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Last updated: 03/25/2020

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The video game industry took a huge leap forward in the 1970s when it arrived in homes all over the world, forever changing the entertainment world. During this era of great technological advances, few new accessories were as successful as controllers. If you’re not familiar with them, you’ll find out everything you need to know in the following guide.

Video games are designed for you to experience different virtual realities on your PC. However, there came a point when the keyboard-and-mouse combination didn’t provide enough interaction anymore. This is why PC controllers were invented; they improved the gaming experience and allowed for incredible innovations in the industry. This accessory is a necessity if you’re an avid gamer!

Key Facts

  • PC controllers are joysticks used to enjoy video games or virtual scenarios on a computer.
  • While many of these controllers come with a cable, the most modern ones are wireless (with batteries). Not only are they designed to better control the video games you play on PC, but they also increase their realism and improve the gaming experience. Make sure you check that they’re compatible with your computer.
  • PC controllers come in different shapes, sizes, and designs. Some models also offer various functionalities depending on the game you play, with more buttons and features than standard controllers.

Our Selection: The Best PC Controllers on the U.S. Market

Any gamer’s goal is to experience the greatest emotions while playing their favorite video game. You need three essential things for this: talent, a challenging game, and a quality PC controller. However, picking the right model isn’t particularly easy if you don’t know what to look for. In the following section, we’ll introduce you to the best models on the American market.

The Best Wired PC Controller

The ZD-V+ is a very versatile and affordable PC controller, so it’s no wonder that it has become Amazon’s Choice in the category. Compatible with Windows operating systems but also PlayStation 3 and Android devices, this wired model offers the Plug&Play technology for XInput-enabled games and has a vibration function. Its ergonomic design features two non-slip directional sticks for greater comfort and precision.

The Best Wireless PC Controller

In case you didn’t know, Microsoft’s Xbox controllers are also compatible with Windows computers. This means that you can use some of the very best joysticks out there while gaming on your PC. Simply plug the adapter into a USB port on your PC and you can start playing. Microsoft has made this controller evolve over the year, and that experience ensures top-quality gaming experience and comfort. It offers a 20-foot range.

The Best PC Controller for Flight Simulators

Logitech is a leader on the PC accessory market, and the high-precision Extreme 3D Pro joystick has everything you need for your flight simulators. Fully compatible with Windows operating systems, it features twelve programmable buttons and an eight-way hat switch for an enhanced gaming experience. Its ergonomic design includes a rapid-fire trigger to take your targets down in a hurry, and a weighted base for more comfort.

The Best Retro PC Controller

With a design inspired by the classic Super Nintendo, this Bluetooth-enabled PC controller was created for wistful gamers who long retro consoles. It is compatible with an incredible range of devices, which include Windows and Mac operating systems, Android equipment, and the Nintendo Switch itself. Delivered in a stylish travel case, it is charged via a USB-C cable and offers an autonomy of up to 18 hours of gaming.

Shopping Guide: Everything You Should Know About PC Controllers

The PC controller market has grown a lot since video games became one of the most profitable industries in the world. And since this universe is incredibly varied, you can find very different models out there. Choosing the best controller for your personal needs can be tough, which is why we’ve answered the most frequently asked questions in the section below.

Attractive young men are playing video-game

You can find various models and styles of PC controllers, and you need to pick one that fits your personal tastes and needs.
(Source: Olena Yakobchukt: 55379472/ 123rf.com)

What is a PC controller exactly?

Also called joysticks, these input peripherals are designed to control the device to which they are connected. Originally designed for flight cabins to assist civil and military aircraft, they quickly became popular in the gaming industry — for both game consoles and personal computers.

What are the main elements of a PC controller?

These devices have greatly evolved in design, functions, and features since their first appearance for game consoles and computers. PC controllers integrate different elements depending on which game genre and operating system they’re tailored to. In general, however, you may find the following:

  • Stick
  • Base
  • Trigger button
  • Additional buttons
  • Start and Options buttons

Why should I use a PC controller?

