If you want to play on your PC, you probably need a controller; unfortunately, your computer does not come with one in the box. If you’re a console gamer, the included single gamepad isn’t enough for local multiplayer gaming, and the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons aren’t exactly the most comfortable conventional control scheme. If you’re a hardcore gamer, you may need to replace a gamepad that’s been worn out over many gaming sessions (or broken in a fit of frustration). Whatever your reason, it’s time to buy a gamepad. Here are the top picks we’ve tested and what you need to know before you buy.
The most important detail: what is your gaming platform?
The most important factor to consider is your gaming platform. PlayStation, Switch, and PC/Xbox have different controller standards, so you can’t just mix and match gamepads. Some controllers are compatible with multiple systems, but even then, you need to make sure your favorite gaming system will work with it.
PC and Xbox can be rolled into one platform because Microsoft has essentially merged Windows 10 and Xbox from a gaming perspective. In fact, if you want to buy a Microsoft game on PC (or play a game through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate), you have to do so through the Xbox app. If a controller works with an Xbox One or Xbox Series S/X, it will work with Windows 10. This also applies to Steam games; even outside of Microsoft’s specific gaming ecosystem, the vast majority of PC games that work with controllers use the same XInput protocol as games sold by Microsoft.
Nintendo Switch and PlayStation have different controller protocols to each other and PC/Xbox, which means different gamepad selections. Many controllers are available for the Switch in both wireless (via Bluetooth and USB dongle) and wired USB form. Some even have alternate XInput modes to easily work on Windows PCs. A handful of third-party gamepads are available for the PlayStation 4, but far fewer than PC/Xbox or Switch, and none currently available that we’ve tested. As for the PlayStation 5, the first part DualSense is the only gamepad available.
You can expect two analog sticks, four face buttons, four shoulder buttons, and a directional pad from almost any controller on this list (the Retro-Bit Sega gamepad is the only exception, designed to mimic Genesis controllers almost perfectly. or Saturn). These are the basics needed to play modern games, regardless of the system. Some controllers may also have motion controls and/or vibration. Gamepads don’t have to stop there, though.
Programmable back buttons are common among third-party gamepads (and the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller). These are additional commands that you can map any standard non-analog command to, giving you plenty of customization options. Depending on the game, they come in extremely handy.
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Some gamepads go even further, with Windows 10 and Xbox apps offering full control remapping and other customization options. Depending on the controller, you can remap each button, adjust the sensitivity of the analog sticks or triggers, program macro commands, or even create multiple profiles of these settings to switch between individual games.
Want more choices or more details?
If you specifically want to play on your PC, our guide to choosing the right controller may provide additional information you need, including advice on using Nintendo or Sony gamepads with PC games. If your tastes are a bit more eclectic and you want a good controller for fighting, flying, or racing games, our guide to alternative console controllers can help you on that front as well.