The Steam Controller is a more advanced gamepad than that offered by Microsoft and PlayStation, but the input solution is still in its infancy stage. I've also come to the conclusion that while it's neat in some PC games and can absolutely be used in others where a typical gamepad would be deployed, there are also some things Microsoft's Xbox One controller is simply better at.
Here's a quick look at what specifications are featured by both controllers in question:
|Category||Xbox One||Steam Controller|
|Number of buttons||16||18|
|Rear input||None||2x back paddles|
They're different beats. The Xbox One controller (especially the Elite variant) is considered by many to be the absolute best when it comes to console gaming and using a gamepad on a PC. Valve certainly brings some interesting features to the table, including a gyroscope, accelerometer, dual-stage triggers and two trackpads. Not to mention the number of buttons that can be re-mapped using Steam software.
Microsoft has come a long way with its console controllers. From the famous Duke to the current generation of gamepad, those with an Xbox have enjoyed a solid experience with launched titles. For PC, it's mainly been keyboard and mouse, which is what Valve wanted to replace with the Steam Controller, most notably for the living room and Big Picture Mode.
The Steam Controller takes some time getting used to. When setting up the gamepad with your PC, you'll need to spend some time getting used to how everything works. Instead of relying on two analog sticks, the Steam Controller only has one, with a trackpad for secondary input. It's incredibly off-putting at first, but almost feels natural after some time.
When is the Xbox One controller better? Well, if you don't like the Steam controller then Microsoft's own offering is a must-use. It's particular handy in first-person shooter titles and anything running on the Xbox console. As a slight downside, there's little in terms of customization, re-mapping and more complex controls can feel overwhelming on the small gamepad unless you go for the Elite variant.
This is where the Steam Controller shines though. Take Star Citizen (or Elite Dangerous) as an example. A space simulation title as complex as this requires numerous buttons for various functions. This is possible with the Steam Controller and a maintained configuration file (or you can go it alone and do everything yourself). Should you be comfortable with both controllers, Steam's solution really shines in more advanced games like this.
One also has to include the price when looking at Xbox One controllers and the Steam pad. If you want to match Valve's offering in Microsoft's camp, you'll need to fork out around $140 for the Xbox One Elite controller, which introduces more buttons and customization. The Steam Controller costs just $49.99. It's a substantial difference that should be considered by those looking for a new means of input for their PC.
But that's just me, what say you? Do you prefer the Steam Controller or Xbox One gamepad? Sound off in the comments!
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Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.