The best PC joysticks are going to be more important in 2020 than anyone could have imagined. Not only is the stunning and expansive Microsoft Flight Simulator now available, but we’ve also got the super-exciting Star Wars Squadrons to look forward to: Two experiences just crying out for a quality flight stick. So these are your options.
Even the best gaming keyboard paired with the best mouse isn’t going to make you feel like Luke Skywalker flying an X-Wing or like Top Gun’s Maverick. And we don’t even want to think about playing Elite: Dangerous without a great HOTAS. That’s Hands-On Throttle and Stick to the uninitiated, not strange code for having a warm posterior.
If you’re worried about your valuable desk space, you’ll be pleased to know that some of these joysticks won’t take up too much room—though a few of our picks would look right at home in a government-rated flight simulator. Before you make your purchase, you should work out how much of your desk’s real estate you will need to set aside for the joystick you have your eye on.
If you’re a diehard simulator fan, the high-end flight stick manufacturers Virpil and VKB may be more to your taste with their instrument-rated designs. We haven’t included these here as their models come with especially steep price tags and can be a pain to assemble if you don’t know what you’re doing. They also seem to be constantly out of stock. Instead, we’ve opted for the best joysticks that require minimal setup. Though if you do favour ultra-realism in your flight sim of choice, then Thrustmaster has announced its branded Airbus civil aviation gear that almost looks like it was ripped out of an A320.
Not that you need a joystick for an A320 these days, I hear those things fly themselves.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite PC joysticks and listed them below, along with a few key points to help you come to a decision. A lot of the models listed here aren’t cheap, but the experience you’ll get is worth the extra expense.
The Thrustmaster Warthog is hands-down the best PC joystick you can buy. It’s beautifully made, looks like it was ripped straight out of an A-10, and comes with an industrial strength that means the only thing left in our post-apocalyptic future will be a bunch of cockroaches trying to figure out how to use these sticks.
Sure, it’s an expensive unit, but you will know your money’s been well-spent as soon as you lift the lid on the packaging and pull the setup out. The stick alone weighs a kilo even before it’s been screwed down onto the solid, wide metal base. That’s something to behold, but the throttle is something else.
It is one of the finest pieces of PC peripheral engineering I’ve ever experienced. It’s casing is entirely made of metal and festooned with buttons. And not just buttons either, extra hat switches adorn the throttle itself, one that can be split in two should you need discrete control, and there are a host of toggles and metal flick switches too. I will honestly just sit there idly flipping switches even when the thing’s unplugged, so satisfying is the action.
All that weight means it practically sticks to your desk as you fling your Cobra MkIII around in Elite: Dangerous like a BSG Viper, and if you’re so inclined the drill holes are there if you want to make it a permanent addition too. It feels great to use in-game too, providing you with all the possible control permutations you could need without ever having to go near your keyboard again.
The only slight miss, and one that owes to its A-10C Warthog replica status, is the lack of Z-rotation on the stick to offer rudder control. Though that’s easily mapped onto any number of extra hat switches, or even extra analogue joysticks.
It’s many years old now, but is still the best you can buy. Though that also means the price has dropped in the intervening time. But trust me, if you’re serious about the best PC joystick this is it, and once you first pick it up you’ll never think about its price again.
An update to the aging X55, the Logitech X56 HOTAS is an improvement on nearly every aspect of the older Saitek design, but it still has many of the same features that made its predecessor great. The throttle can be unlocked to provide inputs for left and right engines individually, and the throttle panel also plays host to an entire series of metal switches and knobs that feel absolutely awesome.
I was a bit disappointed to find out that the metal top plate on both the flight stick and throttle don’t extend to the base, and that both the stick and throttle are composed mostly of plastic. The hardware still feels incredibly sturdy, but the seam running along the handle of the joystick is a bit jarring given the quality present on the rest of the build.
The entire setup for the X56 is deceptively light. While it does come with suction cups that can be attached to the base for increased stability, without them I found the stick and throttle far too eager to slip around on my desk. However, for those inclined to make this indulgence a more permanent part of their setup, the X56 has holes present in its bases to allow you to affix it to nearly any surface with the appropriate hardware.
Featuring adjustable stick tension and over 180 programmable controls, this throttle and joystick combo is a quality setup. It’s not quite in the same league as the Warthog, but it is a little cheaper. If you’re ready to kick tires and light fires, the X56 is a good way to go.
The Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is a testament to the fact that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good stick. It’s of a much cheaper build and design than the Warthog, but for a tenth of the ticket price you can forgive the use of plastic and lack of buttons and hats.
The key elements are there. The detachable throttle is probably the neatest feature: given that you’re going to need easy access to your keyboard for its extra buttons, being able to split these components around it is a definite advantage.
It’s also got the much-needed Z-axis rotation for rudder control, although the press of a switch will enable you to operate the rudder via a rocker on the front of the throttle grip. You get plenty of programmable buttons too, but they feel very much the sort you’d expect to find on a budget controller.
The action on the stick and throttle aren’t great either, and you’ll likely notice some grunching plastic noises as you push and pull the controller around. But it’s still robust and feels solid on the desk. If you can’t convince yourself an X56 or Warthog is a sensible purchase, then this is an extremely good value pick.
Aren’t they hideously expensive?
You can spend the sort of money generally reserved for a new graphics card on decent stick. But you can get an experience that’s very close for a fraction of the price.
For serious simulation you’re going to need throttle control. This is the biggest thing that separates the joypad from a flightstick setup, and the granularity of speed it delivers when dogfighting can mean the difference between virtual life and virtual death. So that’s number one: make sure your stick comes with a decent throttle.
Does that mean I need a separate throttle controller?
No, but the best and most respected flight controllers do come with an entirely separate control for the throttle, with extra toggle switches and LEDs. Others, such as the AV8R, have the throttle control built onto the base of the stick itself. So long as there’s a decent amount of travel in the throttle you’ll have a good level of control in-game.
How many buttons do I need?
Some of the controllers in this test have gone overboard on that front. But sims do demand a lot of different controls and having them all directly to hand can be incredibly useful. Just don’t forget that your trusty keyboard can make up for any buttons lacking on your controller. You will need at least four buttons arrayed around the stick itself and ideally a hat-switch on the top of it.
Anything else I should look out for?
Maybe it’s time we spoke about the Z-axis. Traditional joysticks just have pitch and roll control—forward, back, left and right—but some are configured for 3D movement. That means as well as controlling the X and Y axis you can also twist the stick clockwise or anti-clockwise to control the Z-axis. Generally this is used to control yaw and replicate the rudder controls of an aircraft.
In space that three dimensional control can be vital for accuracy, especially when you’re zeroing-in behind an escaping Sidewinder in an Elite dogfight. On a stick with other controls which can mimic the rudder that’s not such an issue, but on budget sticks which allow no such added control it is sorely missed.
Terms to know
HOTAS: This exciting acronym stands for the rather mundane-sounding ‘Hands-On Throttle And Stick’ and denotes a dual controller where one hand rests permanently on the throttle and the other remains on the stick.
Hat switch: A multi-directional button akin to the d-pad on a controller. On a flightstick, however, the d-pad has a hat on top which the thumb can easily push to activate the switches. They come in 4-way or 8-way flavors.