While the performance increases we’ve seen in the last year or so have been more in the “nice to have” category on most mobile device platforms, the one area where increases in performance has some actual use is for full fledged Windows devices. The faster you can make tablets and laptops without sacrificing portability, the more like a true computer they become. That also opens up for using them for computer gaming, and while you won’t be running the latest games with maximum settings, that’s frankly not needed to have a good time. That leaves you with one problem though: Controls. On a laptop, the lack of a mouse- and in some cases a better keyboard- are potential issues. On a tablet, the complete lack of both those two things is definitely an issue. You could lug around a mouse and a keyboard, or you could go the console route, and hook up a controller. The Xbox 360 might be 7 years old and due for an upgrade, but its controllers- which are fully compatible with Windows- are in the prime of their lives. 

A while ago I started using the wireless adapter I bought for using a resurrected (broken controller that I replaced the shell of) Xbox 360 controller on Android with my PC, like it was designed for. It had some issues, partly due to the replacement shell of the controller being a bit off, partly because of some USB bandwidth issues I had. I like playing with a controller, so I went out and bought the wired USB version of the controller, which can connect to both Xbox 360 consoles and Windows computers over USB. I still have the wireless adapter and controller, but the wired controller works best for my needs.

The original wireless adapter I had required me to browse the drivers manually on my computer, while the wired controller installed itself without problems. The drivers are built into Windows, so even the manual installation only meant browsing local drivers and finding the one for the Xbox 360 wireless adapter, but it’s still a but of an issue when this happens. Since my wireless adapter was a knockoff, however I don’t know if that’s the reason why it happened. However, since the solution I found online (installing drivers manually) was for the official adapter, I think not. I have also seen YouTube videos of the wireless adapter used on Windows RT, and the same method of manually browsing for drivers was used there. Bottom line, whether or not the controller will install itself or not seems to depend on both OS and chance, so I’d suggest googling for an OS-specific solution if you should encounter the issue.

Design

Most people are familiar with the Xbox 360 controller, but I’ll quickly go over the design. You have two analog sticks, one mounted higher on the controller than the other. You have a d-pad, which on the special edition controller that came out a couple of years ago (wireless only) can be switched from 4 way mode to 8 way mode. You have start and select buttons, which work like you’d expect depending on the game, with the start button often working like Escape on a PC. You have four shoulder buttons, two of which are analog, and four normal digital game buttons. The difference between analog sticks/buttons and digital ones is that analog controls don’t deal with absolute states like on/off. Instead they notice how hard you pull a trigger, or in exactly what direction and how far you’re pushing a stick. This actually gives controllers an advantage over a mouse and keyboard in areas where the keyboard is used for movement, which is restricted to digital controls unless you’re Ben Heck.

The wireless controller has a 2x AA battery back on the bottom, whereas the wired controller just has the USB cable – which is luckily long enough to not be an issue – sticking out from the top. The Xbox button, a middle button used to turn the controller on and indicate which controller position it’s in (1-4), can also be used on Windows via a helper program that you can download from Microsoft. This gives you battery status on the wireless controller when the button is pressed, whereas it’s mostly a useless on-screen controller number identifier for the wired controller. Both controllers also have two motors for vibrations, and an accessory port used for connecting accessories like a keypad to the controller. Both the wireless adapter and the wired controller use USB for the actual connection, so you don’t need anything more than that- though obviously, the wireless adapter is “something more than just the controller.”

I have to say that the Xbox 360 controller might be the best controller ever made. It’s a pleasure to use, with ergonomics that I personally don’t think are matched by any controller on the market. Part of my issue with Android game controllers/consoles is that no matter how many third party controllers come out, the 7 year old Xbox 360 controller will still be a better controller. Being able to use it on Windows is therefore a big bonus, as it gives you what I think is the best controller out there.

Performance

What’s great about this controller is that Xbox 360 controller support is built right into a ton of games. This has a lot to do with the multi-platform aspect of gaming these days, and many games are released both on consoles and for the PC. Heck, many PC games are ports of console games, and might even be designed to be used with a controller, only to get mouse and keyboard support as an add-on. Since Windows support is an official feature of Xbox controllers, most developers put the support into the PC version of the games as well. Every game I have in my Steam library is also available as a console game, and all have support for the Xbox controller built in. I don’t know if this is a universal rule, but it seems to be.

What’s nice is that we’re talking seriously deep integration here, with games essentially switching to Xbox mode when a controller is detected. On-screen button instructions change to show icons of the buttons, everything is mapped perfectly from the get-go, and you have the same controller controls as you’d have on an Xbox console. This sort of deep integration goes beyond what you get with a standard game controller, which is why there are software tools out there that let you emulate an Xbox controller with other controllers. It just makes it so much easier to use a controller when you don’t have to run after your PC and beat it with a stick to make it understand what to do with the signals it receives from the USB port.

As for performance, you essentially get the Xbox 360 experience when using this controller on a PC. A lot of games are the same, but PC gaming in general has two major advantages: Mods, and performance. During the Steam holiday sale I bought a game I used to love playing on the PS3, Just Cause 2. I bought it because on the PC, you can mod the heck out of it, making it a sandbox like few others. On top of that, since I primarily play games on my desktop computer rather than my laptop, the ability to run the game in 1080p with high settings makes it a better graphical experience than it was on consoles. If you run games on a tablet or laptop, however, you’re likely to run things at lower settings, but last year’s games’ high settings are next year’s games’ low settings.

Conclusion

An Xbox 360 controller might be one of the best accessories you can get if you like to do some gaming on your laptop or tablet, or just your home computer for that matter. Some PC gamers swear to a mouse and keyboard, but I think PC gaming is getting closer and closer to console gaming in many ways. Steam recently launched its Big Picture mode, which basically lets you run the Steam program in a special full screen mode that’s more like the interface of a console. The idea is that this, paired with a game controller, essentially turns your PC into a game console.

This idea is very interesting, especially with regards to mobile computers. Fewer and fewer people even have desktop computers, instead relying on laptops and tablets. As these devices become more powerful, a massive library of existing games become available to them. Having a controller and a TV/controller friendly UI eliminates the last remnants of the old desktop PC setup dependence, which I think is a nice thing. Come home, connect your Windows 8 tablet to your TV, grab the controller, and relax with an hour or two of Skyrim.

Microsoft sells both the wireless controller, the wired controller, and the wireless controller adapter. You can pick them up just about anywhere that sells games, with prices in the range of $15-20 for the wireless adapter, $30-40 for the wired controller, and $35-60 for the wireless controller. Lately I’ve seen that Microsoft has packaged these controllers in a special Windows-branded box, likely to highlight the controllers as compatible with Windows, even though any controller will work on both. When I bought my wired controller, it came in such a Windows branded box, and also available was a wireless controller with the adapter bundled.

It’s nice to see that Microsoft recognizes that the market for these controllers on Windows is very much there,both with regards to the integration with games (though a lot of the credit here goes to individual game developers) and this branding. I do wish that Microsoft would do something about that ridiculously large wireless adapter, as I’d think it would be possible to shrink it down a lot. considering the focus on portability in the PC world lately, both with regards to tablets and ultrabooks, having a smaller wireless adapter (or even having the functionality built into some computers, if the hardware was small enough) would definitely make this an even more desirable accessory for mobile Windows setups. I wouldn’t complain if a company decided to come out with a tablet that has a multimedia dock with a built-in wireless adapter either, if licensing allows it. Either way, a controller like this is a great accessory to have around.