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While a mouse and keyboard is the input method of choice for many PC gamers, it never hurts to have a dedicated controller lying around—even better if it has wireless connectivity for untethered play. Controllers are ideal for third-person and sidescrolling games, and can offer unique advantages in some competitive titles (such as Rocket League and Fortnite). But while there are loads of wireless controllers out there, these are the ones actually worth your money.
What to Look for in a Wireless Controller
Here are a few things to keep in mind when comparing wireless controllers.
- Layout: There are numerous controller layouts out there, and they can change everything from the order of the buttons to the location of the joysticks. You likely already have your preferences when it comes to layout, but we’ll also mention any major alterations certain controllers may have compared to the rest of the pack.
- Battery: When you’re talking about any wireless device, battery life is a huge concern. Some controllers depend on removable batteries, while others use rechargeables. Regardless of which you prefer, they should last at least a few gaming sessions before needing to be swapped out or charged.
- DirectInput vs. XInput: These are the two primary APIs used in Windows to recognize controllers. XInput is the more modern API, which is much more widely supported in PC games and what most controllers designed for PC use. However, when it comes to controllers designed for consoles, such as the DualSense which we’ll discuss later, they’re still recognized as DirectInput. In order to get DirectInput controllers working properly in all games, you’ll need a program to switch the input from DirectInput to XInput. The easiest way to do this is through Steam, as its controller configuration settings can take care of all this for you with just a few clicks—it can also get more specialized features like gyro sensors working. This is the method we recommend for most players because you’re likely buying most of your games through Steam anyway, and you can use this in non-Steam games as well.
- Extra Features: While stuff like input remapping, extra buttons, and swappable joysticks aren’t necessary features for a controller to have, any controller that does feature them is definitely receiving some bonus points. This usually requires installing software for the controller, which we’ll be sure to mention and link to.
- Connectivity: When it comes time to connect your new controller to your PC, there are two main methods: Bluetooth or a wireless adapter. Both work fine, just depends on what the controller supports—but adapters, generally speaking, provide more stability and lower response times.
Straightforward: Xbox Wireless Controller
Xbox controllers have always been the “default” PC controller, and the latest model aims to continue that legacy. While the Xbox Wireless Controller lacks a unique design, extravagant features, or a cool name, it makes up for that by handling the basics of a controller exceedingly well. It’s comfortable, the inputs feel nice to play with, and it even comes in a few slick-looking colors. On top of that, Xbox controllers are extremely easy to connect to Windows machines, and you can remap inputs through the Xbox Accessories app.
The Xbox controller runs off of two AA batteries lasting for around 30 hours, but you can circumvent this with either the official rechargeable battery pack from Microsoft, or third-party offerings such as PowerA’s charging stand. The Wireless controller connects over Bluetooth, but you can pick it up with an additional adapter if you want a more stable connection. It’s also worth noting that Xbox One controllers, which are extremely similar to the Xbox Wireless Controller, can be found for lower prices if you look around—especially if you don’t mind buying used.
Something Different: DualSense Wireless Controller
PlayStation controllers are renowned for their comfort and quality, and the DualSense aims to improve further with a new sleek design and more features than ever before. However, stuff like enhanced rumble or adaptive triggers doesn’t translate to PC well, limiting the additional features to just gyro controls. Still, if you want something different from the Xbox controller that still has premium touches, the DualSense is a great choice—even if you need to do some extra work setting it up.
The DualSense controller will connect over Bluetooth, but after that, you’ll need to run it through Steam’s controller configuration software as the DualSense uses DirectInput. Definitely more finicky than the Xbox controller, but the excellent design of the DualSense makes it all worth it. You can also expect the rechargeable battery to last 5-12 hours on a full charge. Similar to the Xbox One controllers, PlayStation 4 controllers (DualShock 4) can be found for lower prices than the DualSense if you don’t care about the updated design.
Best Budget Option: Logitech Gamepad F710
The F710 from Logitech is a classic controller that has stood the test of time—and even comes in at a lower price than anything else on this list. While it’s a fairly basic controller, it still has a great design (modeled after the PlayStation controllers) and works excellently with your Windows machine. Just plug in the USB dongle, throw in a couple of AAs, and you’re good to play—no fuss required. You can even install the “Profiler” software to customize inputs.
Unfortunately, there’s no estimated battery life given for the F710, but customers and reviewers report it lasting anywhere from a few weeks to multiple months. While your mileage will vary depending on the batteries you install and how often you play, the battery life seems, at the very least, acceptable.
Premium Upgrade: Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2
A step up from the standard Xbox controller in every way, the Elite controller has loads of premium features for a matching high price. This controller is deeply customizable both on a software and hardware level; you can swap out the joysticks and D-pad for alternatives with various designs and sizes, adjust trigger dead zones and remap inputs through the software, and make use of the paddles on the back of the controller for extra actions. Throw in an improved design with grippy handles, and a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 40 hours, and you’ve got a great controller on your hands.
And just like the standard Xbox Wireless Controller, you should have no issues connecting the Elite to a Windows machine through Bluetooth or an adapter (sold separately).
For Classic Games: 8Bitdo Sn30+ Pro
8Bitdo is one of the best third-party controller manufacturers around, and while it primarily focuses on the Nintendo Switch, the excellent Sn30+ Pro works on PC as well. The controller looks like a classic SNES controller sprouted handles and joysticks, and it is fantastic for playing sidescrollers and other old-school-styled games. Through 8Bitdo’s “Ultimate” software, you can customize inputs (great because it, by default, uses Nintendo’s button layout), alter trigger sensitivity, and even configure turbo buttons—which repeat the same input at rapid speeds.
The Sn30+ Pro connects over Bluetooth and will last around 18 hours on a full charge. It’s also available in a few colors which mimick the style of the SNES, Super Famicom, and a standard black (pictured above).
Nintendo’s Offering: Nintendo Switch Pro Controller
The Switch Pro Controller has been praised since its launch for its extremely comfortable design and great gyro sensors, and it is possible to bring that experience to the PC. The controller uses a fairly standard, Xbox-esque layout except for some minor alterations like the order of the face buttons (such as the “A” and “B” buttons trading places). This controller also feels heftier than most and lasts for 40 hours on a full charge. It connects through standard Bluetooth, but it does rely on DirectInput instead of Xinput, so running it through Steam’s controller configurator is highly recommended—especially because it gets the gyro controls functioning.
For Fighting Game Fans: 8Bitdo Arcade Stick
Traditional fighting games are always best played in an arcade, so 8Bitdo has brought a slice of that home with its Arcade Stick. This abnormal controller mimics the design of arcade cabinets excellently and has plenty of buttons for mapping all the inputs, too. You can also open up 8Bitdo’s “Ultimate” software to create macros and remap inputs, but changing the inputs doesn’t just alter it on a software level. Each button has an LED label next to tell you what it does, and that will change accordingly as you remap inputs. While the Arcade Stick is primarily designed for fighting games, it also works fantastically with any classic arcade games or even modern titles which take on similar genres.
The Arcade Stick connects via Bluetooth or the included wireless adapter and will last 30-40 hours on a full charge. And for those interested in modding, you’ll be happy to hear that 8Bitdo designed this controller to be compatible with any 30mm/24mm arcade buttons and most arcade sticks.