Advertisement

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Advertisement

Best PC controller 2021: Play with a gamepad on PC from just £20

Aleksha McLoughlin
1 Sep 2021
Advertisement

Maximise your esports performance and get the edge in the latest PC games with the greatest controllers on the market now

Gaming on a PC with a controller isn’t known for being the best way to play. The traditional mouse and keyboard combination is generally regarded as the better setup, particularly if you play shooters like Call of Duty or Counter-Strike; this is largely thanks to the precision a mouse affords over a controller’s twin thumbsticks.

But this is far from the full picture. PC gaming is famed for its versatility, a trait that extends beyond the endless backwards compatibility, graphical superiority and modularity of the platform into the sheer number of control options available. This means you aren’t lumbered with a gaming keyboard and mouse if that’s not your style: if you’d rather connect to your DualShock 4, Xbox gamepad, or even your Nintendo Switch Pro controller instead, you can do exactly that.

With so many controller options on the market, however, it can be a challenge to know what’s the right choice for you. In this article, we have compiled a list of the best controllers to use on your PC; we’ve tested products ranging in features, battery life and connectivity options for all budgets and preferences to find the right PC controller for you.

READ NEXT: The best PS4 controllers to buy

The best PC controllers: At a glance

  • Xbox Wireless Controller: Best PC controller | Buy now
  • Nintendo Switch Pro Controller: Best PC controller for battery life | Buy now
  • Xbox Elite Series 2: Best high-end PC controller | Buy now
  • Razer Wolverine v2: Best controller for competitive gaming | Buy now

How to choose the best PC controller for you

Why should I consider a controller for my PC gaming setup?

The main advantage controllers offer is analogue movement, courtesy of the humble thumbstick and trigger. This is especially noticeable when attempting to play racing games or third-person shooters on your rig, as a keyboard’s rigid digital movement just doesn’t offer the functionality of a gamepad’s triggers.

The same extends to the likes of fighting games: it’s especially tricky to pull off complex 10-hit combos in Street Fighter V, or master Korean back-dashing in Tekken 7 with the W, A, S and D keys.

The downside of controllers is the lack of precision in FPS games specifically. Shooters like Doom, Wolfenstein, Metro, Dying Light and the many multiplayer offerings available like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rainbow Six: Siege and others on the platform work best with a high-DPI gaming mouse.

READ NEXT: PlayStation 5 review

Wired or wireless: What’s the right choice for me?

In truth, there’s no set science to answer this question as it all comes down entirely to preference. Latency isn’t really a problem with modern controllers, as it would have been in the late 90s and early 2000s, thanks to the advent of NFC and Bluetooth connections.

If a controller is likely to be something that you play with whilst sitting at your desk, with a smaller gaming monitor setup (27-32in) then it’s likely that a wired pad is going to be more your speed.

However, if your computer is at the centre of your home entertainment system, plugged into a big 50in television for instance, then a wireless controller featuring a Bluetooth dongle is going to be the way to go, for the most comfortable setup.

READ NEXT: The best TVs for gaming

How much should I expect to spend?

As with previous console generations throughout the years, there has always been a selection of both first and third party controllers available on the market. Typically, you can expect to spend between £35 and £60 on an official controller from Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo, with third party (and officially licensed units from other manufacturers) ranging in price, anywhere from £15 onwards.

The adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ is particularly relevant in regard to controller quality. While some cheaper units can be surprisingly close to their official counterparts, it’s a rarity for more affordable third party pads to be on par in all aspects, with build quality likely to be the one thing that suffers the most.

What about compatibility and controller support?

The last thing any of us want to do is splash the cash on a fancy new gamepad only to sync it up and realise that it doesn’t work as intended. As PC gamers ourselves, it’s a fear we have had in the past, too.

The key thing to remember is that all official, and officially licensed, Xbox brand controllers will work natively on PC, making them the standard go-to for ease of use. Modern games have become increasingly better equipped at recognising and registering alternative inputs in-game, these include controllers that connect both via USB and Bluetooth.

For several years now Valve’s monolithic digital distribution platform Steam has included what the company calls ‘Big Picture’ mode. This overlay allows for users to navigate menus, launch games and tweak settings for using a gamepad. The biggest plus to using this mode, however, is the ‘Controller settings’ tab that offers PlayStation, Xbox, Switch Pro, and ‘Generic gamepad’ configuration support.

