Having an HTPC that can double as a console-style gaming machine is great, but between a keyboard and mouse, a remote control and a gamepad, the coffee table starts to get a little cluttered. Depending on your usage, however, it’s entirely possible to ditch every input method except the gamepad, without any loss of functionality.
The first step is getting a suitable gamepad. If you already have one, it will likely be just fine. Otherwise, we recommend the Xbox One Controller. Its wireless, but has a removable wired connection to keep you going.
Alternatively, the older Xbox 360 controller is also great. Both have excellent support, especially with Windows.
Other controllers do work, but may not be supported by some software. The top contenders are the Logitech F710 or one of the Razer Xbox controllers. PlayStation controllers work, too, but are not as widely supported.
Programs and Tools
Most importantly, functions such as mouse control can be performed by an analog control stick and specific actions bound to buttons. There are also on screen keyboards designed for gamepad that let you enter text when needed.
Our favourite media software such as Plex and Kodi already support the Xbox controller (and some others) by default — just check the key mapping on their websites.
Steam Big Picture Mode
The mode expands the size of text, and creates a simpler, easy-to-navigate interface.
Ideally, you want to launch right into Big Picture, so navigate to Settings, Interface and select ‘Start Steam in Big Picture Mode’. When selecting a game to play, Steam will prompt you if the controller needs to be configured.
You can use the default mapping, create your own or even try one recommended by the gaming community.
Controller Companion is a versatile and very flexible tool that intelligently remaps your Xbox controller for Windows control.
The app costs AU$4 (US$3) and can be purchased via the website, or through Steam.
By default, the left stick works as a mouse, and pops up a spiral virtual keyboard when pressed. The second stick works to scroll web pages, A/X is a left/right mouse click, and B works as a back button. The Y Key operates as a media player pause, and the shoulder buttons are next and previous track.
Importantly, Controller Companion automatically disables itself when another full-screen program, such as a game, media player or Steam Big Picture are launched.
It also powers down the controller itself when the PC is shut down to save battery power.
The Controller Companion website includes some handy video guides for getting started.
Install the software, and connect your Xbox controller. Controller Companion runs in the background with an icon (a gamepad) in the Windows notification area (bottom right).
To enable it, hold down the Back + Start buttons — the same combo also manually disables it.
The default setup is pretty good, but one of the advantages of Controller Companion is the ability to re-map keys.
Click the notification bar icon and select ‘Show button help’, or simply press back and the right stick. The guide shows how the buttons are current mapped — holding the back button shows secondary bindings.
Clicking the left stick shows the button mapping when the virtual keyboard is open.
To rebind the keys, click the notification icon and click ‘Open Settings’ and navigate to ‘Bindings’. From there, you can select a range of different options for each button, or create custom actions.
Free and open-source, Gopher360 gives basic but effective gamepad control in Windows. It’s designed to be simple — run the program and it automatically maps your gamepad inputs.
The full list of controls is available on the website. The left stick controls the mouse, while A/X are left and right click. Start opens Windows start, the right stick scrolls, the D-pad works as arrow keys and B is enter.
You can also toggle Gopher360 on and off with the Back button.
Rather than having its own keyboard, the program just used the existing Windows on- screen virtual keyboard. By placing the EXE file into your start folder, Gopher360 will also be good to go.
Other Operating systems
For HTPC setups, Linux is a popular option and can run other software such as Kodi. Another popular choice is simply plugging a Macbook into a TV via HDMI, for some loungeroom gaming or media playback.
On Mac OS X, the PS4 controller is supported natively, the Xbox 360 needs a driver, such as one from Tattiebogle. The problem is that this just gets the gamepad working in games that support the input — you can’t use it on the desktop.
Joystick Mapper allows you to use a gamepad to replace a keyboard and mouse, as well as re-map keys.
Up-to-date distros of Linux (kernel version 3.17 or better) actually support the Xbox One Controller natively. Some other controllers work, too, or need extra drivers, depending on exactly which version of Linux you run.
For more advanced Linux tinkerers, the xboxdrv driver has configuration options that include simulating a keyboard and mouse with a gamepad.
SteamOS supports various gamepads, including the Xbox and PS4 controllers.