Every decade there’s a revolution in game controller design. In 1983 Nintendo released the first directional pad. In 1997 we received the ergonomic DualShock. In 2006 the Wii Remote brought motion controls. Now we have Valve’s Steam Controller.
The $50 Steam Controller (for Windows, Linux, and Mac) combines all the lessons learned from the past 30 years of gamepad development. Then it throws a curveball in the form of dual touchpads and an endless degree of customization.
The main virtue of the Steam Controller is its broad compatibility with any game, including games outside of Steam — with a minimal amount of effort. But it also makes for an amazing media center remote. The fine blending of functionality with configuration simplicity make it the only choice for PC gamers with a console fetish. On the other hand, the Steam Controller suffers from its share of difficulties – including Valve’s bizarre decision to wipe out its library of key-bindings for those using the Steam client beta.
So after 50+ hours of experimentation and hardcore useage, here’s my take on one of the greatest gamepads ever made – and at the end of this review, you can enter to win one for yourself.
Why I Gave the Steam Controller a 10/10
Let’s start off with why the Steam Controller is the most important gaming and HTPC tool of the decade:
First, my living room won’t accommodate the large peripherals required of PC games, like a mouse, keyboard, and desk large enough to hold both. A small controller saves on space. Second, I own a single computer (and no console) in my living room for entertaining guests and need a wireless controller to keep people from tripping over stray wires. Third, many games – particularly older titles – don’t work properly with console controllers, unless laboriously configured. If a controller could play any game, it’d be a must have accessory.
The Steam Controller isn’t perfect, but none of its flaws make it worse than its competition. Even the $150 Xbox Elite controller doesn’t solve the problems common to console controllers used on PCs.
So here’s what the Steam Controller does:
- Brings the console gaming experience to the couch of a living room
- Brings ease of configuration to an otherwise complicated mess
- Eliminates the need for a keyboard and mouse on living-room PCs
Here’s what it doesn’t do:
- It doesn’t improve on mechanical keyboards or mice for competitive FPS or RTS players
- It doesn’t work well on mobile devices
Valve published a video of why they designed the Steam Controller:
It’s designed for Steam Machines, but not really. Now that you know the controller’s purpose, let’s take a look at the hardware.
Thanks to iFixit’s glorious teardown, we know the Steam Controller’s guts. It uses the state-of-the-art in embedded Bluetooth controllers and a high degree of modular design, suggesting a long service life. On the downside, the controller suffers from an iffy battery design choice. iFixit rated it an overall 8/10 for repairability, but noted that the controller’s most likely to fail component is the analog stick – and this isn’t user-repairable.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Steam Controller is its location of manufacture: The United States. Valve published a video of how the Steam Controller is made.
As you can see, the construction is almost entirely automated. But does the hardware measure up to our expectation?
- Sensor package: 6-axis sensor suite, including accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors
- Bluetooth chip: Nordic nRF51822 Bluetooth with Low Energy extension (requires wireless dongle). It’s technically compliant with Bluetooth 4.2 standards.
- Range: Approximately 5 meters
- Battery life: 80+ hours
- Haptics: Dual haptics, attached to the touchpads and also perhaps the pressure sensitive triggers
- Buttons: 1 analog stick, 2 touchpads, 2 pressure sensitive triggers, 8 buttons — 13 buttons total
- Internal speaker: Unknown but capable of playing MIDI formatted music files
- Batteries: Two AA batteries (alkaline recommended by Valve)
- Also included: microUSB cable, USB cradle, 2 x AA alkaline batteries
Judging from iFixit’s teardown, two things come leaping out: first, Valve opted to use a Bluetooth chip to implement a proprietary wireless connection. This means that a firmware update could add full-blown Bluetooth support and mobile compatibility. At present the Steam Controller requires the wireless dongle in order to connect to any device, which rules it out as a potential gaming pad for Android and iOS devices, unless you own an OTG adapter. (Note: I couldn’t get the dongle recognized on my Nexus 9.) That’s a tremendous oversight given that the largest revenue stream for gaming comes from mobile platforms. However, if Valve did launch an Android application store, they could easily update the firmware on the Steam Controller to make it mobile compatible – and dongle free.
I should also point out that both the PS3 DualShock and Xbox controllers offer compatibility with Android. The Bluetooth pairing process sucks, but if you get it working, it’s generally stable and broadly compatible across most titles.
Second, there’s an accelerometer and gyroscopic sensor embedded within the pad’s logic board. That means the controller can function in two capacities: As an Air Mouse (or gesture, 3D remote) and as a wheel for driving games. In wheel mode, the controller can be turned like a real steering wheel. Here’s an example of wheel-mode in Project Cars:
The Steam Controller squeezes two AA batteries into its handles, beneath a removable panel. The added weight in the handles provides excellent balance — at no time does the controller feel uncomfortable or unwieldy.
