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SteelSeries Stratus review: A tiny wireless game controller to turn your iPad into a mini-console

The miniature Stratus packs a full controller into a micro accessory for iOS, ready to take on old-school games if you're ready to pay the price.

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Scott Stein
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Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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You can now play games on an iPhone using an MFi controller case like the Moga Ace Power or Logitech PowerShell, but poor iPad users haven’t had a solution to play games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas without using touch. That’s finally changed with the SteelSeries Stratus, the first Bluetooth iOS 7 MFi game controller. But would you pay $100 for it? That's what it costs: a third of the price of an entry-level iPad Mini.

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7.7

SteelSeries Stratus

The Good

The <b>SteelSeries Stratus</b> packs a lot of controls into a small form and connects via Bluetooth to recent iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches.

The Bad

It's too expensive, and the growing world of controller-compatible iOS games is still a patchwork affair.

The Bottom Line

The SteelSeries Stratus is the best-feeling and most versatile iOS game controller, but it's a lot to pay for an accessory.

There’s nothing all that new about a wireless game controller for tablets. In fact, the Stratus is basically the same product as the SteelSeries Free for Android, which has been around since last year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The difference is that iOS has never had a wireless game controller like this. The very first Apple-approved iOS 7 game controllers came out last year, and both of those -- the Logitech Powershell and Moga Ace Power -- were specifically iPhone cases with built-in battery packs. You can use the Stratus with an iPad, or even with an iPhone or iPod Touch (specifically an iPad Mini, iPad Mini Retina, fourth-gen iPad, iPad Air, fifth-gen iPod Touch, iPhone 5, 5C and 5S).

Great iOS controller-ready games (pictures)

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Of course, it’s really meant for iPad, because finding a way to practically prop up your iPhone and use this controller feels like a mission of absurdity. But, having controls like this means that games in the future could really work on iOS just like they do on consoles and game handhelds, which in the long run might be revolutionary. In the short run, these controllers amount to clever but expensive gaming novelties.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Stratus is cute, it’s plastic, and despite being a little too small and cramped, it feels good for its size. With a full Micro-USB plug-and-charge, it lasts 10 hours. But, personally, I wouldn't want to pay more than $40, maybe $50, for a controller like this. The Android-compatible SteelSeries Free costs $40 less than this iOS-specific version. At least the Logitech and Moga cases, at the same price, have battery packs that could charge your phone a bit.

SteelSeries Stratus Bluetooth iOS game controller works with iPhone, iPad (photos)

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Unlike the current Logitech and Moga controllers, which use physical Lightning connections and double as bulky battery packs, the SteelSeries Stratus connects via Bluetooth, and it’s tiny. Maybe it’s too tiny: I was surprised how small it was in my hand. It feels like a toy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nevertheless, the Stratus packs dual analog sticks, four shoulder buttons, a directional pad, and four buttons (all of which are pressure sensitive), matching the "extended" control scheme of the Moga Ace Power, which mirrors what you’d expect on an Xbox or PlayStation.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A Micro-USB port and included cable handle charging, and a simple on/off switch and Bluetooth pairing button are all you’ll need to connect the controller. The Stratus supports four-player gaming on one iOS device with four simultaneous connected controllers, but I haven’t even heard of any iOS games that support this yet.

When I propped an iPad Mini up and used the SteelSeries Stratus with a compatible game, it really felt like the portable game console experience I always dreamed the iPad could offer up. Clunky novelties like the iCade only hinted at this.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Button response time via Bluetooth is excellent, although games occasionally suffer some hiccups recognizing the controller. Pairing is as easy as connecting a Bluetooth speaker. The Stratus is small enough to slide into any bag, or even a pocket, and an included plastic cover protects the buttons in transit.

The controller is a little too cramped for my tastes, and the top shoulder buttons get very crowded (the bottom two triggers have been shrunken into tiny deformed buttons that are hard to press), but playing Sonic 2, Riptide GP2, Limbo, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were all a blast.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Stratus costs way too much, and yet it’s also undoubtedly the best-feeling iOS game controller. You're better off waiting to see what iOS controller-enabled games and alternative controllers hit the market later this year, but if you’re desperate to check out games like Grand Theft Auto (as well as a growing list of other supported titles like Asphalt 8, Sonic 2, and Terraria), and want to try controller-enabled gaming yourself, go for it: it really works. You're just going to pay a lot for the early privilege.

SteelSeries_Stratus_Game_Controller_35833864_04.jpg
7.7

SteelSeries Stratus

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8