Gaming Controllers Buyers Guide
Gaming controllers cover a wide range of ways to control your PC above and beyond the classic keyboard and mouse combo. They offer a whole new level of realism and immersion when playing games or simulators, as they mimic the real-world experience - for instance, by using a steering wheel and pedals to control a car or joystick and throttle to control a plane. There is a huge range of gaming controllers to choose from, and it is fair to say that their expense is usually governed by how real you want you experience to be.
This guide will take you through the types of gaming controller and their uses, plus their suitability for certain types of simulation software. The guide is split into sections relating to the type of game or simulation - racing, flying etc., as the controllers are usually quite specific for each one. You can jump to the relevant section you are interested in by using the buttons below.
Let’s get started.
This section deals with car racing games and simulators and the associated gaming controllers that can help improve your racing experience by increasing realism when compared to driving with a keyboard and mouse or gamepad. There are multiple elements that can contribute to a car racing scenario, but the more you can appear to be driving then the more realistic the game or simulation will be.
Perhaps the most obvious element of a car environment is the steering wheel, as this offers the most true-to-life way of controlling the car direction. The key features to look out for are degrees of rotation, force feedback and smoothness of feel. Starting with degrees of rotation - the greater you can rotate the wheel, the more realistic it will feel - 900 degrees is comparable to a real car and it offers the advantages of greater control for types of racing such as rally, drifting, and some touring cars.
Force feedback refers to the sensation of feedback that you would get from a real steering wheel in a car, resistance as you turn the wheel depending on road surface, judder from bumps and uneven surfaces. Force feedback can be delivered in three ways - either through gear drive, belt drive or direct drive. This is simply the mechanism that controls the feedback from a motor. Direct drive offer the greatest realism, but unsurprisingly is the most expensive. Finally smoothness of feel is again about recreating as real an experience as possible, and if using a force feedback wheel the direct drive has the smoothest nature as it is connected directly to the motor controlling with no belts to slip or gears to cause a notchy feel.
Other features that may be offered are paddle shifters for changing gear rapidly and a degree of function buttons - whether you need these extras will likely be down to what other accessories you want to use, such as a separate gear stick controller.
As with steering wheels, pedals are an essential add-on for any realistic driving experience. They are available in a huge range of models and costs. Again, a more realistic experience will be more expensive and will usually feature pedal resistance. There are number of technologies used to simulate this resistance. The first and cheapest type uses a potentiometer - a sensor with variable resistance that measures the position of the pedal and interpreted by the game as a braking force. Load cell pedals detect the amount of force you are applying and provide resistance accordingly, thus offering better realism. The next level of pedal features Hall-effect sensors - these essentially achieve the same result as a potentiometer but work by measuring the distance between a magnet and the sensor itself which is then converted into an electrical signal and interpreted by the game as a braking force. Finally, high-end pedals use hydraulic dampers to create braking resistance effect and offer the most realistic approach.
As you spend more money on pedals, you tend to get better construction (all-metal) as they need to be able to handle greater pressure applied to them, such as when heavy braking. They also may use a variety of the resistance mechanism described - say sensors in the clutch and accelerator, but a load cell in the brake. High-end pedals may offer height adjustability too allowing you to tailor your environment more. It is worth mentioning that either two or three pedal setups are available depending on whether you want to paddle shift or change gears with a gear stick.
Gear sticks are an option to add if you would rather shift gears using a clutch rather than steering wheel mounted paddles. This may be down to personal choice but also may affect performance within a particular game, as some may suit clutch changing, such as DiRT 4 or DiRT Rally 2.0; and other paddle shifting, such as Assetto Corsa, Project Cars or F1. When it comes to stick choice itself, you have a choice of an H pattern shifter or a sequential shifter - H pattern shifters operate like a standard gear shifter in a manual car, meaning you need to move the shifter lever around a gate in an up/down/left/right motion to find whatever gear you want to engage. Sequential shifters only require an up/down or forward/backward motion to move between the gears with no side-to-side movements, but as the name suggests, you must move through the gears in sequence, meaning you cannot jump from first gear to third gear for example as you could with an H-pattern. Some controllers can do both H and sequential shifting.
As well as these shifting modes, the other thing to consider is throw. This refers to the distance the gear lever needs to travel to change gears. A short throw is often preferred for sportier cars, which means less distance, and that equates to a quicker gear shift.
Adding a hand brake to your racing setup allows you to perfect your drifting technique, and some can also function as a sequential gear shifter too, as the back / forward motion is pretty much the same. Hall-effect sensors are used in these devices too to measure the braking force applied.
Creating Your Cockpit
Although adding these accessories to your PC car racing experience will help create a more realistic environment, this will only be the case if a cockpit feel is created. Thought must be given to how a steering wheel be securely mounted and pedals can be located. Many devices feature clamps or additional brackets can be bought if required, however racing cockpits with mounts and seating can used to deliver a more car-like feel. Again the cost of these cockpits is very much dependant on their features - adjustability, materials and functionality - all the way up to the RAID Full Motion Racing Simulator.
Having invested in your gaming controllers for racing use, you’ll need to ensure your visuals are just as realistic too. This can be done in a number of ways - once more depending on budget. If you are a desktop user, then a wide screen curved monitor will offer a fuller view of the road ahead, however three monitors set at angles provide a true wraparound experience, especially used with a cockpit mounted stand. Finally for true immersion VR may be the way to go if you want your racing to be free of all other distraction.
