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Todays Date
22 February 2018

The best controller for PC gaming

How we test controllers and others we tested

Ignore those who seem to think every game is best with a mouse and keyboard. Grid Autosport is not best played with a keyboard. Super Meat Boy is not best played with a keyboard. Ultra Street Fighter IV is ridiculous 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.

Microsoft and Sony’s own console pads, the Xbox One controller and the DualShock 4, set the standards by being the default, first-party options for the two most popular consoles, while third-party controllers tend to mimic them. In this case, the standard is the best: I haven’t found a controller better than the DualShock 4 for PC gaming, though the wireless Xbox 360 controller is very close.

It’s a slightly surprising conclusion when the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers are the industry’s accepted Windows controllers, and even contradicts a previous article I wrote in which I recommended the Xbox One controller over the DualShock 4. In that article I explain that I prefer the shape and layout of Microsoft’s controllers, but after further testing I’ve decided that when I put aside my personal preference for offset analog sticks, the DS4 stands out. The older Xbox 360 controller is still great, but the DS4 is slightly better in a few areas, and the Xbox One controller can’t currently be used wirelessly on PC, which is a major flaw.

Testing controllers

My hands are an average size for a man: 7.5 in long (from the base of the palm to the tip of my middle finger) and 3.5 inches wide across the palm. Obviously, I can’t test controllers with your hands, but I have asked around to ensure that others find the same controllers comfortable. Most notably, both women and men have told me that the DualShock 4 feels comfortable to them.

What I can test is the quality of the materials and construction, how the buttons feel and if their placement makes sense with my average man hands, the feel of their d-pads and analog sticks, and their software. I tested the three most commonly used console controllers—Xbox 360, Xbox One, and DualShock 4—as well as two Logitech controllers, a Mad Catz controller, and a Razer controller.

Testing Controllers

Though I’ve done some testing with first-person shooters, I’ve largely ignored the genre. While it may be important for console gamers, we’re almost always going to use WASD for any kind of shooter. That in mind, the games I primarily used for testing are the ones I mentioned above:

Super Meat Boy: A game which requires excellent d-pad control and responsive face buttons.

Ultra Street Fighter IV: I’ve put a lot of hours into SFIV with both controllers and fight sticks, so I know how it ought to feel. If I can’t crush an AI opponent as Cammy, something isn’t right.

Grid Autosport: I chose Grid 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 enough to make slight steering adjustments, and comfortably contoured so my thumbs aren’t bloody stumps at the end of a few hours.

Wrapping up: competitors and future testing

I tested several controllers before choosing the DualShock 4 as the best. None were quite as good in all aspects, though Logitech’s wired controller is cheap enough to make it noteworthy.

Razer Wildcat:

It’s hard to recommend the $150 Razer Wildcat specifically for gaining an advantage in competitive esports, even though that’s the marketing message behind it. The pad feels very similar to the Xbox One’s controller design in terms of size and shape, and with optional adhesive grips, holding the controller for long periods of time is made a bit more comfortable. I can’t speak much to the build, as it looks and feels like a similar plastic to most standard controllers, which may make it more prone to damage from an accidental fall or angry throw than the denser Xbox Elite controller.

The triggers have an easy pull, which can be shortened via two sliders on the back of the controller. Every other button presses with a satisfying and super responsive click, exactly like using a mouse. A caveat: the negligible amount of pressure required for a press means accidental button bumps aren’t out of the question.

D-pad design does away with omnidirectional inputs and sticks to four buttons. That means fighting game inputs might be hit or miss, but at least the cardinal directions are harder to fudge. The addition of two inner bumper buttons and two rear-positioned trigger buttons mean you can spend more time with your thumbs on the sticks, but for smaller hands, they might be a bit awkward to reach.

The optional adhesive grip is awkward to attach, similar to putting on a decal without air bubbles or wrinkles around the edge. It feels cheap and the harsh green is a bit garish, but probably won’t bother most. It gives the controller a mushier, comfy grip, which could do wonders for those who tense up while playing games. While it feels nice, I preferred the simpler black look before throwing it on. Fashion or function? A difficult choice.