Simply tick the appropriate box and Steam will automatically run drivers that allow the vast majority of games to recognise and verify your chosen controller input. In our controller testing we found that all of these options worked well, and we didn’t run into any connectivity or compatibility issues.

Let’s say you want to use your DualShock 4 on games that aren’t on Steam, such as those exclusive to the Epic Store or EA’s Origin platform, then a handy driver program called DS4windows is your best bet. This software works by emulating an Xbox 360 controller, and it works perfectly from our experience. We tried the DualShock 4 with older titles, as well as more recent games like Cyberpunk 2077, Tekken 7, Sonic Mania, Street Fighter V and Mortal Kombat 11, to name a few.

READ NEXT: Xbox Series X review

The best PC controllers to buy

1. Xbox Wireless Controller: The best PC controller

Price: £49 | Buy now from Amazon

Even after over eight years on the market in one form or another, the Xbox gamepad is still the undefeated king of controllers when it comes to PC gaming. Microsoft’s Xbox brand has a longstanding history of well made and ergonomically pleasing controllers that date all the way back to 2001.

Whilst an Xbox One controller will serve you well, its successor innovates in small but important ways. For a start, the Xbox Series X pad adopts the same D-pad as the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller and introduces a Share button similar to that found on the DualShock 4 for instant footage capture. Combine that with the native PC support – by either USB-C or Bluetooth – that works with thousands of PC games straight out of the box, and you've got an unbeatable controller for PC gaming.

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 30 hours; Charge cable type: N/A (battery operated)

2. PlayStation DualShock 4: The best alternative PC controller

Price: £50 | Buy now from GAME

For some, the asymmetrical thumbsticks of the Xbox brand are less comfortable than the DualShock’s more established symmetrical stick layout. This is in tandem with the slightly different feel in the triggers and face buttons, as well as the location of these buttons and the slimmer frame. Whilst the two are similar in many ways, it’s safe to say that if you’ve grown up with the PlayStation brand, it may be tough adjusting to something different.

As mentioned above, the DualShock 4 requires a little more work to get up and running than an Xbox pad will, but this is quickly alleviated when using Steam’s controller configuration settings. The DualShock 4 can connect to your PC over Bluetooth or via a micro-USB cable, and has the added benefit of charging via the latter (although the battery life is nothing to write home about).

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 4-8 hours; Charge cable type: Micro-USB

Buy now from GAME


3. Sony DualSense: An incredible controller

Price: £60 | Buy now from Amazon

The controller that accompanies the PS5 is a remarkable piece of kit. The DualSense is bulkier than its predecessor, with a shape more reminiscent of the excellent Xbox Wireless Controller. The layout of the buttons and position of the joysticks is unchanged, but you now have a microphone built into the bottom of the controller, with an LED-lit button to mute it at will. Beneath the surface, you'll find an amped-up speaker, as well as a set of unique haptic feedback "rumble" motors that can deliver more nuanced responses to in-game actions than ever before.

The stars of the show, however, are the adaptive rear triggers. Your L2 and R2 buttons can adjust their own resistance levels to suit the scenario; if you're firing a rifle, for example, or pulling on a bowstring, the triggers will resist your press more or less aggressively. 

For PC gamers, the DualSense works best when connected via a USB-C cable. Steam recognizes the controller without issue, and while not all games support it at present, it's hopefully only a matter of time before that changes. Some newer titles are also launching on PC with native adaptive trigger support, and it's possible to use both the mic and the speaker as well. You can pair the DualSense with your PC via Bluetooth as well, but this proved a more fickle method, with Steam struggling to recognise the gamepad when we tested it.

Ultimately, the DualSense is the most technically impressive controller we've seen in some time. If you're happy to spend a little bit more than you would on the DualShock 4, you won't be disappointed. 

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 40 hours; Charge cable type: USB-C

4. Xbox Elite Series 2: The best high-end controller

Price: £160 | Buy now from Microsoft

With an eye-watering RRP of £160, it’s safe to say that the Elite Series 2 is mainly for enthusiasts. Look beyond its sleek brushed-metal chassis, and you will find a controller that offers a level of customisability not yet seen in a consumer model controller, PC or otherwise.

The hairline triggers are likely to be the main drawing feature of this pad; the tension in LT and RT can be adjusted in minuscule increments, making the controller ideal for competitive racing games, and other genres that require advanced precision.

