For most PC gamers, the mouse and keyboard combination is the ultimate way to control our games. The mouse offers lightning-fast responses that are essential for positioning the camera or lining up the scopes for a headshot.
On the other hand - literally - is the keyboard. Its plethora of keys has been etched into our muscle memory through years of web browsing and typing, giving us options and control that most gamepads can only dream of.
However, it's not as clear-cut as it first seems. While the mouse and keyboard is undoubtedly the best control method for certain genres - such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games - for other titles this means of control can feel awkward or unwieldy. Third-person hack 'n' slash games and racing sims in particular suffer from this.
There's also the issue of console games catching up with PC titles in some respects. While this might seem like heresy to some PC gaming purists (the current generation of consoles struggles to compete with even mid-range PCs, after all), console games have become more complicated and in-depth than their 8-bit ancestors. As they've evolved, so too have the gamepads we play them on.
Modern gamepads have adapted to become flexible and give us better control over our more complicated games. Some are able to overcome obstacles such as having a limited number of buttons with macro functionality, while others offer features that the mouse and keyboard combination can't, such as force feedback.
In this roundup, we've gathered six gamepads that cover a range of prices and designs. Some are models from the current generation of consoles adapted to work with the PC, others are based on the console's own gamepads and some are entirely new designs.
Having a gamepad connected to your PC doesn't mean that you're dumbing down your gaming experience - in some respects you're actually broadening it. But which gamepads offer you a viable alternative to the trusty mouse and keyboard, make gaming more fun and are worthy of your money? This is exactly where this round-up comes in.
Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Controller for Windows - £28
The Xbox 360 Wireless Controller is small enough to hold comfortably in your hands, with easy access to all the buttons.
Unlike the PlayStation 3's DualShock controller, and gamepads that have been influenced by that design, the dual analogue sticks on the Xbox 360 pad aren't aligned horizontally. Instead, they're placed in a far more natural position that makes long gaming sessions more bearable.
The build design in general is great, and it feels incredibly comfortable to hold. Unfortunately, the D-pad is bulky and unresponsive - a real let-down when you consider the other areas in which this gamepad excels.
As you should expect from a product created by Microsoft, there are no compatibility problems when using this controller with a Windows PC. Plugging in the wireless dongle lets you control your games without having to be sat right next to your computer, and the gamepad is identified and installed in seconds. The controller does need two AA batteries that will need to be replaced often - and that can be annoying.
Sony DualShock 3 PS3 Ccontroller - £28
Unlike the other gamepads we've tested here, the Sony DualShock 3 PS3 controller doesn't officially support PC compatibility. So why is it included? Well, there are a number of unofficial drivers you can download that enable your PC to interact with the controller.
Typing 'DualShock 3 for PC' into Google brings back plenty of options. Most offer force feedback and even wireless capability via a Bluetooth dongle. If you don't have one, you can connect it via the supplied mini USB lead. BtSix 1.4 is an excellent choice that allows you to use all the features of the DualShock - including the tilt motion control.
This controller has a built-in rechargeable battery that charges up when plugged in via USB. Installation is tricky, but the controller is sturdy and full of features. It's well built and, if you're familiar with the PlayStation's iconic controller layout, adapting it to PC games takes no time at all.
The 10-year-old design is not the most comfortable of shapes, however. If you have a PS3 then this is a free and convenient solution.
Genius Wireless Grandias 12V - £20
There are good and bad points about the Genius Wireless Grandias 12V. Unlike most of the other gamepads of its price range, this one is wireless and it also has a vibration function. On the downside, it feels like it's made out of cheap materials.
The buttons are plasticky, and they can sometimes fail to register unless you push them hard. There were instances when they behaved erratically, performing actions when pressed that they weren't supposed to.
The dual analogue sticks also feel slightly uncomfortable to use after a while, as they're relatively small and don't offer the thumb support of larger sticks.
The macro function lets you bind a number of complex moves to a single button press. While some might consider this cheating, it can help make gaming with this pad a lot more intuitive and easy. For 2D platforming games, this is a perfectly accessible, cheap control method, with the added bonus of wireless support. However, for serious multiplayer gaming the unreliable buttons make this controller a defi nite no-no.
Thrustmaster 3-In-1 Dual Trigger Game Pad - £20
The Thrustmaster 3 in 1 Dual Trigger Game Pad isn't attractive. It's thick, bulky and sits rather uncomfortably in your hands. This is mainly due to the additional third shoulder trigger buttons.
After a while, the gamepad starts to gel, and the buttons are responsive, as are the analogue thumb sticks. Looking about with them may not have the immediacy of the mouse, but it compares favourably with other, more expensive, gamepads. You'll need to configure the buttons yourself, which is an annoying distraction after the Xbox 360 controller's plug-and-play simplicity.
The buttons are springy and responsive, and most feel comfortable to use, but the shoulder buttons are a bit too thin for comfort.
Along with the standard USB connection, there's a PlayStation 2 connector, which gives a little extra value. This is a budget gamepad that does the job, but it takes time to configure, and the supplied software and Thrustmaster website aren't much help. It's not a terrible gamepad at all, but there are better models out there.
Trust GXT 28 - £18
The Trust GXT 28 is closely modelled on Sony's DualShock 3 gamepad, though unlike the Razer Onza Tournament Edition adaptation of Microsoft's design, the GXT 28 does nothing to improve an established gamepad style.
The GXT 28 is lightweight and feels hollow, but the buttons do feel nice and responsive, and give a satisfying click with every push. Each thumb stick also feels good to use, with the right amount of resistance.
This might not be the flashiest gamepad out there, but at least it does the job competently. The design is comfortable, and will feel familiar to anyone who uses Sony's official gamepads. There's a turbo mode, but it's only really of use if you're terrified of developing RSI from fast button pushing. For most gamers though, this novelty feature won't be used often.
You can plug the GXT 28 straight into a PS3 too, which adds value. Trust has been making game peripherals for a long time, and it's come up with a cheap yet reliable alternative to the offi cial PS3 controller.
Razer Onza Tournament Edition - £48
You might be forgiven for thinking at first glance that this is an official Xbox 360 controller. The shape and design are almost identical and the build quality is top-notch.
There are a few subtle differences, though. The D-pad is much improved and actually usable - something Microsoft's official controller can't boast. Another great addition is the glowing face buttons, which help to make gaming in the dark a lot easier.
This gamepad also comes with two buttons carefully placed at the back of the pad that can be used to recalibrate the gamepad on-the-fly. You can also twist the analogue thumb sticks to tweak their sensitivity without pausing your game.
The gamepad itself feels incredibly comfortable, using the same ergonomic design as the official Xbox 360 pad. It's quite a bit lighter as well - due to the lack of wireless functionality and the need for batteries. While it would have been nice to have it wireless, the long cord goes a long way to compensating for this.
Overall, this is a great gamepad that improves on an already excellent design.
First published in PC Format Issue 254
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