Hardware review: SteelSeries Free Mobile Wireless Controller (for mobile and PC)

5 mins read
Well, this is embarrassing. It’s time to write my first hardware review for DigitallyDownloaded, but I seem to have lost the gadget in question. I’ve checked my laptop bag, my briefcase and my rucksack. I’ve scoured my man-shelf. I’ve even – radically, I thought – checked that I haven’t put it back in the box. My Steelseries Free Mobile Wireless Controller seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth.

Oh, hang on. It was in my pocket all along.

At 10cm across and with a weight of only 59g, the Free is very easy to lose. In six weeks, I’ve dropped it, sat on it, misplaced it and rescued it from the dog. Thankfully, it’s taken all of this abuse without complaint. The proportions may be miniscule, but bombproof construction and rubber coating give it a reassuring air of solidity. Steelseries have taken a premium-grade controller and miniaturised it to mobile-friendly proportions. It tiny, it’s solid, and it’s possibly the cutest gamepad you’ll ever see.

Like many manufacturers, Steelseries have twigged that gaming is no longer an activity exclusively enjoyed in dark, smelly rooms. As a result, its new Freedom to Play range emphasises portability and multi-platform compatibility. There’s nothing to stop you using it at home if you want to – it still works with PC and Mac, after all – but it’s primarily a controller for the gamer-on-the-move. Packed into that diminutive shell is a proper, fully-functional pad with dual analogue sticks, a d-pad, six main buttons, two shoulder buttons and a 10-20 hour battery life. You’ll need bluetooth capability in your gaming device and a USB socket for charging but, once everything is successfully paired up, you’re good to go.

In use, the Free is a joy. It’s perhaps not quite as comfortable as a full-sized pad, but it’s snappy and responsive and offers a huge improvement over fiddly touchscreen controls. However, the cross-platform functionality means that its practicality varies, depending on the gismo you’re operating it with. This is most obvious under iOS, where you’re restricted to a rather short list of iCade-compatible games. If you enjoy Temple Run or Namco Arcade then you’re in luck, but you might want to dial down your expectations if Carmageddon, Death Ray Manta or Duke Nukem 3D are more your thing. There’s also the minor issue that iOS recognises the Free as a bluetooth keyboard, so you won’t be able to enter any text while you’re using it. Android devices fare a little better, offering you a library of around 400 titles to choose from, although some Google Play users have reported control issues with a few big-name games.

Back in that dark, smelly room, the Free uses Steelseries’ remarkable driver software to provide compatibility for both PC and Mac. On PC, there’s a choice of Gamepad Mode (for use with older, DirectInput titles) or a programmable interface for modern games. It’s unfortunate that the pad doesn’t natively support the Xbox controller standard, but it’s actually a fairly simple matter to configure the Free for use with any title that offers mouse and keyboard support. Additionally, the software comes pre-loaded with profiles for most gaming genres, reducing the need for tweakage. In practice, we found that we could use the controller with everything from first-person-shooters to point-and-click adventures, with only the odd dual-stick shmup causing any significant problems.

These system-specific quirks mean that the Free is much more limited than it first appears. If you’re on iOS or Android, and you have a particular game in mind, you should check the Steelseries website for further information first. In contrast, compatibility is almost unlimited if you’re using your PC or Mac, but many titles still require manual configuration. Despite this, I’ve had fun with the Free: it’s improved my laptop gaming sessions and transformed boring hotel-room evenings into a decent mobile experience. It’s hard to offer a more general recommendation, but if you’re a regular traveller and you’re clear on what to expect, the Steelseries Free Mobile Wireless Controller could be worth a look.

– Rob P

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