This section deals with flight simulators and the associated gaming controllers that can help improve your airborne experience by increasing realism when compared to flying a real aircraft. There are multiple elements that can contribute to a flight cockpit scenario, but the more you can appear to be flying then the more engaging the simulation will be. Flight simulations are usually broken down into several categories - civilian aircraft, military aircraft and spacecraft - as you may imagine the complexity in any of these cockpits will vary considerably so there is a wide range and styles of controllers on offer to recreate the experience you desire.
A flight stick is the most common way to control a flight simulator and offers much more nuanced control than using a keyboard and mouse or gamepad. It is used to command the plane’s pitch and roll with the handle. Most models will also have several buttons that can control menus, cameras, and other flight controls. There is also often another tiny joystick on top called a hat switch that lets you change your point of view. The rudder is usually manipulated by twisting the stick, and throttle control will be available in some form of slider.
Although most standalone flight sticks have some kind of throttle control on them, it may be small and fiddly to operate. To get more accuracy and increase realism, it is worth adding a separate throttle controller to make a HOTAS (hands on stick and throttle) setup. setup. A HOTAS lets you control both your speed and your direction with dedicated control surfaces, making delicate control much easier. A separate throttle will have additional buttons, toggles, and sometimes extra thumb-sticks to further customise your flight experience. Some throttle controllers also let you control the in-game camera, certain flight functions, and even the rudder using paddles that you control with your fingers. Throttles with dials on them can tune trim, which is an essential flight control that keeps your plane level without needing to constantly adjust your flight stick.
Although we’ve just mentioned that rudder control can be done from either a stick or throttle controller, dedicated rudder pedals can be added to your setup to further enhance your experience and dial up the realism further. These pedals manipulate the rudder during flight and wheel brakes when taxying. The left and right motion of the rudder won’t steer your plane in the air, but instead apply counter-motion to combat again unwanted trajectory.
A yoke is an alternative to a flight stick and depending on which flight simulator package you are using, may be more authentic to the planes contained within it. Civilian simulators like Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane may work better with a yoke, whereas military and space-based software such as DCS, IL-2 and space sims such as Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen will most definitely benefit from using a HOTAS setup. Yokes will feature similar buttons to a flight stick and ideally will be paired with a dedicated throttle and pedals as a flight stick would be.
Head or Eye Trackers
To effectively use any flight simulator, you’re likely to end up dedicating at least one of your various hat switches on stick or yoke to help you look left, right, up, and down before long. However, using a head or eye tracker will dramatically enhance the experience of flying, by using infrared tracking technology. You attach an infrared emitter to your headset and a receiver to the top of your monitor. Using the calibration software, you can then translate tiny movements of your real head into big movements of your pilot’s head in the simulation.
Control Panels and Instrumentation
To enhance your flying experience even further, there are a number of instrumentation panels and displays available. These offer greater authenticity and additional functions like autopilot or visual representations of parameters including airspeed, altitude, heading, engine status and flaps indicators.
Creating Your Cockpit
Although adding these accessories to your PC flying experience will help create a more realistic environment, this will only be the case if a cockpit feel is created. Thought must be given to how the various controllers and panels can be securely mounted and where the pedals can be located. Many devices feature clamps or additional brackets can be bought if required, however flight cockpits with mounts and seating can used to deliver a more plane-like feel. Again the cost of these cockpits is very much dependant on their features - adjustability, materials and functionality.
Having invested in your gaming controllers for flying use, you’ll need to ensure your visuals are just as realistic too. This can be done in a number of ways - once more depending on budget. If you are a desktop user, then a wide screen curved monitor will offer a fuller view of the sky ahead, however three monitors set at angles provide a true wraparound experience, especially used with a cockpit mounted stand. Finally for true immersion VR may be the way to go if you want your flight experience to be all encompassing.
Although racing and flying simulators are by far the most popular types on the market, there are many others available too. Here, we’ll take a brief look at some of these and mention any specific controllers that may enhance the gameplay and realism.
Ship simulators offer the opportunity to pilot large vessels in a variety of scenarios. Ever wondered how it would feel to sail a half a million ton supertanker through a storm, or to take on illegal whale hunters in the Antarctic? Using a ship’s console controller will enhance your manoeuvrability.
Get behind the controls of various tank models and reenact a variety of warfare scenarios. Tank simulators will be enhanced by using an authentic tank command controller.
Truck simulators take the driving experience to a whole new level, allowing you to control much larger vehicles. Dedicated controller sets will enhance the realism and reflect the complexity of driving articulated lorries. You can even have a CB radio!
Take control of a number of different types of farm machinery, including tractors, cranes, trimmers and load lifters. Recreate the experience with a heavy equipment controller bundle.
Train simulators allow you to experience routes few of us get to see in real life. Control your train simulation with a controller featuring realistic throttle, brake, reverser, and switch controls, plus plenty of programmable buttons.
Simulation software packages also go beyond transport based ones to offer a wide range of virtual experiences if you so choose - a notable few are Goat Simulator, PC Building Simulator and even an IT Technician Simulator! A standard gamepad controller or keyboard will probably suffice for these though.
Alongside choosing your controllers you’ll need to ensure they can all connect your PC. This will usually be by USB port, so you may need to invest in a USB hub or add USB ports to your PC by way of a PCIe add-in card.FIND OUT MORE
No matter how many controllers you buy to make an experience as authentic as possible, your gameplay will only be as good as the PC powering it, in particular the capability of the graphics card. You can ensure you have all the power that you need by choosing one of our 3XS Simulator PCs - specifically designed for this use and to deliver the best experience.FIND OUT MORE
Time to choose
We hope you’ve found this guide useful in advising what controllers to choose to get the most from your simulations, and the maximum levels of realism. Select from our great ranges below:
If you’d like further advice, please don’t hesitate to speak to one of our friendly advisors.