I previously reviewed the first two Apple authorized game controllers to hit the market under Apple’s new Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch program from Logitech and Moga. Both used Apple’s form-fitting design that docks an iPhone or iPod touch directly into the controller via a Lightning connector. However, Apple’s program also allows another breed of standalone controllers that connect over Bluetooth and therefore also work with iPad and Mac. Unveiled at CES, this week I’ve put one of the first Bluetooth, non-form-fitting designs to the test with the new Stratus wireless controller from SteelSeries.

DESIGN |

While the standalone design that doesn’t require you to dock your device makes it look and feel more like a traditional game controller, the Stratus is actually about less than half the size of the two MFi controllers from Logitech and Moga, which are generally about the same size as your standard Xbox or Playstation controller. The controller is a tiny 4.3” x 2.66” x 1.3”, but the image below comparing it to controllers from Logitech, Moga, and Playstation really puts it in perspective:

Of course there is one big benefit of the super compact design and that’s pocketability. For commuters with not much bag space to spare, the Stratus is about as compact as it can get while still being completely functional. Unfortunately the standalone design means you won’t be doing much playing while in transit, as you’ll usually be left with nowhere to prop up an iPhone or iPad. That’s one benefit of the form-fitting designs that dock the iPhone right into the controller. Some manufacturers of the non-form-fitting design plan to include a stand with their controller, but SteelSeries does not.

It also comes with a plastic dust cover that is supposed to protect from dust and objects when it is thrown in a bag or pocket and on the go (pictured below). It doubles as some “extra grip” when attached to the back, which does make the tiny body of the controller somewhat more substantial for those with larger hands. Unfortunately, with at least my review unit, the dust cover wouldn’t attach properly or stay on to the front of the controller. The company says it’s fixing that before the controller ships to the public. It would also have been nice if the cover doubled as a stand for your iPhone or iPad while playing.

Two things you lose with the Stratus vs the form-fitting MFi controllers we’ve seen: You won’t be able to charge your device from the built-in battery and there’s no headphone jack. However, you do gain the ability to use the controller with your iPad, Mac, or Apple TV (without having to use AirPlay mirroring).

BUTTONS | TRIGGERS | D-PAD

The controller is surprisingly comfortable to hold despite its small size. The first thing I noticed is that the dual joysticks are much higher quality than Moga’s. Where Moga’s were shallow and hard to intuitively and precisely feel what direction you’re triggering, the Stratus has joysticks that feel more like mini versions of what you’d find on a Playstation or Xbox controller. The face buttons are passable, but they suffer from feeling a little loose in their openings much like Logitech’s controller. The D-Pad too is decent compared to the competition apart from feeling a bit clicky, but the controller’s small size is most noticeable with the shoulder triggers. The L1 and R1 triggers sit comfortably where your index fingers would land when gripping the controller, but a much smaller set of L2 and R2 triggers means you might encounter occasions where you miss the L1 and R1 buttons when transitioning from the first set of triggers.

GAMES |

When it comes to games, all of the controllers that use Apple’s extended layout with dual joysticks and four shoulder buttons are all in the same boat. That is, manufacturers are maintaining their own lists of compatible games and slowly updating as developers release updates to their apps to support Apple’s new game controller frameworks. The standard layout, which we’ve so far only seen from Logitech’s controller, is slightly more limited in compatible games due to lack of joysticks. While all games supporting Apple’s controller framework will support both extended and standard layouts, the experience with the standard layout will sometimes require the touch display for some functions that don’t map nicely to the scaled back button layout. We’re also still waiting on Apple to release its own master list or iTunes category with controller compatible games.

SHOULD YOU BUY IT? | 

The Stratus controller from SteelSeries has two big benefits over its competitors so far: its small size and the much higher quality dual joysticks. The real choice for consumers when it comes to MFi controllers will be Bluetooth versus the form-fitting design. Form-fitting design means you can pickup and play anywhere on an iPhone or iPod touch— on the bus, walking down the street, on the couch— while the standalone Bluetooth controllers will be better suited to iPad and Mac gamers. It would be nice to see a form-fitting controller that could also connect over Bluetooth and do both, but for now it looks like the cost trade-off means it will be one or the other. I’ll personally be sticking with Moga’s controller simply because its the form-fitting design. But you’ll also have some time to decide if you’re holding out for a Bluetooth MFi controller, as the Stratus doesn’t ship until March and others are bound to be announced in the meantime.

Stratus from SteelSeries is up for preorder in black and white variants for $99.

CES coverage brought to you by Belkin

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7 Responses to “Review: SteelSeries ‘Stratus’ Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod Bluetooth game controller”

  1. Tommo H says:

    Basically the same comment as everyone else: the Dualshock 4 costs $60. The Xbox One controller costs $60. I am not going to pay $100 for a worse controller than those.

    • jajabinks2 says:

      In Australia, the DS4 and Xbox One controller are both $100. So it makes a bit mroe sense in Australia, considering every other new controller is the same price.

    • Joseph Braid says:

      Thankfully there is a Jailbreak app that lets you use an actual Dualshock 4 over bluethooth as a Mfi compatible gamepad. Works really well but the obvious drawback is that this option isn’t available to anyone without the Jailbreak.

  2. You can pair a DualShock3 with the Mac and it works great (for example driving Steam in living room mode.)
    I would like to see it work with the iPad as well.

  3. Laughing_Boy48 says:

    Apple should have designed their own BT controllers when the iPod Touch and iPad first came out. Why did it take so long to get those products to be able to use controllers? On my iMac I use a standard wired PS2 DualShock SixAxis to control games with the Kega Fusion emulator and Sega Genesis ROMs. I just had to get a PS2 to USB adapter to make it work. Apple always makes users wait for things that should almost be standard.

  4. ikir says:

    Can’t wait to use this on Mavericks, it should be compatible!

  5. PMZanetti says:

    Just allow DualShock 3 to pair with iOS and be done with it. This entire round of new controllers (Logitech, Moga, Stratus, and there is one more from CES) are all a joke. Cheaply made, and Waaaay overpriced.

    All the ones that dock an iPhone will be obsolete come iPhone 6, and all the ones that don’t miss a major feature.