It’s been a wild year or so for VR. The technology finally landed its first bonafide ‘killer app’ in Half-Life: Alyx. We’ve seen more adopters than ever before, thanks to the downtime forced upon billions due to successive lockdowns across the globe. And, we’ve seen the launch of several big-name headsets such as the HTC Vive Cosmos series and the Oculus Quest 2. Sony’s even announced an upcoming next-generation VR system geared specifically for the PlayStation 5.
If you’re among those tempted to make the jump but aren’t sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. In today’s guide, we’re focusing specifically on VR controllers: the in-hand tools that transform real-world movement into virtual reality gestures and interactions. We’ve come a long way from the rudimentary controllers from even a few years ago. Nowadays, VR controllers are decked out with all manner of sensors and innovative designs, all to heighten VR’s trademark sense of immersion. Read on for our top VR controller recommendations.
As a general rule, we suggest matching controllers to their respective headsets. If you’ve picked up a Valve Index, pair them with the Valve Index ‘knuckles’ controllers. If you’re gaming on PlayStation 4, opt for the PlayStation Move controllers, and so on. Indeed, most controllers are only available bundled with a headset – and Base Stations in the case of outside-in tracking systems.
But, with manufacturers working to extend their product’s compatibility to a growing number of headsets and VR ecosystems (commercial agreements allowing), it’s now possible to mix and match to a certain degree. Controllers are an easy way to level up a VR rig, not to say grab a bargain in the process thanks to either sales or the second-hand market.
As we assessed the VR controllers currently available, we focused on the ones that deliver a strong balance of design, comfort, reliability, responsiveness, accuracy, and price. Doing so allowed us to narrow down our recommendations to five VR controllers. Below, we’ll introduce each of the controllers and highlight their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s dive in.
Best VR Controller in 2021
Access to a broad range of games
Runs on AA batteries
The original Oculus Touch made a substantial mark on the world of VR but has since been superseded by better and more forward-looking alternatives, not least the excellent Valve Index ‘Knuckle’ controllers. But, with the 2020 refresh, which came hand-in-hand with the new Oculus Quest 2 headset, the Oculus Touch is once again confidently perched at the top of the VR controller pile.
Much of this is down to its versatility and well-rounded design. The Oculus Touch controller is solid and robust enough to handle any accidental impacts that invariably come about when owning a VR rig but remains relatively lightweight and supremely comfortable in hand. It is unquestionably on the larger side due to the chunky tracking ring, but this a worthy compromise for reliability.
The layout is intuitive and intelligent: no accidental button presses, and there’s enough spacing between the thumbstick, buttons and trigger them to make every gesture or button press feel distinct. We’re also taken with the grip button, which adds a tactile element to the VR experience, only enhanced by the Touch’s haptics motor.
Tracking is accurate and responsive, precisely registering the player’s movement in SteamVR and Oculus’ own extensive library of games. Much like the Oculus Quest 2, the Oculus Touch controllers do wonders to deliver a premium VR experience at a reasonable price point.
The Oculus Touch controllers each run on a AA battery, which, while not as convenient as an integrated battery, offer a suitably long life-span even under heavy use. Oculus is also kind enough to supply the first set of batteries.
Lightweight and comfortable
Another strong contender in the VR controller space is the HTC Vive Controller. Not the most recent or up-to-date controller out there, it has to be said, but its relative age means it’s often available for much cheaper than newer alternatives.
The HTC Vive Controller takes a different approach to the Touch, using a multi-function trackpad instead of a thumbstick/button combo. The trackpad serves as a thumbstick, scroll wheel, and button, offering a smooth experience, whether that’s gliding across the pad or providing a satisfying tactical feedback with each press. Alongside the trackpad, the HTC Vive Controller features a trigger and grip button. The layout melds beautifully to the hand, and it feels effortless to interact with objects and worlds in the large majority of VR games. The tracking is also a highlight, thanks to no less than 24 sensors mounted on the ring on the head of the controller.
