Which game controllers are worth buying?

If you’re picking up a game console like the Xbox One X or PlayStation 4 Pro this holiday season, congratulations: You already have a great controller for your new system. Traditionally, third-party gamepads have always been a bit subpar, the kind of thing you buy cheap and pawn off on an unsuspecting younger sibling at playtime. But what if you want to game on your mobile device (or an Apple TV)? Or what if you’re looking for an edge in your favorite console title? We’ve taken a look at the available controllers out there to find the best one for your needs, no matter which system you prefer.

Best controller for the PlayStation 4

Sony DualShock 4

The shape of the PlayStation controller hasn’t changed much since the original system came out over two decades ago, and for good reason. The button configuration is easy to learn, and the overall shape feels good in hand. The DualShock 4 added a few features, like a touchscreen and a speaker, but the real reason to keep this as your primary PS4 pad is that small refinements have made it better to hold, including comfortable concave thumbsticks and well-spaced shoulder buttons that give your fingers plenty of places to rest. It also works with the PS3 so gamers still living with their older system can toss their DualShock 3. In our PlayStation 4 review, we called the DualShock 4 “the best game controller that the company’s ever created,” but even PC players will find an ideal gamepad for their favorite games, thanks to its native Steam support.

Best controllers for Windows and the Xbox One

Microsoft Xbox One Wireless Controller

Even if it isn’t as much of a leap over the previous generation as the DualShock 4 was, the Xbox One controller still improves on a winning formula. The sticks are designed to keep your thumbs in place, the triggers are quieter and the rear controls vibrate. We found that the only real step backwards at the controller’s launch were its stiff shoulder pads. Luckily, the revision that debuted with 2016’s Xbox One S refined it further, with rounded seams and clickier shoulder buttons. And PC gamers also get to enjoy the redesign, thanks to the addition of Bluetooth compatibility.

Microsoft Xbox Elite Wireless Controller

If the standard Xbox One controller just isn’t enough, gamers with a little extra cash have the option of stepping up to the Elite gamepad, designed with hardcore and professional players in mind. The shoulder buttons are clicky, and the entire pad is heavier, thanks to its metal thumbsticks, which we described in our review as “incredibly springy and precise.” The biggest change is the customization options, which allow you to swap out the buttons and joysticks or even add a set of metal levers as additional inputs on the back. The levers can make the pad feel a little cluttered, but they’re great for driving games when you don’t have a racing wheel. The only real drawback is the Elite’s price, which is more than half of what it costs to buy an Xbox One S.

Razer Wolverine Ultimate for Xbox One

Razer’s peripherals have always been designed with gamers’ unique needs in mind, and the Wolverine is no exception, offering up a comfortable textured grip and clicky buttons. The Wolverine Ultimate ups the ante over the customizable Xbox Elite by offering an even greater degree of tweaks: not only a slew of extra programmable buttons but also the ability to swap the positions of the thumbsticks and D-pads entirely. If you’d rather have three joysticks or prefer the D-pad on the right, you can, and there’s even Chroma lighting thrown in for extra pizazz. Unfortunately, the freedom of design is countered by the fact that you’ll be physically tethered to your console by the Wolverine’s thick, braided cable.

Best controllers for the Nintendo Switch

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller

The Joy-Cons that come with your Switch are pretty awesome for their motion control capabilities and the way they snap onto your system to make it portable. But playing a game like Mario Kart 8 or Breath of the Wild on them can get a bit… cramped. The Joy-Con Grip included with the system is decent, but when you’re feeling a bit more hardcore, there’s the Switch Pro Controller, which takes all the controls from the standard Joy-Con and puts them into a form factor that will feel familiar to PlayStation and Xbox players. The best part: It’s the only official Switch controller with a D-pad. Unfortunately, you’re also paying a bit of a premium for that privilege.

8bitdo N30 Pro / F30 Pro

SN30

The best controller for a game is usually the one that came with its original console, but that’s not always possible when it comes to classic releases on current systems. Instead of making do with your modern gamepad, it’s worth taking a look at 8Bitdo’s retro-styled controllers. They capture the original style and feel of old Nintendo controllers while being compatible with iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and even the Switch. If you’re looking for near-exact copies of the original pads, there’s the N30 and SN30, with the 2.4G version of the latter working wirelessly with your SNES Classic. But gamers who don’t want to give up modern innovations like thumbsticks will find the Pro versions of these controllers more to their liking. The N30 Pro’s biggest flaw is a series of shoulder buttons that The Verge found “cramped and uncomfortable,” but the upcoming SN30 Pro looks to give your adult-size fingers just a bit more room to relax.