There are six included thumbsticks that can be swapped out situationally and vary in height, width and resistance. These options are ideal for first and third person shooters that benefit most from twitch-based analogue movement.

The D-pad is also a big departure from the standard One pad model, featuring both a cross-style design and what Microsoft are calling their ‘Faceted’ version (now a permanent fixture of the Xbox Series X/S gamepad). This new D-pad, alongside the programmable switches on the back of the controller, are geared towards competitive fighting game players, with this specific control method said to reduce mis-inputs in games where every frame matters, such as Guilty Gear: Strive, Street Fighter V, and Mortal Kombat 11.

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 40 hours; Charge cable type: USB-C

Buy now from Microsoft


4. Nacon Revolution Unlimited Pro: The best high-end alternative

Price: £166 | Buy now from Amazon

Coming in significantly cheaper than the MS Elite 2, but still at a premium, is the newest iteration of Nacon’s Revolution esports gamepads, the Unlimited Pro. Straight away the striking design is likely to catch attention; the bright LED ring around the second thumbstick is a nice touch that adds to the gaming aesthetic well.

In terms of functionality, this controller paired effortlessly on the computers we tested it on, with a dedicated ‘PC mode’ switch on the bottom right. The controller, officially licensed from PlayStation and bearing that brand’s face button symbols, was picked up by our test rig as a One pad, and worked with every game we trialled with no connection issues.

What justifies the price tag of this controller is the modular nature at its core. The thumbstick heads can be switched out for concave or convex alternatives. Additionally, a set of differently sized metal rings are included that act like stoppers; there are three different sizes, each impacting the level of travel in each stick for a more precise feel to suit your preference. We found using the biggest ring on the second stick to work best and left the first thumbstick as it was.

We're also particularly keen on the bundled set of grip weights; they come in three sizes, and we personally found the heaviest pair (16g) added the ideal amount of heft to the pad. Nacon’s software allows for extensive customisation of trigger resistance, remapping buttons to different profiles, programming the four buttons on the back to your liking, and perhaps most importantly of all, options to change the RGB colours.

If you’re looking for something with a lot of options then this controller can fulfil those wishes down to very specific increments. It may be an intimidating array of features for most people, and we’re sure there are some that prefer a more straightforward approach, but if you want more freedom in how you play, this is a great choice overall.

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 8 hours; Charge cable type: USB-C

5. Nintendo Switch Pro Controller: The PC controller with the best battery life

Price: £50 | Buy now from Amazon 

Despite the ill-fated nature of Nintendo’s last home console, the Wii U, one thing was clear among the critics, and that was how ergonomically impressive that console’s pro controller variant really was.

Fortunately, the Switch is far more successful, and the newest revision of this controller continues to impress fans and critics alike. In our testing, we found that the Switch Pro controller paired via Bluetooth quickly, and held charge even longer than our wirelessly connected Xbox One pad or DualShock 4 did, with an estimated battery life of 40 hours, according to Nintendo.

Factor this in with the fact that the DualShock 4 generally holds up for around 4-8 hours, and the Xbox One pad is good for about 30 hours, and the choice becomes clearer. What you’ll find with the Switch Pro controller is a very comfortable pad that has a decent weight and outstanding build quality to it, making it an ideal option for those looking for something different to Microsoft and Sony’s controllers, at a similar price point.

Key specs - Bluetooth: yes; Battery life: 40 hours; Charge cable type: USB-C


6. Razer Wolverine V2: The best PC controller for competitive gaming

Price: £79 | Buy now from Amazon

Priced somewhere between the standard Xbox One pad and the Xbox Elite 2 is the latest esports-centric offering from Californian tech company Razer. It may not be quite as adaptable as the Elite, but this version of the Wolverine also features a dedicated hairline trigger mode, reducing travel for more precise first-person shooter control.

Razer’s latest Wolverine model includes ‘Mecha Tactile’ face buttons and D-pad. This essentially means that the four front-facing buttons and directional pad have a lower actuation distance (0.65mm) – the D-pad has also become a single rocking unit, rather than the set of four individual buttons found on the original Wolverine.

The front-facing buttons are also remappable too, which is ideal for those looking to play competitive fighting games with custom control setups without altering the on-screen prompts.

Key specs - Bluetooth: no; Battery life: N/A (wired); Connection: USB 3.0

Read more

Best Buys