Steam Controller Review

Posted Oct 23, 2015
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The Steam controller is an interesting invention, an answer to a question that wasn’t ever really asked. It’s part of the eco-system that Valve is looking to market, one that brings the PC to the living room in a way that traditionally only a console could really fulfill in that environment. The controller is most definitely not a device that the most hardcore PC enthusiasts take to using. If anything, the PC gamer shuns the controller in favor of something that offers far more customization and more minute control for a more extensive experience.

The definitive controller for the captious PC gamer?

So this is a controller, right? But if it’s a controller, and it isn’t designed to be used with consoles (per-se) then who is it for exactly? It’s marketed towards PC gamers alone, and we’re assured by Valve that this is not your console controller, but an evolution to provide precisely what PC gamers want in their gaming experience. It’s most certainly in their sales pitch.

The PC has an incredible history of games with a variety of input requirements—some were built for a keyboard and a mouse, some for a controller, and some for other devices entirely. The Steam Controller was built to let you explore gaming’s full back catalog —along with its bright future— all from the comfort of your living room.

The living room. We’re moving towards an age where we want ease of access to our library of games, whether they be limited by the platform we choose (PS4, Xbox One) or capable of being launched from within one of the various PC game launchers we likely have installed. This is the answer to playing video games on your couch in 4K with 60FPS. But is it really needed?

Maybe. The real draw here is that you can map nearly anything you want to any of the different inputs it’s capable of. But just what can you do with it? Emulate a keyboard and mouse with the trackpads and plethora of buttons. You can emulate a joystick by using an increasing amount of haptic feedback to provide “resistance” and a measure of increased perceived control. It’s that haptic feedback that, while not new exactly, lends a different feel to it that might just make you a believer in this.

Steam Controller Specs:

  • Dual trackpads
  • HD haptics
  • Analog stick
  • Dual-stage triggers, each with 10° of travel, a magnetic flux sensor, and a tactile switch
  • Gyroscope and accelerometer sensors enabling tilt-to-steer racing wheel functionality and other motion-controlled input
  • Configurable controls
  • Local multiplayer capability, as supported by games
  • Wired or wireless (dual mode)
  • USB 2.0 via Micro USB port (cable not included)
  • Estimated 5 meters of wireless communications range. Actual results may vary.
  • Provides up to 80 hours of standard game play using the included AA batteries during preliminary testing. Battery life will vary based on usage and other factors, such as type of batteries used. Actual results may vary.

In-box

  • Steam Controller
  • 2 AA batteries
  • USB wireless pairing dongle

Those are straight from the Steam controller website, though they actually don’t reflect what’s actually included. In the box I received was the above, but also a small base station for extending the effective range of the dongle as well as a micro USB cable.

There are two sensitive trackpads with large surface areas that are sensitive enough for a true 1:1 representation of what’s happening on-screen that are the most prominent features here, and they’re where your thumbs are likely to rest. On the left the indentation naturally make it a good candidate for a d-pad while the right is what can substitute for your mouse. The right pad gives feedback, should you keep it turned on, when your thumb scrolls over it.

Below that we have the typical XABY buttons and of course an analog stick that’s actually tuned quite well. The level of resistance is good and the movement is predictable and smooth smooth. The buttons themselves depress as you’d expect and don’t stick and certainly aren’t too easy to press in. On the back we have a two stage trigger with a very satisfying tactile click at the end of its range of motion and of course shoulder buttons that. You can even bind each stage of the triggers to different inputs, And underneath we have two grip buttons at your disposal.

To start, it works best in Big Picture mode. In fact, that’s where you’ll be able to actually configure the controller and set it up the easiest. It’s where a controller will likely be most at home, anyway. Once you start a game that has native controller support, you’ll be prompted to change the settings, either to a preset or to a community created controller setting. That’s something that differs wildly from any other controller on the market. Others can forge ahead and find the best way to use the design so it’s effective, and all you have to do is select it! The kicker is that to really use this to its fullest, you have to launch a game within Steam. Though because of the high amount customization, any game can work with this controller.

To test it I playing Hitman Absolution, which doesn’t have native controller support, and by playing a few games that do just to see how they can both handle the different customization options from different types of games. It seems that it is indeed possible to fully customize, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll actually be comfortable, or be effective as your primary control method.

But is it actually comfortable to hold and use?

The shape is a departure from what we’re typically used to, moving away from the downward sloping handles. And this causes the grip to be tilted slightly, moving the natural resting place of my thumbs far above where the buttons actually are, and even at the top edge of touchpads. If I want to use the buttons below while in that position, it’s a long way down and an unnatural stretch to move my thumbs. It doesn’t bode well for games that require a lot of different combinations. Because of the shape and placement of everything, it’s difficult to switch between or even find a happy medium. My hands aren’t small either, nor are the large, so it’s an odd design choice.

It’s not the most comfortable design, and the shape doesn’t exactly exude confidence, nor do the materials it’s made out of. The glossy plastic seems slightly slippery in the hand, though it’s certainly sturdy enough to resist minor, or moderate, force from rage quitting a bad game.

The buttons and interactive mechanisms, as said before, are all tuned very well so that it is possible to have a very fine level of control, but even with that, it doesn’t mean that those that enjoy controllers or even keyboard and mouse enthusiasts will quickly jump ship. The learning curve for anyone not used to a controller for anything other than side-scrolling adventure games is in for very high. The lack of the typical joysticks, while not necessarily a horrid design decision in the long-run, takes a long time to get used to. The placement of the buttons and overall shape is far enough away from what we’re used to that I found my hands getting lost, trying to press buttons where they’d be on a DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller.

And it’s that learning curve that might be terribly off-putting to anyone who wishes to  make the jump to the Steam Controller. It’s capable of extreme customization, but it also takes an extreme amount of patience to actually have it usable in any favorable fashion. It’s akin to using a trackpad on a laptop to control your character, and that’s not easy to get used to, despite being highly accurate and using your thumbs (far higher precision than using your fingers). And using a trackpad for gaming is never recommended, though here, with enough patience to get acclimated, it might work.

Using it is a mixed bag. It’s not entirely comfortable, and transitioning even from another controller is a huge pain. I found myself often at odds with it, not quite able to make Agent 47 do quite what I wanted. No matter what sensitivity I had configured it, it just wasn’t possible. Racing games were a bit better, as you can use the great tilting function as your steering mechanism, much like with a Wii U Wiimote.

So, then, this controller, this magical Steam Controller that is supposed to help usher in a new era of living room gaming is a good try, but it needs a lot of adjustment time for you to actually enjoy it. It’s so far from any other control method that you’re probably used to that it’s incredibly difficult to get into the swing of things.

My advice for anyone looking to give this a try is to not give up after only a few hours. Acclimate yourself properly and really give it a fair shake. It’s slightly awkward looking, and awkward in the hand, though there is a lot of potential here and it might fulfill the needs of some gamers out there. It isn’t revolutionary or magical by any means, but it isn’t horrible either.

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