Sony and Microsoft have gone through years of gamepad design permutations before perfecting their current models. Both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 controller serve as the basis for how a gamepad should be designed for the new generation of games. Each controller feels different in small ways, but they both provide an immediate sense of comfort, and most importantly, control. Third party controllers have always been around, and while many companies attempt to mimic Sony's and Microsoft’s design and functionality, there’s never been anything that could be considered an adequate alternative.
While Steam’s new gamepad aims to change several fundamental 3d movement basics by swapping analog sticks with mouse tracking pads, we’ve yet to see how the new technology will translate to twitch based shooters, and whether gamers will be willing to make the transition. In the meantime, gaming peripheral veteran SteelSeries is still set on creating an alternative for those who want more choice, especially within PC and Android markets.
"For the most part, the end result is relatively positive. However, it’s going to take a whole lot more work for the Stratus XL to be considered a viable alternative to its unquestionably superior competition."
With SteelSeries’ newest Stratus XL for Windows + Android (an upgrade of the Stratus Wireless for iOS & Mac), the company attempts to combine the best bits and pieces of the controllers currently dominating the market. For the most part, the end result is relatively positive. However, it’s going to take a whole lot more work for the Stratus XL to be considered a viable alternative to its unquestionably superior competition.
The Stratus XL gets quite a few things right. It’s compatible with both Windows and Android platforms, it’s easy to setup and tweak, and its layout is identical to a traditional Xbox 360 controller thanks to Microsoft's XInput API. As with all SteelSeries products, customization plays a big part. You can adjust deadzone settings for both analog sticks, you can tweak overall response sensitivity and you can even fine tune the trigger actuation points for increased precision in shooters.
"Even with the deadzone set to 0%, it’s impossible to get smooth movement in 3d games, especially first person titles."
The controller’s biggest issue lies in its heavy analog lag. Even with the deadzone set to 0%, it’s impossible to get smooth movement in 3d games, especially first person titles. I’ve tried every possible combination of tweaks to get better response, but nothing worked. Increasing x and y sensitivity on both analogs only makes them twitchier. Panning the camera feels unnatural and sloppy, and attempting to play games competitively is impossible.
On the flipside, button response time and d-pad controls are excellent. The buttons have a satisfying clickiness to them, and the d-pad is a joy to use when flipping through menus or playing fighting games. There is absolutely no lag here, and I actually prefer the rest of the buttons to Microsoft’s very own 360 gamepad. Shoulder buttons work just as well. Adjusting the actuation has a notable impact on shooters, but then again, the awkward analog controls contradict the rest of the gamepad’s functionality.
If precision and smoothness aren't as important to you, the Stratus XL is still great for casual gaming. If you’re playing something like the LEGO games or Reckless Racing on Android, then you’ll adjust to the Stratus XL quickly. 2d gaming is especially smooth since analog controls aren’t as prevalent in the genre. It may be possible to address the analog issue with a software update. Allowing a lower deadzone setting may alleviate some of the delay, although I’m not sure if the deadzone alone is responsible for the stiff movement.
"If precision and smoothness aren't as important to you, the Stratus XL is still great for casual gaming."
From a design perspective, the Stratus XL looks incredible. It boasts a sleek and modern aesthetic, closely resembling the Xbox One and 360 controller. Most importantly, it feels comfortable and sturdy, and the absence of wiring makes for a fuss-free gaming experience.
The SteelSeries Stratus XL for Windows + Android has a lot of potential. The gamepad is gorgeously designed, and its button response time is perfect. Unfortunately, the Stratus suffers where it matters most: the analog sticks/movement. If you’re seeking an alternative or replacement for your 360 gamepad, the Stratus isn’t going to cut it. One the other hand, if you just need a wireless controller for casual gaming, especially on Android, the Stratus will do just fine for the time being. I still hope a future update resolves the latency issue with the analog sticks. If that happens, we’ll make sure to return for another look, and update the score.
Review by: Tin Salamunic