SteelSeries Stratus XL – The AfterPad Review

SteelSeries Stratus XL mfi controller review

If reviewers gave out a “most improved” award, SteelSeries would earn it a hundred times over with the Stratus XL. It has been 9 months since the original Stratus became the first-ever Bluetooth MFi controller, and the difference between that controller and this second revision is striking. Where the first controller was cramped, the Stratus XL is luxurious. Where the first controller had flimsy analog sticks, an imprecise d-pad, and poorly made secondary buttons, the Stratus XL features solidly built components across the board.

If the Stratus XL had launched 9 months ago instead of the original Stratus, I honestly believe the entire MFi controller landscape would look different today. This controller is so, so, so much better than any of the options we had. At least, up until last month. The problem is, SteelSeries is facing some much more capable competitors today, in the form of the recently released Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i (Review), Micro C.T.R.L.i (Review) and Horipad (review coming soon) controllers. And while SteelSeries is a highly proficient hardware maker, they don’t have much experience actually building controllers (as far as I can tell, the Stratus XL is only their 3rd or 4th controller design in recent memory). And again, while it is clear they’ve learned much since launching their previous product, it is also quite clear that much about building a great game controller still eludes them. There are serious problems with the Stratus XL, and unlike it’s predecessor, these can’t be excused by saying it’s the only option, or citing it’s pocketability.

The Stratus XL does more right than it does wrong, and it is far superior than it’s predecessor. But is that enough to put it above the excellent (and often cheaper) options from it’s competitors?


A controller is many things beyond mere functionality. It is something you’ll have to hold in your hands, often for hours at a time. A full-size controller is expected to be ergonomically designed, and to feel pleasant in your hands, in ways that are often emotional rather than analytical. A controller is as much about feel as it is about function.

Let’s put the Stratus XL’s strongest foot forward: the visual and physical design of this controller is nothing short of stellar. This is one of the most beautifully constructed pieces of hardware I’ve ever held in my hands. The vast majority of first party controller makers have never designed a controller that looks and feels anything close to this. In fact, I’d put this just behind the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers as the best controller-as-a-physical-object ever.

The comparison to the Xbox One controller is no coincidence. It is clear that SteelSeries was heavily inspired by Microsoft’s latest controller. And why not? The Xbox One’s controller is the product of over 100 million dollars of research and development, and is widely regarded as one of the best controllers ever designed.

SteelSeries Stratus XL MFi Controller Xbox One comparison AfterPad review
The resemblance is strong with this one


If this review were solely based on visuals, the Stratus XL would rank among the most beautiful controllers ever designed. Clad in a matte black plastic without unnecessarily overt branding, the Stratus XL feels like a premium, first-party class accessory. An embossed black SteelSeries nameplate on the back of the and two glossy designs running between the handles and body are the only design embellishments that separate this from feeling like an Apple product. As far as third party accessories go, that’s about as strong an endorsement as you can get.

Unlike most of the other MFi controllers out there, connection and battery buttons are moved off the surface of the control and on to the beautifully designed rear section of the pad, between the left and right shoulder buttons. Much like on the Xbox One controller, this entire rear section – triggers, shoulder buttons, connection buttons – forms a continuous shape, which looks stylish and conveys a “premium” feel.

The execution of the visual design is good, if a bit imperfect. The previous Stratus had issues with manufacturing quality, with machine tooling marks often visible on the face of the device. The Stratus XL improves things a bit, but it is still clear that SteelSeries’ manufacturing chops aren’t quite up to their design acumen. The letters on the face buttons are printed direct on to the buttons, and in the case of the two controllers I’ve used, were printed off-center with each other. Machining marks are again visible on parts of the controller, notably underneath the LED indicator lights. Unlike with the Xbox One controller that inspired this design, the Stratus XL was unable to completely do away with screw holes, though they aren’t particularly noticeable during play.

AfterPad image
The back of the Stratus XL looks better than the front of many other controllers!


Far more important than how a controller looks is how it feels in your hand. There is good news to report here as well: the Stratus XL feels simply amazing to hold. The body of the controller fits in my hands like a glove, without any odd angular components or fingertip-cramping battery compartments. The matte surface features just the right level of friction, and feels about as high-quality as you can get out of the material. In fact, the entire feel of the Stratus XL basically screams “quality”. There is a level of weight to the controller that feels uniformly distributed in such a way as to make the entire controller feel like a solid piece of plastic, rather than a hollow body filled with chips and components, as certain other controllers can feel.

There are a few minor negatives to the Stratus XL’s feel, but they aren’t worth worrying about too much. The handles are angled a big tighter than in the PlayStation or Xbox designs, which means you end up holding your wrists closer together, which can feel a bit uncomfortable after long play sessions. There is also a noticeable seam where the top and bottom parts of the controller are put together, and this seam can be felt against your palms during play. Neither of these are significant detractions in my opinion, but they’re about the only things marring the Stratus XL from an absolutely perfect feel.