The HTC Vive Controllers aren’t light by any stretch of the imagination, which, depending on who you ask, provides a solid, weighted in-hand fit or a bulky feel that hampers movement. Personal preference comes into play here, of course. In our opinion, the added heft is an attribute, and the controller isn’t too heavy as to cause fatigue even after long VR sessions.
With Valve and HTC Vive working together in the past, the HTC Vive Controller is particularly well suited to Steam VR games, making it a great alternative to the very expensive Valve Index ‘Knuckles’ controller for PC gamers.
Perfectly integrated into PlayStation ecosystem
Compatible with all PSVR games
Familiar PlayStation buttons
Requires a PlayStation 4/5 and PlayStation camera
When it comes to VR gaming on a console, there’s one logical choice, and that’s PlayStation VR. This also extends to controllers, with the PlayStation Move Controller currently standing as the only real option for VR console gaming.
Inspired and based on the original PlayStation 3 Move, the PlayStation Move Controller might not be the most visually pleasing design out there, not least because of its conspicuous glowing sensor globe, but don’t let this put you off; the PlayStation Move Controller is among the best out there despite creeping towards its fifth anniversary.
You’ll find the familiar cross, square, triangle, and circle buttons found on the DualShock controller and overall an intuitive interface that mixes well with the demands of VR. The controller is also fully compatible with every PlayStation VR game. The simple design, while unusual, is ergonomically minded and offers a high level of comfort even after hours of gaming. Tracking accuracy is superb and delivers a highly immersive VR experience complemented by vibration feedback.
One of the few significant issues with the PlayStation Move Controller is that it is designed to work solely with a PlayStation console, including the recently launched PlayStation 5. This isn’t necessarily an issue for those who already own the console, and this does grant access to a growing library of acclaimed PlayStation VR titles. Nevertheless, those jumping in for the first time will want to consider the total cost of playing VR in Sony’s ecosystem, which also necessitates buying a PlayStation Camera for tracking purposes alongside the console and controller.
Large trackpad design
Single hand controller
Lightweight and comfortable
Pairs with Samsung phones
Out-of-the-box PC compatibility
The Samsung Gear VR Controller is one of the more interesting controllers in the market in that it is explicitly geared towards mobile users. With the Gear VR headset, Samsung has made a concerted effort to offer an easy and low-cost entry point into VR for Samsung smartphone owners. Users simply slot one of the compatible Samsung phones into the headset. The phone acts as a display, often the most expensive component of a VR headset. Designed alongside Oculus, it has plenty of VR pedigree to boot.
As for the Samsung Gear VR Controller, simplicity is the operative word here, and it by no means reinvents what we’ve come to expect from VR controllers. Unusually, it’s designed to be used as a single device rather than a pair and has a no-frills, functional design dominated by a large touchpad, complemented by two menu navigation buttons, volume keys, and a trigger. With a target market of mobile users, it’s also lightweight and ergonomically designed for a comfortable in-hand feel.
Tracking is decent and is particularly well suited to navigate the Android OS, browse the web, view videos, and play mobile VR titles. It may lack the responsiveness of pure VR controllers, but for jumping between everyday phone use and gaming, it’s an elegant solution.
Compatibility is where the Samsung Gear VR Controller falls short in the sense that it is designed exclusively to work with the Gear VR headset. The spread of compatible games is excellent, though, thanks to access to both Samsung spearheaded controller-compatible titles and the content found on the Oculus Store.
Doubles as a traditional controller
Works out-of-the-box with Steam
Excellent battery life
2.4 GHz wireless and Bluetooth connectivity
Lacks the immersion of traditional VR controllers
Before the advent of VR-specific controllers, players were stuck squeezing the most out of conventional controllers such as the Xbox controller, which significantly impacted immersion. While VR enthusiasts will generally swear by dual handheld controllers, some titles play better with a gamepad-style alternative. If you’re on the lookout for a VR controller that also happens to double as a gamepad, then the SteelSeries Stratus Duo may be just the ticket.
Designed by the experienced folks at SteelSeries, the Stratus Duo sticks to the standard controller layout most closely comparable to the DualShock 4: four A, B, X, Y buttons, dual thumbsticks, and a trusty d-pad, accompanied by two bumpers and two triggers.
