PC gaming is still the forefront of the gaming industry -- whether you're looking for cutting-edge gaming hardware, the latest gaming titles, or a setup you can customize to your exact liking, PC gaming is where it's at. And while most people tend to focus on building a gaming PC that's perfect for their favorite games, there's one component that's more critical to gamers than any other: the controller.
PC gaming controllers offer the comfort and control found on console controllers along with added functionality, like programmable buttons and customized LED lighting. They're the perfect way to enjoy PC games, and if you take the time to set them up, they can provide a substantial advantage. Our favorite is made by Microsoft.
Here's everything you need to know about finding the perfect PC gaming controller.
Considerations when choosing controllers for PC gaming
Before you break out your credit card, take a moment to think about what you need out of your gaming controller. Start with these questions.
Wired or wireless?
The most important thing to decide while you're shopping for a controller for PC gaming is whether you want one that's hard-wired to your computer or if you'd prefer a wireless model. Wireless controllers are more convenient and a little more expensive -- but in some cases, wireless connectivity can cause tiny lags in your gaming response time. If you prefer not having to undo tangled wires, opt for a wireless controller. If you play games that require split-second response times, get a wired controller.
Are you a casual gamer?
If you're a casual gamer, you're in luck: most controllers on the market work really well with casual games like platformers, puzzlers, or driving games. If you're a serious gamer who prefers first-person shooters or other triple-A titles, you'll need to be more discerning. In this case, go for controllers that are precise, durable, and made by brands that you know.
Do you prefer speakers or a headset for audio?
Many PC gaming controllers support private listening, so they include headphone jacks that you can connect a headset to in order to get personalized sound. Gaming with a good gaming headset is a ton of fun because, in many cases, you get to experience surround sound and other effects at whatever volumes you want. On the other hand, a good set of computer speakers can make you feel like everything is happening in the room with you. Consider your own preferences, and if you think you'll encounter any instances where private listening would come in handy, get a model with a headphone jack.
Some PC gaming controllers set themselves apart from the pack with killer features. Here are our favorites.
Programmable buttons: With PC gaming controllers, customization is the name of the game -- so you can establish separate controls that are perfect for each game you play. With custom controls, you can get faster access to in-game menus, combination moves that usually require multiple buttons, or layouts that feel more natural to you while you're playing. Programmable buttons can be found on controllers from all price ranges -- anywhere from $15 to $150.
Retro designs: Modern gaming controllers all more or less look the same, but back in the day, there were some funky controllers out there. The thing is, some of the stranger control designs from prior consoles were actually incredibly fun to use, and in many cases, they helped gamers play better. If you're into one of the gaming controller form factors from yesteryear, look for retro PC gaming controllers -- they've got classic looks with modern functionality. Retro controllers are usually pretty affordable; expect to pay anywhere between $5 and $20.
Bluetooth: If you're looking at wireless controllers, pay attention to what kind of wireless it uses. Older controllers rely on connecting a USB dongle to your PC for wireless communication, but modern models use Bluetooth. Bluetooth is reliable and an easy way to wirelessly connect without a dongle. Best of all, most Bluetooth controllers work with mobile devices, so you can use them to play Android or iOS games, too.
Q. Can I use a PC gaming controller with a Mac?
A. Usually, but not always. Although Apple computers have never been a mainstream platform for computer-based gaming, plenty of gamers enjoy playing on their Macs, and roughly 60% of games available on PC can also be purchased for Mac. Many PC gaming controllers also support the OS X operating system, but a lot don't, so read the fine print carefully if you're setting up a gaming rig on a Mac.
Q. Do PC gaming controllers rumble the way that console gaming controllers do?
A. Yes, if the controller supports it. Many controllers include built-in haptic vibration mechanisms that are programmed to rumble at specific points in games. For example, if you're into driving games, a haptic controller will often shake when you brake at high speeds.
Q. Is it better to get a wireless PC gaming controller with a built-in rechargeable battery or one that uses removable batteries?
A. It's a matter of preference, but we generally prefer removable, replaceable batteries. Wireless controllers rely on batteries to keep them powered up and connected to your PC gaming rig, and while rechargeable batteries are more cost-effective, if they die in the middle of a gaming session, you have to wait to recharge them. Removable batteries, on the other hand, can be replaced in seconds if you run out of juice. If you're an avid gamer who plays for hours at a time, consider getting a controller with removable batteries. Otherwise, one with rechargeable batteries would be fine.
Controllers for PC gaming we recommend
Best of the best: Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller and Wireless Adapter
Our take: The Xbox One controller is the best in the console business, and now it's the best in the PC gaming business, too. If you're a console gamer who wants a smooth transition to PC games, this is the perfect controller.
What we like: You can buy it with a wireless adapter or a cable, depending on your preference. It works with Xbox One consoles. It's got a headphone jack and works with AA batteries.
What we dislike: While it's definitely affordable, there are cheaper alternatives out there.
Best bang for your buck: Geek Theory Retro-Link N64 Premium Classic USB Wired Controller
Our take: The Retro-Link N64 is one of our favorite replica controllers -- it brings back the classic Nintendo 64 control in all of its three-pronged glory. It's one of the most ergonomic and comfortable controllers around, and it works especially well for first-person shooters.
What we like: They got the design just right. It's so affordable, you'll want to get more than one. It works really well with emulators, so you can even enjoy games that were designed for this form factor.
What we dislike: It's a little flimsy, and many users report occasional lag between when they press the buttons and when the resulting action happens in the game.
Choice 3: Logitech Gamepad F310
Our take: The F310 is the best gaming controller if you need one that will work on multiple platforms. It's perfect for PC gamers who also own other consoles.
What we like: It's pretty much plug-and-play, with no setup necessary to jump into the action. It feels like a console controller, but without the bulk and heft that usually comes along with that.
What we dislike: If you want to customize it, you'll need software from Logitech -- and a lot of users complain that the application is subpar. It works with Mac computers, but not reliably.
Jaime Vazquez is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.