When I first heard that SteelSeries was making an iOS 7 controller, I got really excited. Previously, we've looked at both the MOGA Ace Power and the Logitech Powershell, the only two kids on the proverbial iOS 7 controller block and while it's awesome to have physical controls in iOS games, they're each difficult to recommend. Logitech and Moga are both great companies who have both been releasing accessories for years now, but SteelSeries has been making products specifically targeted at the hardcore gaming crowd since they were founded in early 2001. I've been a huge fan of their products for quite some time, and hooked up to my gaming PC is the fantastic SteelSeries Sensei mouse and a pair of SteelSeries Siberia v2 headphones. SteelSeries is among the brands of gizmos I trust, if I need new whatever and they make it, chances are I'll just buy whatever they've got. So, it was with lofty expectations that I unboxed the SteelSeries Stratus iOS 7 bluetooth game controller.
As you're likely fully aware if you've been following controller news, the current market of iOS 7 controllers is disappointing to say the least. Yes, they work, and they surely enhance gameplay, specifically in games originally designed for a controller, but there's a silly amount of drawbacks. They suck up the Lightning port, making HDMI output impossible. Additionally, they are locked to the current form factor of iOS 7 devices. This poses the significant drawback of how hard the rumor mill is pointing at the iPhone 6 being larger and it inevitably not fitting in your controller. Last, but certainly not least, is the elephant in the room that is the ridiculous $99 price point of all of these controllers. All of these issues have securely landed iOS 7 controllers deep inside of the "gadget fiend early adopters only" camp.
The good news is, there's some light at the end of the tunnel with the SteelSeries Stratus. We're not talking Gandalf charging Helm's Deep light, but, more along the lines of "Hey, I think that's some light ahead, maybe," followed by severely squinting your eyes to make sure. First off, the SteelSeries Stratus charges far ahead of the competition by using bluetooth instead of the Lightning port. This provides the extremely significant advantage of being usable with any iOS 7 device, including the iPad, without worry of your controller being rendered obsolete by device design changes.
iOS Devices as a Portable Console
Also, obviously, this begins to open the door to the strange new world that is treating your iPhone like a portable game console hooked up to your TV. You could technically do this with the Moga Ace Power and Logitech Powershell, but it required beaming your video output via AirPlay, which arguably is the least ideal of all possible solutions given the significant amounts of nearly unplayable lag AirPlay introduces. Wiring your iPhone or iPad direct to your TV via the Lightning Digital AV Adapter significantly mitigates this. But, like seemingly all things to do with iOS 7 controllers, this comes with a massive caveat. As discovered by the guys at Panic, the Lighting Digital AV Adapter isn't the direct-wired HDMI output we thought it was. Instead, its doing some trickery that basically converts AirPlay to HDMI, much quicker than the actual AirPlay process combined with an Apple TV can.
How much you enjoy playing games on your iPhone or iPad using the SteelSeries Stratus with your device piping the video out to a bigger display via the Lightning Digital AV Adapter largely depends on how sensitive you are to video lag. Personally, I had no problem playing video games back in the day on a first-generation DLP-powered pre-1080p "HDTV" which were absolutely notorious for display lag, so for me, this solution is pretty cool. A little video lag is there for sure, but it's not totally game breaking like AirPlay is. On the other hand, gamer friends of mine who have moved far beyond 60hz monitors for PC gaming found the lag introduced by the Lightning Digital AV Adapter to be incredibly irritating. Unfortunately, unless Apple does something to either improve the Lightning Digital AV Adapter or they flat out introduce a way to get direct HDMI video in the iPhone 6 or iPad Air 2, this is as good as it's going to get.
The SteelSeries Stratus is a totally standalone controller with a single micro USB port on the bottom for charging. SteelSeries is touting 10 hours of play time on a single charge, which sounds about right as I've been playing a ton of games using it and I've still got two of the four battery display LEDs illuminated. It's easily described as a micro controller as it fits entirely in the palm of your hand. This makes it awesome for tossing in your bag, as its diminutive size and nearly imperceptible weight makes it a perfect companion for gaming on the go. However, this of course introduces the drawback that all tiny controllers have in that if you've got large hands the way you're going to need to grip the controller is going to feel incredibly cramped.
I've found myself needing to take frequent breaks, as using a controller of this size involves supporting it against the curled side of your middle finger with your index finger wrapped around the top to hit the trigger buttons- A position that doesn't exactly lend itself to marathon gaming sessions compared to proper "full sized" console controllers that you support with your palms instead.
The up-side of it being made by SteelSeries is they know how to make a controller. The buttons all have a good feel. The analog sticks, while tiny, definitely get the job done. The only thing that's odd about the buttons is the trigger layout which aligns the triggers side by side along the top of the controller instead of having them next to each other. L2/R2 are on the inside of the trigger button area, while L1/R1 are on the outside. It's strange, but doesn't take long to get used to. Everything else is exactly what you'd expect.
