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
|Xbox One controller||281 g|
|SteelSeries Stratus XL
|Original Xbox “Duke” controller||316 g|
|Nintendo Switch system
with attached Joy-Cons
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.
It just works… kinda
As a Bluetooth controller, the Stratus XL is compatible with Windows and Android devices. There’s another version of the controller meant for Apple hardware, but I don’t have that model, nor the requisite Apple stuff to test with. I tested exhaustively on both of my Stratus XL’s officially-supported platforms. Contrary to what you might expect—and what I expected—setting the controller up on Android was far easier than setting it up on Windows.
For Android gaming, you simply put the controller in pairing mode by holding the button for that purpose, and then pair it up on your device. Android devices running OS version 4.1 or later should see the controller as a gamepad and pair up with it immediately. Once it’s paired, you can boot up the game of your choice, and it should “just work.”
You can’t play Girls Frontline with the Stratus XL.
I’m not a huge phone gamer, but I do play a few titles on the regular. Unfortunately, none of the moe-anthropomorphism games that I usually play support gamepads. Not even the 3D action title Phantasy Star Online 2es supports gamepads. In fact, going over my mobile game library, I couldn’t find anything that recognized the Stratus XL. This isn’t the fault of the controller, to be clear—I just didn’t have any games that supported controllers.
The Retroarch main menu.
When I’m testing a new controller on the PC, I usually go straight for emulators. They have little to no startup time, extensive control customization to accomodate a variety of input devices, and (in most cases) a fairly solid set of diagnostics. Along those lines, I finally loaded up Retroarch on my phone. For those unfamiliar, Retroarch is a frontend for the open-source libretro API. Primarily, it functions as a multi-system emulator for console games, and it supports a dizzying array of titles from classic computer and video game systems.
Bloody Roar II looks and plays great on my phone with the Stratus XL.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to configure anything. Retroarch immediately recognized the controller and set it up it for use in all sorts of games. I played NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and even Playstation games with no fuss—just load up and play. I’ve used Retroarch on my phone before, of course; I’m well-familiar with the software itself. I was simply surprised at how easy it was to start using the controller.
… until it doesn’t
On the other hand, using the Stratus XL on Windows was an exercise in annoyance. In theory, PC setup is only slightly more complicated than Android setup: pair the controller, then make sure that SteelSeries Engine is running. I don’t know why, but the Engine software is required for the controller to support the now-ubiquitous XInput API.
First thing is to pair up using Windows’ own dialog.
Things didn’t work correctly for me right from the start. At first, my PC couldn’t pair with the controller, even though it found it when searching for devices. After communicating with SteelSeries we figured out that my Bluetooth adapter was probably at fault, even though it worked fine for Wii-motes and my 8bitdo SF30 Pro. I replaced the old 2009-vintage Kensington unit with a brand-new Asus USB-BT400, and lo and behold, that problem was resolved.
However, once I got the controller paired, I had a new problem. SteelSeries Engine, perhaps confused by my prior attempts to configure the controller with the other Bluetooth adapter, refused to enumerate the device as an XInput controller. If you’re not aware, XInput is the API that Windows games currently use to talk to controllers. Without XInput support, I was basically dead in the water for game support. Fixing this problem required me to completely uninstall SteelSeries Engine and nuke the device from Device Manager.
Steam thinks the Stratus XL is an Apple Controller.
Reinstalling everything and reconnecting the controller finally got it working, but then Steam jumped in the way. It detected the Stratus XL as an “Apple Controller” and insisted on acting as a shim for the pad. This might have been fine, actually—Steam’s controller configuration dialog is excellent. The problem is that games were still detecting the controller as another, separate device provided by Steam, meaning that most of my inputs got duplicated in every game.
Fixing this hurdle took me the better part of a day and quite a bit of faffing about with Steam before I finally got it straightened out. I’m not going to reproduce all the steps here, but the ultimate solution involved me blanking a bunch of lines in one of Steam’s plaintext config files. With that finally done, Steam was out of the way and I was free to enjoy the Stratus XL in PC games with the help of SteelSeries Engine.
The Stratus XL’s d-pad works great for technical platformers like They Bleed Pixels.
