Review: SteelSeries Stratus Bluetooth Wireless Game Controller
Although the just-announced SteelSeries Stratus ($100) is being pitched as the first Apple-authorized wireless game controller, that's not really true: with Apple's permission, Duo Games debuted the boxy Bluetooth controller Duo Gamer back in 2012, regrettably hobbling what was otherwise a well-conceived accessory by limiting its support to a handful of Gameloft games, and offering it at an unsustainable $80 price. After slashing Duo Gamer to a more reasonable $40, Duo Games folded, and its founder joined SteelSeries, a Danish maker of computer and console game accessories. Now SteelSeries has released Stratus as a highly similar alternative, although it has a wider array of issues than its spiritual predecessor.
The most striking feature of Stratus is its size. Just barely larger than Nintendo’s shockingly small Game Boy Micro, Stratus packs an entire iOS “extended” controller into a black plastic shell measuring 4.25” wide by 2.3” tall by 1” deep at its largest points — and smaller at its tapered bottom. A rigid D-pad, two analog sticks, four control buttons, and a pause button are on the front, with four shoulder buttons on the top, a power switch on the right side, and a Bluetooth pairing button recessed on the back. Black rubber is used for a bumper that runs across across the sides, providing some finger comfort, while four rubber feet protect the bottom from scuffing when placed on a flat surface. With a smaller-than-iPhone footprint, Stratus can comfortably be tossed into a pocket and taken anywhere, something that can’t yet be said for any other iOS game controller.
Unlike other currently available iOS controllers, Stratus is not only universally compatible with iOS devices, but fully wireless. It uses the old Bluetooth 2.1 standard — a surprise that makes pairing and re-pairing slower than it could be, while doing no favors for battery life — though positively offset by the addition of a built-in 10-12-hour rechargeable battery. Duo Gamer relied upon two AA batteries for around 8 hours of play time, providing no remaining power indication, an issue SteelSeries remedies with four small red indicator lights on the unit’s face. Monitor the lights and you won’t be surprised when you need to recharge.
One obvious question presented by such a tiny controller is whether it’s actually usable for gaming. The surprising answer is “mostly yes.” Although pretty much any larger controller out there will provide greater hand comfort for adult users, Stratus’s size means that nearly every button and controller are within easy finger reach when the controller is held with two hands. Similarly, despite the fact that Stratus’s chassis feels lightweight to a degree that’s inappropriate for any $100 accessory, the buttons and sticks are generally quite nice: the analog sticks are elevated and easy to move, the eight-way D-pad is respectably responsive, and the buttons provide reassuring light clicks. In other words, Stratus is nearly the equivalent of a $35 PlayStation DualShock 3 controller.
The only big exceptions are the shoulder triggers. For the first set of L1 and R1 triggers, SteelSeries has used appropriately long buttons that feel like binary on-off controls, and are easy to hit with your fingers in natural positions. The L2 and R2 shoulder triggers are oddly much smaller, nearly rectangular blocks, nestled in the middle rather than off to the sides. This makes them unnatural to reach, and in games that depend upon them, an annoyance to use. Unlike MOGA, which spring-loaded Ace Power’s L2 and R2 triggers for obvious pressure sensitivity, Stratus leaves them feeling binary, despite actually using a number of pressure-sensitive buttons.
While it’s unclear whether the issue is hardware- or software-related, we found that vehicular games we tested — including GTA: San Andreas and Riptide GP2, both without user-changeable game controller buttons — suffered from acceleration stutters, as if the acceleration button was being pushed and released repeatedly, rather than held down continuously. This really undermined the quality of the gaming experience for these titles, and we’re not sure whether the problem will be fixable in software. Software support for official iOS game controllers remains very limited, as well, and it’s still not easy to determine which games do and don’t work with accessories such as Stratus, say nothing of how well a given game will perform once connected.
Users of different devices may disagree as to the depth of the next issue, but Stratus leaves you to manage your iOS device itself. Unlike Duo Gamer, which wisely shipped with a stand capable of holding your iOS device upright during gaming sessions, Stratus arrives with only two accessories in the box: a translucent plastic shield to cover the front of the controller during travel, and a micro-USB recharging cable for the battery. Although the cover is nice enough, and can be swapped to Stratus’s back to make the controller thicker—with your fingers more naturally contacting the L2 + R2 triggers—the loss of the stand is a significant omission. As a result, you’re requiring you to keep your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch on your leg or self-supply another way to keep it upright. If you can manage both your device and controller, the iOS gaming experience starts to feel very console-like with the right software.
Stratus’s price is its last but certainly not least significant hurdle. As we’ve noted in our prior iOS game controller reviews, there’s very little consumer interest in or justification for a $100 game controller even when it’s pitched as a case and a spare iPhone battery — the vast majority of people just wouldn’t pay that price for any controller. So a $100 wireless controller without case and spare battery features is even more directly comparable to the Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony wireless controllers that have sold for $35 to $50 for years, and even less justifiable. This is Apple’s doing: Stratus sells a nearly identical PC/Mac controller called “Free” for under $60, so iOS gamers are effectively being asked to pony up a 40% bounty to cover Apple’s controller licensing fees.
As has been the case with earlier iOS game controllers, Stratus falls short of recommendability primarily due to crazy high pricing, and secondarily due to the quality of the gaming experience it offers. Under the best circumstances — assuming you already have a way to prop up your device and a game that’s both controller-compatible and not acceleration-dependent — you’ll have a good experience with Stratus, assuming you’re willing to pay $100 for something that’s really worth less than $50. More likely, you’ll find that the current state of game compatibility, controller idiosyncrasies, and lack of physical support for your iOS device lead to an experience that’s not worth anywhere close to the asking price. Our advice for the time being would be to hold off until the increasingly inevitable price drops begin; at that point, the state of iOS game controllers might be worth reassessing.