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Steam Controller review: Valve's sturdy and odd-looking gamepad

Steam Controller
Steam Controller

Valve launched the Steam Controller to offer PC gamers a new gamepad that could not only be used in first-person and adventure titles where two thumsticks make sense, but also strategic games among others that could take advantage of the on-board trackpads. The question is — does it work?

I've always been intrigued by the Steam Controller but have yet to get my hands on one to see just how it compares against the Xbox One gamepad, which I use regularly on my PC. Immediate first impressions note the sturdy and seemingly high quality build, but it certainly looks strange, reminding me of the glory "Duke" days.

Steam Controller

As soon as you remove the controller from its packaging, you're immediately reminded of the chunky old controllers that dominated the gaming world. Surprisingly, the Steam Controller is comfortable to hold and mostly everything feels of good quality. You don't press buttons and swipe the pads thinking you'll only have a limited time with your new companion.

But how does it fare during some gaming? It's okay. Not game changing, but it's not terrible either. Simply put, it shan't be replacing my Xbox One controller any time soon.

See at Steam

Steam Contoller

Pros

  • Well built
  • Good battery life
  • Solid alternative to your mouse

Cons

  • Could do with a second thumbstick
  • Forced to run Steam in Big Picture mode

It feels so good

Steam Controller

Upon receiving your package from Valve, you'll be greeted by a rather stylish-looking box. Inside you'll find the controller first and foremost. Underneath its separator is the included manuls, documentation, USB cable extender, dock and wireless receiver. Simply plug in the receiver to your PC and you're good to go. There's nothing to install, no programs to mess around with.

I actually prefer the weight and build of the Steam Controller compared to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 gamepads. It feels sturdy, it also feels like you could cause some serious bodily harm with one. (Not recommended, of course.) Valve has created a solid controller and while you begin to regret paying such a premium while it's being delivered, as soon as you pick it up for the first time, you immediately see why.

Valve has morphed together a laptop trackpad with a console controller.

It's totally different from other controllers too. Valve has packed in a single thumbstick, standard 4-button configuration, 2 trackpads, double dual-stage shoulder buttons and two grip buttons on the inside. The layout is strange though. The right-hand trackpad is used as a replacement of what usually is the right thumbstick, and while some may be able to effectively use it as such, I cannot.

The trackpads themselves are similar to what you'd find on a laptop. They're accurate enough and feel much better than using a laptop touchpad or even your smartphone screen, but compared to a thumbstick, especially in a shooter like Grand Theft Auto V, I just couldn't get used to it at all. My accuracy was off point, and driving felt almost awkward as I messed around with camera movements while attempting to correct my overcorrection.

Steam Controller

Instead of utilizing two rumble motors as gamepads usually do these days, Steam opted to go for a sound and haptic combination. As you slide your finger across the touchpads, you'll feel some haptic feedback. It's a strange feeling at first, but you do become accustomed to the feature. While all that is rather interesting, the actual layout of the controller rubs me the wrong way, especially when it comes to the 4-button configuration which is situated rather too close to the center.

It's strange because I want to continue holding the thing in my hands, but I just can't enjoy games to their maximum like I can with the Xbox One gamepad.

This isn't the controller you're looking for

Steam Controller

Along the same lines of what the famous Jedi once said, this isn't the controller to rule all controllers and this isn't the gamepad the Empire is searching tirelessly for. If you're after something to replace the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controllers, Valve hasn't yet built the ideal solution. And by yet, I mean with further development and successor models, the company could well be on to a winner here.

The Steam Controller lets you manage plebs in Cities: Skylines from your couch.

As touched on already, it's difficult for the dual-trackpads to replace the trusty thumbstick, especially when it comes to aiming in first-person shooters, or even moving the camera around. I believe it's certainly possible to get the hang of it and while everything appears to be accurate enough, it simply doesn't feel as responsive as the thumbstick, or rather you don't feel quite in control for quick snappy movements.

That said, should you not already own a console or controller and wish to take your PC games to the big screen in the living room the Steam Controller is an ideal investment. This is because while it's not a gamepad killer and can play controller-friendly games competently, this unit can also perform well in titles that require a mouse. Also, try using it while not in-game, it's actually a pretty neat way to interact with your PC from the couch.

