It was back in the middle of 2013 when we first heard that Apple were setting some standards for their MFI (Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad) controllers for iOS 7 devices. This meant that games developers would have a common interface to code for and it will work with any MFI controllers that are released in the wild. In a matter of months a few manufactures started to announce their own MFI controllers, and in January 2014 it was SteelSeries’ turn to announce their own MFI supported controller, titled the Stratus.
After a few months of MFI supported games and controllers I thought now would be a good time to poke my head back in and see how good these MFI controllers are, and ask are they worth it? So with my fingers flexed let’s go hands-on with the Stratus.
It has been over a year since I last got my hands-on SteelSeries’ bluetooth controller, the FREE. Back then, iOS and mobile games in general were still finding their feet with on-screen touch-control mechanics, yet even though we still do see some releases rely on the age-old D-Pad control method, it is good to see more developers focusing on this new medium, exploring new, better, and more suitable ways for gamers to interact with their characters and vehicles.
The SteelSeries Stratus Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod Controller
The Stratus comes from a similar mould as the earlier FREE controller. The Stratus however is ever so slightly bigger in size, which is a very welcome addition, as the FREE felt a little on the small side; even for my own average sized hands. The controller, although small, feels good to grip, with your index fingers both comfortably resting on the lower two of the four shoulder buttons – Yes, SteelSeries have managed to cram in four shoulder buttons here! The bundled clear plastic top cover can be also attached onto the rear of the Stratus, to significantly enhance the overall grip of the controller.
Both of the L2 and R2 buttons are the dominant buttons found on the top face of the controller, with the L1 and R1 buttons being just a fraction of their size. Access to all four of these buttons are pretty good, however, with little space for your palm to grip the sides, moving from the L2/R2 to L1/R1 buttons can at times feel awkward.
On the face of the Stratus both analogue sticks have been rounded off, making them more comfortable than the sharper edges of the FREE controller. They also sit slightly higher and have more travel to them, which makes you feel like you have more range of control whilst using them. Neither of the sticks can be press in, for L3 and R3 controls, but neither is this a requirement for MFI controllers.
Its detachable cover can also be attached to the back for extra bulk/grip
The A,B,X and Y face buttons are bigger and have been spread out more than the FREE controller, making each button much more comfortable to rest your thumb on. Each pressure sensitive button can be used with the normal area of your thumb that we’ve all been accustom too, so there is no need to press down on them with the tip of your thumb like you had to do on the FREE.
On the left side we have a flatter and more rounded 8-way D-Pad. Ideal for those twitch games and beat-em-ups. The Stratus has gone with a SEGA Megadrive-like D-Pad than the SNES D-Pad last seen on the FREE. With a larger and flatter face to the D-Pad you do feel like you have more directional control and the flatter surface makes pulling off dragon punches all that much easier!
Slap bang in the middle of the Stratus is a pause button and a four LED light display, which is there to tell you which of up to four players you are, how charged the controller is and also when the controller is being paired to your Bluetooth device. To wrap up the remaining buttons: on the bottom you have a Micro-USB port to charge the controller. On the right side is a recessed switch to turn on the controller on/off, and on the back there is a master pairing/override switch, which is also used to remove any pairing history from its memory.
Bottom of the Stratus featuring the Micro-USB charging port
So let me address the more import question – How is the Stratus for gaming? Well, having downloaded and played with a few dozen MFI compatible games from the Apple App Store, I was pleasantly surprised. The larger pad design makes gaming with such a small controller that little bit more comfortable over the previous FREE controller, however I do think a more standard console-sized controller would be far better, if a little odd when sat in front of an iPad; or worse, an iPhone or iPod!
With the controller behaving as you would expect, without any issues, this brings me to the main drawback of the Stratus, and MFI controllers in general. Firstly, there is still a lack of support for these controllers on the App Store; and secondly, although there is a standard on what each controller must feature, there is no common standard on how the software must be implement for them. You see, with such a free rain on iOS development, developers are not forced to offer a consistent user experience for them. So during my playthrough I had seen so many different approaches to supporting the controller’s input.
Some developers have given full control over the game’s menus once the controller has been paired, whilst there are some others that still require the interaction of the touch screen. Take Angry Birds Go! for example: you can pause the game with the Stratus’ pause button, but you cannot unpause the game with the controller, instead you have to physically touch the resume button on screen.
Two flavours of the Stratus, Black and White
Another issue is controller input lag. Now this isn’t much of a fault of the Stratus, because some games work perfectly fine, but there are others that incur almost a second of lag between pressing and seeing the result on screen. Also some of the game’s interpretation of the analogue sticks can leave much to be desired. Angry Birds Go! can over compensate its turning, whilst in World of Tanks Blitz, rotating your tank or turret can take forever compared to the speed of just flicking your finger across the screen.
Just like the FREE controller, the most suitable games are either simulation games like Real Racing 3 and flying sim Storm Raiders, or platforming games like Wind-up Knight 2 and Leo’s Fortune. Racing in particular shows the accuracy of these controllers over using the onscreen touch controls. Coming first on a Real Racing 3 race, where previously I could only manage sixth (and on my first returning go) shows just how much better it is using a pad over touch or tilt screen methods.
So to conclude then: If you’re into your iOS gaming that much to warrant the need for a physical controller, then the SteelSeries Stratus is worth your attention. Currently retailing at around £59, the entry price maybe a little steep for its small stature, however with its pocketable size, comfortable button layout, 10+ hour battery life and hassle-free pairing over bluetooth, gaming on the go can be a real joy once you’ve teamed up a SteelSeries Stratus with a propped up iPad. It is unfortunate that this joy is limited to the amount of decent MFI supported iOS games and how they are implement within the game. Over time the library of MFI supported titles will grow, with more releasing every month, and in time the quality of implementation will get better too.