SteelSeries_Stratus_PackagingToday gamers iOS wireless game controller choices just got a whole lot more interesting.

Last November we saw the release of iOS external game controllers from MOGA and Logitech, however both of these were more of a hand-held gaming system form factor, requiring a physical connection between phone and controller, meaning that the user has to put their iPhone into the device. This meant that you could not have a case on your phone, nor could either of these controllers be used with an iPad or iPad mini.

So where is a viable external controller solution for iPad gamers? That’s where the SteelSeries Stratus comes in.

With an actual gamepad form factor complete with pressure-sensitive dpad, two analog stick, 4 pressure-sensitive buttons and two sets of shoulder buttons, the SteelSeries Stratus connects to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch via Bluetooth and goes the distance with 10+ hours of (rechargeable) battery life. It also comes with a protective cover which goes over the front of the controller during travel, but can also be attached to the back to add a little more chunkiness to hold onto…which is great! At only about 4.25 inches at its widest point the Stratus is quite small, yet it still feels pretty comfortable in the hand. If I had to guess, I’d say that I have medium-sized hands. Being used to the size of the 360 and Xbox One controllers I really wish the Stratus was a little bit bigger, as it can feel a bit too cramped at times, but I understand the necessary trade-off between portability and size. After some playtime, you do get fairly used to the smaller form factor, especially on games that don’t utilize ALL the buttons, but I’d definitely still be interested in a (less portable) more full-sized version of the Stratus.

steelseries-stratus-03Overall the controller’s layout works quite well even though the analog sticks and dpad follow the PlayStation model vs. my preferred offset Xbox Layout. Really the only part of the buttons that felt particularly awkward for me were the L2 and R2 buttons which felt a bit unnatural to press. It was really only when you had a game that required the use of both the L1/R1 and L2/R2 buttons, otherwise I think it would be more comfortable and intuitive if the L2 and R2 buttons were either a bit longer or situated lower on the controller. The good news is that many games don’t even take advantage of all of these buttons simultaneously, so at the moment it is only an issue on some games.

This isn’t SteelSeries’ first rodeo, for in October 2012 the company released the “Free” mobile wireless Bluetooth controller which worked on both PC/MAC and was supported by a limited number of iOS titles as well. The Stratus is the next evolution of this controller and shares much of the same basic form factor, except that it is a bit meatier, has a good deal more buttons and is based on Apple’s new MFi standards. Connecting to my iPhone and iPad was super simple and there is even a dedicated Bluetooth pairing button situated on the back of the controller. Battery life seemed true to specs and the Stratus has a series of LEDs that show pairing status as well as remaining battery life. Plus I found that the controller can be used while plugged in to a USB power source. I don’t know of any games that support it yet (nor did I have the devices to test it), but up to four Stratuses can be paired with the same device for some serious multiplayer gaming.

For those unfamiliar, Apple supports two distinct official controller specs (standard and extended), and the SteelSeries Stratus follows the (arguably better), extended layout. Unfortunately because of the two different layouts, despite an official standard, the iOS external gamepad market continues to be a bit fragmented at the moment and not all games work with every iOS game controller. For instance. I was unable to get Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 to work with the SteelSeries Stratus because that game currently only supports the ‘Standard’ Controller spec and not the more expansive Extended controller layout (which makes no sense given that the standard layout is a subset of the extended layout).

stratus_section_gaming_experienceAlong with our review unit, SteelSeries sent us a list of recommended titles including: Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas, Minigore 2: Zombies, Real Steel, Limbo, Bastion, Air Wings, Touch Tanks 5 and Dead Trigger 2. Though many of these games already have rather good touch controls, playing with the Stratus definitely gave them more of a console feel. Minigore 2 in particular feels amazing to play with two physical sticks, Bastion gets even better and playing Limbo with a controller offered better fidelity.And in some cases (GTA I’m looking at you) the Stratus offers much improved playability.

In addition to the recommended titles, I also tried out the controller with some other recently released games that champion their external game controller support.

I took Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed out for some AirPlay to TV gameplay and while the gamepad controls were quite solid, there was the usual AirPlay lag. Playing with the controller directly on the iPad is the way to go. Call of Duty®: Strike Team’s controller support didn’t seem fully baked, often leaving me guessing as to exactly which buttons I needed to press for which actions, but when it did work, aiming and shooting felt a lot more comfortable with the Stratus. Movement in Clash of Puppets with the analog sticks felt wonderful, but some actions I just couldn’t get to work at all with the buttons. So it is a bit of a mixed bag though it is unclear if these are game development issues or controller issues. Though there is a definite lack of consistence by devs when it come to clearly showing users what buttons map to what actions when a controller is connected.

steelseries-stratus-02No doubt the biggest sticking point with potential buyers is going to be the Stratus’ $100 price tag. So far that seems to be the standard price for this new crop of external iOS game controllers, but I was really hoping that SteelSeries would surprise us and come in closer to a $50-$60 price point (like a standard console controller). Unfortunately, until Apple fixes the App Store to make it easy to find the 400+ apps that already support external game controllers and the new titles being added on a daily basis, manufacturers are going have a tough sell to consumers at that $100 price point, when gamers can’t even easily tell what games they can use this $100 device with. At $60 or (ideally) less I think this would be a much friendlier proposition, but I understand that isn’t necessarily feasible in a somewhat niche market like this. I suspect that most gamers will hold off until the price drops on this and ALL of the currently available iOS controllers (which I suspect won’t be too long from now) as the prices are just too high for mass adoption.

In Conclusion

Pricing aside, I love what SteelSeries has done with the Stratus and if you are someone who really wants to use an external controller to play your iOS games, then, for the money, SteelSeries’ offering definitely gives you the best value and bang for the buck (compared to similarly-priced offerings). A superior form factor with great portability and compatibility, it will work with all your iOS devices and doesn’t require any change in the way you currently protect, carry or use your iOS device to do so. Hopefully Apple will show a little more interest in these devices and make it easier for gamers to find these titles and see the true value of this well crafted accessory. I’m looking forward to trying out more and more games with the Stratus. If you want to know about compatibility with any particular games let me know and I’d be happy to try them out for you (if I own them).

The SteelSeries Stratus is available for pre-order directly from SteelSeries for $99.99 and ships within 30 days.