Steam Controller

As for specifications, this is what we're looking at for the Steam Controller:

CategoryFeatures
Trackpads2x circular trackpads
FeedbackHD haptic feedback
Analog Sticks1x analog stick
Battery2x AA batteries
TriggersDual-stage triggers
Ports1x microUSB
SensorsGyroscope, accelerometer

What could have been

Steam Controller

I've talked about the quality of the hardware, and the haptic force actuators deployed inside the controller are actually really good. You'll be able to 'feel' clicks, shots of guns, and more through both the trackpads and shoulder triggers, the latter having a second stage of input. Press the trigger in lightly and you're driving or gazing down a barrel, press in further and you're accelerating to light-speeds or blowing away enemies.

There are also two resting buttons on the rear of the device where your fingers normally sit to grip the controller itself. That's an extra two means of input that require little effort or movement that takes away use of other buttons and triggers. And that's main selling point to many gamers who enjoy customizing their experience — you're able to spend literally hours creating your own configurations for your favorite games.

Big Picture

Big Picture mode unfortunately gets in the way of things. While you no longer need to have it actually running in order to configure the controller outside a game, you'll need to have the overlay running while in game to be able to change things around. Not a fan of the Big Picture mode overlay? Tough luck if you go and disable it.

Steam Config

It's understandable since Valve is essentially targeting this controller for the living room and other recreational areas, but still we'd like to see this altered so it's no longer required at all. Finally, the triggers feel like the cheapest part of the product itself. Overall it's a solid build, but should I be asked to point to what I believe would be the first point of failure, I'd point to the dual-state triggers.

Going in for the final kill

Steam Controller

I like the Steam Controller. It has its issues and I feel version 2 could really address the concerns of many, including my own. I'll continue using the gamepad on and off alongside the Xbox One controller to see if further use of the trackpads and the like will improve my experience and input in various titles. But for enjoying the likes of Cities: Skylines without having to be lumbered with the keyboard and mouse, I'm totally digging it for that.

So should you buy one? You'll need to ask yourself if you're happy with your current setup. If so, don't bother unless it's on sale. But should you be searching for something new, I'd definitely pick one up, especially if you're down to spending time getting used to the different means of input and vast amounts of customization. It's also something different and has certain highlights that sets it apart from rival units.

