You likely have many gaming accessories you can’t live without, like a cushiony headset or maybe even that comfy gaming chair. But what about a relatively minor, small, and cheap accessory that kind of sounds like a gimmick? I thought these $15 “performance thumbsticks” from KontrolFreek would fit into the latter category, but after trying them out on my DualShock 4; boy, was I wrong.
I used to think there was nothing wrong with most controller joysticks. And save for the ones with manufacturer defects, most joysticks are just fine. They have smooth travel, decent grip, and hold up to most abuse. They’re one of the greatest advancements in gaming hardware, and they provide a much-appreciated alternative to the D-pad. But honestly, the perfect joysticks should be forgettable—ones you never even have to think about. They do what they’re supposed to do, and that’s it.
Which is why I nearly scoffed at the idea of “performance thumbsticks” for my DualShock 4. (They’re also available for the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.) Why would I need to solve a nonexistent problem? The joysticks on the DS4 work just fine, and the moment I change something that already works is usually the moment when it works no more.
But at the same time, I’m not one to shy away from making something good even better. And if you asked me if I wanted to add a little “improved accuracy” and “increased comfort” into my gaming regime, I wouldn’t turn away the opportunity.
I was still a bit skeptical, though, since there’s really not much to these things—they’re basically just joysticks for your joysticks. They clip onto your controller’s existing joysticks and add a bit of length, which supposedly helps with accuracy thanks to the wider range of motion. The “platforms” also have a different texture and shape than stock joysticks, adding more grip for your thumbs.
Since KontrolFreek offers a ton of different styles, you can usually find a pair that fits your tastes. A lot of the ones they sell are themed after games or come with extravagant textures, but I’m a simple man, so I went with the classic and basic “Ultra” thumbsticks. There’s nothing too special about them, but they’re slightly concave and have an array of nubbles, both of which help with grip. I snapped them onto my DualShock 4’s joysticks, fired up my PS4, and prepared for hours of pure gaming bli…these feel weird.
You know that feeling you get when you drive someone else’s car? It’s not your car, so everything from the steering wheel to the pedals to the seat just feels odd. That’s how it felt using the performance thumbsticks for the first time. I felt like I had to place my thumbs in a strange position to reach the joysticks, and the increased range of motion was so extreme that I felt like I was operating a backhoe.
The worst part? I wasn’t really noticing much of a difference in my gameplay. If anything, I kept focusing too much on how weird these things felt that I was losing focus on the actual gameplay. I was about to call it right then and there, but I wanted to give these a fair shake. So I kept them on with the hopes that I’d get used to them over time, and then I’d re-evaluate.
Weeks went by, and one night I accidentally grabbed a different controller as I sat down and fired up the PS4. I was too lazy to get up and swap out controllers, so I dealt with a performance thumbstick-less experience. How bad could it be? After all, I’d get to go back to the stock setup I’ve been used to for years.
Right away, it was bad. My gaming was just…sloppy. My quickness and finesse playing Overcooked disappeared, and my accuracy in Call of Duty was suddenly terrible. On top of that, it felt like my thumbs were continually slipping off, and I was missing the wider range of motion that allowed me to be more precise with the joysticks’ positioning. It’s like I was playing with feature-locked joysticks—the freemium version, if you will. Only I didn’t pay up for all the useful features you’d actually want.
For the first time in my life, I complained about joysticks, and I couldn’t believe how horrible the experience was without the performance thumbsticks. I must’ve slowly gotten used to them that I didn’t even notice the improvements. But sure enough, they make my aim more accurate, and I have more precision over characters, cars, or whatever I’m controlling. On top of that, the amount of grip compared to the stock joysticks is insane. Even just the simple nubbles on my Ultra thumbsticks help a ton.
Of course, very few things in life are perfect, and I have one tiny complaint about these: they unclip and fall off more often than I’d like. That’s mostly due to my aggressiveness, as I tend to apply more pressure to buttons and joysticks than I need to—carpal tunnel will call my name at some point, I’m sure. Perhaps this is where controllers with completely-interchangeable thumbsticks would come in handy, like the Xbox Elite or any of the options from SCUF. Those are significantly more expensive than the KontrolFreek add-ons, but I reckon I wouldn’t have to deal with them easily popping off.
Sure, I could probably go back to the stock joysticks and get used them again, but the performance thumbsticks are clearly working. I’m never playing a game without them again. And because they’re so cheap, I’m considering getting some extra pairs for my everyday carry, because you never know when a gaming session might break out while far from home.
Here’s What We Like
- They provide much better grip than stock joysticks.
- The added length helps with precision and accuracy.
- The relatively-low price point makes these a no-brainer.
And What We Don't
- They sometimes unclip and fall off in the heat of battle.
- They take some time to get used to.