In 2020 even the best PC joysticks aren’t likely to be at the top of the shopping list for a lot of gamers. But if you’re a fan of space flight or conventional sims, the investment is absolutely worth it. 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 Top Gun’s Maverick. And we don’t even want to think about playing Elite Dangerous without a great joystick. The good news is, you don’t have to part with a ridiculous amount of cash to get that experience.
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. Instead, we’ve opted for the best joysticks that require minimal setup.
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.
1. Logitech G X56 HOTAS RGB
Switches and Knobs!
Needs to be heavier
An update to the aging X55, the Logitech X56 HOTAS is an improvement on nearly every aspect of the older 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 any flight enthusiast’s dream. If you’re ready to kick tires and light fires, the X56 is the way to go.
2. Logitech X52 Professional
The best mid-range joystick
Comparable to more expensive options
Plastic body and a light stick
May still be too expensive
Essentially the little brother to the X56, the X52 Professional retains much of the same functionality and feel while paring down the number of inputs to something a little more sensible for casual fans. The quality of the hardware is a bit inconsistent, but still offers plenty of switches and knobs to play with.
Just like X56, this slightly smaller version shares some of the same issues, while having a couple of original problems as well. The stick and throttle quality remains the same hardened plastic with the same ugly seam running down the back of the joystick itself. Unfortunately, the metal plates of the X56 have been replaced with brushed aluminum surfaces instead. This makes the X52 even lighter. Unless you’re using the included suction cups or affixing the X52 to your desk permanently, it has a terrible tendency to move around whatever surface you put it on.
While it doesn’t have all the metallic switches like the X56, the X52 does feature an LED multi-function display that can be programmed to show a flight clock, selected profiles, or other information using Logitech’s 3rd party software. Apart from letting you remap controls and assign profiles, this software also lets you customize the colors of lights and other buttons on the stick and throttle.
Its less than stellar build quality may not earn a spot at the top of the heap, especially given its fairly steep price point. But, this is still an excellent way to take your first steps into a larger world without going full throttle.
3. Thrustmaster Warthog
The best high-end joystick
Heavy, durable, and sturdy
The best money can buy
No Z-axis rotation
This has been my toughest challenge yet in trying to figure out an overall winner. Usually, I’ve got benchmark metrics to back up any value assessment I make, but with the top joysticks, this and the Logitech G X56, it’s entirely subjective and agonizingly close.
The Warthog is by far the more expensive, but as soon as you start the glorious unboxing process you know you haven’t been short-changed. The sheer weight of the device is incredible, mostly because Thrustmaster has used a metal casing for everything from the throttle base to the stick itself. And that stick weighs over a kilogram on its own. The weight not only adds a certain air of robustness but also means you’re not going to be wrenching it off your desk in the heat of battle.
The design matches the build quality, although Thrustmaster cannot take all the credit there as the Warthog is an almost perfect recreation of the controls of the real-life A-10C Thunderbolt II fighter-bomber. That legacy leaves it with more buttons than you have fingers, but also makes it one of the most beautiful controllers you’ll ever plug into your PC. Both stick and throttle have an abundance of hat-switches and the throttle base is festooned with flick-switches too.
Sadly that devotion to perfect replication means there’s no Z-axis rotation on the stick, one of the very few minus points. With all those additional controls though, it’s easy to map rudder control to any number of them.
The action on both flight stick and throttle is impeccable. The stick moves smoothly in all directions and the translation in-game is excellent too. There’s enough resistance to stop it feeling loose, but it never feels overly stiff either. The throttle unit gives you the option to change its resistance on the fly if you want, enabling you to create more or less friction to its travel. There isn’t a huge amount of difference, but for my tastes it already moves quite beautifully and the distance it can shift adds granularity to speed—perfect for docking in those tricky space stations.
It might seem crazy to be recommending such an expensive item, but if you’re serious about sims—or Elite: Dangerous—this stick is the very best money can buy.
4. Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X
Thrust can detach from the joystick
Great value for money
Fewer buttons and hats
Cheap feeling buttons
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 Thrustmaster’s Warthog. 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.