See on Steam

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

38 Comments
  • At least u would have uploaded a side by side picture of xbox and steam controller!
  • Yeah, a size comparison
  • Maybe they're shy ;)
  • They're about the same size. Many people would (and rightly so) consider the XB controller more comfortable.
  • It's not a replacement for an Xbox controller ffs. I love my steam controller its great! You can use it on the desktop to control the mouse with the trackpad. Good when you want to relax. Works for aaages on two AA batteries. Been playing every day for a month now and still game batteries in it which came with the controller.
  • The reviewer gives away their lack of understanding of gaming when they say that in games like fps and 'adventure' titles two thumb sticks make sense. In what world? Clearly m+kb makes sense in those games and dual thumb sticks is a crippling handicap. It's just that kind of thing that the SC is designed to sort out, and it is game changing. A gamer with and SC will easily beat a gamer with an XB controller given same skill+exp and can actually start to challenge m+kb. The SC is a game changer, and aside from specialist controllers (steering wheel, flight joystick, fight stick, VR controllers etc.) there is nothing else in the running now except perhaps in fighting games where a dual stick controller is better than the SC (though you would buy a fight stick anyway if you we're a fan, so a dual stick controller is still pointless). I haven't touched my XB controller or my XB1 controller since getting my SC. The only real alternative to the m+kb setup, and perfect when streaming to the TV. To the reviewer? All I can say is when you start playing games more regularly and L2P you'll see what I mean, and you'll stop saying silly things like dual sticks make sense for first person games. That is a laughable thing to say and at the beginning of a review as well... How do you expect anyone to take you seriously after a comment like that?
  • Thats an odd rant of a post Andy. To most people, their PC will have a keyboard mouse for more than just gaming (for example why I am "sat up" typing this very post on). So if I want to play a game on my PC, I will use the superior Mouse+Keyboard combo. The SC is for the lounge, where the PC (in Valves mind) could be a competitor to a console. Except its not. Console games are focused on delivery with a "normal" controller with a consistent experience. Lets put aside the fact most people aren't going to move their PC from their Bedroom or Study and move it to the lounge, its now up against a console, which is a more focused experience. I'm sure some games work well with a controller, but many PC games won't. I suspect Rich's experience would be like most people's. Can't quite work out where this device fits in. Just looking at it, I don't even want to try it. I can't see what problem its trying to solve. I have a PC, I have a console. Why would I want something suboptimal to either extreme, my PC with mouse+keyboard, or console with "proper" controller? An oddity. But I am open minded enough to be convinced. Your post did not do anything to change my mind, other than to pour scorn on Rich. You ascertion that SC beats a normal controller seems like its stated as fact, when I'm not sure it is.
  • Well said ! KB + mouse for people who sit straight and gamepads for those couch potatoes who do gaming on a big screen in the living room. Have you ever come across someone who plays with mouse + KB, sitting back, relaxing with legs up ? I've seen people with controllers having good aim, beating players with mouse. Skills bruh ! No auto aim, autolock bullcrap. If you have ever paired gta online, players with auto aim, target lock never get paired with players who are using mouse + kbd setup.
  • @hwan: M+kb is not automatically superior anymore, however it certainly is compared to a dual stick in almost all circumstances which is why I can't take the review seriously as the reviewer does not yet get this. The SC, however, is a different beast. Check out the SC forums for examples, it is certainly far more accurate than a dual stick. In fact, the experiences on the SC forum show it can be as accurate in most games. In FPS games it is possible that m+kb is slightly better but that is debateable and certainly is very close, also for gaming it is ergonomically bad to go with the 'gamer hunch' caused by the m+kb for too long. On top of this, general purpose key boards are starting to change away from allowing w+shift+space (Logitech for example) which makes the general purpose situation you describe less possible, unless you have a gamer keyboard. In most top down games a steam controller is actually better than a kb/m by far, for many people. The SC is so accurate that it becomes a comfortable way to use the desktop in general, which is astonishing. Moving to the TV, an Xbox is now pointless for a PC owner. My £50 stick PC streaming Steam is so much better than an Xbox, my neighbour is so jealous. Puts it to shame, and via remote desktop I effectively have a full PC there for anything else. For £50. That's £50. I'm not sure what you mean by a console being more 'focussed'. Once running Steam, my stick PC looks just like a Steam Machine, just as focussed as the console (whatever that means). Also the resolution is much better than an Xbox so way less blurry, literally more a 'focussed' image. Very few PC game styles don't work well with the SC. Fighting games, yes. Competitive high click rate rts like Starcraft may not be as good (not tried that one in a long while) but most top down strat games are excellent with it. Having both m+kb and SC means I have the ideal controller for everything (except a fighting stick). There is nothing other than fighting games that would benefit from the extra inaccuracy of a dual stick device. The SC is a controller that does not need auto-aim cheats like the XB controllers, for example. If you can explain how it is possible to make a dual stick controller achieve the accuracy of an SC, please go ahead. I'll try it out. I bet you can't. The SC is comparable to m+kb in accuracy plus it has greater flexibility in ergonomics and for gaming in the living room. Does that make m+kb obsolete? No. Does it make the dual stick controller obsolete? On a PC, I believe so. In multiplayer, certainly so. I can't go in to it in full detail on a phone at work (and will be away for most of the weekend) but check out the SC forums and discover what you're missing. Get one, and you'll cupboard those XB controllers within 24h.
