The best PC controllers for gaming in 2021 | CNN Underscored Underscored Close icon Underscored
By cuterose

The best PC controllers for gaming in 2021 | CNN Underscored Underscored Close icon Underscored

22/04/2022  |   517 Views

Lots of PC gamers swear by their mouse and keyboard, but some titles are just meant to be played using a controller. Slicing a skeleton in half in Dark Souls or drifting around in Forza Horizon feels much better on a gamepad, especially if you’re coming from the console world. And since gaming PCs work with a wide range of peripherals, you have the freedom to use controllers from Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo as well as a range of great third-party options.

But with so much choice, where do you even start? After testing nearly a dozen gamepads, we’ve picked out four standouts that cover everyone from casual gamers to aspiring esports pros.

Xbox Wireless ControllerBest PC controller overall

The Xbox Wireless Controller's excellent ergonomics, build quality and near-universal compatibility make it the best controller for any kind of PC gaming.

$59.99$54.99 at Microsoft$59.99$54.99 at Best Buy$59.99$54 at AmazonSony DualShock 4Best PlayStation-style PC controller

The DualShock 4 is still one of the most comfortable controllers you can buy (particularly if you prefer a PlayStation-style layout), and its motion controls and touchpad can be utilized in some neat ways for PC games.

$64.99 at Best BuyPowerA Enhanced Wired ControllerBest budget PC controller

The PowerA Enhanced Wired Controller feels nearly as good as the core Xbox pad for a fraction of the price, and packs useful programmable buttons that even pricier options lack.

$37.99$29.99 at Amazon$37.99$27.99 at Best BuyXbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2Best premium wireless PC controller

With a sturdy, substantial design, lots of swappable components and a ton of software customization options, the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 is the best option for competitive gamers or those willing to pay for maximum comfort and durability.

$179.99 at Best Buy$179.99$139.99 at Microsoft$179.99$139.99 at GameStop

Best PC controller overall: Xbox Wireless Controller

$59.99 $54.99 at Microsoft and Best Buy or $54 at Amazon

Xbox Core Wireless Controller

Key Specs

The latest Xbox Wireless Controller improves on a pad that has long been considered the gold standard for PC gaming, thanks to its ergonomic feel and near-universal compatibility.

Due to some subtle but smart refinements to a design that’s been around for nearly a decade, the late 2020 version of Microsoft’s controller is the most comfortable of any we tested. It’s thinner and lighter than previous generations while still feeling satisfyingly sturdy, and the lightly textured handles and triggers add some extra grip without feeling abrasive.

The Xbox Wireless Controller’s clicky and responsive face buttons were reliable for input-heavy games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, and the triggers and sticks felt great for aiming and shooting in Halo Infinite. We love that the latest Xbox controller borrows the circular D-pad from the pricier Elite controller, though we found it to be just a bit too small and stiff for our liking when playing fighting games like Mortal Kombat 11.

You can fully remap all of the Xbox Wireless Controller’s buttons using the Xbox Accessories app on Windows — a nice touch for both accessibility and overall personalization. There’s also a dedicated Share button that lets you take screenshots on Xbox consoles, and more recently, Windows 11 PCs.

The Xbox Wireless Controller’s biggest downside is that it’s powered by two AA batteries (which are included) and isn’t rechargeable out of the box. You can remedy this by picking up a $19 Xbox Play and Charge Kit or supplying your own rechargeable AA batteries, but it’s still a disappointment considering Sony’s similarly priced controllers have built-in rechargeable batteries. This isn’t a huge deal breaker — some may prefer replaceable batteries over a nonremovable one that can die over time — but it’s worth keeping in mind before you buy.

The latest Xbox controller is also very versatile for multi-platform gamers. It can connect wirelessly over Bluetooth or via a wired USB-C connection, and is compatible with Windows, Mac, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S as well as iOS and Android. Unless you prefer a PlayStation-style layout, the Xbox Wireless Controller is the most comfortable, reliable and universally compatible PC gamepad you can get at this price.

Best PlayStation-style PC controller: Sony DualShock 4

$64.99 at Best Buy

Sony DualShock 4

Key Specs

Another enduring favorite, Sony’s DualShock 4 is nearly neck and neck with the Xbox Wireless Controller when it comes to build quality and comfort. And while it’s been succeeded by the PS5’s DualSense controller, it’s still our favorite gamepad for having a PlayStation-style experience on PC.

