Over the last few years, smartphone-based gaming has become increasingly sophisticated, nearly converging on the complexity and quality of console games. As such, prevailing touchscreen-based input methods have been unable to provide the precision and tactile feedback of physical control schemes. For certain genres such as platformers and first-person shooters, a physical joystick and button is almost a necessity, lest players will find themselves fighting the controls as much as foes.
Naturally, this quandary has spurned a number of notable solutions. MOGA’s Mobile Gaming System and Pro Controller are commendable devices, offering diminutive and full-sized peripherals which paired with Android based devices via a Bluetooth link. Unfortunately, software compatibility is restrained, with a limited number of titles taking advance of each MOGA’s abilities. Similarly, the Apple camp has struggled to find a standard (although controller support for iOS 7 is poised to remedy things). In the interim, ION Audio’s iCade, a device which converts an iPad into a miniaturized coin-op, has enjoyed developer support, although the bulky housing limits the device to household settings. Aside from the iControlPad and Gametel- two functional but slightly unwieldy peripherals, few controllers support both the Android and iOS markets. Remarkably, the pocket-sized SteelSeries FREE works with both operating systems, as well as PCs and Macs.
Weighing a scant 1.9 ounces (54 grams) with a profile about the size of a credit card, the FREE controller looks prohibitively small, especially to user with large hands. Yet, thanks to some solid ergonomic decisions, the device is effective as a controller. Functionally, the FREE draws inspiration from DualShock controller. Save for the loss of a Home button and back triggers, the directional-pad placement, parallel twin analog stick, and a diamond formation quartet of face buttons feels like a shrunken version of Sony’s controller. Notably, each component is engineered adeptly. Sticks have a suitable tension and throw, and buttons are responsive- offering just the proper amount of click when engaged. Arguably, the FREE’s best feature is an effective directional pad, which outshines the accuracy and agility of at least two first-party controllers. The one blemish are the device’s top bumpers, which respond to a press in the middle of each button, rather than the edges, where fingers may naturally rest.
In execution, the FREE Mobile Controller performed laudably. Three-dimensional shooters such as Dead Trigger and SHADOWGUN: DeadZone clearly benefitted from the device, allowing us to easily surpass scores we earned with the virtual d-pad input. However, the precision needed for consistent headshots proved easier with the MOGA Pro Controller, presumably because of the increased size of the analog sticks. Moving to the ecosphere of emulation, the FREE performed splendidly, operating with Android apps that weren’t on SteelSeries’ compatibility list. Moving onto other controller-enabled, yet unendorsed titles required a bit of button remapping, which is often possible through the download of SteelSeries’ Engine application. Woefully, the Android version of Engine doesn’t allow button reassignment, requiring users to use their PC or Mac if they want to customize their input schemes. That said, if players adhere to the titles on the compatibility table, they shouldn’t run into any problems. We checked out seven different titles- from Sonic CD, Zen Pinball, and Virtua Tennis Challenge on Android to Cave Shooter HD, Muffin Knight, Pac-Man, and Pix ‘n Love Rush DX for the iPhone, and each ran flawlessly, rarely requiring a visit the options menu.
Regrettably, pairing the FREE Mobile Controller does have a few caveats. For Android gamers, the process is straightforward, and the device operated consistently without any hiccups or unpairings. iPhone users might run into a small setback as iOS sees the FREE controller as a keyboard. As such, the on-screen keypad won’t pop-up during games which require a bit of text-entry (such as leaderboards). On our three different Windows-based rigs, the device paired on two PC, but wasn’t recognized on a low-end, year-old HP Pavilion. A trip to the Apple Store confirmed that the FREE had no trouble pairing to a Powerbook and a G5. A cooperative clerk mentioned that any modern Mac running OSX 10.2 or higher should be Bluetooth enabled. Considering the problem connecting to one machine and the FREE’s built-in micro-USB port, we would have liked to see the device able to connect to machines via the Universal Serial Bus connector.
Accompanying the FREE Mobile Controller is a mesh-lined, fabric bag and a micro-USB cord for charging. Strangely, no AC to USB adaptor is included, compelling consumers who don’t own the attachment to connect the controller to a computer. Charging the device’s internal battery occurs in about two hours, with players getting about twelve hours on continuous play or about nineteen hour of intermittent gaming before a warning light advises a recharge. To prevent an unintentional battery drain, the peripheral powers down after twenty minutes of inactivity when paired and three minutes when unpaired.
Judged against its contemporaries, the FREE Controller exhibits a superior build quality. With its light weight and rubberized body, we’d assume the controller would survive a sizable drop onto a carpeted floor. Although the FREE’s exterior is a magnet for fingerprints, the material resisted scratching- and after a week of heavy use demonstrated no button or stick sponginess. Despite the peripheral’s petite size, hand fatigue wasn’t much of an issue. The only time any cramping occurred was when Super Mario World required an inverted hand so fingers could simultaneously press the run and jump buttons.
While the SteelSeries FREE Controller offers accomplished functionality, this performance doesn’t come modestly. The device’s $79.99 MSRP is considerably higher than its rivals. While the peripheral’s size, durability, and ability to pair with four different operating systems is gratifying, owners will be paying a bit more for these merits. If any of these quantities play a critical part in your choice of smartphone controller, SteelSeries’ device deserves your consideration.