Xbox controllers aren’t just for the Xbox anymore—controllers designed for Microsoft’s game console work just as well on Windows, and most games will understand the control layout automatically. But which one should you get? There are a plethora of third-party options, of course, but Microsoft has also expanded its lineup of controllers to run the gamut from practical to lavishly expensive.
While most gamers will be happy with a middle-of-the-road pick, those who play competitively (or like to pretend they do) might want a controller with more capabilities. And those on a budget might want to save some cash for PC components and other upgrades. We’ve tested the most popular controllers to find something for everyone.
1. Xbox Wireless Controller (2020) – Best Xbox controller for PC
USB-C port is better for long-term support
Refined, more tactile d-pad
Grippy textures and slimmer body
Rechargeable battery is not included
Share button is hard to reach
Microsoft updated its standard Xbox controller for the Series X and S launch in 2020, and it’s still the best Xbox controller for most PC gamers. It has a refined design, comfortable hand-feel, and importantly, Bluetooth connectivity so you don’t need to add a new wireless dongle to your PC. Plus, it costs just $60, and often less when on sale.
Pairing the Xbox controller is completely painless. Simply long-press the Bluetooth button on the top edge, and select the controller in your PC’s Bluetooth settings. It will mesh perfectly with the controller settings in most Windows games, and there’s no additional software to muck around with.
This controller has the standard Xbox button layout, featuring asymmetrical thumbsticks and nicely tactile buttons. The round d-pad is a welcome upgrade over older versions, which had mushy, cross-shaped directional pads. The 2020 Xbox controller has a plastic body with a micro-dot texture on the grips and triggers to make it easier to hold onto during intense gaming sessions. The Elite controller adds rubberized grips and adjustable triggers, but it’s also a bit heavier.
Part of the reason for the lower weight is that the standard controller doesn’t have a built-in rechargeable battery. The continued reliance on AA batteries makes it lighter (even with the batteries installed), but keeping a box of batteries handy is less convenient than just plugging in a USB-C cable. There’s a USB-C port on top for wired gaming, but it won’t charge the controller unless you get the add-on battery pack.
While the Series X/S Xbox controller is recognized in Windows, there are no profiles or customizations like you get with the Elite Series 2. That’s probably fine as the standard controller lacks the additional rear paddle buttons of the Elite.
Read our full
Review Xbox Wireless Controller (2020)
2. PowerA Enhanced Xbox controller – Best budget Xbox controller for PC
Much lighter than official controller
Physical volume toggle
Only costs about $30
Uses old microUSB port instead of USB-C
No wireless connectivity
For PC gamers on a budget, look no further than the PowerA Enhanced Xbox Controller. While it’s a little larger than the 2020 Xbox controller, the PowerA unit is much lighter thanks to its lack of batteries. Yes, this is a wired controller, but your PC is probably going to be close to where you game, whereas a console is most likely across the room.
If you can cope with the removable cable and its aging microUSB connector, the PowerA controller does everything the standard controller does and more. For example, there’s a hardware toggle right in the middle for volume control, and there are two programmable buttons on the back of the grips.
The button layout is identical to the standard controller, save for the additional controls mentioned above. The buttons don’t feel quite as stable as Microsoft’s controller, and the d-pad is mushy. However, it only costs about $30 most days, which is half the price of the official controller.
Read our full
Review PowerA Enhanced Xbox controller
3. Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 – Best premium Xbox controller for PC
Durable and nice in the hand
Built-in battery and USB-C charging
Fully programmable buttons
Customizable button and thumbstick hardware
Heavier than stock controller
If you take your gaming seriously, there’s no better way to go than Microsoft’s Xbox Elite Series 2 Controller. It’s slightly heavier than the standard Series X gamepad, but it has a long-lasting rechargeable battery, which saves you from stocking up on AA batteries. Plus, the hard plastic body gives way to soft, rubberized grips that make for a very cozy hand-feel.
This is a controller that adapts to you. The dish-shaped metal d-pad is more precise and tactile than the one on the standard controller, and the adjustable triggers can speed up your actions in shooters. Both thumbsticks and the d-pad are removable, and the Elite Series 2 comes with alternate attachments. For example, there are longer sticks, sticks with domed tops, and a traditional cross-shaped d-pad.
Pairing with your PC is just as quick and easy as it is with the stock controller, but there is an extra step after that. You’ll need the Microsoft Xbox Accessories app to update the firmware and configure the controller’s profusion of added features. Via this software, all the buttons are remappable, including the rear-facing paddles. You can even create “shift” layers that change button functions when you hold one of the paddles. Just because you make a ton of alterations for one game doesn’t mean you’re stuck with that layout when you switch to a different one. The controller can retain multiple profiles, and you can instantly swap between them by tapping the center button.
The main drawback here is the price, which clocks in at a whopping $180. Microsoft makes a version of this controller called the Elite Series 2 Core that costs a bit less at $130. However, this one doesn’t come with the extra buttons and thumbsticks—if you care about the features offered by the Elite controller, you’ll care about having that stuff. That said, the Elite Series 2 is only worth buying if you are playing games competitively or like to pretend you are.
Read our full
Review Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2
What to look for in an Xbox controller for PC
Depending on your budget, you might have to make compromises on a controller’s features. But knowing how different features can affect your experience will help you make an informed choice.
Your gameplay experience can be greatly impacted by the build quality of a controller. Mushy or wobbly buttons can be frustrating and cause mistakes in your games. Likewise, a controller that isn’t comfortable to hold can be the difference between going out on a win and giving up.
Most controllers today are wireless, but there are times you might want to use a cable. A controller that sports both Bluetooth and a USB-C port offers the most options for connecting to your PC.
Wireless controllers need power, and the way you keep them juiced up can vary. Cheaper controllers with AA battery compartments get the job done, but an integrated battery charged via USB-C is more convenient.
The modern Xbox controller layout is tried and true, and the majority of controllers adhere to that standard—for most people, that’s fine. For those who take their gaming more seriously, features like button remapping, programmable controls, and hardware customizations are nice to have.
How we test controllers
PCWorld’s freelance and staff contributors have untold years of combined experience with gaming hardware, and the best way to test a controller is to rack up even more time gaming. We put controllers to the test in multiple genres, including shooters, RPGs, and fighters. This varied gaming experience helps to reveal any hardware shortcomings or latency issues.
We pay special attention to how, if at all, a controller’s unique features change the experience. Some may make games more enjoyable, but others are just a novelty or a waste of money. Our analysis also includes testing both wired and wireless capabilities, where applicable. If controllers require additional software to access all their features, we dive into that as well.
Computer Accessories, Gaming