What’s that you say? The Steam Controller isn’t a game, you say? That’s a very brilliant insight you had there. Claps for you! Yes, I normally just review games and no, I don’t plan on reviewing a ton of hardware anytime soon but the Steam controller is one of those oddities that I feel really hasn’t been properly covered anywhere since it launched last year and it has changed a ton since then so, here you go! My review of the Steam Controller based on my use over the last 10 months.
Let me get this out of the way right up front. If you want a quick and easy, plug and play controller that is simple to setup and plays the majority of modern games out there, go get yourself a wired Xbox controller, dammit, and stop reading this review right now. They’re like $40 on Amazon, why the hell are you even reading this? This controller is not for you. Glad we got that sorted out.
So who is this controller for then? Well, that’s an interesting question, really. Honestly, if you aren’t sure if this controller is for you, it probably isn’t. I don’t mean this to say that I don’t like it. Quite the contrary, actually, but it’s good for very specific things so if you haven’t found yourself thinking, “well gee willickers, I really wish I could play this PC game with a controller but it doesn’t work with my 360 controller…” you probably don’t need it.
For those of you still reading this thinking it may still be for you, let’s go over what the Steam controller does well and what it does not.
The Steam controller features a pretty strange yet varied face. You’ve got your standard ABXY buttons, start/select buttons and a good ol’ fashioned joystick. That’s probably not what you have questions about though. The primary selling feature of this guy are those two gigantic track pads on either side and those are probably going to be the biggest deal-maker/deal-breaker for most people.
Both trackpads are fully functional. They can function as normal trackpads, directional buttons, simple mouse clicks or even virtual joystick similar to how a virtual joystick feels on a mobile device. That being said, they’re still trackpads. You can change the settings to make them pretend they’re something else like a d-pad or a joystick but it won’t feel the same. The good news is that they are damn fine trackpads. The built-in, fully adjustable rumble settings feel fantastic and for someone who doesn’t normally like trackpads, these feel great and are surprisingly intuitive. My wife was able to fully navigate a desktop environment after only a few seconds of holding the controller.
On the top, you’ve got two triggers on each side, much like any other modern console controller. One cool feature the Steam controller has that isn’t on your standard controller is the two paddles underneath the controller.
It looks pretty strange but those are actually two buttons on either grip which comes in handy more often than you may think. One way I have personally used them is to set one of the paddles to drift in Rocket League which allows me to quickly and easily drift while performing other actions without playing Thumb Twister. The other I have set to change the camera which made it significantly easier for me to adjust to the constant changing that game all but requires.
One thing I noticed when I first unpacked my controller was that the controller actually curves upward rather than down like most controllers. It struck me as strange but the controller actually feels very natural to hold. The upward curve makes it feel more natural to reach inward to the buttons which could otherwise be a pain to reach over the course of extended gaming sessions. I’ve had continuous sessions of around 8 hours without it ever feeling uncomfortable. Is 8 hours excessive for a working adult? I choose not to think about it. When connecting wirelessly, the controller uses 2 AA batteries that fit one into either handle of the controller, giving the controller a nice feeling of weight behind it. It’s still lighter than a 360 controller but it’s not so light that it feels cheap or fragile.
The controller connects via a wireless dongle and seems to have pretty decent range. I setup my laptop to connect to my TV and was able to use the Steam controller from about 12 feet away with no problem. If you do have a bigger setup, the controller actually comes with a “Wireless Extender” which as far as I can tell is really just a USB extender letting you plug the dongle in closer to where you’ll be sitting. Still, it’s nice that it’s included and while I’ve never needed it myself, it’s good to know range likely won’t be an issue anytime soon.
My only issue with the hardware itself is that the controller doesn’t have a physical place to put the wireless dongle when transporting it. Valve recently put the AutoCAD files for the controller online so that people can 3D print their own variations to the hardware and one of the first pieces available was a new battery cover with a slot for the wireless dongle but if you aren’t in a position where you can 3D print anything, this isn’t very helpful. It just seems like something that should have come included with the base model.
The dongle is also relatively fragile. I used to keep the dongle (yeah, I like saying dongle what of it?) plugged into my laptop all the time but after only a few months, it bent to the point where it couldn’t maintain a connection with the controller, rendering the whole thing unusable. Valve support sent me another dongle at no cost, no questions asked within only a couple days which was great but it’s definitely an irritation having to constantly unplug the dongle and have nowhere to put it.
So that’s the Steam controller’s hardware but what’s really interesting about the controller is in the software.