Like the other controllers out there, playing iOS games using the SteelSeries Stratus is really awesome, particularly on games that'd typically be played with virtual buttons all over the screen. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas [$6.99] is my favorite game to play with this controller, as it feels shockingly similar to playing it with an actual PS2 controller. Also, laying back on the couch with your iPad propped up on a nearby coffee table is so much better than playing with your iPad in your hands, even with GTA:SA's surprisingly decent virtual controls.
The Price Tag
Sadly, the SteelSeries Stratus is still ruined in the same way that all iOS 7 controllers are, with a price point that is so far beyond ridiculous that I'm not even sure what to call it. It's becoming clear now that it's not the manufacturers of these controllers that are enforcing this price point, as they all give a nearly identical PR-laden non-answer when asked why in the world they think they can charge so much for them. There's decades of precedence when it comes to controller pricing, and with both the PlayStation 4 Dualshock 4 controller and the Xbox One wireless controller coming in at $59.99, $99.99 for an iOS 7 controller seems laughable in comparison. The value proposition is only made worse when you consider that both the PS4 and Xbox One controllers feel built like a tank, while even the SteelSeries Stratus, which is unquestionably the best iOS 7 controller that has come across my desk so far, feels so cheap in comparison.
It seems like what we're seeing here is Apple trying to redefine accessory pricing. We're all used to dropping a twenty dollar bill every time we need a new cable for our iPhone or iPad, but that never felt too foreign as even in the pre-iPhone world cell phone accessories always were the most notoriously expensive highest margin items in electronics stores. Talk to anyone who used to sling cell phones, and they'll gladly tell you the reason they push the $30 car charger so much with every sale is because they're nearly pure profit. As consumers, we're used to this, as we've bought $30 car chargers with every phone dating back to our AMPS Motorola flip phones.
Comparatively, as mentioned, as gamers we're either used to spending $60 on a high quality, first party controller, or around half that for a third party controller with questionable build quality that still worked alright. In the iOS world, what we're seeing is controllers priced on par with high-end Tournament Edition Fight Sticks that in your hand feel like the shoddy third party Super Nintendo controller you used to pawn off on the neighbor kid to play two player games when he came over.
I'm not alone in this pricing mentality either, as I mentioned on Twitter, I kept my iOS 7 controllers in my bag with me during the holidays and asked friends and family how much they thought they cost. My sample size was a few dozen people, with backgrounds ranging between "Practically born with an Atari 2600 controller in hand" to "All I play is Candy Crush." The results were staggering when I asked people how much they thought these controllers cost. The average price was around $25, with the low being $10 and the absolute maximum guess was $40. Not a single person I showed them to believed me when I said they were $99.
I feel like this poses a serious problem for Apple, iOS 7 controller manufacturers, developers who would implement controller functionality, and the few gamers out there who fork out the cash for one. There's a stupid amount of potential here, but in order to reach that critical mass where official iOS 7 controllers become anything bigger than the niche fad that was iCade support, these controllers need to be priced well inside of impulse buy or supplemental accessory price range. Late last year everyone loved posting stories about how iOS is the most popular gaming platform of all time, and if iOS 7 controllers were prolific enough that developers devoted significant resources to developing games for them to the point that we could live the dream of just plugging your iPhone into your TV, grabbing your controller, and be playing what feels like a console game using your phone, iOS has potential to elbow dedicated game consoles out of the living room.
We're not going to hit that point when these controllers have a price point that's so high it's reserved solely for gadget addicts, early adopters, or just people with more money than sense, and that's a shame.
The Stratus "Wins"
With so few iOS 7 controllers out there, we're grading these devices on a significant curve. Inside of this microscopic accessory ecosystem, the SteelSeries Stratus is without a doubt the best controller out there. It sheds the drawbacks of previous controllers, and barring the incredibly unlikely scenario that Apple phases out bluetooth integration, should be totally future proof. Using a controller to control a iOS game you're piping to your TV with the Lightning Digital AV Adapter is really neat, and I waffle back and forth on whether or not I like the small size.
On one hand, it takes up almost no space in my bag and you don't even need to wear Jnco jeans to have a pocket large enough for it. On the other, the games that are the best with iOS 7 controllers are games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas which typically lend themselves to longer play sessions, which doesn't jive too well with the claw-like technique you need to use to hold the controller. Of course, this is going to vary for everyone with a more significant impact on those with larger hands.
In the end, even with the SteelSeries Stratus controller out there, reviewing iOS 7 controllers feels a lot like the classic Top Gear episode on the horrible "Communist Cars" that came out of Russia. When none of the options available to you are that great, it's very easy to stand out as the "best."
If you're a bad enough dude to fork out $99 for one of these and you want to be in the first wave of SteelSeries Stratus shipments, head over to the Stratus web site and preorder right now.