Unfortunately, most rechargeable batteries do not properly fit the cramped battery slots. I tried a variety of batteries. Shorter rechargeable batteries won’t eject properly. Longer rechargeable batteries won’t fit at all. I reached out to Valve’s customer service – their official response:
Valve’s customer service isn’t particularly accommodating – so after some shopping around, I found suitable rechargeables: Eneloop, non-Pro editions. These feel a bit on the tight side, but they do work. Any rechargeable battery length slightly shorter than 50mm should also squeeze in. But anything around 51mm will not fit.
It’s important to note that rechargeables will not recharge when the controller is connected via microUSB cable to a power source. To my knowledge, this is an inherent limitation of all devices capable of handling both alkaline and rechargeable batteries.
How Does the Steam Controller Feel?
The Steam Controller on first use feels similar to a Sony DualShock or an Xbox controller. Of the two, it’s closer in feel and heft to an Xbox controller. But the touchpads aren’t like anything in the console world.
The touchpads can function in multiple modes. There’s too many to describe, but the basic configuration options include emulation of mice, trackballs, and analog sticks. Its haptic feedback varies depending on the mode you’ve selected. For example, in trackball mode, dragging a finger across the surface solicits haptic pulses — like a real trackball. However, its analog stick emulation feels awkward and borderline unusable. It works, but could use additional refinement. I think the trackpad could be retextured to let users know when their thumb touches the center of the pad. Too often, I found my thumbs drifting off target, sometimes activating the wrong function.
Like most modern console controllers, Valve’s gamepad sports dual grips, which makes marathon gaming sessions less punishing on the hands. The batteries location within the grips gives the Steam Controller a low center of gravity, making it feel more balanced and centered than other console controllers. Overall, it’s as comfortable as any other modern console controller.
Another interesting feature is the use of the left analog stick. When held in both hands, users can pick between the left touchpad or the left analog stick — I generally prefer using the left stick and mapping additional functionality to the directional pad. However, there’s an endless degree of customization available and much of how you use the pad depends on the game you’re playing. Customization is a cornerstone of why the controller feels different from game to game.
Aside from key customization, there’s a fair amount of physical customization available. While there’s no coating to the black matte plastic of the grips, it wouldn’t be difficult to add pistol-grip tape to its handles. If you like controller mods, you can even find them online. There’s already customised Steam Controllers available.
Describing the Steam Controller as customizable is like describing Antarctica as cold. There’s an almost unlimited number of customization and gameplay tweaks available to users. I can’t explain all of them, but let’s take for example the basic controller layout.
Each of the keys, of course, can remap as another key or gamepad button. In addition, users can map directional keys, keystrokes, mice inputs, and other features to the touchpads and gyroscopic sensor. The gyroscopic sensor should be extremely familiar to those familiar with the Wii Remote, where physical movements translate into game inputs.
For example, a common first person shooter (FPS) key-binding (or customized Steam Controller layout) is to aim a weapon by moving the controller around and the left touchpad to manipulate the camera. Here’s a video demonstrating how efficient and intuitive gyro-assisted controls are:
I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Steam Controller is capable of. The future may bring control schemes that are even better than what we have today.
Community Sourced Key Bindings
After a great deal of experimentation, I don’t even bother creating custom key-bindings. There’s a tremendous number of individuals out there who are geniuses at designing custom controls — and thankfully, their designs are all available through Steam. Users need only select their game and choose Configure Controller and then choose Browse Configs (or hit X) from the menu.
Then select Community and a long list of key-bindings will appear, along with the number of other users with the same controls. Most of the time, the control scheme at the top of the list is best, although sometimes a gem shows up a little bit further down the list.
Unfortunately, if you use the Steam beta client, then most of the community-sourced key-bindings may not be available. I found that after downgrading to the mainstream version of Steam, the community designed control layouts reappeared — although my controls did not function properly and I had to return to the beta version of the client.
While the Steam Controller’s community continues to amaze me with their creativity — Valve’s beta program is tedious to deal with.
The Steam Controller works with every game I’ve tried in Steam (which is around a dozen titles) and also includes compatibility with a wide range of non-Steam games. There’s several genres of game that the Steam Controller isn’t particularly great at, though.
Real Time Strategy Games
The Steam Controller’s biggest weakness is Real Time Strategies (RTS). The controller isn’t quite responsive enough and can’t squeeze in enough key-bindings to meet all the hotkey demands of a competitive player. While you can find Star Craft key configurations that work well with the Steam Controller, there’s a learning curve and it will never feel as fluid as a keyboard and mouse. That said, the Steam Controller is the only gamepad that even approaches usability on RTSs.
But I wouldn’t recommend it for anything other than casual RTS play.