While keyboards remain the peripherals par excellence when using computers, things are quite different when it comes to playing video games. If many users still prefer the keyboard for their gaming sessions, the use of PC controllers has been steadily growing. We’ve compared both of these peripherals in the table below:

PC controllers PC keyboards
Advantages Disadvantages Advantages Disadvantages
They’re compact and more portable. You need to configure them once they’re installed on your PC. They’re built into computers. They don’t have directional sticks or steering wheels, which are required in various games.
Their ergonomic design makes them very comfortable to use. You need to make sure that they’re compatible with your operating system. Their use is universal: everyone knows how they work. Excessive use of the keys can lead to wear.
Buttons and sticks are easy to use. They’re additional devices you need for your PC.
They’re specifically designed for video games. You will have more cables lying around unless you pick a wireless model.

What is the Plug&Play technology in PC controllers?

As you may have guessed from the name, technology means that you can connect your controller to any computer without having to make any configuration. In that regard, the vast majority of PC joysticks will automatically detect the device to which they are connected at the press of a button.

Steven PooleAuthor of Trigger Happy 2.0: The Art and Politics of Videogames

“The first analogue-joystick controller (for the N64) was especially designed to enable the kind of 3D games that [Shigeru] Miyamoto wanted to make, such as Super Mario 64.”

How are PC controllers configured without Plug&Play?

All models that feature the Plug&Play system are automatically recognized and ready to use the moment you connect them. In that way, you won’t have to configure them or download any pilot. However, you’ll have to follow a series of steps if you opt for a PC controller without this technology:

  • Connect the USB end of the controller cable to a USB port on your computer.
  • Click on the Start menu of your controller.
  • Search for the Control Panel of your PC to find external devices that are connected.
  • Press on the OK button of your controller to confirm the connection.

Are wireless PC controllers better?

While some PC joysticks require a cable to be connected, you can also find wireless models. If everyone is probably familiar with the advantages offered by devices that do not have cables, this doesn’t mean that those with cables aren’t useful. We’ve listed the main characteristics of both types of controllers in the following table:

Criteria Cabled PC controller Wireless PC controller
Advantage They always work correctly, since they won’t run out of battery. No cables will interfere or bother you while you’re playing.
Battery You won’t have to buy new batteries. You can use rechargeable batteries to avoid having to purchase new ones.
Functionality The data transfer rate is always high. You can usually go as far as 10 meters away from your computer.

What wireless connection system do PC controllers use?

Certain controllers integrate a wireless USB receiver, while others use the Bluetooth technology. If the latter are good enough to connect to smartphones, tablets, and computers, some may not be compatible with the Bluetooth version your computer has. In that regard, you should check this aspect before buying any controller.

Both of these wireless connections are effective. Simply check the settings of your computer to find out which Bluetooth version it has. If you’re unsure about the compatibility of your device, we recommend that you pick a PC controller cabled via USB — it should be included with the device.

Laptop computer gaming

You can choose between cabled and wireless controllers, your comfort being the most important factor. 
(Source: Ymgerman: 54430038/ 123rf.com)

How important are my PC controller’s buttons?

After the stick itself, the buttons are the most important elements of any joystick. As a matter of fact, the evolution of video games has led to the appearance of models that only featured buttons. In that regard, you should check that their pressing sensitivity is appropriate so as not to wear them out too quickly.

The way buttons are distributed is generally practical. You find the directional buttons on the left side, while the classic buttons used to make your character jump, run or shoot are to the right. The upper buttons add valuable functionalities to most video games, and the Select, Home or Start buttons are naturally necessary to make configurations and navigate.

Can PC controllers be used in areas other than gaming?

Definitely! Although the gaming world is the most popular environment for controllers, manufacturers now want to reach other types of users. This is why multimedia buttons have been added to many models, allowing you to play music or movies, change the volume or even have a spare remote control for your smart TV.

Jet LiChinese Actor & Martial Artist

“While films are a very visual and emotional artistic medium, video games take it one step further into the realm of a unique personal experience.”

What is the autonomy of PC controllers?

