (cross-shaped and faceted) 4 rear pedals and one tool for adjustable thumbstick tension.

The Series 1’s surprising lack of Bluetooth is something that drew major criticism, but thanks to the Series 2 adopting Bluetooth, you now have a market-leading PC controller and something that’ll pair with a phone to play the Apple Arcade offerings or mess around Xbox streaming. It makes the controller that much more versatile, which is essential given the high price of admission.

The returning hair-trigger locks are still among one of my favorite things about the Elite. For those who haven’t used them, they control how far you need to pull the trigger, so there’s no wasted effort or time in competitive shooters, where milliseconds matter. The four additional back paddles are a neat feature too and can make for some interesting controller layouts. Never want to take your thumbs off of the thumbsticks? Simply assign the face buttons to the back paddles and you’re good to go. In fact, the extreme flexibility of the Series 2 has the additional benefit of making the controller highly accessible, meaning that more people can use it to play PC games.

Some people might find the more hefty controller a bit jarring at first since it’s heavier than the standard Xbox One controller by a few ounces. And while it’s nice to swap out the standard d-pad, both the cross and faceted alternative d-pads take some getting used to especially in fighting games like Dragonball FighterZ or Mortal Kombat 11.

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. 

Read our full Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 review.

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2. Xbox Core Wireless Controller

The best budget wireless controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 9.9oz (281g)Connectivity: Xbox Wireless; BluetoothFeatures: Hybrid D-pad, Textured Grip, Share buttonBattery: 2x AA

Reasons to buy

+Affordable+Comfortable+Officially supported by most games+Share Button

Reasons to avoid

Not rechargeable

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. But, honestly, that’s of minor import when it comes to PC gaming.

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, too. 

Otherwise, on PC, you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket again to pick up a Microsoft Wireless dongle to give your machine access to the speedy non-Bluetooth protocol.

But the standard Xbox Wireless pad is such a well-made, well-priced bit of kit, it’s tough to see how other manufacturers can possibly stand up to Microsoft’s mighty controller. And it’s going to stick around on our recommended list for a long time to come.

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3. PowerA Spectra Infinity Enhanced

The best budget wired controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 13.4oz (380g)Connectivity: micro USBFeatures: LED edge-lighting, 3-way trigger locksBattery: N/A

Reasons to buy

+Great button feel +Matches Xbox Series X|S controller+Good price +Improved lighting over previous model

Reasons to avoid

No wireless supportTrigger locks are sub-par

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, not too surprising since the Spectra is an official Xbox license product, though it has notably more bright lights. It’s a pretty swanky controller nowadays, considering its budget price.

I compared the Spectra and an official Xbox One controller while playing all the usual suspects like Call of Duty: Warzone and Mortal Kombat 11, and found that the joysticks are almost the same amount of tension and even the face buttons had similar feel when you pressed down on them. 

The button layout is nearly identical to an Xbox One controller, even down to the same texturized rubber on the joysticks, and the two extra programmable buttons in the back of the controller are well placed right around the grip. They’re reachable via your ring-fingers, so you don’t have to change your grip when playing. The 3-way trigger locks are great for competitive shooters, but although it’s a nice feature, they didn’t feel all that different regardless of where you set the lock, unlike the Series 2. 

The Spectra would have scored higher, but the lack of any wireless connectivity is a big let down in the days of untethered gaming. Instead, it comes with a 10ft snap-lock detachable micro-USB cable that’s a little overkill for playing at a desk, but great if you’re using it in the living room.

It’s a shame it isn’t wireless, but that sweet edge lighting and extra programmable buttons might be a decent compromise for $40, especially if you’d rather not deal with batteries but need a controller to give your little brother.

Read the full PowerA Spectra Enhanced (non-Infinity) review.

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4. Scuf Instinct Pro

The best customizable controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 9.9oz (280g)Connectivity: USB Type-C, Xbox Wireless, BluetoothFeatures: Changeable thumbsticks, removable faceplates, paddle switchesBattery: 2x AA

Reasons to buy

+Great customisation options+Feels reassuringly solid in the hand+Responsive and accurate

Reasons to avoid

Customisation really costsAA batteries, not rechargeableIt’s just not the Elite…

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 Microsoft-focused pad controller should you wish to eschew the two big bois of the console world. But when the Elite Series 2 exists in the world, how does anyone else compete in the enthusiast controller space

There are more customisation options on offer with the Instinct Pro than with pretty much any other pad you could name. Scuf is offering a huge variety of different cosmetic and physical customisation options from the initial store page. The faceplate options, and the rings around the thumbsticks, are the most obvious, but you also get to pick your choice of actual thumbsticks in terms of length and topper (convex or concave).

