Sometimes when a company senses that a product category is heating up, they rush to market immediately and have a product available in that category before anybody else. As cool as it is to have a hot new product available immediately, sadly, these early entrants are often simply not ready for primetime. (Remember those early tablets running Windows 7? Me neither.) The popularity of iOS gamepads is likely about to see explosive growth, so it's exciting that some companies like SteelSeries already have some early controllers like the SteelSeries Free available. Unfortunately, the SteelSeries Free is unlikely to measure up once more competition becomes available.
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The SteelSeries Free is a Bluetooth gamepad measuring 4.25 x 2.16 x 0.78 inches and weighing 1.9 ounces. In spite of being small and light, it features plenty of buttons, including a D-pad, two analog sticks, four regular buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two center buttons akin to Start and Select. It is rechargeable over USB and includes a carrying case with zipper. Battery life is approximately 10 hours of usage per charge.
Despite its small size, the SteelSeries Free is respectably comfortable to hold, and the buttons have a good tactile feel. Since it doesn't connect physically to your gaming device, it can work with a wide variety of tablets, phones, and computers, regardless of their size or shape. If you had to judge the SteelSeries Free just by looking at it, you would undoubtedly be impressed.
Although the SteelSeries Free is also compatible with Mac OS, Windows, and Android, in this review we evaluate it as an iOS gamepad - and that's where things start to unravel, fast.
In iOS 7, Apple introduced a new gamepad API that is standardized and built into the operating system. From now on, all certified "Made For iOS" (MFi) gamepads will work with all games that use the standard API.
Well, the SteelSeries Free is not an MFi controller as it came out before the new Apple API for gamepads. Instead, it relies on a proprietary SDK. That means it only works with games that have been specially designed to work with this controller, and while the compatibility list looks long on SteelSeries' web site here, most of the games are older, less popular games you may have never heard of. It won't work with Dead Trigger 1 or 2, any of the Grand Theft Auto games, or most other AAA or AA titles (although it does work with Pac-Man). Since MFi is the way of the future, presumably the proprietary SDK will be abandoned, and it is unlikely that new games will be added to the list.
It gets worse: iOS recognizes the SteelSeries Free as a keyboard. That means that, when the gamepad is paired and turned on, the on-screen keyboard disappears. You could argue that this is Apple's fault, but regardless of who is to blame, if you need to type any input while playing your game, you will have to power down the SteelSeries Free to get the on-screen keyboard back, type, and then turn the gamepad back on.
The SteelSeries Free has two modes, "Arcade" and standard. You can toggle between them by turning off the controller and then pressing and holding the two center buttons (A and B) for three seconds. SteelSeries says that "Arcade" is the mode for iOS. Quite frankly, we're not sure how to tell which mode is which, but in one mode, when trying to pair it with an iPad, we immediately received an error message saying that the controller was not supported, so we are assuming the other mode is the one for iOS.
The only way we can recommend the SteelSeries free for iOS gamers is if your favorite game is already on the compatibility list, and you aren't particularly concerned about using the controller with games that are coming in the future. The SteelSeries does have a sleek design that can enhance the gameplay experience, and things might work out better if used with Android or a desktop operating system. However, if you have any concern for current and future compatibility with iOS games, you would be much better off buying an MFi compatible gamepad.
What's Hot: Compact, comfortable design; lots of buttons; works with all iOS devices plus Mac and Windows. What's Not: Not MFi compatible; breaks iOS' onscreen keyboard; did I mention not MFi compatible? List Price: $79.99 Web site:SteelSeries