Don't get me wrong. I fully appreciate the power and convenience that mobile gaming has brought to the table. Playing casual games on our smartphones and tablets has really changed the video game industry as a whole. That said, while swiping around on a touchscreen is perfectly fine for Angry Birds and 2048, I want a real controller if I'm going to play an FPS, beat 'em up or driving simulation. And one of the newest options to join the fray is the SteelSeries Stratus Wireless Gaming Controller, which takes advantage of the new baked-in controller support in Apple's iOS 7.
Unboxing Video and Feature Overview
One of the first things that will strike you about the SteelSeries Stratus is its size. Its overall dimensions are smaller than just about every smartphone and you would think that this could lend itself to some really cramped hands. However, when we played with it at CES 2014, we noted just how strangely comfortable it can be. There are certainly some individual differences, since people have different sized hands, but now that we've spent more time playing it, we're even more impressed with the overall design.
Embedded below is a quick review video of this controller, unboxing the contents and running through some of its key features. I also demo how easy it is to pair it up via Bluetooth 2.1 with the iOS 7 device of your choosing; it'll work with the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5, iPad Mini, iPad Air, iPad 4th Generation, and iPod Touch 5th Generation. It's great how I didn't even need to go into the individual game settings to tell it that I had a controller paired up. The controls mapped up automatically.
The design of the SteelSeries Stratus clearly borrows some inspiration from the console world. It has a similar overall shape to the Xbox 360 controller and it even mirrors the idea of four colored face buttons, though it moves the colors around a bit. The layout is closer in scope to the DualShock series from Sony's PlayStation, putting the dual thumbsticks toward the bottom, a d-pad to the left, and two pairs of shoulder buttons on top. You charge it up via the provided microUSB cable and the battery will run for about 10 hours of continuous gameplay.
Gaming with the SteelSeries Stratus on iOS 7
Gaming with the SteelSeries Stratus, as mentioned, is more comfortable that you might think. The analog thumb sticks have a similar level of resistance as the ones on an Xbox 360 controller and, even though they are smaller, you do almost the same range of movement. The buttons are also pressure-sensitive, meaning that if developers of racing games want to let you control the throttle by how hard you press the button, you can do that. The Stratus is hardly heavy at just 75 grams, but it's got enough weight to it to feel a little substantial.
I really liked the idea of the dual purpose plastic cover. When not in use, you can use it to cover the front of the controller, protecting those thumb sticks and buttons from damage while rattling around in your bag. When playing, you can snap it into the back, adding a little bit of thickness to the controller for a better grip. It takes a little trial-and-error to find the right positioning, but it does help.
However, I did encounter some issues with fit and finish, as the cover doesn't quite snap perfectly in place all the time. It has a nasty habit of coming loose when you press on one edge or another. Thankfully, there's also a nylon carrying pouch included. SteelSeries has also indicated that they are aware of this problem, telling us that the fit for the cover gets better the more you use it.
MEGATechie Mobile Gaming Elite or MEGATechie iWantMore?
On the whole, I liked the SteelSeries Stratus. They've managed to find a good balance between having a controller that's small enough to carry around with you, but one that is substantial enough to be comfortable even for extended gaming session. You really get a console-quality experience and the list of compatible games continues to grow. The layout is naturally intuitive for console gamers and the overall build is just as good as OEM controller on an Xbox or PlayStation. When developers start coding for it, the Stratus will even support multiplayer through your iPhone or iPad.
All is not perfect, of course. For starters, the Stratus appears to be an iOS 7-only device at the moment. While my Android smartphone could "see" it in the list of available devices for Bluetooth pairing, I could never establish a connection. The exterior plastics can feel a little cheap and when I squeezed one portion of the controller, I could hear a distinct "clicking" noise. They need to be careful about any imperfections in the manufacturing process and this definitely applies to the fit of the plastic cover as well.
For me, though, one of the biggest sticking points is the price. The SteelSeries Stratus carries an MSRP of $79.99, which is lower than the $100 we were told in January, but I feel it is still too high. If they can get this down to around the $50 level, that'd be a huge win for gaming enthusiasts. At $80 (plus tax), it's a little rich for my blood.