Best PC controller 2020: the Digital Foundry buyer's guide to gamepads

The best first-party and third-party controllers tested.

While PC gamers generally opt for a mouse and keyboard, millions of us also pick up a controller from time to time - and for good reason. In open-world games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, controllers can offer a more comfortable way to play for long periods, while in racing titles a gamepad can offer fine-grained analogue controls to steer around corners. If you fancy a little local co-op, plugging in a controller is a great way to do that too. But there are a ton of PC-compatible controllers on the market - which are actually worth buying?

The most obvious answer is that the best controller is the one you already have. This seems to be supported by stats released by Valve in 2018, which show the Xbox 360, Xbox One and PS4 controllers are the best represented amongst Steam users. However, are these gamepads necessarily the best options? In this article, we will answer that question by making our picks for the best PC gaming controllers on the market, including some you might not have considered.

How did we choose?

We used each of the controllers listed for at least two weeks - and in some cases, years - testing them in games like Sekiro, Forza Horizon 4 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. We evaluated each gamepad in terms of its suitability for different PC gaming genres, its ease of use and its depth of features. We made one overall best pick that should suit most people, with additional picks for different criteria - like spending a lot or a little, gaming on titles that don't feature native controller support and gaming on both phones and PCs.

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Best PC controller 2020

Best PC controller: Xbox One Controller

xbox_one

The best PC controller for most people is the Xbox One controller. This controller works well out of the box with the widest range of PC titles, provides better rumble than the DualShock 4 and is available in a range of colours at a reasonable price. Newer Xbox One controllers also support Bluetooth, allowing them to connect to PCs wirelessly; 2.4GHz wireless is also possible for a lower-latency connection. The Microsoft controller is also well-made, with responsive triggers and a large, comfortable shape.

However, the controller does have its downsides. Rather than charging via a Micro USB cable, the Xbox One controller takes AA batteries, requiring the £20/$20 Play and Charge Kit to support USB recharging. Likewise, the first-generation model lacks Bluetooth connectivity, requiring a £20/$20 Wireless Adapter for wireless connectivity.

Pros

  • Unparalleled support in PC games, without requiring third-party software
  • Low-latency 2.4GHz wireless connection, plus Bluetooth on later models
  • Available in a range of colours and styles at a reasonable price

Cons

  • First-generation controllers require adapter for wireless connection
  • Eats AA batteries by default, with a rechargeable battery sold separately

Runner-up: Sony DualShock 4 (PS4) Controller

ps4

Another good choice is the DualShock 4 controller. Its slender shape suits small and medium-sized hands and its controls are nicely tactile. It is also available in a range of styles, often at a reduced price.

While the Xbox One controller is our top choice, the DualShock 4 has several advantages over its Microsoft rival. Every PS4 controller works with Bluetooth, while only newer Xbox One controllers support Bluetooth. The DualShock 4 can also be cheaply recharged via Micro USB, so there's no need to keep buying batteries. However, you will need to install third-party software to get the controller working on Windows. Thankfully, the DS4Windows software is free, easy to use and offers options not found on Xbox Accessories app.

You can also pick up the Back Button Attachment, a £26/$40 add-on that provides two handy rear bumpers and a simple OLED screen for programming them. We found it offered excellent value in our testing; see our written Back Button Attachment review for more details.

Pros

  • Widely available, often at a discount and in multiple styles
  • Doesn't require batteries or a dongle to work wirelessly
  • Trackpad is convenient if your mouse isn't nearby

Cons

  • Requires third-party driver installation to work well
  • Button prompts often conflict with controller layout

Best premium PC controller: Xbox One Elite Series 2 Controller

series2

If you're willing to spend more on your controller, the Xbox One Elite Series 2 is the best controller we've tested thus far. Its controls are tight and responsive, with clicky face buttons and a generous grippy coating that ensures a great in-hand feel. There are plenty of customisation options too - you can add four paddles to the rear, swap out the sticks for four alternative options, adjust stick sensitivity and opt for a circular eight-way d-pad. The ability to toggle between three levels of trigger sensitivity with the flip of a switch is also impressive. There's even third-party software like ReWASD that lets you rebind the paddles to keyboard commands, if you want even deeper customisation, although the standard software is also more powerful than before.

The Series 2 also improves on its predecessor with a more modern design equivalent to the most recent standard Xbox One controller, including Bluetooth connectivity, a headphone jack and USB-C charging via the included stand or a USB-C cable. The rechargeable battery used here is arguably more convenient than the previous system that used AA batteries, but it's also not user replaceable. In total though, the generational changes here are overwhelmingly positive - and you can read more in our Elite Controller Series 2 review.