  • LOL. I've sat at my PC for years, during the day, and night and early hours Quaking - I do not have a gamer hunch, come on man :). By focused, I mean from power on the whole experience is custom made for the controller. Taking a PC game and retro fitting controller input isn't the same.  You are adamant you're right, but others lower down in the comments atest to hating it after trying it. People aren't "wrong", they have a preference. I tried to adapt to a Wacom tablet instead of mouse once, couldn't do it. I suspect this is going to be the same for most people. Maybe I will keep my eye out on Ebay for one, and see for myself. But telling Rich he's an idiot for feeling the same as a great many people isn't cricket mate :)  
  • How long have you used the controller? I swear up and down by it, but to get there I required two things. The first was time with the device; unless you're very quick to learn new things, this will take you multiple weeks, if not months, to get used to. The second was the will to master the thing; this takes a degree of commitment to getting used to the new scheme and putting effort towards customizing the experience to suit you. This is not a user friendly device. You can get by okay with the barest of familiarity, but much like when mouse and keyboard or dual analog was first introduced, the only way to really enjoy it and get good with it is by practice. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Sounds exactly like every other review I've read about this controller. Isn't this thing old news by now? I thought version 2 must have come out.
  • this review sorely needed a video with it...
  • Forced to use Big Picture mode? What a load of old rubbish! You can use desktop mode and I do.
  • Well, that's half true. I have not yet figured out how to get into changing the configuration without either launching BPM first or launching the game *then* opening the interface. The reality is, they don't have an interface to use the Steam Controller to its fullest on the desktop (yet).   Correct me if I'm wrong.
  • I used this at my friends house. Suffice to say he's since sold it on Ebay. It's alright. The slidy pads are just terrible for gaming. I played against him with a Xbox One controller. And to be honest he didn't stand a chance. It's cuddly and awkward. Desperately missing a 2nd analog stick, and the placement of the buttons is way off. No haptic trigger feedback at all. Yeah not worth it. Sorry.
  • What game did you play?   Certainly not meant as a casual replacement for dual analog controllers. Most certainly it won't be much of anything to people who are used to dual analog; this thing requires a LOT of getting used to.
  • Gears Of War and Forza Apex.
  • Can't say I've played those with the SC; however I have played a lot (A LOT) of Doom with it. As I said in my other posts, it takes much getting used to. I'd say I'm certainly competitive with many of the KB+M players out there and about on par with my own KB+M performance.
  • I absolutely love mine. The trackpads make PC games translate so well. And once you figure out all the details, and learn to tweak it, you don't ever want to use a normal joystick for looking around again. I have it so perfectly configured for action games like Just Cause 2, so that when my right thumb is touching the touchpad ot recognizes the accelerometer, so my movement translates to camera movement, which means my aiming is spectacular. It wasn't great when I first got it, and took a lot of tweaking. But when I dialed it in, it became incredible.
  • Just so! I love it in FPSs but also in action RPGs like Witcher 3.   Definitely rocking in Doom. (:
  • I'm not a gamer in any way however I'm curious how the Facebook announcement regarding gaming will affect Steam. There is already a little tension between MS Store and Steam. Now the FB beast is getting involved, the gaming scene hotting up.
  • Ideally, it should give Valve an even larger kick in the keister. Valve's Steam should be on iOS, Android, and even W10M (if even allowed) yet they haven't tried to expand their availability beyond PC games...
  • So the added competition may force Steam to innovate and improve. Got to love competition, it is the only way consumers have a chance.
  • I've found it takes quite some time to get used to the touchpads, and that it takes some time to configure the controller for some games, but afterwards it's quite good. I believe the controller would have massive potential if it came with an actual game console, so developers could target it specifically.
  • It does have a console, the Steam Machine consoles. That said, many Steam games already have native SC support without needing to get a Steam Machine.
  • Would have even more potential if they ditched those stupid pads for 'real' controlls.