Every aspect of the controller is customizable and the level of customization tools available is actually overwhelming. There are basic options like setting each input on the Steam controller to a different keyboard key or controller button (it displays a standard console controller for mapping purposes which makes it easier to map simpler games) but then each input also gets significantly more options that can be tweaked. Here is an image of some of the options available just for the Left Trigger:
Let me explain some of what you’re seeing here. After setting what input the trigger should actually be mapped to, we have all of these options available. I set the full trigger pull action to the left trigger input from a 360 controller but I can also set a different input for a soft trigger pull, meaning I only pull the trigger part of the way in. I can then set exactly at what point the controller recognizes a soft trigger pull from a full trigger pull via the slider and style options below that. Even without the soft trigger pull input set, I can also manually set at what point the controller recognizes a trigger pull input via the sliders in the middle section.
Finally, over on the right we’ve got our mode shifting options. This means that I can change what the left trigger does if I am also performing a different action on the controller. For example, maybe I want the left trigger to jump because I’m a weirdo who likes that sort of thing UNLESS I’m crouching. Then I want it to aim down my gun sights. I can set this in mode shifting by setting the crouch button to shift the type of input and then I can change all of these settings to match that new mode.
Let me put this into perspective for you. I just wrote two entire paragraphs summarizing the basic functionality available for ONE BUTTON and this wasn’t even the most complicated one! Plus I didn’t even really go into the differences between the different trigger styles or response curves (mainly because I don’t honestly understand them much…) That is to say, the Steam controller has a lot of options available meaning you can really make this controller into whatever the hell you like… if you’re willing to put in the time. Hence why I said if you’re looking for a simple controller, this is not the one for you.
Now, Crosstix, I hear you saying again (you’re really very noisy, aren’t you?), doesn’t Steam have configurations available for it’s games to which I would response, meh. Remember, Steam has been around for a long time at this point and the Steam Controller just came out last year. Some developers have embraced the device and have created official configurations, such as the one above from The Witcher 3, but the vast majority have not or cannot, in the case of older games where the developers may not even exist anymore. Even the ones that have, the quality of the mapping varies greatly from game to game. People can also share their own custom mappings and most games have these available. The problem is that Steam organizes these mappings not by the best rated but by the mappings that are used by the most people. This means that whoever made a configuration first for a game will likely be at the top of the list, even if there are better configurations available. Also, while you can add descriptions for each button to say what it does and why it’s set that way for a game, there’s no requirement to do this so someone else’s controller scheme may be absolutely awesome but without a proper description of how to use it, it may seem alien to other players.
So, after all of that, we’re back at the central question: why should I buy a Steam Controller? I think there are a few reasons. If you are like me and you greatly prefer playing games with a controller over mouse and keyboard but you also love to play games that don’t work with traditional controllers (i.e. strategy games, point and click adventure games, etc.) this may be for you. While some people have found some cool configurations for fast-paced games, such as this one for FPS games, they have a serious learning curve to get used to and I personally have not found it to be particularly effective. For me, since I have a wired 360 controller readily available, I’ve never seen the point in learning an entirely unique setup when I could play using the much more natural feeling setup on a standard controller. I’ve tried playing even slower first-person games like Fallout 4 using the Steam Controller and found it to be a serious pain. Also, real-time strategy games would work but I doubt anyone would be able to match a mouse + keyboard player with the Steam Controller at a game like Starcraft 2. Maybe if you just want to play single-player you could manage it but it would be tough.
Other games that work well with the Steam Controller are games with relatively simple controls. Due to my previously mentioned trick with the paddles, the Steam Controller is my preferred way to play Rocket League. I’ve also played Spelunky with it to great effect. Even Dark Souls lent itself well to the Steam Controller with the paddles allowing me to block and change items much more easily than a normal controller would. It’s worth noting that the Steam Controller can be used with other software as well. As long as Steam is open, the controller can be used to do pretty much anything a mouse and keyboard can do, even providing a virtual keyboard interface for typing. When my wife and I were staying at a hotel for a weekend and wanted to watch Netflix in the room, we used the controller in place of the mouse and keyboard so that we didn’t have to keep getting up to go to the laptop. It also works with other gaming platforms such as GOG but all customization goes out the window and it just uses default controller settings so results may vary. I was able to play Firewatch, though, on GOG Galaxy without any problems.
Ultimately, you need to have a reason to want the controller. If you are the type of person who loves customizing every tiny aspect of your controller scheme, this is a great way to do it. If you play a ton of adventure games and want to use a controller, the Steam Controller is totally your jam. The best part is that it comes with all of the customization ability of a premium controller that normally costs about $150 for only a third of that price. Valve is constantly updating the software for it, too, so you can expect new features and options all the time. For $50, the Steam Controller is a great deal for those that will put it to good use.
- Lightweight but sturdy
- Extremely in-depth customization options
- Support is alive and well from Valve
- Paddles are useful in many games
- Some people use the built-in gyroscope very well
- Significantly cheaper than other premium controllers
- Trackpads do not work well for fast-paced games without a significant learning curve
- No place on controller to carry dongle
- Customization features can be overwhelming
- Community configurations are poorly organized in Steam
- Requires significant time investment for most games