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SteelSeries' Stratus XL Bluetooth gamepad reviewed

Blending the best

Regular readers of my reviews will no doubt be well aware that I'm real picky about my input devices. After all, that's why I do these reviews. It's not just mice and keyboards that I'm particularly persnickety about, though; I'm picky about my pads, too. Today, the test subject under the lights is SteelSeries' Stratus XL wireless controller.

The Stratus XL is a Bluetooth gamepad with 11 buttons, two triggers, a directional pad, and two analog sticks. Savvy readers will note that this is the exact same configuration as a standard Xbox or PlayStation controller from the last few generations of consoles. In fact, the layout of the controller takes cues from both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers. The sticks are in the center, PlayStation-style, while the face buttons are more Xbox-ian in their arrangement.

Besides the usual buttons and sticks, there are a few extra fiddly bits on the Stratus XL. Up top you'll find a Bluetooth pairing button, as well as a clicker that lets you use the four tiny lights on the front of the pad to briefly display the current battery capacity of the controller. On the underside there's a physical switch to turn the controller on and off. What you won't find on the exterior of the pad is any sort of port where you might hook up a wire.

To find such a port, you'll have to look under the battery cover. Why is it hidden there? Because you can only use it for firmware updates. Indeed, this is a PC gamepad with absolutely no capacity for plugged-in gameplay. You can hook it up to your PC via USB, and the PC will see it as a gamepad, but games will not recognize any of its inputs. Even if they did, the Stratus XL would be extremely awkward to use with the battery cover removed and a cable sticking out of the bottom.

The Stratus XL takes two AA batteries for power, and SteelSeries helpfully includes a pair in the box. After over a month of using the Stratus XL as my primary gamepad, I'm still using those same two batteries. They're not real fancy—just a couple of standard no-name alkaline cells. Yet, after all this use, the controller still reports that its battery life is at three dots of four. 

That's not bad, but it's likely due in large part to the fact that this controller entirely lacks any sort of vibration or "rumble" feature. I've rarely felt that the crude haptic feedback technology used in almost all modern gamepads adds much to the experience, so I'm not too bent up about its absence here. Still, some games use it effectively—like the original Silent Hill—and if you play those titles with the Stratus XL, you'll miss out on the effect.

Putting palm to plastic

This is sort of ironic, but I actually find it slightly disappointing how generic the Stratus XL's shape is. The shape of the Xbox One controller has been fine-tuned over three console generations and nearly two decades of optimization, and the Stratus XL mimics it almost exactly. Don't get me wrong: it's very comfortable, it's just not very interesting. If you like the Xbox One controller's size and shape but don't care for the Xbox-style staggered analog stick layout, buy this now.

Common game controller weights
PlayStation 2 DualShock 2   137 g  
PlayStation 3 DualShock 3 192 g
Switch Joy-Cons + grip 197 g
PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 210 g
Nintendo Switch Pro controller 244 g
Xbox 360 wireless
controller w/batteries
265 g
Xbox One controller 281 g
Steam controller
with batteries
285 g
SteelSeries Stratus XL
with batteries
285 g
Original Xbox "Duke" controller 316 g
Nintendo Switch system
with attached Joy-Cons
401 g

The Stratus XL apes the Xbox One controller in another way, too: its weight. With batteries installed, it masses 285 grams—almost exactly the same weight as both the Xbox One and Steam controllers. I find it to be a comfortable, familiar weight to go along with the comfortably-familiar shape. However, folks who are more fond of Japanese game controllers may not like the Stratus XL's heft.

I find the feel of the body, buttons, and sticks of the Stratus XL to be completely acceptable. Nothing on this controller felt really exceptional to me, but neither did I encounter anything about the feel that felt bad, or even "off." In truth, aside from the swapped d-pad and left stick, it feels very like what it essentially is: a high-quality third-party Xbox controller. It's difficult to imagine in this era of crummy $20 PowerA knockoffs, but once upon a time, third-party controllers rivaled the quality first-party hardware. SteelSeries' controller recalls those days.

Before I used the Stratus XL, I was concerned about its Bluetooth-only nature. Other Bluetooth devices that I've used, like mice and keyboards, can be alarmingly latency-prone. Of course, both Nintendo's and Sony's game controllers for the last couple of console generations have used Bluetooth for their wireless transmissions, and they're generally pretty responsive. The same is true here. I'm quite sensitive to input lag, yet I felt no noticeable latency while playing games with the Stratus XL. Inputs with this controller are satisfyingly fluid and smooth.