After 15 hours of research and testing—in addition to hundreds of hours of gaming in years past—we’ve found that the Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Gaming Controller(the one that comes with the PlayStation 4) is the best controller to use with your computer because it feels comfortable and responsive, connects over USB or Bluetooth, and works great with Steam, where most PC gamers get their games.
The DualShock 4 Gaming Controller(model CUH-ZCT2, released in late 2016) also has some nice extra features that few other controllers have, such as an internal rechargeable battery and a touchpad that can simulate a mouse cursor. Making it work with non-Steam Windows or macOS games takes some extra effort, and headsets plugged into its audio jack don’t work properly with computers, but those minor shortcomings will be relatively easy for most people to work around.
You might like Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless Gaming Controller if you have larger hands if you buy most of your games outside of Steam, if you want more color options, or if you simply prefer Xbox controllers. Microsoft has made significant improvements to the third-generation revision of the controller, most notably the addition of Bluetooth so that you can use the controller wirelessly with PCs and Macs without needing to buy a separate dongle. But the taller design makes reaching all the buttons more difficult, its analog sticks aren’t quite as comfortable, and it requires AA batteries unless you spring for the $25 rechargeable battery pack from Microsoft. Or you can spend around $20 on a set of good rechargeable AA batteries and a charger.
If you want to spend less and you don’t mind a wire, the AmazonBasics Xbox One Wired Gaming Controller gives you most of the features of Microsoft’s version for around half the price. Its analog sticks and buttons are comfortable enough for hours-long gaming sessions, and since it’s compatible with the Xbox One, it takes advantage of the great Xbox-controller support built into both Windows and Steam. It does feel a little cheaper than the official version, its vibration isn’t as strong, and the headset jack produces tinny sound, but it feels and works better and has more features than anything else you can get for about $25.
If you play retro (or retro-throwback) games that don’t need all the extra buttons, sticks, and triggers of modern controllers, a simpler gamepad can provide a better and more authentic experience. It’s not as faithful a replica as the controllers that come with the Super NES Classic Edition, but the Buffalo Classic USB Gaming Controller is the best of all the SNES-clone controllers out there. Its buttons are comfortable, responsive, and clicky, and it has a Turbo feature to help with repetitive button mashing. But you’ll need to manually configure most games and emulators to work with it (you’ll find no built-in Windows, macOS, or Steam integration to speak of), and it’s a bad fit for most modern games, which require thumbsticks and more buttons than this Buffalo model has.
How we picked
Picking a “good” game controller is a subjective exercise, one that depends on what you’re already used to, the size of your hands, and the kinds of games you play. But regardless of which specific controllers you like, most people should look for the following features:
- Comfort: Regardless of your hand size, you should be able to hold the controller for a couple of hours without cramping, and it shouldn’t slip around if your hands get sweaty. The controller should also be heavy enough to feel substantial but not so much that it causes arm and wrist fatigue.
- Responsive buttons and triggers: Every button, trigger, and joystick on the controller should do what you want when you want. All the controls should be easy to reach, and the buttons should have enough space between them that you can find them by touch without accidentally pressing multiple buttons.
- Compatibility with Windows, macOS, and Steam: Controllers can be difficult to set up, they aren’t guaranteed to work with every game even if you get yours working on your OS, and remapping can be a pain. It should be relatively easy to get controllers working with Windows and macOS, and they should also play nice with Steam, the biggest platform for PC games.
- A good price: A good wireless controller usually costs somewhere between $40 and $60, and a decent wired controller should cost around half that.
- Wireless controllers should also work when wired: Controllers that use 2.4 GHz wireless or Bluetooth offer convenience and prevent cable clutter, but they can also introduce latency, and their batteries eventually run out. Good wireless controllers should also be able to communicate over USB when you’re playing games where split-second response time is important, while you’re charging the battery, or if you just don’t have Bluetooth.
Other features, such as touchpads, internal rechargeable batteries, or extra customizable buttons and triggers, are nice to have, but a good controller doesn’t need them.
We looked at 48 controllers from major manufacturers such as 8bitdo, Logitech, Microsoft, Nintendo, Razer, ScufGaming, Sony, and Valve, plus a few other controllers from lesser-known companies that are popular on Amazon. We ruled out those with poor owner reviews and others that cost way more than controllers with similar features.
