PC gaming continues to expand, both in terms of the games on offer and the players being drawn into its fold, and for those newcomers finding the best PC controller can be a great transitional element.
But even if you're a hardened veteran, with years of experience under your belt, there are a growing number of titles on PC that making owning an excellent gamepad practically mandatory. If you've been digging into some of the hottest titles on Steam (or the up and coming Epic Games Store), you've likely seen one of those increasingly common splash screens recommending a controller. And if you prefer occasionally lounging on your couch while you game but don't want to lose access to your PC while you do, a great gamepad is a crucial part of your arsenal.
So what do you need to consider before you start shopping for the best controller for PC gaming? First, layout is key. If you grew up playing PlayStation games, a Dual Shock or other gamepad that mimics those classic geometric face buttons may be the best choice for you, whereas if you're an Xbox or Nintendo stalwart, you'll want that alphabet soup on the right side of your pad. You also need to think about whether you want to live a life of cordless convenience, or never worry about charging batteries again and grab a tethered controller. If you do go cordless, I'd strongly recommend investing in some rechargeable Eneloops, which will hold a charge longer and allow for more total recharges than standard rechargeable batteries.
The default Xbox One controller is functional but comes with a number of minor annoyances, and feels like a first iteration rather than a final, top-of-the-line gamepad. Enter the incredible Xbox Elite, a solution to all the issues plaguing the original controller (as well as it's 360 predecessor) and the best PC controller available.
The Elite's shoulder buttons are high and responsive, its d-pad is solid and differentiated enough to ensure you're never pushing in directions you didn't intend, and the analog sticks spring back pleasantly when pushed and glide around their hubs with silky smooth precision due to a low-friction ring at the edge of the cup. The Elite also allows for unprecedented amounts of customization, with slots in the back for additional paddles - a great boon for racing games with manual transmissions - and an app that allows every button's function to be reassigned. The Elite, both in build quality and function, is a truly premium gamepad that stands above its contemporaries and is the best option available for anyone very serious about getting the best controller available.
In terms of the vanilla controllers from the current generation of consoles the DualShock 4 is easily the best of the crop. It's smaller and more comfortable than its default Xbox counterpart while still managing to feel solid and sturdily built. While the big touchpad planted in the center of it is a questionable inclusion for console style games, it's mostly just a largely unused extra rather than an albatross weighing down the rest of this otherwise excellent controller. For anyone that doesn't want to lay out extra money for a high end premium controller, the PS4's pad is a reliable, attractive alternative. The one significant downside is that getting it to work on your PC outside of Steam games (Steam supports the Dualshock 4 natively) requires downloading some additional software, but if you don't mind some fairly minor extra leg work, the DualShock 4 is a great, and very popular, option.
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At first the Steam controller may seem like a fairly niche response to a very particular problem, but the truth is it fills that niche so admirably it deserves kudos. While it's all well and good to talk about sitting on your couch playing PC games on your TV, with a standard controller you're limited to a fairly narrow selection of genres. If you want to use your TV as your primary display option for PC but still want to be able to play deep strategy games and some of the other titles for which the platform is best known, the Steam controller is a great solution. It's dual touchpads make a very serviceable replacement for a proper mouse, and the deep customization options available for mapping buttons on a game-by-game basis won't leave you longing for your keyboard. While it's not the most comfortable choice on this list, for anyone who wants to play everything on their PC with a controller in hand, the Steam controller is a fantastic fit.
As third party solutions outside of Valve and the console manufacturers go, Razer's Wolverine Ultimate is an extremely strong contender. It's weighty and grippy and feels substantial in your hand and feels like a proper weapon. The impressive suite of options, like additional trigger and shoulder buttons and sliders on the back of the pad to set their activation depth, make it functionally very attractive as well. And speaking of attractive, the little flourish of RGB lighting in a strip around the top center of the unit and bright green accents on the d-pad, standing out in high contrast to the matte black finish of the rest of the pad, add a bit of welcome flash without seeming cheap or forced. The Wolverine Ultimate is highly customizable (it also features interchangeable d-pad and analog stick options) and a pleasure to use, its snappy buttons and hair triggers seeming to jump beneath your fingers while you're gunning down your hapless, virtual foes.
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Bonus: best alternative controllers
Of course, even the best gamepad won't hold up to some of the most niche and demanding PC titles. The deepest space simulations and most intense shooters call for a whole other class of control options, so below you'll find the best choices on the market so suit some of PC gaming's more demanding genres.
The T16000M is a fantastic standalone flight stick on its own merits, but paired with the included throttle becomes a truly elite option for the growing crop of modern space and flight sims. The stick stands perfectly straight and, unlike many cheaper joysticks, doesn't wobble or move except exactly where you direct it. It feels like a professional product built by people who take their craft very seriously, and it's designed to live up to its HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick) designation by ensuring you'll never need to reach elsewhere for additional inputs. It feels like a piece of military hardware you can plug directly into your PC, and the sheer level of quality and attention to detail justify the price.
Gaming keypads are a relatively new phenomenon, but they're a huge plus for gamers looking for the precision of a mechanical keyboard in a smaller, more manageable profile. The Orbweaver doesn't just shrink a keyboard down to a handful of easily reached keys, however—it's built from the ground up to emphasize comfort and customization. Its three pieces can all be adjusted to find the perfect height and ensure your hand and wrist are settled comfortably, and the thumb controls are all easily within reach, including the silky smooth analog stick. Configured to properly suit your hand, all the reactive mechanical keys and perfectly actuated buttons on the thumb module springing back under your fingers, the Orbweaver makes the thought of going back to a traditional keyboard seem downright distasteful.