SteelSeries Stratus XL controller comparison review AfterPad image
The Stratus XL, top right, compared with the other controllers

The Controller

Analog Sticks

The Stratus XL breaks from the Xbox One controller’s blueprint by opting for the PlayStation style analog stick layout, rather than the staggered analog sticks preferred by Microsoft. Neither controller design is inherently superior to the other, but both lend themselves to different styles of game. This parallel layout tends to favor games which use the d-pad + ABXY buttons or left analog + right analog control styles, whereas the staggered layout favors games which use the left analog + ABXY buttons layout. If you’re playing retro games that use a d-pad and face buttons or shooters which require movement and camera control at the same time, the Stratus XL’s layout is probably better. If you’re playing 3D platformers or other games which use the left analog stick for control and the ABXY buttons for action, then the staggered layout is probably best.

The analog sticks themselves are rubber coated, concave, and textured with a light bump pattern in the center to improve grip. Unlike Mad Catz and Hori’s blatant copying of the Xbox 360 controller’s analog stick design, these SteelSeries sticks don’t feel like any other analog sticks I’ve used. In practice, I found them a bit less grippy than the Mad Catz and Hori MFi controllers, though significantly better than MOGA’s offering. This is one place where I wish SteelSeries had lifted yet another page from Microsoft’s Xbox One controller playbook by incorporating some sort ridge to the analog sticks, rather than just relying on the textured center. Still, I’m nitpicking here; these sticks are more than adequate for the vast majority of games.

Activating the sticks with your thumbs offers a pleasant level of resistance, a little bit higher than that of an Xbox 360 or PlayStation controller. The dead zone is minimal, perhaps a bit less than that of the C.T.R.L.i for those who are sensitive to this. The sticks are easy to reach, despite the non-primary layout. I found it easier and more comfortable to use these analog sticks than those of a PS3 controller or the Horipad MFi controller, though the primary position the left analog stick gets in a staggered layout controller will always be easier to reach.

SteelSeries Stratus XL review analog stick bumps AfterPad image
The bumps on the center of the analog sticks are a unique way to add grip

ABXY Buttons

The quality and design of the face buttons is one of the most important aspects of any game controller. How far apart are the buttons? How large are they? How grippy vs smooth are their surfaces? How deep do they press down? These aren’t qualities that have a right or wrong answer; they come down almost entirely to matters of personal preference. Button size brings inherent trade-offs in gameplay – it is easier to hit larger and wider spaced buttons without inadvertently touching any other buttons, but at the same smaller buttons are easier to combine-press to create combos.

Size-wise, the face buttons on the Stratus XL tend to be in the large side, approximately equal to those of an Xbox controller. This would be welcome, except for one quirk that I have yet to see on any other controller: the buttons are very close together. It is very usual to see a controller with both large buttons and close button placement.

In practice it feels… Strange. It’s hard to place why exactly it feels as off as it does. The buttons aren’t any closer together than those of the regular Stratus, and they aren’t any larger than those of the Xbox controller. But the combination of the two makes it difficult to execute delicate and precise button combos. Combining flips, grinds, and jumps in the Tony Hawk games was more challenging with the Stratus XL than with most of the other MFi controllers. Executing the correct punches, kicks, and grabs in Tekken was similarly problematic. Still, outside of exceptionally demanding situations like these, the Stratus XL performed perfectly well. The vast majority of games don’t require anything close to this level of control, and the Stratus XL works fine.

If you don’t mind the strange combination of size and placement, the buttons themselves are solidly built. They have an almost completely flat surface featuring a lightly glossy, plastic coating that feels neither grippy nor slippery. The travel distance is neither too shallow nor too deep.

SteelSeries Stratus XL controller review buttons AfterPad image
The buttons are closer and flatter than you’d expect on a full-size controller

The d-pad

When I first caught sight of this d-pad, I was optimistic. It’s a strange look, but it is obvious from the first glance that SteelSeries put some serious effort into it. Considering Mad Catz and Moga seemingly put ZERO effort into the d-pad, thats a good sign. It features a glossy “plus” control attached to a matte circular back that is ever so slightly smaller than the plus control. Rather than the flat face of the regular Stratus, this d-pad dips significantly in the center, meaning the directionals of the plus shape are extended further away than the center. The gap between the d-pad and the controller body is generous, with no danger of the d-pad scraping against the edges on the way down. Visually, it’s a striking design.

Sadly, in use, the d-pad is nothing special. Sure, it’s better than the d-pads on the regular Stratus, the Rebel, the full-size C.T.R.L.i, the Ace Power, and the PowerShell – that’s to be expected, those controllers all have terrible d-pads. The problem is, this still isn’t a particularly good d-pad. To start with, it’s way too large. It’s a strain to move your thumb from one edge to the other, which completely negates the advantage of having those edges raised so high above the controller.

