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Valve's Steam Controller reviewed

A tale of two trackpads
— 1:09 PM on January 22, 2016

The Steam Controller has had me scratching my head since it was announced near the end of 2013. Valve touted its controller as the answer to PC gaming in the living room, and it wasn't too hard for me to believe that the PC-centric developer could make something that would outdo a traditional controller in that arena.

To me, however, Valve was pitching a solution to a problem I felt Logitech had solved three years previously with the introduction of its M570 Trackball. You see, I grew up using trackballs, and I've gamed on Logitech's thumb-driven models since the Logitech Trackman Stationary Mouse made its appearance in the early '90s. I spent even more time using the Trackman Marble and then the Logitech Trackman Wheel Optical up until the M570 came out.

I should also point out that I generally hate trackpads, and until a few years ago I'd spent almost no time with a modern dual-stick controller. My dream controller—the REvolve Controller—never came to pass. Those preferences left me feeling apprehensive about Valve's twin-touchpad design for the Steam Controller.

Despite that apprehension, there were a few things that ultimately motivated me to pull the trigger on the Steam Controller. The first was simply that I wanted to see first-hand what the folks at Valve had actually cooked up. The second was this video from Steam Dev Days in early 2014 where Valve explained the decision to use a trackpad instead of a trackball, and the third was the great video Valve released of Steam Controllers being assembled.

I've used the controller for a few weeks now, and I'm still scratching my head over it. My first impressions of the controller's build quality were positive, especially once the batteries were installed in the hand grips. The controller is balanced well and comfortable to hold. The default setup for desktop use puts the touch pads in control of your cursor and scroll wheel, the primary triggers become mouse buttons, and the paddles underneath are assigned as back and forward buttons for browsing. For the nitty-gritty details of the controller, though, I'm going to talk about the right and left sides separately.

Buttons, joysticks, trackpads, and paddles
For my right thumb, the button cluster opposite the thumb-stick isn't comfortable for me. Pressing the A button in particular required me to stretch my thumb beyond a comfortable angle. Compared to an Xbox 360 controller, where my right thumb naturally rests right on top of the A button, it was clear from the start this was a problem I'd need to address.

It wasn't all bad news for my right thumb. The trackpad works as advertised, and the haptic feedback from the (slightly noisy) actuators underneath is surprisingly good at making you think you're rolling a ball instead of swiping a trackpad. This is where all those years of using a thumb-driven trackball came in handy. I had no learning curve whatsoever when it came to making quick and precise movements using the trackpad. The paddle button on the right grip feels natural to trigger with my middle and ring fingers, and it could make up for the less-than-ideal location of the A button.

The paddle button under the left-hand fingers allows for further reassignment of the right thumb buttons if you find them to be uncomfortable. The convex thumb stick cap did make my left thumb slip around some—not comically so, but enough that I was aware of it and had to reposition my thumb from time to time.

Both trackpads on the Steam Controller are clickable, but only the left one is embossed with a d-pad shape to give you a tactile awareness of where your thumb is located on the pad. In a word, I'd call the d-pad solution "serviceable."

Setting things up
Before we delve into my gaming experiences, we should take a look at some of the controller's configuration options. The first thing to know here is that the Steam Controller is all about Steam's Big Picture Mode. All of the changes you'll make to the settings and mappings happen in the Big Picture interface.

Big Picture contains a mountain of configuration options including, but not limited to, the standard templates for various game types, official profiles for specific games, community-created controller profiles, and levels of fine tuning that would impress owners of high-end motherboards. In addition to button mappings, Valve lets owners configure a variety of trackpad sensitivity, feedback, and mode options. Users that really want to get the most out of the Steam Controller will spend a lot of time in these menus.

The versatility of the hardware and software is obvious, but it's also clear that unless a developer perfected an official profile for a game, there's a good chance you will have to hunt around for a workable community profile or take matters into your own hands. If that sounds like a good time, Big Picture offers a consistent interface for setting up the controller, and each custom profile can be saved per-game.