Who should get this
Not every PC game is best played with a keyboard and mouse. If you'd rather sit back and play some of your games with a controller instead, you should consider one of our picks. But if you already own an Xbox 360, an Xbox One, or a PlayStation 4, and you're happy with the controller that came with it, you probably don't need to buy a different one.
How we picked
All the gaming controllers we tested for this guide. Photo: Kimber Streams
A great controller must be comfortable to hold for long periods of time, have a good grip to prevent your hands from sliding off even if they get sweaty, and it ought to be a reasonable weight. Although people have individual preferences, a controller's buttons and triggers all need to be responsive and accurate: They need to do what you tell them to do, when you tell them to do it. But comfort and ergonomics aren't everything; a controller also needs to play nice with your computer.
We looked at 22 controllers from major manufacturers such as Logitech, Mad Catz, Microsoft, Nvidia, Razer, Sony, SteelSeries, and Valve, plus a few other controllers from lesser-known manufacturers that are popular on Amazon. We ruled out those with poor user reviews and others that cost way more than controllers with similar features. That left us with 11 controllers to test with the help of five people with varying hand sizes and comfort preferences.
The Sony DualShock 4 is the most comfortable controller for most hands. Photo: Kevin Purdy
The Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Controller is the most comfortable controller for average-size hands. All of its analog sticks, buttons, and triggers are easy to reach and work well, which isn't the case for several other models, including the Xbox One controller and Steam Controller. The DualShock 4 works over Bluetooth or with a Micro-USB cable (not included; you can get a great Micro-USB for about a dollar). Plus, its touchpad can simulate a mouse cursor, a feature no other good controller has.
Currently priced less than $50, the DualShock 4 can work both wired and wirelessly—unlike the Xbox One controller, which needs a dongle to work wirelessly on a PC, making it more expensive than the DualShock 4. But the DualShock 4 requires a bit of effort (and software like DS4Windows) to set up on Windows, it won't work for most games on OS X, and it's a bit small for large hands.
Runner-up with an easier setup
If you have large hands (unlike me), the Xbox One controller might be more comfortable than the DualShock 4. Photo: Kevin Purdy
If you want a controller that's easier to set up on Windows and will also work on OS X, or if you have large hands, or if you simply prefer Xbox-style controllers, you should get the Xbox One controller bundled with a wireless adapter. The Xbox One's greatest advantage over the DualShock 4 is ease of setup. In Windows, the drivers automatically install when you plug in the controller. On OS X, the process is about as complicated as setting up the DualShock 4 on Windows—you just need the 360Controller software.
This controller lacks a touchpad, though, and the shoulder buttons are awkwardly placed. Many people prefer the DualShock 4's triggers and analog sticks, too. The Xbox One controller also costs more to use wirelessly. If you don't need wireless and want to save some money, buy it bundled with a Micro-USB cable instead.
Inexpensive and well-loved
The Xbox 360 controller's body is narrower than the Xbox One controller's, so it's easier for small and medium-size hands to grip. Photo: Kevin Purdy
If you don't want to spend more than $35 on a controller, you should get the wired Xbox 360 Controller for Windows, the go-to controller for PC gamers for many years. The Xbox 360 controller is a bit smaller and lighter than the Xbox One controller, and its more compact size makes the buttons and analog sticks a little easier to reach for people with smaller hands and shorter thumbs.
All the buttons (including the shoulder bumpers) are well-placed and easy for hands of all sizes to reach, but this controller isn't without its flaws. It can't work wirelessly—Microsoft sells a wireless version, but that controller plus the required adapter cost about the same as the wireless Xbox One controller and adapter. And the D-pad is horrendous.
Fancy but pricey
The Elite is about the same size as the Xbox One controller, but its soft surface and textured grip make it more comfortable to hold. Photo: Kevin Purdy
If you play a lot of games on your PC that require a controller and you don't mind spending $150 for a fantastic one, the Xbox Elite is the best option available. The Elite is an upgrade over our other picks in just about every way, with better, customizable controls, four additional paddles on the back, and easier setup than the DualShock 4. Every single member of our testing panel loved it—and I bought one myself—but for most people it isn't worth three times the price of the DualShock 4.
About the Steam Controller
The Steam Controller feels hollow and cheap, and it's large and awkward to hold. Photo: Kevin Purdy
The Steam Controller is the only controller that bridges the gap between games with controller support and games better played on a mouse and keyboard. It has touchpads in place of a D-pad and right analog stick; these components offer haptic feedback that you can configure to mimic the movement and feeling of either a mouse or an analog stick. Its dual-stage triggers and back buttons are designed to give you more control and customization than traditional console controllers provide.
Despite this, the Steam Controller isn't a great controller. Its plasticky body feels cheap and hollow; it has an awkward, large shape, with difficult-to-reach buttons and controls; and because it's so different from standard gaming controllers, it requires a substantial learning curve. Until Valve releases better hardware, we can't recommend it for most people.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.