In practice, my thumb ended up resting in the dip in the middle of the d-pad, and I controlled directionality by pushing along that pivot point. Controlling that way works okay, but because the center is so low to the surface of the controller, your thumb doesn’t have much leverage. This means you have to push with a relatively large amount of pressure. Having my thumb in the center of the d-pad meant that the large size of the d-pad became a major disadvantage, requiring my thumb to push a bunch of superfluous plastic.

The issues with the d-pad didn’t matter much when control of only one axis was required. Side to side movement was fairly easy, even with the unwieldy size. The problems cropped up when delicate 2-axis movement was required – my thumb’s position in the center of the d-pad made precise control over directionality difficult – and when rapid changes in direction were required, such as activating manuals in the Tony Hawk games. On the plus side, there is a physical and audible click when each of the 4 primary directions are triggered, which makes for easier orientation – the first Stratus didn’t have anything like that.

It’s unfortunate that this d-pad isn’t as good to use as it is to look at. It’s not the absolute train wreck that the first generation of MFi controllers were, but it’s still disappointing. “Unique” and “greatly improved” still doesn’t necessarily mean “good”. It’s usable for most games, sure, but it’s a surprising weak spot.

SteelSeries Stratus XL dpad review AfterPad image
Large, flat, and circular – not a great recipe for a d-pad.

The Triggers and Shoulder Buttons

This is where it gets ugly. The d-pad isn’t going to be a deal killer for most gamers, but the back of the controller may very well be.

For a quick experiment, grab a console controller if you have one. Hold it in your hands, like you’re playing a game. Question: where are your pointer fingers? If you answered “resting on the triggers”, we have a problem. You see, SteelSeries made a pretty serious mistake with the triggers on the Stratus XL. That mistake has to do with the level of force required to activate the triggers. Simply put, resting your fingers lightly on the triggers is enough to activate them.

Let me be clear: this isn’t a minor or theoretical problem. This will come up during gameplay if your play style involves resting your fingertips on the triggers. You’ll accidentally shoot people in Call of Duty. You’ll accidentally spin in Tony Hawk. You’ll accidentally shield in Smash Bros. Picture anything that requires input from the shoulder buttons, and imagine the potential bad sides of accidentally triggering this input. This is the experience of using the Stratus XL.

Unlike the multitude of problems plaguing some of the other MFi controllers, this is not a software problem, but a hardware problem. The springs inside the triggers have far too little resistance. This is one instance where being “inspired” by the Xbox One controller was a bad idea – I love that pad, but it also features triggers that are too weak. Not this weak, though; SteelSeries takes things to the point where gameplay becomes impacted.

For the record, the Mad Catz and MOGA controllers don’t have any of these trigger problems. In fact, no controller I’ve ever used has an issue like this. I have absolutely no idea how the controller was allowed to ship with such an obvious defect. This should have been detected immediately by gamers at SteelSeries. This isn’t a cheap controller. Thought went into designing it. I imagine it must have been given to gamers to test. And yet, if it had been, they would have noticed this problem immediately. It’s just… confusing. I don’t get it.

It is possible a future firmware update could work around this issue by requiring you pull the triggers even further down before before input is registered. The problem is, SteelSeries has done an absolutely terrible job with managing their firmware updates. They hide NECESSARY updates deep on their site and label them as “optional”, they release broken updates that don’t run at all on Windows, they release updates that litter your Mac with kernel extensions, and they fail to include an uninstaller. Worst of all, these are iOS exclusive controllers, and yet SteelSeries does not have a way to update the firmware on iOS, and has no plans to make one. Through these actions, SteelSeries has repeatedly shown that they don’t understand how to make software, and don’t care about the experience of getting that software to their customers. I’m not holding my breath.

SteelSeries Stratus XL MFi controller review AfterPad image
SteelSeries may have borrowed the aesthetic of the Xbox One controller’s back, but they utterly failed to duplicate the quality

Rounding out the button selection, the Stratus XL features the MFi-standard Pause button, a bluetooth pair button on the rear section of the controller next to a battery status button, and a power switch on the bottom of the controller, by the battery compartment. The Pause button feels solid, though it’s strangely less satisfying to press than the excellent pause button on the previous Stratus.

The Software

Nothing much to say on the software front that I didn’t mention in the section about the trigger defect. SteelSeries has no iOS app to test the controller with or discover games in. SteelSeries does not release iOS compatible firmware updates. If you don’t have a PC or Mac, and if this controller stops working in a subsequent version of iOS (as the previous Stratus did for several months), you’d better find a friend with a computer and a Micro USB cable.