Sadly, the Series 2 has not had the cleanest launch, with some users facing quality control issues out of the box such as face buttons working intermittently or sticks drifting - not what you'd expect from a premium product. The Elite Series 2 is still good enough that we recommend it, but we'd encourage you to test it thoroughly after purchase and buy from a retailer with a solid return policy. Microsoft itself offers a warranty of 90 days in the US and Canada, or one year in the UK, so do take advantage of it if your unit develops any problems.

Pros

  • Incredible levels of hardware and software customisation
  • Comfortable, precise feel with excellent tactile feedback
  • Includes creature comforts like Bluetooth and USB-C charging

Cons

  • Durability issues are concerning for a high-end product
  • Rechargeable battery isn't user replaceable

Best cheap controller for PC gaming: Xbox 360 Controller

xbox_360

The venerable Xbox 360 controller, particularly its wired iterations, offer one of the cheapest ways to enjoy console-style gaming on the PC. With both knockoff versions and plenty of used models on the market, it's easy to grab enough controllers for everyone. Modern DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers feel better in the hand and are less likely to exhibit wear-and-tear, but if you're only an occasional gamepad user, this controller will do just fine and cost much less.

Pros

  • Available used for bargain basement prices
  • Widely supported by PC games

Cons

  • Ergonomics and tactility doesn't match newer controllers
  • Wireless models require Wireless Gaming Receiver for wireless connectivity on PC

Best third-party PC controller: Razer Wolverine Tournament Edition

wolverine

While Microsoft and Sony's long expertise with games consoles means that their controllers are the default option for many, there are also some great third-party alternatives worth considering. Razer's Wolverine is one of the best options, thanks to its use of clicky mechanical switches for face buttons, four additional programmable buttons and four extra paddles on the (more expensive) Ultimate Edition. The controller can be customised in the Razer Synapse for Xbox app, available on Xbox One and PC, where you can rebind the buttons, adjust thumbstick sensitivity and - of course - adjust the RGB lighting. While the Wolverine is extremely expensive for a wired controller, it is still a significant upgrade over a standard Xbox One or PS4 gamepad.

Pros

  • Best software for remapping and customisation
  • Well-constructed with tight, tactile and often clicky controls

Cons

  • Expensive for a wired controller, especially the Ultimate Edition
  • Lacks the metal components of the similarly-priced Xbox One Elite controller

Runner-up third-party PC controller: Astro C40 TR

c40

Another excellent third-party option is the Astro C40 TR. This controller supports both Xbox-style and PlayStation-style thumbstick and d-pad placements, thanks to a semi-modular design, and also boasts a high level of fit and finish befitting its premium price. We particularly liked the inclusion of taller thumb sticks, which allow for a higher level of control after a short adjustment period. The two rear buttons here are also cleverly implemented, sitting naturally beneath your fingers with sufficient resistance to prevent accidental presses. Each can be bound to any other button in a matter of seconds, without the need to touch software or change profiles, which is a nice touch.

If you do dip into the software, you're in for a treat - there's plenty of settings to adjust here, from trigger sensitivity to stick dead zones, and the interface is intuitive enough that you won't mind setting up a new profile for your next game. Connectivity is handled via a 2.4GHz wireless USB dongle, with the option for a wired Micro USB connection if you'd prefer. Battery life was excellent in our testing, with the C40 TR only requiring a couple of top-ups in weeks of use. The package is completed with a hard case for the controller and its accessories. If you play on both PS4 and PC and you're willing to invest in a premium controller, this is a worthy choice.

Pros

  • Well-constructed with responsive controls and clicky shoulder buttons
  • Deep customisation and intuitive software

Cons

  • Lacks the extra clicky face buttons of the Razer Wolverine
  • Not guaranteed to work with the PlayStation 5

Most adaptable PC controller: Steam Controller

steam

After largely shutting down their game foundries in 2013, Valve's biggest recent contributions to gaming have arguably come from their hardware division. The Steam Controller is one such item, offering a way to play a much wider range of PC games than your standard gamepad. The magic comes from the two blank spaces on the face of the controller, which swap the usual d-pad and right thumbstick for circular trackpads. Thanks to excellent haptics, these are able to better mimic a mouse than an analogue stick ever could, allowing PC games with mouse-driven interfaces to be used with relative speed and ease. There are other nice touches too, like two extra buttons on the back side of the controller which can be mapped using the excellent Controller Configuration software. Still, the Steam Controller is a divisive choice, and you may well prefer a traditional controller layout for games with native gamepad support. Valve stopped making the Steam Controller in November 2019, but it's still available on Amazon.

Pros

  • Works even in games without controller support
  • Touchpad works better than a thumbstick for shooters

Cons

  • Some games feel better with two thumbsticks
  • Feels cheaply made given its price

Best controller for PC, iOS and Android: SteelSeries Stratus Duo

stratus

The Stratus Duo is another clever controller; this time it's all about supporting multiple platforms. As well as connecting to PCs via a 2.4GHz USB dongle, the Stratus Duo can also connect to Bluetooth devices like phones and tablets when a switch is flicked on the back of the unit. Battery life is lower when you're using Bluetooth mode, but given your phone is best-suited for short play sessions, this isn't a massive concern. The Stratus Duo works on both iOS and Android, but it is worth remembering that not all games support gamepads natively. However, for playing Fortnite or an emulated SNES title, the Stratus Duo works great. While the controller's build quality seems sound and the controls feel accurate, the button layout isn't ideal - I found it tricky to tap the middle buttons without getting tangled up in the thumb sticks. It's also disappointing that the SmartGrip accessory for actually mounting the controller to your phone is a $10/£10 optional add-on - for the price, it really ought to be in the box.

Pros

  • Can connect via 2.4Ghz wireless (PC) or Bluetooth (mobile)
  • Good option for mobile VR gaming

Cons

  • SmartGrip accessory for mounting onto your phone costs $10
  • Relatively short battery life on Bluetooth
piles

Best of the rest: other controllers we tested

To keep our recommendations manageable, we've opted for eight controller suggestions in the main article above. Here are some brief thoughts on the other controllers we've tested, including a few options that nearly made it into the top eight.

PowerA Spectra Enhanced Wired Xbox One Controller: At £30, this gamepad is about £15 cheaper than the official Microsoft Xbox One controller. You lose out on wireless connectivity and a tiny bit of build quality, but you gain edge and button lighting in seven colours, two programmable rear buttons and three-tier trigger locks. The trigger locks didn't work perfectly in our testing, with the most restrictive setting on both triggers resulting in different amounts of movement, but otherwise the controller delivers a reasonable gaming experience and looks good doing it. If the extra features are worthwhile for you and you're not interested in wireless connectivity, then this is a decent choice.

Thrustmaster eSwap Pro: Another solid take on the modular controller concept, this controller only barely misses out on a full place on our round-up. While the clicky buttons and tool-free hot-swappable modules are exceptional, the small rear buttons are harder to use than those of the Astro C40 TR and there's no option for wireless connectivity or hair triggers. Still, given its lower price than the C40 TR, it's worth considering.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller: This is a good first-party controller with excellent battery life, but it is more expensive than its competitors and doesn't offer any compelling unique features beyond Switch compatibility and a cool see-through design.

Razer Raiju Mobile: While the Raiju Mobile sports clicky buttons, good ergonomics and a built-in smartphone clip, its unusual default bindings on PC require manual remapping in each game. By contrast, the SteelSeries Stratus Duo works well on PC out of the box.

Microsoft Elite Controller (Series 1): The first-gen Elite was a great controller, but the Elite Series 2 offers more features and a better tactile feel at the same price. Only consider this one if you can find it in working order at a good price, or if the lack of a user-replaceable battery in the Series 2 is a deal-breaker for you.

Nacon Pro Controller 3: The design and build quality of this controller is subpar, with flabby shoulder buttons and lethargic sticks, but the real issue is the placement of the extra buttons. Rather than paddles, Nacon has opted for a quartet of small buttons built into the lower grips. This is convenient, in that you can reach these buttons comfortably, but they're all-too-easy to set off accidentally and hard to differentiate. That makes the NPC3 a hard sell in a competitive premium controller market.

Razer Wildcat: Razer's previous-generation Xbox controller is hard to find new, but it can still be a decent choice if you can find it used for a good price. However, the Razer Wolverine offers better ergonomics and a more stylish design.

So, there you have it. We will continue to evaluate new gamepads and controllers to keep our recommendations up to date, and we welcome your feedback in the comments below.

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About the author

Will Judd

Will Judd

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

A bizarre British-American hybrid, Will turns caffeine into technology articles through a little-known process called 'writing'. His favourite games are Counter-Strike, StarCraft and Fallout 2.

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