The best PC controllers for gaming in 2021 | CNN Underscored Underscored Close icon Underscored

The latest version of the DualShock 4 is a delight to hold, with slim and cylindrical grips that nestled perfectly into our palms. It’s right on par with the Xbox controller in terms of comfort, but it may be better for those who prefer a slim design to a curvy and hefty one. We also find the DualShock to be much easier on our hands than the newer DualSense, which is simply too big.

The DualShock 4 worked well across shooters and sports games, but it especially shone when we played fighting games. That’s because it has the best directional pad of any controller we tested, and allowed us to perform complex combos with very few missed inputs. Unlike the Xbox controller and its many copycats, the DualShock 4 uses a symmetrical thumbstick layout — this isn’t better or worse than what Microsoft offers, but if you grew up a PlayStation gamer, you’ll probably find it more natural for shooters and action games.

Despite being a PlayStation product, the DualShock 4 is plug-and-play with most modern PC titles and highly programmable within Steam. You can use its touchpad as a mouse in Steam Big Picture mode, and can even take advantage of the controller’s gyroscope controls to, say, aim your gun in a shooter more precisely and quickly than you can on a joystick. With enough tinkering, you can even use the controller as a mouse for your PC.

The DualShock 4’s drawbacks are pretty minimal on PC. There are a handful of legacy games that might not play nice with it, and since Xbox inputs are the standard for PC gaming, some titles may still show you Xbox button prompts even with a PlayStation controller plugged in. The controller is on the expensive side for its age, and may eventually become hard to find with the PS4 being phased out.

It’s worth noting that the DualShock 4 charges via the old Micro USB standard, which means it won’t work with the USB-C cables you probably have handy should you lose the included charger. But on the flip side, it has an actual rechargeable battery — something that the stock Xbox pad lacks.

Whether you prefer the symmetrical sticks of a PlayStation controller or just want to play Sony’s PC games such as God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn the way they were intended, the DualShock 4 remains one of the very best PC controllers you can buy right now.

Best budget PC controller: PowerA Enhanced Wired Controller

$37.99 $29.99 at Amazon or $27.99 at Best Buy

PowerA Enhanced Wired Controller for Xbox Series X|S

Key Specs

The PowerA Enhanced Wired Controller is a fantastic value, serving as a solid imitation of the core Xbox controller — and even one-upping it in some ways — for a fraction of its price.

We found PowerA’s pad to be nearly as comfortable as Microsoft’s controller, thanks to similarly ergonomic curved grips and a pleasant soft-touch coating on the front. Its textured grips aren’t very pronounced, but we really like its lighter weight compared to the standard Xbox controller.

The Enhanced Wired Controller worked reliably for most games, but like a lot of controllers we tested, the directional pad could be just a little bit bigger. But PowerA’s budget controller has one big advantage over many controllers that cost twice as much, thanks to two “Advanced Gaming Buttons” on the rear that are fully programmable.

These buttons are typically found on more expensive “pro” controllers, and were incredibly handy for allowing us to jump and slide in Halo Infinite without taking our thumbs off of the sticks — something that can mean the difference between life and death in a heated firefight. They even felt a bit more intuitive than some of the rear buttons on more expensive models, such as the Victrix Gambit.

Programming these buttons was very easy too — you just hold the program button down, hit any of the controller buttons, then tap the Advanced Gaming Button you want to assign that action to. PowerA’s controller also has a handy volume dial for your headset that doubles as a mute switch, which is yet another feature you won’t find on the stock Xbox controller.

So what are you giving up at this low price? As its name suggests, this PowerA pad is wired-only. Its face buttons, bumpers and triggers also feel cheaper and less snappy than that of the Xbox Wireless Controller. But if you’re on a budget and don’t mind staying tethered to your PC, the PowerA Enhanced Wired Controller is the best pad at this price — especially since it often drops below $30.

Best premium wireless PC controller: Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2

$139.99 at GameStop and Microsoft or $179.99 at Best Buy

Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2

Key Specs

If you’re a serious gamer willing to spend more than $100 on a controller, make it the Xbox Elite Series 2. Microsoft’s premium pad boasts better build quality and personalization than any other high-end gamepad we tested, and in terms of comfort and feel, nothing else comes close.

The Elite Series 2 feels like a distinctly luxurious piece of gaming hardware the second you pick it up. It has the same great ergonomics as the standard Xbox pad but wraps it in a comfortable soft-touch coating with pronounced textured grips across the front and back. It’s also notably heftier than the regular Xbox controller — this may be a turnoff to some, but we like its sturdy, solid feel and had no issues using the gamepad for hours at a time.

