/ Review

Steam Controller - The controller for Gaming on a Mac

For a long time, I've been dissing controllers. I didn't quite see them as a worthy peripheral for gaming. And in some cases, I still don't but I drastically changed my mind recently.

See, I'm a proud member of the PC Master Race and as such I've been considering the use of a controller for gaming as an activity reserved exclusively for the console plebs. And oh was I wrong.

For quite some time I've had a pretty decent Laptop PC that was really good for gaming (i7 CPU, dedicated GPU, all of the goodies). But then I wanted to be mobile. I'm often traveling around and I wanted to drag my gaming rig along with me. Needless to say, that proved to be impossible with a "hardcore gaming rig" (or possible but with a lot of pain for my back). 15-inch laptop, charging cables, peripherals (mechanical keyboard and dedicated gaming mouse) and my backpack was already struggling.

Having my current gaming habits (mostly indie stuff, a lot of them not so hardware intensive and Dota 2, which is a constant) and my work needs (UNIX-like system) in mind, I figured it's time for a change on the mobile front.

So I started using a 13-inch MacBook Pro as my daily machine. I use it for mostly everything. It's light, it has the best build quality I've recently seen, ridiculous battery time and the best of all - 95% of those indie games and Dota 2 work pretty well on it.

Then I would often connect the MacBook to an external monitor or a TV and that's when it hit me - I don't need a keyboard and a mouse for indie platformers, casual games, single-player stealth games etc. I could totally use a controller!

The alternatives

There are plenty of controllers out there but I had to put some constraints on my search. My new peripheral had to be:

  • Different than a PS controller. I dislike those designs with a passion. I find them very uncomfortable.
  • Working on macOS.
  • Able to emulate a mouse (for the times when you want to control more than just your game)

Time was of the essence, so I tested only 2 controllers before making the leap and getting a Steam Controller - Razer Sabertooth and Razer Serval.
Both are what you might call "Xbox-style controllers" therefore they passed my first constraint. Where they sucked was the second one.
Razer Sabertooth

Razer Sabertooth

I never got the Razer Sabertooth to work properly on the Mac. Razer Synapse (Razer's proprietary software which sometimes is "the greatest software ever invented" and sometimes just doesn't work) didn't even want to acknowledge the existence of the Sabertooth controller. After several days I was able to recognize some input from the peripheral via a 3rd-party software downloaded from a shady website. Still - I couldn't game with that.

Razer Serval

Razer Serval

On to the Razer Serval. One of their latest controllers marketed as an "Android Controller". And I tested it for one of its main features - Bluetooth. And you know what else has Bluetooth? My MacBook. Powering up the controller for the very first time and boom it is recognized by macOS and paired with only one click. (At this point Razer Synapse was as unhelpful as before). Miracle! After several tests though it came apparent that because it was intended to be used with an Android device, some of the controller's buttons were remapped to completely different things. And with no working Synapse, there's no easy way to remap each of the buttons for the games you're playing. Using the formerly mentioned 3rd-party software I was able to remap some of Serval's buttons but still - it wasn't usable for gaming.

Steam Controller

The Steam Controller

And then I remembered about the Steam Controller that was released roughly 18 months ago. It was just discounted on Ozone.bg so I had to order it. A quick google search told me that apparently, it works on a Mac. Sweet!

And boy, does it work! You plug in the tiny bluetooth dongle (you can also use a cable, included in the box), power up the controller and voilĂ  - you're using the right controller trackpad as a regular mouse. Because it is a trackpad and it emulates a... mouse trackpad. Then you open up Steam (because why wouldn't you use Steam if the games you play are already on it?) and you have more than a controller. Every button, the two triggers, the two trackpad, everything on your controller is reprogrammable with a very simple interface. You can also use hybrid configurations, for example, I've been playing The Witness recently with a standard gamepad configuration where the right trackpad is modified to work as a normal mouse.

Playing a first-person game from the couch has never been so intuitive.

The Steam Controller does feel a little bit cheap (at first) but that doesn't mean it feels bad. Also, because of its reconfigurability, trackpads, and built-in gyroscope, it's hard to compare it to other controllers. On macOS it works as advertised - no additional drivers, no 3rd-party software, and no hassle. You plug it in and it just works.
Steam Controller Back

Controller layout

The controller's layout can be described as both standard and eccentric at the same time. On the front, there are 10 clickable buttons total. 1 big Steam button (that also lights up) to turn on/off the controller and also bring up Steam Big Picture. 2 small left/right arrow buttons near the Steam button that essentially act as the regular Start/Menu buttons. 1 regular clickable joystick on the left accompanied by regular A/B/X/Y button group on the right. And then - on to the big round things (top left and top right).

Click to see haptic feedback comic

Those are basically trackpads (similar to the ones you'd find on any regular laptop), only they are round, have a nice texture, clickable and with haptic feedback. That last part is how the trackpads simulate friction. It's a weird feeling at first but in just one play session you start to love those things.

On the top side of the controllers, there are standard left and right bumper (shoulder) buttons. Below them are two triggers that each has a button embedded inside (which is an interesting design choice). It means that both triggers go from 0 to 100 and then there's a click at the end (if you push them more)

On the bottom of the controller, there are 2 squeeze buttons that are actually a part of the back cover. They are pretty comfortable and quite clicky.
Configuration Screen


All of those buttons can be remapped to your heart's desire. Valve have done a great job with their controller configurator inside of Steam. You can map all of the buttons (including gyro) to corresponding gamepad buttons as well as to keyboard/mouse buttons.

Too much work for you? No problem, the community has got you covered! Every single game has already a ton of community-made mappings that are just one click away and they get saved per game so you don't have to change your setting before each session.

The Steam Controller has created and is currently dominating its own category

I'm still doing some of the hardware-intensive gaming on my PC but when it comes to being mobile and using a controller with a Mac - I believe the Steam Controller is the right decision.

You can check out a video of the unboxing of my controller on Marto 'Strangera' Tonev's blog. (It's in Bulgarian)