Are All Game Controllers Created Equal?

Although game controller is used as a generic term (indicating any hand-held, desk-bound, or portable device that accepts player input), there are actually four basic types of controllers in use today. Controllers are divided into

  • Traditional joysticks: Although computer gaming on the Atari and Commodore started out with eight-position plastic joysticks (the four compass points and four angles), today's joysticks allow full 360-degree directional movement. Joysticks are almost exclusively used by flight simulators (both civilian and combat), so you may never need one unless your goal is to practice your pilot skills.

  • Gamepads: These controllers are descended from the gamepads first introduced on the Nintendo and Sega home video game systems, and still popular on today's Xbox and Sony PlayStation systems. A typical gamepad has either one or two directional pads for movement and anywhere from two to eight buttons.

    Gamepads are often used in conjunction with a keyboard because most don't offer enough buttons to handle the baker's dozen of key commands in today's PC games.

  • Steering wheel/pedal combinations: Racing fans will immediately fall in love with these controllers, which can even include a shifter. The typical steering wheel controller clamps to your desk or table, while the pedals are contained in a separate unit at your feet.

  • Mouse/trackball controllers: These controllers are the most recent inventions in PC gaming technology, usually integrating a pointing device (either a mouse or a trackball) with a mini-keyboard or array of programmable buttons. Depending on the game, they may be used in conjunction with a keyboard, or they may have enough function buttons to be used alone.

No matter what type of controller you select, the features that every gamer desires on a controller are the same. Here's a short shopping list of features to look for when choosing a controller:

  • Programmable buttons: This one's a no-brainer: Every gamer should invest in a controller with programmable buttons! Most games enable you to change the default keyboard assignments to other functions — essentially the same as programming the keyboard — but the same is usually not true for basic controllers without programmable buttons.

    With a programmable controller, you can assign virtually any possible keyboard or mouse function to your buttons (some high-end controllers can even run a simple "script" of sorts, which automatically performs multiple functions with a single press of a key).

    For example, you may assign a button for the 1 key, which swaps your weapon — or, with a macro, it can be a combination of the 1 key followed by the R key, which swaps the weapon and then reloads.

  • USB connection: Today's controllers use your PC's USB port — if you're considering buying an antique joystick that uses a serial or gameport connection, make absolutely sure that your PC has the proper port to accommodate the controller, and make sure you can download a device driver for the controller that works with today's versions of Windows.

  • Wireless operation: These controllers don't need a direct cable connection to your PC, which allows you to relax some distance away while gaming. Some wireless controllers include their own receiver unit, whereas others use Bluetooth technology — again, make sure your PC supports Bluetooth before you buy, or pick up a USB Bluetooth adapter.

  • A longer warranty: Although you may not be one of those gamers who throws an innocent controller halfway across a room after losing a race, your controllers still take a heck of a beating . . . in fact, the typical gamepad endures more punishment than any other component on your PC. Because of this rough treatment, get a controller that offers at least a two-year warranty, and the longer the better!

  • Support for lefties: Are you a left-handed gamer? Suddenly, many of the high-end, ergonomic controllers are off-limits because they're especially made for the right hand. The best controllers on the market accept left or right-handed grips, from hands of all sizes, and the button design can be used by either "secondary" hand.

  • Auto-fire: Although realism is important, you may also find yourself flying a Starfighter against the dreaded Space Gargoyles of Planet 99 — and that's when you'll appreciate the opportunity to fire your lasers as fast as possible! An auto-fire control will fire your weapons as fast as the game allows, and without interruption (sparing you a sore thumb).

As with other peripherals — like monitors, headphones, and speakers — take time to play a few minutes of your favorite game in a computer store with the controller that you're considering, or buy from a store that accepts returns!

All controllers look great in the box photographs, but it takes a few close calls in your favorite game to evaluate whether the layout, the buttons, and the feel of a controller are right for you.

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