All of these issues were fairly specific to my setup, so I can’t really fault SteelSeries or the Stratus XL too much. It’s possible that a user could buy the Stratus XL, take it home, pair it up, and start playing. That certainly wasn’t my experience, though. I also have to note that the Engine requirement is rather strange; my other Bluetooth gamepad doesn’t require any software at all to support XInput, so it’s not because of the connection type.
Having to leave Engine running is no big deal, at least. Unlike Razer’s software, it consumes almost no system resources. In fact, if the Engine’s configuration page for the Stratus XL supported some of the features that the app has for SteelSeries’ keyboards and mice, I might be quite happy to have it going. None of the usual tools are here, though—no macros, and no button reassignment.
The Stratus XL’s configuration page in SteelSeries Engine.
There are a few functions to fiddle with on the Stratus XL, at least. The range, sensitivity, and dead zone of the sticks can be adjusted independently, and you can invert the axes separately, too. You can also add a dead zone to the analog triggers. Unfortunately, that’s it. There’s not even a retro-style “turbo” function to be found. I’m definitely glad the functions that exist are present, but what’s there feels like a half-measure. If SteelSeries was going to go to the trouble to implement the controller in the app, it feels like it should include a turbo function at least.
One interesting feature is that the Stratus XL can emulate a mouse. After you’ve got it all paired up, you can hold the L3 and R3 buttons (click in both sticks) for 3 seconds to enable mouse mode. You can use either stick to move the cursor around, and the shoulder buttons or the face buttons for left and right click. This mode doesn’t support the third mouse button or scroll wheel at all, so it’s really more of an emergency accommodation to keep you from having to get up from the couch when part of a game’s UI isn’t controller-friendly.
Gotcha Force is my favorite Gamecube game.
I’m about 50-50 on mouse and keyboard versus pad games, so I play quite a few games with a pad. Whether in a Steam title, a DRM-free game from GOG, an old PC game in DOSbox, or an emulated console title, the Stratus XL gave me nary a hitch once it was set up. As long as SteelSeries Engine is loaded, games see it just like a regular Xbox One controller, so it’ll work in any game or app that expects to see one of those—meaning most apps with gamepad support.
I actually tested SteelSeries’ Stratus XL on my PC before I ever hooked it up to my phone, and all that mess with the initial setup really put me off it at first. After I got that sorted, though, it worked like a champ. I’m not crazy about the PlayStation-style sticks-in-the-middle layout, but some people love it. I also wish the pad’s triggers were set a little deeper into its shoulders, but I have short fingers. The only non-nitpicky complaint I can make about the Stratus XL is that it lacks rumble support, and if I’m honest, I’d probably turn that off to save battery anyway.
Ultimately, what SteelSeries has created is a completely competent near-clone of Microsoft’s Xbox One controller. While the Xbox One itself may have a bit of a checkered history in the market, its controller is practically beyond reproach and serves as the de facto standard game controller for Windows 10. The Stratus XL stands in capably for Microsoft’s own offering—as long as your PC has a recent Bluetooth adapter, anyway.
For mobile gamers, I’m less enthusiastic about the Stratus XL. That might seem odd given how much easier this pad was to set up on Android, but the reality is that my smartphone and the Stratus XL weigh almost 25% more together than Nintendo’s Switch console and its attached Joy-Cons. The pairing has its advantages, sure: more games, better-feeling controls, and much longer battery life. But the Stratus XL is a heavy, full-sized gamepad that doesn’t pack flat—not something you’re likely to carry around for mobile gaming. Folks who tote a big tablet in a bag might find it suits their needs better.
On its own site, SteelSeries asks $60 for the Stratus XL. That’s really not bad, considering that it works for both Windows and Android devices. However, Amazon will sell you a Stratus XL for about $43.49 at the moment (just make sure to scroll through the list of sellers to find Amazon’s first-party listing). I’m not going to lie to you—it’s possible you might have to fiddle with the Stratus XL a bit to get it working on your PC. Once you’ve got it set up, though, it’s a great controller. A bit over $40 for a pad with this kind of build quality is a steal.
With that in mind, I’m going to hand out another somewhat-conditional TR Recommended award. There are a lot of great options at this price point, so I’m not blown away by the value of the Stratus XL. For Android users who don’t mind its bulk, or for Windows gamers who want a PS4-style stick layout in their controller and are fine with a little bit of fiddling, the Stratus XL is a solid choice.