  • It's funny cause I thought this would actually be great for FPS. Seeing as it has a trackpad that would more resemble a mouse. Coming from Console gaming, KB+Mouse takes a lot getting used to. Personally, I even consider it uncomfortable, so I've given up on it. I'm currently using the DS4, it combines both console and pc gaming facets well enough, as it comes with touchpad that acts like a mouse.
  • I think it is. I've been using (and loving) it for the past 10 or so months and play numerous games, including Quake Live and the new Doom. To be sure, it takes a LOT of getting used to, but it is most certainly possible.
  • I got it on sale(its on sale again this weekend) and I'm kind of hit and miss on it. On one hand it works well with a lot of games, but I just cant do fps games on it that require twitch movements. It resembles the concept of a mouse, but it's more akin to a trackpad on a laptop. With that said, one thing you can do, if your mind lets you, is reverse the movement and camera controls. Using the analog as camera and the track pad as movement. That's obr of the cool things about the controller is that you have a lot of freedom with customizing it.
  • I was thinking about buying one of these. Though I may try an XB1 controller first. I do most of my PC gaming via KBM, but I definitely want a controller for the games where KBM doesn't make much sense, like Super Meat Boy.
  • If you still plan on using KB+M for most things, then go with the XB1 controller. Learning curve for SC is pretty steep and requires a desire to fit it to the things you want to use it for. It is not immediately accessible for most games.
  • The learning curve coming from a dual stick controller can be steep (for some...) but coming from kb+m is very different. It is much easier to get used to an SC if you don't have experiential baggage from legacy dual stick controllers. I give it 24h max. Don't try a dual stick first. Try SC first, then test a pals dual stick after 24h of gaming time with the SC. You'll not bother with the XB controller after that.
  • Thanks, both of you. :-) I think if it were true that I did not have experiential reference with dual stick, then Andy would probably be right and the SC would probably be the better choice.  However, I am a lifelong console gamer with a collection (or perhaps rather a hoarding problem) of roughly 40 consoles and 1000 games going from back to even earlier than Atari 2600 all the way forward to the current gen. In fact, I have at least one copy of EVERY major console release from the 6th gen forward - that's everything Dreamcast and newer. It is actually PC gaming and KBM that is the outlier, and the more unfamiliar mode for me. I dabbled in PC gaming from about 1998-2001, tried to get back into it by playing Doom3 on a bottom-shelf PC in 2005 (terrible idea), and have now only had my current rig for about two or three months (I will say that I VASTLY prefer Doom 2016 on the PC over the XB1 and am really falling super fast in love with KBM), but otherwise, it's been nothing but consoles for me. So that means dual stick is extremely familiar to me. Therefore, I think in the narrow context of my own personal case, vertigo is actually probably the one who's right here. I think XB1 is probably the way to go. Still, excellent answers from both of you, and thank you both very much for the quick feedback! :-) I don't know, maybe I'll just do both. As I said, I think Vertigo is right when it comes to general controller based gaming for me, but I can totally see S.C. being crazy excellent for civilization/Starcraft style games. Especially since my rig is setup in the living room. :-) Cheers! p.s. FWIW: My favorite two generations of gaming are (in order), the 4th gen - late 80's / early 90's consoles (Sega Genesis, Turbografx, SNES, Neo Geo), as well as mid 80's / early 90's Arcade (let's also throw in the Amiga computer even though I didn't have one in the day), and the 3rd gen - the NESs, and Mastersystems of the world (once again, let's go ahead and lob in the C64, etc). But after those two generations, we leapfrog all the way up to the current stuff, the what's happening in the right here and now for a very close 3rd place.:-)
  • Good article... I will stick with my elite controller thanks! Love the premium feel and the paddles!
  • It's too bad that Steam wireless dongle could not be used with an Xbox One controller. Microsoft pulled out all the stops and smoked a bit of crack when making their ridiculously huge wireless stick.
  • I think you should get used to the controller before making a review.... It took me a while to get used to it, but now it's like second nature to play more or less all the games I have on my Steam account, be it fps's, racing games, space sims (Elite), RPG's like Diablo2,3 and Path Of Exile, RTS's like Age of empires/Mythology, platformers etc.... It's not perfect, but it certainly changed my will to get ANY console. One of it's biggest strengths are the customization which is just insanely diverse and allow you to have as many keys and functions as you could possibly need, while also having a good platform that allows sharing and experimenting. The only thing that actually annoys me, is that the actuators are too loud, like I sort of hear them, more than I feel them. Well, and some of the buttons are too loud ;) Btw. I don't really understand your rant about needing BigPicture -there are some features that are only available in BigPicure, but you still get the Steam overlay for customizing the controller while ingame, without it open. It's not like the overlay is in the way or anything, so what's the big deal?
  • I used an Xbox One controller wired with my Steam Link - Any news on Bluetooth support for the new Xbox One controller on Steam Link? Suppose I could add a third controller if it means wireless steam link action.