Although the iOS version of the Stratus XL is already out, SteelSeries has provided us with a preview model of their upcoming Android/Windows version of the controller. Having already previewed the Stratus XL at E3 this year, I knew this wasn’t going to be another junk controller, but it was really difficult to judge how good it actually was after only about 10 minutes of use. Now that I’ve had a few solid weeks to test out the controller, I’ve got a good handle on its capabilities and weakness. I tend to stick with the tried and true Xbox 360 controller whenever I feel the need to use one while PC gaming, so it will be used as a baseline throughout this review.
EXCELLENT FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Upon receipt of the Stratus XL, I could already tell that a lot of thought had gone into this controller, and SteelSeries definitely wanted to leave a lasting first impression. The controller wasn’t packed in some exposed hard plastic covering where it could be damaged during shipping. Instead it was secured in a sleek black box with multiple layers of protection. Even if the outside of the box were to become damaged during shipping or while on a store shelf, the product inside should be relatively harm free.
At first glance the Stratus XL looks like an Xbox One controller, but most gamers will immediately notice a button layout more closely resembling a PlayStation product. Both joysticks are near the bottom of the controller and the triggers are much thicker than a typical Xbox controller. A key ergonomic difference, however, is that the Stratus XL is actually larger than the PlayStation or Xbox controllers, which is a great thing for people with big hands and a mild inconvenience for those with smaller ones. I relate to those with smaller hands, and nothing on the controller is unreachable but the shoulder buttons are a little uncomfortable to press.
GAMEPLAY AND RESPONSIVENESS
I’m quite impressed with how well the Stratus XL performs in a variety of different genres. Normally I tend to shy away from any peripheral that uses Bluetooth, but there was no delay in responsiveness at all. The controller performed well in first-person shooters, platformers and action role-playing games. Having done well in the more technical genres, I would have no doubt that this would be perfect for MMORPGs tailored for controllers such as TERA: Fate of Arun or Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.
As a standalone product, the Stratus XL does a good job, but how does it compare to the golden standard of PC gaming? I chose a few games that I could easily compare the two side-by-side to see if one appeared more responsive than the other. The first game I picked was Half-Life 2, an iconic FPS. Despite the Stratus XL’s triggers initially feeling more sluggish than the Xbox 360’s, both controllers performed equally well. The accuracy and handling of the Stratus XL was par with the Xbox 360 and there should be no complaints from typical FPS users.
The second game I chose was Trine 2, a very technical action platformer. Here the Stratus XL didn’t perform quite as well as the Xbox 360 counterpart. The main issues are the joysticks, which are a little floaty, and the A,X,Y,B and shoulder buttons. The main buttons are slightly less responsive overall and the shoulder buttons are only a problem if you don’t press them near the center of the controller. The Xbox 360 shoulder buttons have the same responsiveness anywhere you press them, but the Stratus XL has a slower reaction if pressed near the edge. The slight delay that the Stratus XL experiences versus the 360 controller appears to be mechanical and not related to the Bluetooth connection. Overall, the delays were mere milliseconds at worst and the average gamer would likely not notice a different unless they repeatedly used the controllers side-by-side.
THE BLUETOOTH ADVANTAGE
It appears that in a straight-up fist fight the Xbox 360 controller still wins as one of the best PC gaming options. That doesn’t mean that the Stratus XL doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve. First off, the controller users Bluetooth instead of a wired connection or a USB dongle. This means that it can work with any laptop or desktop PC that has Bluetooth enabled and any Android phone or tablet. Virtually every laptop on the market comes with Bluetooth equipped and it’s not difficult to add it to any desktop PC either. This means no cords, no unnecessary USB devices to carry around for the gamer on the go, and it’s also a great controller to use in conjunction with a tablet.
As far as smartphone/tablet controllers go, this one is the best one that I’ve had my hands on. The two biggest issues are the lack of support for most mobile games and not including a holder for smartphones. Generally, it’s up to developers to put controller support in their games, so SteelSeries can’t really be blamed here. I tested it with Dead Trigger and it performed remarkably. Normally it’s relatively uncomfortable to play an FPS on a mobile devices, but the Stratus XL makes it feel like playing a typical console shooter. The lack of a phone holder is a disadvantage for smartphone users, which means this controller is more geared towards tablet and PC gamers.
The final advantage that the Stratus XL has over the competition is the SteelSeries Engine 3, which lets users customize dead zones and sensitivity on the triggers and joysticks. The dead zones can literally go from 0 to 99% and that provides a ton of options specifically for FPS players. Furthermore, there’s an option to invert the x and y axis, so even if a game doesn’t offer the option it’s still available.
Overall, the SteelSeries Stratus XL is a great controller that comes with a lot of functionality. Even though it isn’t quite up to par with the standard Xbox 360 controller, it does the job almost as well while being a lot more convenient. There’s no reason why I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you already have an 360 controller, and don’t need an additional one for use with a tablet, then there’s no reason to rush out and buy one either. This is probably the best Android controller on the market, but it will have to settle for second place in the PC gaming world. The Stratus XL is scheduled to launch September 15 with a $49.99 price tag.
- Solid design
- Wireless Bluetooth
- SteelSeries Engine 3 software offers a lot of customization
- Slight button delay
- Lack of smartphone holder