PC Game controller round-up
December 23, 2005 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Game controllers for the PC? Tell me about them?

Those XBOX/PS2/Nintendo style game controllers: most seem to have a thumb controller on the left that appears to allow 8 discreet positions and a right hand diamond array of four buttons, e.g, this.

Six questions:
  • Is the big right button an eight-position control?
  • Is the eight-position left controller actually implemented like the old Atari joysticks, and not as an analog joystick, such that it really presses down one button in the four cardinal directions, and two buttons in diagonal directions?
  • Are there any that have a eight-position button on the right as well as on the left?
  • Are any of these controllers for a PC, with a USB connection?
  • Are there any such controllers that have an open specification or open linux drivers?
  • Which PC controller has the most buttons/best feature set?
posted by orthogonality to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
you can hook up the original controllers to your puter, i recommend just getting an adapter
analog will stay analog, and 8-way will stay 8-way
posted by suni at 1:46 PM on December 23, 2005

Take a look at the XBOX 360 controller that is made for PCs by Microsoft. If you take a look at free60.org, I think they have initial Xpad support for it.
posted by mr.dan at 1:47 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Lemme put my cards on the table: I want an eight-way on the left and an 8-way on the right. And lots of additional buttons.

Analog, not so important, and a bit of a pain in the ass, as I want the controller to to be a keyboard replacement.
posted by orthogonality at 1:49 PM on December 23, 2005

Regardless of whether you can actually find such a device, getting a game to play nicely with it is another matter entirely. Most PC game developers just don't design with controllers in mind, and if they do, the standard Logitech controllers will get most of the attention.
posted by frogan at 1:57 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Don't need to use it to play games, and if the spec is open, I can write the drivers myself, if necessary.
posted by orthogonality at 1:59 PM on December 23, 2005

Are you looking for a specific gamepad recommendation?

If you want it to act like a keyboard I would recommend


I've used it in the past and it works well every gamepad I've used.
posted by meta87 at 2:09 PM on December 23, 2005

You can buy an Xbox 360 controller and plug that straight into your windows XP PC.

In an attempt to answer your questions:

The big right button, is either a analogue joystick or a series of fire buttons in a Nintendo layout. I'm not sure which one you mean.

No, it's an analogue joystick.

I've never seen one that does that, but in essence you can map the keys in most PC games so the buttons would become the four direction keys.

Yes, if you look at PC controllers, USB is the standard with some wireless ones that are available.

I'm sure that a brief glance at the support pages for the big players such as Logitech and Saitek will reveal linux drivers and I'm sure the linux community has unofficial drivers for a few more.

It all depends on how you feel about the controller in your hand, the best thing is to get to a store and try a few out. I've heard of people having trouble with particular designs of controllers.
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:09 PM on December 23, 2005

I'm curious as to how you'll use this as a keyboard replacement. Please keep us posted.

There are various adapters that allow you to use various game console controllers on your USB ports.

A cursory google search using the string "USB game controller adapter" reveals this huge page listing various adapters.
posted by loquacious at 2:16 PM on December 23, 2005

Hey, I'm gonna download that Joy2Key program right now and try it out on the MS Sidewinder Precision Pro I picked up for $1.50 at a thrift store last week.
posted by loquacious at 2:19 PM on December 23, 2005

FYI, the only controller I've ever seen with a digital pad on both the right and the left is the Virtual Boy controller. I'm sure you could build an adapter for it, but... I think the disadvantages probably outweigh the advantages for that one feature. But now you've got me thinking. Anyone know if there are other controllers out there with two 8-way d-pads?
posted by cacophony at 2:25 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: loquacious writes "I'm curious as to how you'll use this as a keyboard replacement. Please keep us posted."

Keys on keyboard: 26 alpha + 10 numeric + 15 punctuation + 12 function + 3 special = 66 (not counting mode keys Shift, Caps Lock, Ctrl, Alt, Meta, ignoring num pad and cursor positioning keys).

Two eight-position "hat" buttons, pressed simultaneously = 81 positions (less one for neither pressed) = 80.

Reserve independent use for mouse and text cursor = 64 keys.

Throw out special keys, handle mode keys using fire buttons on controller.
posted by orthogonality at 2:28 PM on December 23, 2005

Sorry if this is a derail, orthogonality, but do you know about the Twiddler? My wearable computing geek friends swore by this one handed keyboard.
posted by Nelson at 2:33 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Nelson writes "orthogonality, but do you know about the Twiddler?"

Yeah, I've considered it. But chording with multiple fingers on one hand won't, I think, work for me. Besides, what do you do with the other hand (unless you're surfing porn)?

Game controllers, on the other hand, have been tested a lot more -- all those damned kids playing their games -- and only requires chording with the thumbs. I think that'll work better for me.
posted by orthogonality at 2:42 PM on December 23, 2005

I am now navigating my desktop with my joystick. XY axis control the mouse, buttons are assigned to the proper mouse buttons, the POV hat gives me arrow keys to scroll pages.