Turn-Based Strategy Games
Unlike RTSs, turn-based strategy games are slower paced (our pick of 6 unforgiving strategy games). I initially hoped that they’d be playable with the Steam Controller. Unfortunately, after playing a number of strategy games, such as Xenonauts and Might and Magic III, the harsh reality set in. The Steam Controller worked fine in both using community configured control schemes, but a keyboard and mouse felt faster and more responsive.
It’s worth noting that Valve included a special configuration option for the D-pads, known as Mouse Region, which lets the user tighten up controls in top-down strategy games. Mouse Region turns the touchpad into a map of the visible field, within the game. Touching any part of the pad will activate the corresponding region on the screen. And the size of this area is configurable, so users can increase the field or decrease it depending on their needs.
Mouse Region hasn’t been fully explored yet in strategy games, so there’s still room for growth. But as it stands, you are better off playing strategy games with a keyboard and mouse.
First Person Shooters
PC First Person Shooters (FPS) have been traditionally unplayable using console controllers. The Steam Controller makes a great deal of progress toward bringing mouse-like controls with its touchpad, but the sensitivity still feels slightly off. Valve added a gyroscopically assisted aiming mode, which allows the user to switch on the controller’s gyroscopic sensor, whenever aim mode is enabled. This allows the fine-tuning of aim, whenever shooting from the hip isn’t accurate enough. When implemented properly, it gives Steam Controller users aim that approaches – and perhaps eclipses – mouse and keyboard users.
As a Home Theater PC Remote
The Steam Controller doesn’t just control games. Valve also added desktop functionality. That means you can use the gamepad to control any application on your computer.
Unfortunately, there’s a few caveats: you can minimize (or hide) the Steam client, but you cannot close it entirely – otherwise you lose control of the gamepad. Users must also update to the latest beta version of the Steam client, to get access to the large catalog of community-designed controls.
Speaking of which, because of its six-axis (accelerometer and gyroscope) sensor, the controller can function as an Air Mouse once the appropriate community-sourced key binding is loaded. If you’ve already installed the Steam beta client, then there’s a long list of options. But be careful of the beta. It can cause problems.
Dysfunctional Beta Program: While I love the Steam Controller, I do not love Steam’s beta client. Somehow, Valve managed to erase all the community designed key bindings for those on the beta client. The beta client is purely opt-in, meaning you need to sign up for it. However, after signing up for the beta and then reverting back to the mainstream version of the Steam client, I found my controls wouldn’t work properly. Apparently, the Steam Controller’s firmware needs to match the client version – or something. More or less, don’t sign up for the beta, unless you need to.
No Android or iOS: Because Valve chose to ignore Bluetooth compatibility, the Steam Controller doesn’t work across multiple devices. Valve also missed out on publishing applications on the Android platform, which is currently the largest source of gaming revenue out of all gaming platforms. This is a tremendous failing on Valve’s part.
Firmware Updates: The Steam Controller suffers from a serious firmware update issue. While the first firmware update went through without difficulty – a later update (December 15th) wiped out all of my personal controller settings. This is probably because I’m using the Beta Steam Client. The 10/15 update also removed the entire library of community designed key-bindings.
Battery Compatibility: The Steam Controller is designed to accept AA (14500 form-factor) batteries 50mm in length — the standard size of an alkaline battery. Unfortunately, many rechargeable batteries are 51mm in length, or use a flush negative (anode) terminal. This causes extremely tight fits, which prevents battery ejection using the levers inside of the controller. Valve’s official response to what I would define as a manufacturing fault is that users shouldn’t use rechargeable batteries. On top of that, the Steam Controller doesn’t report the correct remaining amount of battery life for rechargeables.
Steam Controller Summary
In case you find a 2,600 word article overly long, here’s a quick summary of who will like the Steam Controller and who won’t. I’ve also included a quick summary of the good and bad points of the Steam Controller:
Who Will Like a Steam Controller?
- Anyone who enjoys console games
- Anyone with a living room PC
Who Won’t Like a Steam Controller?
- People who play games that don’t exist on consoles
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
- Usable as both an HTPC remote and gamepad
- Comfortable and lightweight
- Infinitely customizable
- Easy to configure
- Vast library of community created custom controls
- 6-axis sensors offer gyroscopic aiming
- Long battery life of 80+ hours
- Frequent firmware updates continue to expand functionality
- Requires a dongle
- Limited iOS and Android compatibility
- Valve doesn’t recommend you use rechargeable batteries
- Some multiplayer games don’t automatically support two Steam Controllers
- Emulation of an analog stick on a touchpad sucks
- The Steam Client Beta is really dysfunctional when used with the Steam Controller
Buy it if you want both a gamepad and HTPC remote with infinite customization options. It’s not designed for competitive keyboard and mousers.
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