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SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller Review

SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller (1)

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.

SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller (4)

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.

SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller (2)

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.

SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller (3)

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.

SteelSeries FREE Mobile Controller (5)

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…

Review Overview

Build Quality - 95%
Functionality - 80%
Aesthetics - 95%
Performance - 85%
Value - 65%

84%

Very Good

Summary : Frugality be damned, the SteelSeries FREE Controller is an expensive, yet effective solution for smartphone gamers exasperated with virtual d-pad controls.

User Rating: 3.52 ( 10 votes)

About Robert Allen

With over 35 years of gaming experience, Robert ‘DesertEagle’ Allen is Tech-Gaming’s resident worrier/warrior who spends his days teaching at three colleges and his nights devoted to JRPGs.

30 comments

  1. Deagle, if those are your hands..I didn’t expect them to look so dainty.

    • It’s all the…Jerkins lotion.

    • I assure you. Those aren’t my hands. If I took a picture of myself holding the FREE controller, it would look TINY.

      My hopes for being a hand model were ruined at a young age.

  2. Damn that thing is small. If you didn’t get hand cramps you’re spending way too much time working on those fap muscles.

  3. Captain Killjoy

    Thanks, Robert. I always like to read your hardware reviews.

    I admin, I was expecting this to be $40. $80 was a bit of a deal breaker for me.

  4. I think the best part of this review is the subtle reference to installing the Free controller at the Apple Store. Sounds like you had to coax the geniuses. 😉

  5. So what’s hands down the best Android controller option out there? You should tackle 4 or 5 at once, perhaps.

    • Pretty sure the MOGA Pro is the best out there. SeanNOLA said the GameKlip was good but super flimsy. Still, having an extra PS3 controller isn’t a bad idea.

  6. They got some cajones writing FREE on the box. I wonder if anyone has walked right out the door with one, since the original MOGAs were free (just paid S&H) for a week or so.

  7. Are those those AC-to-USB plugs that expensive? Whenever I buy an expensive gadget they almost never put one in the box. They’re hard to find at electronics stores, too.

    I don’t get it, for $80 you’d think they could throw one in, for people who just game on phones, away from their PCs.

    • Who doesn’t use a computer with a USB port these days?

      But yeah, I lose the things all the time. Leave them in the outlet or they’ll fall out of my pocket.

  8. I’m afraid I’d lose it in my room somewhere. As it it, I can’t find my controllers sometimes. Consoles need to put in a controller finder button to make the things vibrate so you can locate them.

  9. Great review. I can vouch for the Gametel- IF you’re phone is small enough.

  10. I wonder if there’s any kind of rebate offer planned. Usually high priced items come with them.

  11. Really love your tech reviews. I think they’re better and more in-depth than Engadgets.

  12. Looking at other reviews. The Kotaku review is called “Steelseries Free Mobile Controller: The Kotaku Review”, as if they would run the IGN review.

  13. I doubt anyone is going to pay $80 to play games on their iPhones. Way too expensive.

  14. Its so small and cute! I like it.

  15. …am shy?

  16. anyone played shadowgune deadzone on iphone with this controller?

  17. Can you use this for gat San Andreas on ios

  18. This is a really cool gadget and easy to use and main thing is that its work really great.

  19. I really wish you could remap buttons.

  20. I will gift this gadget to my brother, this is an awesome stuff.