*The F30 and F30 Pro are the Famicom-styled versions of the N30 and N30 Pro.

Best controllers for Android and iOS

SteelSeries Stratus XL for Android and Windows

Console-quality game controllers for Android devices are hard to find and, outside of the Xbox controllers, your options for Windows gamepads aren’t particularly great either. The SteelSeries Stratus XL hits a sweet spot for both systems by offering a solid build and top-notch ergonomics at a reasonable price. The buttons are deep and the thumbsticks are a bit stiff, meaning some users might find the XL a bit of a struggle in shooters. But Destructoid says the D-pad is “miles ahead of an Xbox pad,” with fantastic diagonals ideal for fighting games.

SteelSeries Nimbus

With exclusives like Thatgamecompany’s Sky coming to Apple TV, games on the Apple TV are going to get way more serious, and you’re definitely going to want something better than the Siri remote to play them with. The Nimbus borrows from the time-tested designs of the Xbox and PlayStation controllers but doesn’t skimp on vital details: The D-pad is decent, and the thumbsticks are grippy and durable, with MakeUseOf noting that they ask for “the perfect amount of pressure to manipulate.” Even if you haven’t invested in an Apple TV, you can still enjoy the Nimbus with your iPhone or iPad, though, if using the latter, you might want to invest in a Nyko Smart Clip to hold on to your handset.

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Android Wear 2.0 was worth the long wait

When Google introduced Android Wear back in 2014, the smartwatch industry was young. The only players worth noting were Pebble, Samsung (with its Tizen-based offerings) and a few other niche options (like Sony’s proprietary Smartwatch OS). Google, however, aimed to kick the door wide open with the same approach it had taken with phones: Instead of making both the watch and the software, it would court different hardware manufacturers, cultivating a diverse set of designs along with a robust third-party app ecosystem.

Three years later, the bet seems to have paid off. Although it’s had to fight off tough competition from the Apple Watch, Android Wear has survived and, according to Google, thrived. “If you compare the holiday season of 2016 with the holiday season the year before, we saw more than 70 percent growth,” says Android Wear VP David Singleton (not that that’s necessarily saying much). And so with all of that success comes time for the second iteration of Google’s wearable OS, Android Wear 2.0. It’ll be available first on the newly announced LG Watch Style and Watch Sport on Feb. 10th and will roll out to compatible existing hardware in the coming weeks.

This update, according to Singleton, is the platform’s biggest one since the birth of Android Wear three years ago. “With 2.0, we really looked hard at what people are using their watches for,” he said. “We saw that usage was really focused around watch faces, messaging and fitness. So we really optimized 2.0 for those things.” But Google improved a lot of other aspects of Wear as well, including the user interface, navigation and notifications.

First, let’s talk about watch faces. As with the previous iteration of Android Wear, you can swap in whatever face you like, either by selecting it on the companion Android Wear phone app or by adding it directly on the watch. But with Wear 1.0, there was often a tradeoff: You could either choose the stylish but barren design, or the complex but informative one.

With Wear 2.0, however, you can have the best of both worlds. That’s because any watch face, as long as it supports complications, can now be customized with data from any app. Swapping out the complications is as easy as long-pressing them and then picking its replacement, which can be anything from calories burned to an app shortcut.

As with Wear 1.0, tapping on each complication brings up the related information card. So for example, tapping the calendar launches the agenda for the day, while the step counter shows how much progress you’ve made towards your 10,000-step goal.

And say you want different complications for different times of day — you want the Nest function when you’re at home, but not in the office, for example — you can customize different watch faces for different use cases. Switching watch faces is as easy as swiping left or right on the active watch screen, so you can simply change from one to another depending on where you are.

Indeed, the Android Wear team took care to make navigation a priority with the 2.0 update. “We really condensed and simplified things,” said Jeff Chang, an Android Wear product manager. “We measured the number of taps and swipes between things, to get that down as few as possible.” So for example, oft-accessed settings are now combined into one display. Swipe down from the active screen and you’ll see toggles for airplane mode, Do Not Disturb and as a settings shortcut.