Microsoft’s high-end controller includes lots of personalization options, starting with its many interchangeable parts. You get a total of six thumbsticks with various heights and textures as well as your choice between a traditional four-way directional pad and a more curved option that’s ideal for fighting games. The controller also includes four programmable and removable rear paddles, and even includes a tool for adjusting the tension of the thumbsticks. All of these parts attach to the controller magnetically and are incredibly easy to pop on and off, and more importantly, they all feel great in-game.

The rear paddles sit flush with the back of the controller where our middle and index fingers naturally rest, which made jumping and sliding in Halo Infinite feel comfortable and intuitive. The curved directional pad was very handy for fighting games. The metal thumbsticks glide smoothly against their respective rings and feel less subject to friction and wear and tear than the plastic ones on the standard Xbox pad. The controller also features hair trigger locks that give you three settings for adjusting the depth of each trigger, and it was much easier to fire quickly in shooting games with the locks activated.

The Elite Series 2’s robust physical customization is complemented by some equally great software that lets you truly make the controller your own. Using the Xbox Accessories app, you can fully remap every button, program the rear paddles to mimic any standard button, finely adjust the stick and trigger sensitivity and adjust the intensity of the controller’s vibration across four zones. Once you’ve found a setup you like, you can create and save an unlimited number of profiles in the app and store up to three of them on the controller at once.

The latest Elite controller includes a sturdy mesh carrying case, which stores the controller, all of its swappable parts and the included braided USB-C cable. We especially love that the case itself can charge the controller, with a built-in charging module that you can juice up via USB-C. We often went weeks without having to charge up the Elite Series 2, and we rarely put it back in its case. If you do want to go wired, the included 9-foot cable is ideal for charging up while playing on console (or for folks with a living room PC setup).

The Elite Series 2’s excellent feature set comes at a pretty steep asking price of $179, though it’s dropped down to $139 as of this writing. The $99 Victrix Gambit is a solid and more affordable alternative that also has swappable parts, but its build quality is far cheaper. The $149 Razer Wolverine V2 Chroma has similarly robust software options (and RGB lighting), but it’s just not nearly as comfortable. And both of these controllers lack wireless support. If you’re a competitive gamer or just want the best-feeling, most customizable PC controller around, the Elite Series 2 is as good as it gets.

How we tested

As you might expect, our quest to find the best PC controller involved playing lots of games. We focused primarily on Halo Infinite (first-person shooter), Mortal Kombat 11 (fighting) and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 (action/sports) in order to get a sense of how well each gamepad worked with a range of genres. We took note of overall comfort, build quality and responsiveness while mashing away.

We also considered the types of special features each controller offered (such as swappable parts and programmable buttons) and how well they actually worked in the real world. Another key factor in our rankings was connectivity — some controllers were wired only, others were wireless and many worked with a range of devices for multi-platform gaming.

What to know about buying a PC gaming controller

One quick note before we dive into our winners: Most modern console controllers also work with computers, meaning the best PC controller might be the one you already own. That includes the Xbox Wireless Controller from the last few Xbox generations, the DualShock 4 from the PS4 and the DualSense that comes with the PS5.

This applies to buying a new controller too — if you’re someone who plays games on both console and PC, you may want to consider an option that works with as many of your platforms as possible. It’s also worth noting that most of the controllers on this list work with cloud gaming services such as Amazon Luna and Google Stadia, and that options with Bluetooth support will work with most modern smartphones and tablets.

Others we tested

Turtle Beach Recon Controller

$59.95 at Amazon or $59.99 at Best Buy

The Turtle Beach Recon Controller was a strong contender for a top spot, offering great features for the price and some especially unique audio tricks. Plug any pair of headphones into this PC and Xbox pad and you’ll be able to toggle a variety of sound profiles, including a Superhuman Hearing mode for amplifying enemy sounds while playing shooters. This effectively turns any set of cans into a Turtle Beach headset, and is complemented by some useful chat and game volume controls.

The Recon also sports two programmable rear buttons that felt good to use in first-person shooters as well as a Pro-Aim mode that lets you adjust your thumbstick sensitivity on the fly. It’s held back by a somewhat underwhelming D-pad and a lack of wireless functionality, but it’s still worth considering for competitive gamers who don’t want to splurge on something $100 or more.