It’s not an impulse buy, but the Wildcat definitely carries the features and build to warrant a higher price point—just maybe not $150, especially when the Xbox Elite costs the same. The Wildcat has a few of the same customization options and extra buttons, but the implementation isn’t as elegant. The optional back triggers need to be unscrewed and detached with tiny switches as opposed to the Elite’s simple magnetic swap design. It’s a time consuming process, and actively discouraged me from experimenting with different controller layouts as I played. As a result, the Wildcat settled into feeling more like an expensive, slightly customizable take on Xbox controller design.

The Elite, for the same price, felt like a luxurious, highly customizable take on Xbox controller design that consistently encouraged me to play around with its bits and pieces. Its software customization took things a step further, and the Wildcat can only save trigger/bumper button mappings to a pair of profiles.

Logitech F310 Gamepad:

This $25 controller is my favorite if you’re on a tight budget—say, if you want two controllers for the price of one. At half the cost of a DualShock 4, you lose the wireless capability but still get a solidly-constructed gamepad, and it worked as soon as I plugged it in. The thing is light, but feels like a tank, so I have no fear of abusing it.

That said, the d-pad is nowhere near the quality of the DS4’s—it feels loose and I had trouble accurately maneuvering in Super Meat Boy. The triggers and bumpers are housed on outcroppings that the knuckles of my middle fingers rub against uncomfortably, and the analog sticks, while pleasantly springy, have a convex shape that isn’t great for sweaty hands. I also found that the triggers offer too much resistance. In Grid Autosport, my finger got tired from holding down for the gas, which I didn’t experience with the DS4, Xbox 360, or Xbox One controllers.

Logitech F710 Wireless Gamepad:

At $40 on Amazon, I just can’t recommend the Logitech F710 over the wireless Xbox 360 controller, which is only $5 more. Aside from the batteries making it heavier, it’s almost identical to the F310. It’s not as comfortable as the Xbox 360 controller, and the triggers are small, shallow, and again, have too much resistance.

CntlrThe bafflingly-named Mad Catz C.T.R.L.R.

Mad Catz C.T.R.L.R.:

I absolutely love the look and design of Mad Catz’s $50 controller, which is like an Xbox One controller but with bigger analog sticks, a bigger d-pad, and better bumpers. I don’t recommend this version, though, because it’s immediately clear that it’s targeted at Android devices. None of my testing games recognized it properly. Super Meat Boy got halfway there, accepting input from a few buttons, but I ended up having to use Mad Catz’s slow-loading, minimal software to map buttons to keyboard commands. That’s not what I want from a PC controller.

However, there is the Mad Catz Pro Controller for Xbox 360. It’s not the one marketed for PC gaming, though as an Xbox 360 controller, it should work fine on PC—actually, it should work a lot better than the C.T.R.L.R. controller. It’s the most expensive controller on this list at $80, but with that you get something unique: the analog stick and d-pad can be swapped. That’s great, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to test it this time around. Once I have one in, I’ll put it through its paces.

Razer Sabertooth:

This is a popular, well-reviewed third-party Xbox 360 controller, but I haven’t found much to like about it. One of its big draws are two extra bumpers, which mean you can do most of the things you need to in a shooter without lifting your thumbs off the analog sticks. But that’s why we have keyboards, and when you ignore the extra buttons and novel LED screen, it’s a more angular Xbox 360 controller with clicker triggers (which are a little better), awkward bumpers, and individual d-pad buttons that feel designed for supplementary actions more than precise platforming control. The face buttons are my biggest issue: they barely depress and do so with a weak, pitchy click that makes me cringe the way finger nails on a chalk board do.

Future testing

There are tons of controllers out there to try, including the Mad Catz Pro I mentioned, but for now I’m very confident in recommending the DualShock 4. Sony is far from new to this game, and its years of R&D show. Meanwhile, tinkerers have made reliable tools to get it working on the PC with loads of customization options.

The Xbox 360 controller is still a great choice (and the offset analog sticks are my preferred design), as is the Xbox One controller, though I mark it down heavily for having no wireless PC support. Logitech’s cheap wired controller is sturdy and comfortable enough for the price, but that’s the best it can muster—it’s just not as well-designed as Sony and Microsoft’s controllers.

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