With 2.4 GHz wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, the SteelSeries Stratus Duo pairs just as easily with thousands of controller-enabled games on Steam as a decent range of VR headsets, including the Oculus Rift, Oculus GO, and Samsung Gear VR, and, of course, Samsung phones. There’s no fussy software wrangling; the SteelSeries Stratus Duo works out-of-the-box across the board.
Throw in a durable build, smooth button presses with top-notch tactical feedback, precise analog sticks, over 20 hours of battery life on a single charge, and the SteelSeries Stratus Duo stands as a convenient, all-in-one alternative to a gamepad and VR controller.
Naturally, you don’t get the same levels of immersion or freedom of movement as the other VR controllers above, but that’s the price you pay for convenience.
Things To Consider
The single most important check required before committing to the purchase of a factory-fresh pair of VR controllers is compatibility with your existing or planned VR setup, more specifically the headset.
Compatibility varies widely from model to model. For example, the PlayStation Move controllers only work when paired with a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5. The Valve Index ‘Knuckles’ will work with any headset that supports SteamVR Tracking, such as the HTC Vive Headset and the HTC Vive Pro Headset. Naturally, the same applies to Base Stations.
There are ways to sidestep these out-of-the-box compatibility limitations with some tinkering. Still, for VR newcomers, it’s best to stick with combinations that come with the blessing of manufacturers.
Design and Button Layout
Triggers, trackpads, buttons, force sensors, and more – VR controllers come in various designs and layouts. Much of it comes down to personal preference, but there’s always a direct correlation between price and the breadth of inputs.
For example, the low-cost Samsung Gear VR Controller is a single controller with no more than a trigger, touchpad, volume keys, and two buttons. At the end of the scale, you have the Valve Index, decked out with per-finger sensors, buttons, triggers, thumbsticks, touchpad, and force sensors.
It’s also possible to find alternative designs, such as the SteelSeries Stratus Duo, which adheres to the typical console controller gamepad form factor but is designed to work with VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, Oculus GO, and Samsung Gear VR.
Alongside compatibility, comfort is also of prime importance. Look for controllers that offer a comfortable hand position, adjustable straps, high-quality materials, and are easy to clean. Nothing kills the flow of a VR session like an awkward controller that causes strains and discomfort during longer play sessions. VR is by no means cheap, so you’ll want to ensure your tools are right to get the most out of your investment.
A welcome upgrade to the original Touch, the new and improved Oculus Touch is a hot commodity among VR enthusiasts and with good reason. It offers excellent tracking, compatibility with a broad range of games, an intuitive layout, and plenty of versatility for standalone and PC VR gaming.
Despite its age, the HTC Vive Controller is still one of the best trackpad-equipped VR controllers out there. A lightweight design, excellent tracking, a weighted feel, and a comfortable layout make it a top choice for those marathon sessions with plenty of battery life to boot—the HTC Vive Controller is a great way to upgrade a VR setup without breaking the bank.
VR gaming on console sadly doesn’t offer the same breadth of choice as standalone or PC. Luckily, the only genuine option is a winner. With full integration with the PlayStation ecosystem, and a simple, comfortable design, the PlayStation Move Controller brings a convincingly immersive experience to a growing library of PSVR titles.
With the Samsung Gear VR Controller, the South Korean tech giant is taking a different approach: bringing VR to its massive customer base, all at a reasonable price point. Lightweight, comfortable, and elegant in its simplicity, the Samsung Gear VR Controller is a top choice for those that want to experience VR via their phone.
A VR controller that also doubles as a traditional gamepad, the SteelSeries Stratus Duo is a best of both worlds option. A familiar layout combines with excellent build quality and broad out-of-the-box compatibility to offer a solid package for VR gamers that favor versatility.
With that, we’ll wrap up our guide to the best VR controllers. As always, these are mere recommendations, and we’d urge anyone with any suggestions of their own to drop a message in the comments section. Any questions, comments, or concerns are equally welcome, too.