SteelSeries Stratus MFi game controller for iOS review

Support for MFi (Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod touch) game controllers came with last fall's introduction of iOS 7. Some products have focused specifically on the iPhone and iPod touch market with devices that clamp on to the iPhone. SteelSeries is taking a different tack with its Stratus game controller, a standalone device that works with iPads too. It was introduced for $99, but SteelSeries has since cut the price to $79.99. The Stratus is available either in black or white.

The layout of the Stratus will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever held a modern console game controller in their hands. Directional pad on the left, four action buttons on the right, dual thumbsticks, and four shoulder buttons across the top. There's an on-off switch on one side and a pause button right smack dab in the middle, with four status LEDs right above it. A recessed Bluetooth pairing button is on the underside of the device, far enough away from your fingers that it can't be accidentally depressed.

Stratus layout

Compared to a console controller the Stratus is tiny. It measures 4.33 inches long and 2.66 inches wide, and weighs a scant 2.6 ounces. It's small enough to fit into a shirt pocket when not in use. Despite its diminutive stature, the Stratus is easy to hold, and all the buttons are within easy reach of your fingers and pretty comfortable to use.

The Stratus carries more than a passing resemblance to SteelSeries' Free Mobile Wireless controller, which works on Mac, Windows and Android. SteelSeries has doubled up the shoulder buttons on the Stratus and replaced the Mode Select and power buttons on the Free with the pause button and four status LEDs. In addition to tell you that the device has been paired, the LEDs will also tell you what "number" your Stratus is, since you can have up to four paired with a single device, for multiplayer games.

The Stratus connects to your iOS device using Bluetooth. That doesn't mean that every iOS 7-capable device will work, however: the Stratus only works with iPhone 5, 5s and 5c, iPad mini, iPad Air, iPad fourth-generation and iPod touch fifth-generation. I'm unclear on why other iOS 7-compatible devices are left out of the mix here, like the iPad 2, third-generation iPads and iPhone 4, and 4s. I've asked SteelSeries about the omission, but they haven't explained it to me.

A micro USB cable is included, which plugs into a port on the trailing edge of the Stratus. Connected to any power plug — iPhone, iPad, or an open port on your computer — this powers up the rechargeable battery, which is good for about 10 hours of continuous use between charges. The micro USB cable also provides a way to update the Stratus' firmware if necessary. (Since its release there haven't been any firmware updates yet, but SteelSeries mentions the ability in the Stratus' documentation).

SteelSeries includes a plastic cover that snaps in place when the Stratus isn't in use, to protect the buttons and thumbsticks from getting bashed around. When you are using it, the cover clips onto the bottom, providing a pair of grooves to rest your middle fingers in as you cradle the Stratus. The cover gets easily separated from the Stratus, however — it simply doesn't stay in place very well.

MFi game controllers are dependent on MFi-compatible games in order to work. MFi game controller support on iOS 7 is a bit maddening because it's catch as catch can — not every game maker supports MFi game controllers, so don't expect your Stratus to work with every game you have. SteelSeries has kindly published a list of supported games which isn't anything close to complete, but it's as good a place as any to get started.

Having said that, once you're up and running with the Stratus, it's generally a terrific experience, and it really changes the way you'll play games on your iOS device. At least it did for me. I find many of the touch and tilt control schemes employed in today's mobile games don't work very well for "twitch" games — titles that require fast reaction time. Many of these were among the first games to add MFi support, and the result is a much more natural gaming experience.

The Stratus has a nice feel. Action buttons and thumbsticks have crisp response, and the two rows of shoulder buttons are easy to differentiate — the top row extends further than the bottom row, and has nubs as well. I didn't find them as easy to actually use, however — my natural resting position was to have my fingers on the second row of shoulder buttons. To use the top row required me to adjust my grip on the controller, which made my finger slip out of position on the top. The directional pad is a bit flat, but it's still easy to differentiate cardinal directions.

The Stratus' overall size and weight works as both an advantage and disadvantage. It's extremely pocketable, but some players with larger hands and longer fingers will find the Stratus to be awkwardly small. I wear a medium-sized glove, so I didn't have any complaints.

And when you pair an MFi game with the Stratus and the Apple TV, the experience is even better. While streaming video via AirPlay over Wi-Fi can introduce a bit of lag, it's a thrill to be able to do it. Alas, not every game worked that way. Sega's Sonic 2 locked the Stratus controller out if I tried to stream it to my Apple TV. Maybe Sega's trying to keep Sonic 2 on the TV limited only to true game consoles. Whatever the reason, it seems to be optional, because other games I tried worked just fine streaming via AirPlay.

The good

  • Small, portable, easy to hold and use
  • Works with iPads and iPhones alike
  • Firmware upgradable
  • More affordable than it was initially

The bad

  • Still pricey at $80
  • Too small for some hands
  • Flat d-pad and awkwardly placed top row of shoulder buttons.

The bottom line

Apple's implementation of game controller support and the rollout of MFi controllers has been half-assed at best, but that's a separate editorial and certainly not a criticism of SteelSeries. The Stratus is a good controller that, at $80, is still more of a novelty than a must-have. Hopefully the price will drop and MFi support will steadily improve until something like the Stratus is an absolute must-have for the mobile gamer. Until then, only the hardest of the hard core need apply.

Peter Cohen