That left us with 14 controllers to test: Sony’s DualShock 4 Wireless Gaming Controller, Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless Gaming Controller, Nintendo’s Switch Pro Gaming Controller, Valve’s Steam Gaming Controller, the AmazonBasics Xbox One Wired Gaming Controller, the Hori Nintendo Switch Horipad, the GameSir G3w wired gaming controller, the ZD-V+ and ZD-N, the Mygt Gaming Controller, the 8Bitdo SF30/SN30 Pro, the Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad, the Innext SNES Retro USB Gaming Controller, and the Razer Wolverine Ultimate Gaming Controller.
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How we tested
We tested all of our modern controllers on a Windows desktop, a Windows laptop, and an iMac with a variety of 2D and 3D games, including the first-person shooter Bioshock Remastered and the precise and exacting 2D action games Super Meat Boy and Cuphead. This process gave us plenty of time to evaluate the all-important analog sticks, D-pads, and trigger buttons, as well as to consider how the controllers felt in extended play sessions. For the retro controllers, we stuck to classic 2D platformers and action games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Metroid, and Mega Man X. We tested each controller for at least an hour, and we played with each of our picks for at least three hours across multiple games.
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Our pick: Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Controller
The Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Controller (the newer CUH-ZCT2 model) is the best PC game controller for most people.1 It’s comfortable to hold for long periods of time, it’s responsive, it works over both Bluetooth and Micro-USB, and it works great with Steam, the place where most PC gamers get their games. It also has some nice extra features that few other controllers have, such as an internal rechargeable battery and a touchpad that can simulate a mouse cursor. Making it work with other Windows or macOS games takes some extra effort, and its headset jack doesn’t work properly with computers, but those minor shortcomings will be relatively easy for most people to work around.
The DualShock 4’s buttons, triggers, and joysticks are all easy to reach for most people regardless of hand size, and they all feel accurate, responsive, and satisfying. The position of the directional pad—on the left of the controller, rather than toward the bottom center—makes the DualShock 4 more comfortable to use than Xbox-style controllers in retro-style 2D games like Hollow Knight, Cuphead, or Super Meat Boy, and it’s still a great controller for 3D shooters and action games thanks to its smooth analog sticks and easy-to-reach triggers. The rubber on the analog sticks is more comfortable than the surface of the Xbox controller’s sticks, and the shoulder buttons, triggers, and directional pad feel more substantial than the Xbox controller’s hollow-feeling counterparts.
Steam added native support for the DualShock 4 in late 2016, so now it works well with any Steam game that supports a gamepad in the first place. The controller can also navigate Steam’s Big Picture mode, and there are even a few DualShock-specific settings you can tweak: You can configure the controller’s trackpad to work as a mouse cursor, you can turn rumble on and off, and you can customize the color and brightness of the controller’s light bar.
If you don’t play Steam games (or if you just prefer more flexibility) and you’re on Windows, you can still install the DS4Windows app to further customize how the controller works and make it work differently in different games (Mac owners have to manually configure the controller in every game, assuming that’s an option). But the native Steam support should cover most PC gamers, and it finally gives Mac owners an easy, consistent way to use the DualShock 4.
The DualShock 4 is also well-priced; you can almost always get one for less than $50, and you can often find it for $40 or less. You will have to pay a bit more if you want a color other than black, though—while basic colors like red and blue usually aren’t too much more expensive than the black version, newer and more exotic colors run closer to $60 or $65.
You can use the DualShock 4 over Bluetooth or with a Micro-USB cable. To pair it to any computer via Bluetooth, press and hold the PlayStation and Share buttons until the light bar blinks. The Micro-USB connection allows you to use the DualShock 4 on computers without Bluetooth and recharges the controller’s battery while you play. The DualShock 4 doesn’t come with a Micro-USB cable, but if you don’t have one lying around, you can get a great one for just a few dollars.
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Flaws but not dealbreakers
Though Steam’s DualShock 4 support now makes it much easier to use Sony’s controller with a PC than it was a few years ago, Xbox controllers still have better integration with Windows overall—plug them in, and you’re ready to go, whether you use Steam or not. And most games still use the letters and colors of the Xbox controller’s face buttons rather than Sony’s × ○ □ △ labels, so if you’re not used to the game’s control scheme, you could more easily push the wrong buttons.