I just can't seem to get the Z axis twist function to properly work as a mouse scroll wheel.

This is pretty cool, actually.
posted by loquacious at 2:50 PM on December 23, 2005

Is the purpose for replacing a keyboard with a gamepad secret? I'm just curious why you're doing it.

I would recommend the various gamepads from Logitech and/or Microsoft as far as high quality... However, I don't believe there are any that have a digital (8 position rather than "infinite but not really" position) pad on the right side..

Typically these days, you'll get analog and digital both on the left.. analog and a bunch of buttons on the right... a couple of trigger/"shoulder" buttons, and maybe a few extra "start/select" etc buttons...

Because the devices are USB, however, I imagine you could hack together, say, two cheap old school gravis gamepads or something to achieve hte same effect?
posted by twiggy at 2:54 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: twiggy writes "Is the purpose for replacing a keyboard with a gamepad secret? I'm just curious why you're doing it."

No secret. My Touchstream keyboard died, finding a replacement is near impossible, it occurred to me that a game controller might make a decent keyboard.

Purpose: to use the controller as my keyboard, to do normal typing.
posted by orthogonality at 2:58 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: and no, don't tell me where to find Touchstreams. I know that. They're no longer made, and expensive as all hell is the problem.
posted by orthogonality at 2:59 PM on December 23, 2005

In linux usb gamepads are handled by the usb human interface device driver. It just enumerates the buttons and gives x,y values for the analog sticks. Sounds like just what you need, right?

A couple years ago I had a dorm room where the bed was lofted above the rest of the room. In the interest of not falling down the strairs in the middle of the night, I used PyGame to control xmms from my bed. It worked flawlessly.
posted by joegester at 3:06 PM on December 23, 2005

orthogonality: the thng that looks like an 8-way on the left isn't recognized as an 8-way, really. PC joysticks are defined in terms of axis (which are analog values from like -1 to 1) and buttons. The shown joystick has 6 axis and... 10 buttons probably. I don't think a traditional console joystick will work as a keyboard replacement, frankly. Your best bet would be custom software that converts axis position into 8 way directions, and generates a keymap from that.

But loquacious brings up a good idea: the joystick he's talking abour is a more traditional PC simulation joystick, I think. Something like this: this could definitely act like a keyboard replacement, although I don't really know how easy it would be to set up. It certainly has enough buttons, and the software for simulation joysticks tends to be very good.
posted by JZig at 3:13 PM on December 23, 2005

Oh. Apparently you need additional support for joysticks. The module name is "joydev".

My Gentoo kernel has a driver specifically for X-Box gamepads. Would that be good?
posted by joegester at 3:18 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: JZig writes "Something like this: this"

No, I want to move the thumbs and fingers, not the wrist.

I suppose analog joysticks are ok, if you put a plastic "channeling" grid over them, limiting their travel to along the channels. The point is, you want the user to be able to "type" quickly, so you want to screen out intermediate values.

If the controller is cheap enough, I'm more than willing to rip it apart and modify it to get what I want.
posted by orthogonality at 3:24 PM on December 23, 2005

Not quite what you're looking for, but there are a number of joysticks that come with multiple hat switches, including what JZig linked to. You could then immobilize the joystick/throttles entirely and use them solely as handgrips, using the hat switches for typing. Triggers on the throttle/joystick handle your mode functions as before. For an added bonus, you could leave the joystick free to act as the mouse (assuming you could find drivers/software to let you do this). Can't tell you whether this would be any good ergonomically, though.

Another option is simply to hack a direction pad onto the cluster of four buttons on the right side by ripping one of another controller and literally pasting it onto the four buttons (perhaps also drilling in a center post). As long as the controller can send signals for two buttons from the cluster at the same time, it should work the same as a second d-pad, and depending on how much time you want to spend hacking the controller, it could feel like a second d-pad as well. All this without having to worry about the underlying logic boards.
posted by chrominance at 4:34 PM on December 23, 2005

Saitek P880, I have two. They are the duck's guts.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 8:40 PM on December 23, 2005

Yeah, the Saitek driver software allows a truly ludicrous amount of customisation, including assigning keypresses to buttons, and keypresses or mouse axis movements to the analog sticks. You could even do something ridiculous like have 33% of the stick's left travel press a key and the other 67% act as a joystick or mouse. What I don't know, though, is if the software allows you to assign keys to button chords, but I wouldn't be surprised if it does.

Having said all that, though, I've got a P880 and the right analog stick tends to drift a bit when set to emulate a mouse. I dunno if you even require that function, but that might indicate slightly lax quality control, maybe. Otherwise it's a nice piece of gear, it's too bad more games don't support gamepads.
posted by arto at 9:32 PM on December 23, 2005

No idea if this will be useful, but I just read about the AlphaGrip (via Joystiq) -- it's got a crazy number of buttons and is designed for typing, apparently.
posted by chrismear at 2:04 PM on January 9, 2006

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