REVIEW / Stratus XL iOS controller

 

Earlier this year, SteelSeries released the Stratus, an iOS 7 bluetooth controller that easily outperformed and outclassed all other offerings in the then limited “wireless gaming controller” market. But that’s not to say there weren’t complaints, namely with the hand-cramping size and bank-busting price. SteelSeries has sought to address both of these consumer criticisms with the Stratus XL. The Stratus XL is a Stratus on steroids, trading the compact form factor for full sized comfort; this controller is the size of a standard Xbox One controller, maybe just a hair’s breadth bigger. But is bigger really better?

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Like most MFi controllers, the Stratus XL pairs easily – after powering it on, you simply go to your device’s Bluetooth settings, search, connect, and open one of the hundreds of compatible games. There’s a row of four LED indicators set into the face of the controller that flash, letting you know if it’s still “pairing” or successfully “paired,” or light up to show how many controllers are connected to a single iOS device (up to four, obviously). But they do double duty to indicate battery life. I like that there’s a physical button on the back of the controller, next to the pairing button, that you can press to find out how much juice you have left. I also like that there’s a physical switch for the power, which, unlike a button, won’t accidentally get pressed if tossed in a bag.

Even if you do forget to switch it off, the Stratus XL is powered “old school style” by two AA batteries, which will last you through 40 hours of gameplay. It might be considered a bit gauche in this day and age, where everything is run on rechargeable batteries that stay inside the device until they go tits up or, in some cases, explode. But I appreciate the fact that SteelSeries has forgone lithium ion cells. You can pick up AA batteries almost anywhere, from gas stations to drug stores to super markets, whereas the search for a compatible charging cable can quickly become the stuff of nightmares, a story passed down in hushed tones to your children and your children’s children. You never were much of a storyteller.

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As for the build quality, SteelSeries has been making products geared towards hardcore gamers since 2001, so it’s no surprise this looks and feels nice. Some third party controllers feel like toys, but not the Stratus XL. Sure it’s made of plastic, but it doesn’t have that “plastic feel” you get with some cheaper controllers; the Stratus XL has a real heft to it, a weight that makes it feel substantial but not so heavy that you’d feel justified quitting your gym membership.

Combined with the two textured analog thumbsticks, pressure sensitive action buttons, shoulder buttons, triggers, and d-pad, the Stratus XL could almost pass for a console controller. Almost. The triggers do feel a little spongy, but overall it feels very well made. It should for the $69.99 price tag, which isn’t exactly cheap, despite being $30 less than the original Stratus. The price point is firmly in the middle of the pack, but the quality makes it a frontrunner.

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The Stratus XL drew lots of interest when I tested it in the wild at a certain corporate coffee house whose name rhymes with Star Schmucks. I’ve had issue with my Bluetooth keyboard losing connectivity in people-packed places before, but the Stratus XL kept killing zombies and smashing crates flawlessly without interruption. But the compliments quickly turned to concern when I switched from my iPad to my iPhone. To better see the screen, I had to move from lounging in a chair to sitting at a table.

That means the other patrons weren’t seeing me enjoy an improved gameplay experience on my mobile device, they were seeing a woman intently hunched over her phone in public, her hands furiously doing…something…in her lap. Guess I need to find a new Star Schmucks. All kidding aside, what they thought I was doing and what I actually was doing are activities both better suited to the privacy of one’s own home. Though the Stratus XL paired and performed well with my iPhone 5s, I wouldn’t recommend using it with anything physically smaller than an iPad Mini; maybe an iPhone 6 Plus, if you’re rocking 20/20 vision, a case with a stand, and an unflagging sense of confidence.

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Overall, the Stratus XL is a third party peripheral that truly feels first class, combining the body of an Xbox One controller with the symmetrical controls of a PlayStation 4 controller. And it plays even better than it feels, making gaming sessions with Bastion, Oceanhorn and Republique exponentially more enjoyable. It’s comfortable. It’s responsive. And, while still not the cheapest option on the market, it’s at least cheaper than the original Stratus. I was disappointed that there was no clip for attaching your iPhone, which kinda cancels out the comfort factor – you’ll be trading cramped fingers for a stiff neck. It also only works with newer, lightning-equipped devices; I had hoped that with the lastest software update, my iPad 2 would still work, despite SteelSeries’ fine print specifying that only iPhone 5 and newer, iPad 4th gen and newer, and iPod Touch 5th gen were compatible, but they mean what they say on the box. Those small gripes aside, if you have a newer iPad and are serious about iOS gaming, the Stratus XL is the controller for you.

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