One press of the side button launches the app menu, and navigating through the list can be done either via a rotating crown (if your watch has one) or the touch screen. If you’d rather not scroll through your lengthy list of apps, you can also long-press a favorite to pin it to the top. The menu will list recently accessed apps first, followed by favorites and then the rest by alphabetical order.

Notifications have changed drastically as well. Instead of glaring white cards that take up the bottom half of the screen, there are now subtler notification icons. Also, the notifications themselves are now color-coded and contextual. So Gmail notifications have a red background, for example, while Hangouts are green. They only appear when you bring the watch up to your eyeline; a few seconds later, the watch face resurfaces again. If you like, you can access all of your recent notifications by swiping up on the main screen. The watch’s overall UI is also much darker. “It’s not only easier on the eyes, and it’s a lot easier on battery life as well,” Singleton says.

As for those incoming message notifications, replying is as easy as tapping; do it once and you’ll immediately be brought to the reply menu. (Though bear in mind this is the experience on Android; the feature is extremely limited on the iPhone.) In addition to using your voice or drawing an emoji, Wear 2.0 introduces a full-on touch keyboard as well. At first this sounds pretty ridiculous on such a small screen, but it’s surprisingly intuitive. You can either swipe through words like you can on Swype or Swiftkey, or you can use handwriting recognition. Either way, I found that the word detection to be surprisingly accurate, with only a few occasional errors.

Another way to reply to messages is through Smart Reply, which is powered by Google’s machine learning. You’ll see a list of what it thinks your reply will be depending on the context of the message. Much like the feature of the same name in Inbox, Smart Reply should be able to offer smarter and better responses over time as it learns more about you.

Speaking of machine learning, Android Wear 2.0 also finally brings Google’s Assistant to the watch. Say “OK Google” or long-press the power button, and you can ask all sorts of queries, like “How did the Warriors do against the Cavaliers?” or “How many tablespoons are there in a cup?” or “Is it going to rain today?” It can also be easily integrated with third-party connected devices like the Nest thermostat or Philips Hue lights, or services like Uber and OpenTable.

Now onto fitness. Android Wear 2.0 has Google’s preinstalled Fit app just as before, but the experience is much more improved. You can see your calories, pace, distance as you sweat it out, and if your watch has a heart rate sensor, you’ll see your beats per minute too. It’ also keeps track of how much you’ve been walking and cycling throughout the week, and offers gentle reminders to get going towards your goal if you haven’t met your mark. Plus, it will congratulate you when you succeed.

The new Google Fit is also a lot better-suited to indoor workouts as well. Simply say you’re on a treadmill or a stationary bike, and it’ll track your workout accordingly. Another great feature for strength-training fans is that it can also now count reps when you’re weight lifting and coach you through push-ups and sit-ups. “The watch actually recognizes that you’re doing it,” Singleton says. “So there’s no cheating.”

There’s also a special treat if your Android watch has LTE. With Wear 2.0, you’ll finally be able to stream music to the watch, without having to download the songs first. The default option would be with Google Play Music, but Spotify should be compatible soon as well. You’ll probably want to use Bluetooth headphones to listen to your tunes, unless you want to blast your playlist to the world around you as you’re running.

Oh, and say you’d really like a refreshing drink after you’re done with that run. Well, if you happen to be close to an establishment that accepts Android Pay, you’re in luck. That’s because Android Pay is finally coming to Wear 2.0. So if your watch happens to support NFC, you can just tap it to the reader to pay for that bottle of water.

Last but certainly not least, Wear 2.0 has a completely reimagined App store model. Before, the only way to load apps onto the watch was via a companion app. Not anymore. Now you can browse the Play Store right on the watch and even download certain apps directly, without the need for a corresponding phone app. This is especially useful if you have an iPhone — you’ll finally be able to download and use third-party apps regardless of what phone you have. Of course, not all apps can be operated as standalone — some will still require an Android phone for full functionality. But if you are an iPhone user, you won’t see them in the Play Store anyway; only compatible apps will show up on the watch.

On the whole, Android Wear 2.0 is a welcome improvement. It doesn’t just look better; it’s also much easier to use than before. What used to take several taps and swipes now just take one or two. The new messaging and fitness features are welcome as well. But it’s the introduction of Google Assistant and the standalone App Store that takes Wear 2.0 from good to great. Not only does it make Android Wear much less dependent on the phone, it’s also now that much more compatible with iOS — making it the toughest contender against the Apple Watch yet.

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