The Stratus Duo ($60) is the latest game controller from the seasoned Danish PC peripheral manufacturer SteelSeries. It features both Bluetooth and 2.4-Ghz wireless connectivity (hence the name), and it excels at both functions.
The controller is lightweight and well-designed, and while it’s not necessarily the best controller SteelSeries makes, it does support my pet theory that the company can’t make a bad product.
The SmartGrip phone-holder accessory, on the other hand, does a lot to challenge that theory.
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about why you might want to buy the Duo, the SmartGrip or both of them together, as SteelSeries suggests.
The Stratus Duo is a gaming controller that’s optimized for both PC and mobile play. You can connect it to a computer with a 2.4-Ghz dongle or to a phone via Bluetooth and simply toggle a switch to go back and forth between the two at will. This is far more convenient than trying to juggle multiple Bluetooth settings; it’s also more reliable and arguably more power-efficient.
Naturally, if you game enough on your phone to warrant your buying a controller for it, you’ll also want a phone mount, which is where the SmartGrip comes in. So far, so good. But let’s break down the pros and cons of each product and why they don’t necessarily play all that nicely together.
The Stratus Duo should look familiar if you’ve seen SteelSeries’ other controllers. It’s got a d-pad, two analog sticks, four face buttons and three buttons in the center for back, forward and home. There are bumpers and triggers on each shoulder. If you’ve ever used an Xbox controller, you’ll know what to expect; the Duo is even about the same size as Microsoft’s ubiquitous peripheral.
Where the Duo distinguishes itself is up top, where you’ll find a power button, a battery indicator, a pairing button and a toggle. First off, having a binary power button is amazingly convenient compared to Microsoft’s and Sony’s convoluted shutdown procedures. The battery power and pairing buttons are also convenient, especially since the Duo uses a rechargeable battery instead of AAs.
The toggle switch is the most interesting part, however. With a simple flick, you can move the controller from PC to mobile and back again almost instantly.
This is new. An older controller, the SteelSeries Stratus XL, lets you connect via Bluetooth to multiple systems, but you still have to go through a fairly tedious process when you do it.
The Duo, on the other hand, lets you boot up Steam Big Picture mode; switch over to a classic Final Fantasy game on your phone while The Witcher 3 updates; then hop right back onto the PC when it’s time to play. In either mode, the Duo is comfortable, has a smart layout, does exactly what it says it will and is incredibly easy to set up.
Yet, the Stratus XL is a slightly better controller and costs the same amount of money.
Yes, the Duo has a wireless dongle; yes, the Duo has a rechargeable battery. But the Stratus XL has better buttons, a more comfortable grip and better battery life. And while switching back and forth between PCs and mobile devices takes a little more time, it’s not difficult by any means.
The rechargeable battery and USB options on the Duo are strong arguments in its favor, but if I had to recommend one over the other, the Stratus XL would still come out on top. Either way, the Duo is pretty good.
Now, let’s discuss the SmartGrip.
The SmartGrip has a very simple purpose: It’s a mount for your phone so that you can play mobile games with a controller. Fair enough. But then, why is the little gadget so hard to use?
For starters, the SmartGrip looks like a kind of miniature torture device, with a hooked claw, two screws and an extendable clamp. These are more innocuous than they look: The hook keeps the controller steady, the screws adjust the angle of the mount and the clamp locks your phone in place. But the device does look a little unwholesome.
If you can get past all that, the SmartGrip is deceptively difficult to use. The instruction manual is a minuscule, folded sheet of paper printed in a teeny, tiny font, written entirely in broken English. (“Rise the fix lock,” it advises. “Press the buckle cover until it make a sound ‘Click.'”)
Basically, you undo a clamp, jimmy your controller into the hook, slide a metal buckle into a slot and press a plastic cover down over it to lock the whole structure into place. The process is about as clunky as it sounds. To make matters worse, the clamp ends up right over the power and toggle buttons on the Duo. Consequently, you need to remove the controller from the SmartGrip just to power down the peripheral.
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(The SmartGrip works with any SteelSeries controller, but the Stratus XL and the Nimbus each have buttons on the top, too, right where the clamp is located.)
I’m not sure why SteelSeries put its good name and its coveted logo on such a slipshod attachment, but it’s not a good use of your hard-earned $10. Buy a $1 phone stand instead and spend the other $9 on a bottle of fancy beer, or whatever would enhance your mobile gaming experience.
So, there you have it. The SteelSeries Stratus Duo is a worthwhile controller, although it’s not radically different from previous peripherals. Sadly, the SmartGrip is not a great accessory for it. But if nothing else, it’s nice to see some love for mobile gaming beyond the casual level.