I don’t remember the date I first purchased the Steam Controller, but it was soon after its November 10, 2015 release to market and since then I’ve bought a second one to support the Steam Link in my bedroom. It’s safe to say that I like this controller.

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Valve’s Steam Controller

The Steam Controller gets a lot of credit for helping me break into PC gaming. While I had already taken steps to move in this direction by building my own PC there was still a chance that I would use my new machine for work and not gaming. By this time I had worked in the technology industry for over 15 years and had yet to build or even modify a PC. My work had always provided for and maintained the machines I needed. As far as I was concerned a monitor, keyboard, and mouse had nothing to do with gaming. I was content with what Sony’s PlayStation had on offer.

At the office I often found myself exposed to talks of the vast Steam library on offer. Those of the PC Master Race would scoff at my lowly console and beckon me to see what a “real” gaming machine can do. After I while I became curious and so planned a build, cobbled it together and fired up my creation.

Though I was not up and running with a PC suitable for gaming I had no intention of playing ALL of my games with a mouse and keyboard. So, why choose a Steam Controller when for years players have been using the Xbox controller with no issues? Well, while I had experience with that controller I was not and still am not a big fan of that configuration. It’s serviceable for those times that I find myself playing games at a friend’s house, but it doesn’t strike me as something that I would want to use exclusively for my PC. Instead I attempted to get my PS4 controller working with my PC. This I was able to do after some struggle with mixed results. So I reluctantly decided to look away from traditional console controllers.

“What’s in the box?”

So, here I was on the cusp PC gaming, for me a new experience, and yet I was still trying to hold onto something familiar from the console gaming scene. It was time to take that leap headlong into the world of PC gaming with the Steam Controller. To me this controller represented boldly stepping off into a world that I had not known and leaving myself open to new possibilities. And, you know, I’m so glad I chose to leap. The Stem Controller includes the following as can be seen in the description below:

  • Dual trackpads
  • HD haptics
  • An analog stick
  • Dual stage triggers, each with 10 degrees of travel, a magnetic flux sensor, and a tactile switch
  • Gyroscope and accelerometer sensor 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 included)
  • Estimated 5 meters of wireless communication range. Actual results may very.
  • Provide 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.

Using a Steam Controller

Holding the Steam Controller for the first time I was immediately struck by how light it is. Initially this is not a good feeling as it didn’t help to induce feelings of confidence. Instead I got the idea that this was a cheaply made product with little metal be found and constructed mainly of light weight pliable plastics. Tapping the controller with a nail produces a hollow sound. Also the textured surface of the grips reminded me more of knockoff controllers like something from MadCatz and not of the premium molding that’s found on hardware from a quality manufacturer. Well, as for use this sounds all bad, but light weight design isn’t always a bad thing. We’ll touch on this point a little more later.

I think this controller will really benefit from having a second iteration because for all those negatives that I just mentioned in how the controller feels cheap when just holding it, it comes across like a premium experience when you’re actually using it to play a game. By now you’re probably wondering how can this be. Each button on the face is depressed with a smooth and sure motion. The buttons not only look like Xbox buttons, but they feel just like them in their use. The analog stick has just the right amount of resistance that helps to belay the sort of confidence that fosters smooth movements when gaming. All of the clickable buttons on the face of the controller are actuated with this same confidence. This includes the analog stick as well as the two trackpads. With these highs come the lows of the the shoulder buttons and the two buttons found beneath the controller, though the triggers are decent. When the buttons on the face of this controller are so good the functionality of these buttons come across more like an afterthought.

The dual trackpads, especially the one on the right will take most gamers some time to get used to. The right trackpad serves in place of a second analog stick. In some games it use is perfect or so close to it you do not miss having a physical stick there. But in other games the use of this pad can seem somewhat unsure and imprecise. In the end I think in most if not all games it’s possible to dial in the best feel for this trackpad to feel good about using it. This last thought is something that most console gamers would not be used to, having to deal with controller configurations before playing a game.

Configurable controls are one of the game changing functionalities that really stick out to me and endeared me to this controller, but I can see how this feature can be a hindrance to those not used to having to think about it. There are many games that were made with this controller in mind where the game designers went through trouble of shipping a package ready to play nice with the Steam Controller. In this instance one needs to only pick up and play. In a lot of other cases this isn’t so, but still, if the game is popular many users would have already created a controller profile that you can simply choose to get up and running. The last scenario is one that I don’t think if rare, but still a situation that I rarely find myself in, but this can just come down to gaming habits. There are those games that have been made with no thought of a controller ever coming to the mind of the developers. In this instance you can still use the Steam Controller, but now you’re stuck with building a profile to associate each keyboard and mouse button used in the game with one found on the controller. Thankfully the Steam Controller user experience does a good job of making this process as painless as possible.

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The design for the top of the controller seems to be more focused on function over form

But herein lies what’s so beautiful about this controller. You are in control. You can change just about what each and every button does on this controller. The number of options for the trackpads alone are immense. You can make a trackpad act like a trackball in that the mouse pointer will have inertia. You can then change the values on how free moving the cursor will behave. Or you can have this same trackpad force the pointer to move exactly where you move your finger to. And, to know by feel and not just sight that you are moving the mouse you can turn on haptic feedback. And, if you really want to stick closer to that console feel then a trackpad can be made to act like an analog stick. Even within this mode of use there are options to determine what happens in-game when your finger come to the edge of a pad. The possibilities literally seem endless.

To this day when gaming with this controller I wonder about how Valve has stuffed a premium experience into what can sometimes feel like a budget product. When I’m playing with this controller I rarely feel a sense of a lack of control or that I’m fumbling for buttons. Everything has been designed to be right where they belong. But some will say that the light weight of this controller doesn’t make it feel like a premium product. Especially you’ve had the opportunity to spend any significant time with the Xbox One Elite Controller. By contrast that controller feel weighted and balanced like a serious tool of precision. Yes, the Steam Controller is a lightweight in comparison, but for me the design element that least helps it feel like a premium product is its flimsy battery cover. The end or wings of this cover double buttons and for it to function this way it has purposefully be designed to be pliable. While this may have been one of the better solutions for providing a single door to cover each battery found in the controller grips I think a trip back to the drawing board can be beneficial.

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Battery cover and lower buttons…allergy pills for the assist (allergy medicine not included)

Conclusion: Get it!

I have not heard of talk of a version 2 for this controller, but I do hope it happens. There’s some room for improvement, but that always the biggest room in any house. This iteration of the Steam Controller stands as a success. It hasn’t opened the way for more console gamers to clamor toward PC games, but I think it could if they would give it a chance. The PlayStation controller, the DualShock 4, lives in 1st place as my favorite gaming pad, but there are times when I can make an argument for the Steam Controller to take the lead. Some might suggest adding a 2nd analog stick or slightly increasing the size of the face buttons. But as this controller exists today I would recommend it as a buy for most PC gaming enthusiasts.

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