The controller’s headset jack also doesn’t work properly in Windows or macOS.2 When using a cable, you can hear sound in headphones but can’t chat (in our tests, an attempt to record sound from a headset connected to the DualShock 4 picked up an annoying low-pitched whine). And when paired via Bluetooth, the headset jack doesn’t do anything at all. If you want to use a headset, you’ll need to connect that headset directly to your PC. That isn’t a huge problem if you’re gaming at a desk, but it is annoying if you have a living room PC.
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Runner-up: Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller
You might prefer Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless Controller if you have larger hands, if you don’t buy many games through Steam, if you want more color-customization options, or if you simply prefer Xbox controllers. Microsoft has made significant improvements in the third-generation revision of the controller released in August 2016, most notably the addition of Bluetooth so that you can use the controller wirelessly with PCs and Macs without needing to buy a separate dongle.3 But this controller’s taller design makes reaching all the buttons more difficult, its analog sticks aren’t quite as comfortable, and it requires AA batteries—or a rechargeable battery pack from Microsoft that will run you an extra $25.
The controller’s ABXY buttons are attractive and responsive, the sticks glide smoothly, the lightly textured plastic on the front and back feels good to hold, and the controller has a satisfying heft that won’t fatigue your wrists or hands. But the Xbox One controller’s size makes it just a bit less comfortable to use, even for my larger hands. The shiny plastic shoulder and trigger buttons are responsive but feel less substantial than the DualShock 4’s, and the rubber rim of each analog stick is rougher and less pleasant to touch than the uniformly textured sticks on the DualShock 4. Although the D-pad is nice and clicky, it’s located below and to the right of the main analog stick, making it a bit harder to reach if you’re playing 2D games.
One of the Xbox One controller’s greatest advantages is that, in Windows, it’s dead simple to set up: Just plug it in, and Windows does the rest. While Steam’s native support for both the Xbox One controller and the DualShock 4 renders this moot if you buy and play most of your games in Steam, if you happen to prefer buying games from the Microsoft Store or somewhere else, you may have an easier time with the Xbox controller. Many games (Steam games included) also use the Xbox’s button labels in their interfaces, regardless of which controller you’re using, which makes tutorials easier to follow and control schemes easier to learn.
If you own a Mac and get most of your games through Steam, you won’t need any extra software to use the Xbox One controller—the native Steam integration works just fine whether you’re paired via Bluetooth or connected with a USB cable. If you’re not using Steam and a particular game won’t natively work with the Xbox controller, the 360Controller software makes the controller work with macOS and gives you a few other controller-customization options (with one caveat—the software won’t work if you’ve paired the controller via Bluetooth, only over USB or with Microsoft’s proprietary controller dongle).
Like the DualShock 4, the new Xbox One controller can connect to your PC with Bluetooth or a Micro-USB cable; it no longer requires Microsoft’s $25 dongle to connect wirelessly to a PC. To enter Bluetooth-pairing mode, press the Xbox button to turn the controller on, and then hold the sync button on the top of the controller for three seconds.4 We had no problems playing over Bluetooth during our testing, but there are some caveats: Your PC needs to be running the Windows 10 Anniversary Update or newer, Microsoft says only one Xbox One controller can be connected via Bluetooth at a time, and the controller’s headset jack doesn’t work. Connecting with a Micro-USB cable or using Microsoft’s wireless adapter fixes all those problems.
The Xbox One controller usually costs between $40 and $50 for a white or black version, and between $50 and $70 for more exotic colors. But if you love colorful controllers and don’t mind spending more, the Xbox Design Lab lets you pick out custom colors for nearly every single part of the controller, including the front, back, shoulder buttons, triggers, D-pad, and analog sticks—Microsoft offers a few templates to start from, or you can jump in and start clashing colors right away. Prices start at $80 but can go above $100 if you spring for special options like screen-printed NFL logos.
One reason to choose the Xbox One controller over the DualShock 4 might be its battery life—evidence suggests that it consumes less power than the DualShock 4, and either Microsoft’s Play and Charge kit or a good pair of rechargeable AA batteries will provide more play time than the DualShock 4’s internal battery. But the DualShock 4 will still last eight or 10 hours on a charge, and since its battery is built-in, you don’t have to spend more just to get a rechargeable controller.