SteelSeries controllers have a history of shipping with major software flaws that require patching. SteelSeries also makes it extremely difficult to patch those controllers. I have no idea why – even MOGA has this problem solved, and I don’t even think that company exists anymore!

SteelSeries Stratus XL Apple Store AfterPad image
The SteelSeries Stratus XL, available at an Apple Store near you


The Stratus XL is decidedly light on the accessory front. You won’t find any of the extras included with the first Stratus – no protective cover, no carrying bag, no USB cable. Not the end of the world, especially for a less portable-focused controller.

The iPhone Clip, or Lack Thereof

Much more problematic than the lack of accessories is the lack of iPhone clip. While I’m not personally much of a fan of clipping iPhones into controllers, this is a huge use-case for MFi controller customers. Why, why, why, WHY SteelSeries would build a controller without this is beyond me. It isn’t like they repurposed an existing controller to make the Stratus XL, either. This controller was designed from the very beginning to be great for iPhones and iPads. How did this design not include a grip for iPhones? So odd.

People want to buy a wireless Bluetooth controller, and they want to be able to attach their iPhone to this controller. Mad Catz has this covered with the C.T.R.L.i and Micro C.T.R.L.i lines. MOGA’s Rebel features an integrated clip that folds up when the iPhone is removed (perhaps the one great aspect of that controller. The upcoming TteSports Contour controller will feature a similar integrated grip. It’s hard to imagine iPhone gamers would be better served by this controller, which doesn’t feature any sort of grip.

The lack of a grip isn’t a problem for iPad gamers, of course, who are more likely to prop up their iPads in a stand while playing wirelessly. Of course, the Stratus XL doesn’t come with any sort of stand like the Horipad, so SteelSeries isn’t being particularly helpful on this front either. If you want to play on your iPad, add the price of a stand to the $69 the Startus XL retails for.


There is no built-in rechargeable battery, but the Stratus XL is powered by two AA batteries, which are included in the box. Just like with the Xbox One controller, the batteries are stored inside the back of the controller. I’ve always preferred this to the battery pack design favored by the Xbox 360 controller and the CTRLi, since it means my fingertips don’t accidentally bump into some box stuck on the rear of the pad.

If you find yourself using this controller a lot, consider grabbing Apple’s rechargeable AA battery kit. I’m a big fan of these batteries; they have a long life, they charge fast, and they’re not too absurdly priced.

SteelSeries Stratus XL review Apple Store Profile AfterPad image
The Stratus XL is designed and marketed more towards iPads than iPhones


I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to love a controller as much as I wanted to love the Stratus XL. It’s beautiful – truly, strikingly beautiful. It feels wonderfully premium, far beyond what anyone could expect from a company without a history of making controllers. In looks, it puts every other MFi controller, and almost every other controller in general to shame. In feel, it’s not without nitpicks, but it’s overall a pleasant feel.

The d-pad isn’t great, but it also isn’t bad. I could live with the d-pad if the rest was perfect. But the triggers, man… those triggers. I can’t get passed them. Literally – I actively have difficultly playing certain games because the triggers accidentally activate.

And the lack of an iPhone clip… I don’t get it. The iPhone outsells the iPad by a wide margain, and gamers want to clip their iPhones into their controllers. If you want to do that, you’ll automatically ignore the Stratus XL and buy another controller, so this review already isn’t for you. I can’t even begin to calculate the number of customers SteelSeries lost by not including such a grip.

Ultimately, I’m having a bit of trouble determining who this controller is for. I know who it isn’t for, though. iPhone gamers are excluded, and would be better served by the CTRLi, with it’s solid iPhone clip. Retro gamers who demand a perfect d-pad are excluded, and would be better served by the Horipad. Price-conscious gamers are excluded, and would be better served by the Micro CTRLi, which retails for $20-$30 less than this. Gamers who rest their fingers on the triggers are excluded, and would be better served by literally anything else.

But still, I want to reiterate that the Stratus XL isn’t bad. That’s the real killer here: this is NOT a bad controller, not by a long shot. It is a beautifully, comfortable, extremely premium feeling controller – the ONLY controller that feels remotely close to an Apple level product. That’s high praise.

Every full-size MFi controller so far has one flaw or another. The CTRLi has an awful d-pad. The Micro CTRLi has a poor quality iPhone clip. The Horipad has an old-fashion and less ergonomic design. The problem is, every one of these controllers does something that makes them the best option for a certain type of gamer. That’s the biggest problem with the Stratus XL: It’s problems are real, but it doesn’t compensate for them by doing any one thing better than any other controller, to the point that someone would NEED to get this controller and no other.

One thing is for sure: I cannot wait to see the third Stratus SteelSeries makes. If it is as much improved over it’s predecessor as this controller is over the first Stratus, we’re in for a real treat.