There are also options to change the D-pad, button facades, as well as the styling of both the bumpers and the triggers. Interestingly, there is also the option to remove the rumble motors from inside the controller which is something you’ll often find the pros end up removing from their tournament controllers, to cut down on the inherent distraction of hand-wobble.

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 rumble packs.

Scuf has at least acknowledged there’s little point trying to one-up Microsoft when it comes to the overall design of the Instinct Pro, because it looks physically identical to a standard Xbox Series X/S controller. Obviously aside from the faceplate, rings, and mute button on the front.

The thumbsticks are reassuringly solid and responsive during gaming a session. Hammering the sticks with quick switches of direction in a twitch game haven’t had an impact on the pad, and they still feel smooth and accurate when you’re in something less fast-paced. The triggers have a pleasing action, too, maybe not quite so deep as the Elite, but still just as accurate.

The rest of the button-feel is robust and reassuringly clicky too, though I would say the hair-trigger mode feels a little too shallow for my tastes. But I can see where some folk might prefer it, so I’m not going to count that as anything more than personal choice, not a negative.

The Scuf Instinct Pro requires AA batteries, like standard Xbox pads, unlike the Elite which houses a lithium ion battery. The ability to swap in a fresh pair of batteries mid-tournament is potentially a selling point, and lithium ion batteries are meant to have a finite shelf life. Though it’s not something I’ve ever experienced with my Elite pad in the past few years of use.

Either way, it’s a fantastic controller that feels great in the hand and is as responsive as you could wish for. It’s just painfully pricey with all my chosen greebles.

Read our full Scuf Instinct Pro review.

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5. Razer Wolverine Ultimate

The best mechanical switch controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 9.6oz (272g)Connectivity: USB wiredFeatures: 10ft (3m) cordBattery: N/A

Reasons to buy

+Swappable sticks and D-pad+Loud, satisfying face buttons

Reasons to avoid

Expensive for a wired controllerNeeds a separate app to configure

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.

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6. Sony DualSense Wireless Controller

The best symmetrical controller

Our expert review:

Specifications

Weight: 9.9oz (280g)Connectivity: USB Type-C, BluetoothFeatures: Touchpad, haptic triggersBattery: Li-Ion (6-12 hours)

Reasons to buy

+Super accurate thumbsticks+Adaptive Triggers+Haptic Rumble

Reasons to avoid

Feature support limited on PCBattery life isn’t amazing

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.

The DualSense doesn’t have official PC drivers, but that’s not too much of an issue as Steam makes it super-easy to use the controller both via USB and Bluetooth. The DualSense uses the older DirectInput API rather than the more universal XInput, which means that many games won’t instantly recognise it. If you enable ‘PlayStation Configuration Support’ in Steam’s controller settings, then your controller will work with most games.

The PC-DualSense relationship is a complicated one, but it’s gotten a little bit simpler now that we can update the controller firmware directly through our PCs instead of having to plug it into a PS5. Just download the tool called ‘Firmware updater for DualSense wireless controller‘ from the official PlayStation site, follow the instructions, plug in your DualSense via a USB cable, and you’re away.

Still, the PS5 pad is still an incredibly well-built controller and as responsive as you could wish. And if you hate the offset sticks of the standard Xbox layout then this is as good as PlayStation pads get… until the ultra-expensive Edge drops on our desks, anyway.

Best controller for PC FAQ

Can you use a console controller on PC?

Is PC gaming better with a controller?

This might seem like an utterly offensive question to ask in the annals of PC Gamer, but it remains true that certain PC games are far better played with a controller than with the classic keyboard and mouse combo.

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?

Ignore those who seem to think every game is best with a mouse and keyboard. Assassins Creed Valhalla is not best played with a keyboard. Street Fighter 5 is not best played with a keyboard. True, we play most games with a mouse and keyboard, but for PC gamers with ranging tastes, a good controller is a must.

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 as 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.

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