Wireless models generally use lithium batteries, but their autonomy can vary from one to the next. In that regard, certain controllers provide over 10 hours of continuous use, while others exceed 20 hours — but some can barely reach 5. In order to avoid having to make additional purchases, you can opt for rechargeable batteries.

You will want to choose a controller with greater autonomy if you’re a professional gamer or at least an avid player. If you don’t mind having a cable, the best alternative is to buy a PC controller with a USB cable. This will guarantee endless hours of gaming without having to worry about energy consumption or running out of batteries.

Father and son at home

The sticks and buttons of PC controllers are easy to reach. 
(Source: Vadim Guzhva: 40996540/ 123rf.com)

What are XInput or DirectInput connectivities?

They refer to the drivers required to connect your PC controller. The XInput connectivity is the one featured in the Xbox 360 game console, for instance. It is used for any Microsoft game that has similar buttons to the Xbox. The DirectInput connectivity, on the other hand, is for the computer to recognize the controller as a generic device, making it compatible with virtually any game.

Buyer’s Guide

Gaming is a lifestyle. Video games are part of our daily lives, and we’re dedicating more and more hours to them. PC controllers help us improve that experience, but not all models offer the same quality. While the one you need depends on your use and gamer profile, you cannot overlook certain specific criteria. We’ve discussed those key aspects in the following section.

Design

As you know, you use a PC controller with your hands. This is why you want to opt for a model with an easy-to-hold, ergonomic design that won’t tire you after long hours of use. It should be slip-resistant and offer an optimal distribution of the buttons and sticks to offer maximum standards of comfort and performance.

Playing video game with gamepad, close-up

Make sure that the controller you want to purchase is compatible with your computer.
(Source: Brizmaker: 94844824/ 123rf.com)

Autonomy

If you prefer wireless PC controllers — like most new models are, you need to ensure that it gives you a considerable autonomy of use. Nobody likes to be interrupted mid-game because their battery ran out. This is why you are advised to purchase a PC controller whose autonomy exceeds, at least, 5 hours.

Buttons

We briefly explained earlier that the buttons of your PC controller are fundamental for your gaming experience. In that regard, don’t simply pay attention to the number of buttons available — although this remains an important aspect. You also want to check their distribution on the controller, as well as the features they offer during use.

Multimedia Functions

Believe it or not, but life exists outside of the gaming world. PC controllers also need to respond to this reality. Nowadays, we use our computers for many more things than simply playing video games. This is why you might be interested in buying a PC controller that allows you to play music or movies, which will be a nice addition for your computer.

Wireless Connection

Our hyperconnected world can sometimes feel invaded by cables, which is why having a wireless device is so attractive. While cabled PC controllers don’t compromise on quality and can be just as efficient, it is undeniable that wireless models are more convenient. As you know, you should also pay attention to the type of wireless technology used by the controller.

Compatibility

We’ve discussed this before, but we cannot emphasize enough on the fact that you need to check if the device is compatible with your computer before making your purchase. You can generally find which operating systems the device can work with in the product description. Don’t neglect this: you may not be able to use your PC controller otherwise.

Summary

The video game industry would never have been the same without the emergence and evolution of PC controllers. This form of entertainment has now taken over computers too, and offers for quality controllers have skyrocketed. These affordable accessories help us improve our gaming experience and increase realism.

PC controllers come with different designs and functions depending on the profile of the player. While some are connected via a USB cable, the most modern models are fully wireless. These will offer different degrees of autonomy. The installation and configuration of controllers are very simple, in particular those with the Plug&Play technology.

If you liked our shopping guide on PC controllers, feel free to share this article on your social media so that others can also learn all there is to know about them. And before you get back to your gaming session, don’t forget to leave us a comment in the section below!

(Source of featured image: Valeriy Tsimbalyuk: 96513457/ 123rf.com)

Why you can trust me?

Brett is a keen observer of the latest technology trends and knows his way around the industry because he runs an electronics store. He writes about it in his spare time and wants to help others learn more about the technology industry.