If you’ve been keeping up with things around here then you know that we have a love/hate relationship for portable Bluetooth gamepads. Despite our nods to previous contenders, the biggest hurdles have always been form factor and hit-or-miss hardware compatibility between iOS and Android devices, a problem owing more to their touchscreen nature than anything else.
For a truly proper pocket-sized gaming peripheral however, the SteelSeries Free Mobile Controller is probably one of the better efforts out there. That is, after you find a compatible game worth playing.
The end part of my opening statement may sound like a low blow, but SteelSeries is just one of many companies to try and carve their niche with varying results, but we’ll get to those details later in the review. No matter how you look at it, the Free is truly compact at 4.3”, which is a about 0.6” shorter than an iPhone 5 and weighing in at a scant 1.91 ounces, making it fairly comfortable and actually possible to fit in your pocket or laptop bag without a fuss. Yes, this thing is seriously tiny.
Despite the serious downsizing, there is enough space for a proper button layout similar to a PlayStation or Xbox, with the only real difference being the acute aesthetics to compensate for the small area. The buttons and analog sticks have textured surfaces for grip, while the rear and bottom front corners are contoured to accommodate wayward fingers with the general body composed with a soft matte finish. This controller is durable but for those concerned about protecting their investment, the Free includes a nice little pouch to carry it in.
Even before pairing the controller, you can tell SteelSeries did their homework here. Even in my beefier hands the Free felt just as comfortable and natural to use like a full console gamepad, with connectivity through Bluetooth. Our initial testing had us playing Shogun: Bullet Hell Shooter and League of Evil 3 on an iPod Touch. And as expected with traditional platforming and shoot ‘em up games, you quickly appreciate having that extra (and sorely missed) degree of control. You’ll also be playing for a long time too, since the Free can last up to 20 hours for casual gaming, though our play style was constant and moderately fell between 15-18 hours before we needed a recharge.
If sounds too good to be true, you’d be right in terms of compatibility. For iOS, there are around 85 games that are supposed to work, but many of these titles are already supported by iCade so you’re not getting anything new with the Free. It’s also worth noting that when the Free is paired to an iOS device, the keyboard functions will not work until you turn off or unpair the controller. Because Apple never plays nice when it comes to third-party accessories, we honestly weren’t expecting anything different, but were still unimpressed all the same.
Fortunately if you’re an Android user, the grass is much greener, with the overall experience being comparatively better for the Free. The list of supported games is much more robust in variety, with high profile games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (the iOS version isn’t compatible with the Free), Sonic CD (see previous), and SHADOWGUN: DeadZone working without a hitch. The available list of 100 games is little bigger, but the potential for growth is more promising, especially upcoming titles that are Zeemote-enabled.
The Free also works with any PC or Mac that’s Bluetooth enabled, essentially making the controller a jack of all trades. We played a few games over Steam and tested some emulators and found that the Free is a very competent gamepad despite its intended purpose as a mobile peripheral. And to keep things to your tastes (at least for PC/Mac), the optional SteelSeries Engine software provides some customization and button remapping tweaks. One issue we had with this setup is that the USB-micro port is only used for charging and nothing else, meaning the device won’t operate on a non-Bluetooth computer unless you opt for an external adapter.
For serious smartphone and tablet gamers, the SteelSeries Free Mobile Controller is a tiny and practical wonder that gets almost everything right, but some glaring limitations keep it from obtaining the highest honors. One is the price itself which sits at a hefty $79.99, and that’s quite a lot of cash for such a miniscule, though well-built accessory. Compatibility is another unavoidable caveat that’s (mostly) out of SteelSeries hands thanks to an apparent lack of standardization between mobile devices. Apple is the biggest offender of not yet introducing universal controller support but things aren’t perfect for the Android platform, either. Complaints aside, this could be the best mobile controller available if you can justify it as a sensible long-term gaming investment.