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Budget pick: AmazonBasics Xbox One Wired Controller
If you want to spend less and you don’t mind a wire, the AmazonBasics Xbox One Wired Controller gives you most of the features of Microsoft’s version for around half the price. Its analog sticks and buttons are comfortable enough for hours-long gaming sessions, and since it’s compatible with the Xbox One, it takes advantage of the great Xbox-controller support built into both Windows and Steam (and you can use the same tools to make it work well with macOS). It does feel a little cheaper than the official version, its vibration isn’t as strong, and the headset jack produces tinny sound, but overall it’s a solid deal.
The Amazon controller’s design is similar to that of the official Xbox One controller, so if you find that gamepad to be uncomfortably large, you’ll have the same complaint about this one. But all the buttons, shoulder buttons, and triggers are responsive and feel as good as or better than those of all the other budget controllers we tested. The analog sticks and D-pad are as smooth and accurate as Microsoft’s, though Amazon’s controller also uses a rough plastic texture around the analog sticks that makes them less nice than the sticks on the DualShock 4. The shoulder buttons are exceptionally loud and clicky, but probably not enough to bother most people.
Most of the Amazon controller’s shortcomings are the same as what you’ll find on any cheap controller. Compared with the official Microsoft controller, Amazon’s controller feels lighter, and the quilted texture on the back also doesn’t feel as smooth. The vibration motor works fine, but it’s not as strong as Sony’s or Microsoft’s. But we prefer it to the other cheap controllers we tested because it has a headset jack (albeit one that produces tinny sound and a dull, quiet whine anytime you’re not hearing other music or sound effects), because it’s officially licensed with Microsoft’s stamp of approval, and because it works with the Xbox One in addition to PCs. We also like that the USB end of the controller cable—which is around 10 feet long, more than enough for most PC setups and living rooms—has a breakaway segment. It’s a little too eager to separate from the rest of the cord, which might lead to some unintentional disconnections, but you’ll be thankful for it the first time someone trips over your cable.
The Amazon controller behaves exactly the same way as Microsoft’s official controller when plugged into a PC or Mac—Windows and Steam both natively support it, and the 360Controller software will treat it the same way as any official Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller.
Amazon offers the controller in either black or white—most budget controllers don’t give you any color option, so it’s better than nothing—but you don’t get the same number of color choices as with Sony or Microsoft. For less than $25, it’s hard to do better.
Wirecutter senior staff writer Kevin Purdy was hesitant to buy a third-party controller but has been pleasantly surprised by the AmazonBasics gamepad after a few months of use. “I worked this controller through much of The Witcher 3, Bastion, and as much Hyper Light Drifter as I could handle,” he said. “It also connects to quite a few consoles that allow for USB ports, so it’s a good backup player in general.”
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For retro gamers: Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad
Any of our other controller picks will work just fine for retro games and emulators, but sometimes if you’re chasing nostalgia you want a simpler controller to match. Of all the many Super Nintendo–style replica gamepads we looked at, the Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad stands out as the most comfortable and satisfying. At around $15 per controller, it’s more expensive than most of the SNES knockoffs, but it’s also the closest you can get to the real thing.
The Buffalo gamepad has four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and Start and Select buttons, as well as a directional pad, plus Turbo buttons that simulate rapid mashing on one or more of the other buttons. All are responsive and easy to reach, and although you might miss the sculpted handles of modern controllers, the Buffalo pad’s rounded edges and simple layout make it comfortable to hold for extended play sessions. The shoulder buttons also have just the right amount of giving, whereas In the next retro controllers we tested felt stiff and mushy. Compared with a real Super Nintendo controller (or the extremely good replicas that ship with the Super NES Classic Edition console), Buffalo’s pad feels a little light in the hand, but the buttons feel nearly identical.
You’ll find no joysticks, vibration motors, or other sensors in the Buffalo gamepad, so it’s a poor fit for modern games; native Windows and Steam integration is also nonexistent. Both Windows and macOS recognize it as a gamepad, but you’ll have to map the buttons manually in each game (or emulator) you want to use it with.
The Buffalo gamepad has held up well over the years of use. “I carry the Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad into every Raspberry Pi retro game console I make for friends and family,” said nuttertool staff. “Every single time people tell me how great it is, and I’ve seen them last years of lightweight use.”