Victrix Gambit

$99.99 at Amazon and Best Buy

Another close contender, the Victrix Gambit has a lot to offer competitive gamers for a reasonable price. It’s one of the most comfortable controllers we tested, with two swappable faceplates that include a plastic textured option and an especially smooth soft-touch covering. It features a total of four swappable thumbsticks, two swappable directional pads and even two optional joystick gates for those looking to make extra-precise movements, and all of its parts were very easy to snap on and off. That’s on top of adjustable hair triggers for quicker firing in shooting games and programmable rear buttons — two features you often have to spend $150 or more to enjoy.

However, those rear buttons weren’t very comfortable to use during heated Halo sessions, especially compared to that of the Recon or Elite controller. It’s also wired only, which isn’t uncommon for an esports-minded accessory but may turn some off at this price. Still, there’s a lot to like about the Gambit if you want some great customization options for much less than the price of the Xbox Elite controller.

Sony DualSense

$69 at Amazon or $69.99 at Best Buy

The DualSense controller that launched alongside the PS5 is effectively a beefier, more feature-rich version of the DualShock 4. It feels hefty and well built, with buttons that are just as snappy — and a just-as-great directional pad — as the one on the previous-gen Sony controller. However, we found the DualSense to be too big for our comfort level, so we recommend trying before you buy if you have smaller hands.

The controller’s adaptive triggers can change their resistance on the fly in order to make each weapon in a game have a unique feel, and the detailed haptic feedback does a nice job simulating various surfaces (such as smooth roads or grassy fields) when you’re navigating them in-game. Unfortunately, only a handful of games (including Deathloop, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Metro Exodus) currently support these features, so we wouldn’t recommend getting a DualSense for PC gaming for that reason alone.

Next-gen tech aside, the DualSense has the same touchpad and gyroscope controls that we liked using on the DualShock 4. It’s worth considering if you like big controllers (or just want to pretend you’re playing on PS5 as you hunt one down), but we think the DualShock 4 is more ergonomic and slightly cheaper.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller

$69 at Amazon or $69.99 at Best Buy

The Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is a solid, Xbox-style gamepad with a handful of extra tricks. It works well with most genres both wired and wirelessly, though its directional pad is smaller than we like for playing fighting games reliably. And despite its high price, its plastic build feels notably cheaper than that of Microsoft and Sony’s offerings.

Like the DualShock and DualSense, the Pro Controller is fully programmable in Steam, and with some tweaking, you can utilize its gyroscope controls for things like motion-based aiming in shooters. However, things get a bit tricky once you get out of the Steam ecosystem, as we had compatibility issues with non-Steam titles such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. The Switch Pro Controller is a worthy pick if you also play on Nintendo Switch, but everyone else will be better served by the standard Xbox controller.

Razer Wolverine V2 Chroma

$149.99 at Razer

The Razer Wolverine V2 Chroma has all the makings of a great premium controller, including great build quality, swappable parts, programmable buttons and lots of software customization options. We just didn’t find it that great to use.

Razer’s high-end gamepad is too wide for our liking, and its buttons and directional pad felt somewhat resistant compared to other models we’ve tested. The four programmable rear buttons are placed somewhat awkwardly, and unlike on the Elite controller, you can’t remove them. It also lacks wireless support, which won’t be a deal breaker for competitive gamers but is a bummer at this price. If you’re a big-handed gamer (or just really love Razer’s customizable RGB lighting), the Wolverine V2 Chroma might be for you. Otherwise, go for the Elite Series 2.

SteelSeries Stratus Duo

$59.99 $54.68 at Amazon

The SteelSeries Stratus Duo is a dependable Xbox-style wireless controller that unfortunately has been surpassed by better options since it first launched. The Duo’s biggest strength is that it can connect wirelessly via both Bluetooth and a wireless USB dongle, giving you the freedom to connect to two devices at once and instantly switch between them. But if that’s not a big perk to you, you’re getting a fairly standard controller that costs as much as the Xbox pad but doesn’t feel nearly as good.

Logitech F310

$19.99 at Best Buy

The Logitech F310 was a popular budget option for many years, but it just doesn’t hold up today. Its awkward curves and especially high shoulder buttons made it hard to get comfortable while playing most games, and its directional pad is just OK for precision-heavy genres like fighting games. It works well with most PC games and feels sturdy for the price, but unless you have a hard budget of $20, you’re better off paying a little more for the PowerA Enhanced.

More from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing