When the first news blast of this device was brought forth, it instantly grabbed our attention. After a few emails back and forth, and having to wait a bit for it to actually release, we were finally given a sample of this new controller from SteelSeries. Now this is not the average controller by any means. While there are many wireless solutions for PC gaming already on the market, I know of none of those devices that will also work on phones and tablets. This was very intriguing, and was something we thought the readers would appreciate an in depth review of.
The main idea of course is to offer a comfortable and playable controller. SteelSeries does this, offering a controller with a D-pad, dual joysticks, four buttons on the front, two paddles on the top, and there are a pair in the middle that act as start and reset, but also have other functions too. The design is sleek and smooth, covered mostly in a rubberized coating mixed with light grey trim and a darker gray plastic surrounding and highlighting the controls. The other factor that played into this design was portability. Since it can be used with mobile devices, it only seems right that this controller should be able to go in a pocket just as easily as the phone, or at least not take up much space while traveling with a tablet or PC.
We went through some trials and tribulations to make it to this point, but I would like to thank the support team over at SteelSeries for helping me through what was found out to be some sort of USB stacking issue. Word to the wise. When testing as many products via USB as I do, you may well have to rewrite an OS eventually to make a product work, even when drivers were pulled out properly.
After realizing this issue, and then moving to a second PC to test on, the enjoyment level of the time with this device had doubled, as I was playing only on the phone with this for about a week due to this small issue. Now that everything is in order, and the FREE has been thoroughly tested, we can now bring you the full story.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
When at the SteelSeries site, there is a specifications section, but nothing for a chart as far as what is typically provided. With a controller, specifications are less of a concern, just as long as the device works and functions well, and with the FREE, this is what you are getting. The body of the FREE is two parts of a shell that are both rubberized to assure the best grip, even when hands are a bit sweaty. On top are much smaller buttons and joysticks that most gamers are used to, but still things are large enough to be fully functional. As for actual dimensions of this controller, it is only 108mm side to side, 55mm from front to back, 20mm from bottom to the tips of the joysticks, and weighs in at 54 grams.
The controller works with specific games listed on their site for Droid, iOS, and Windows games, although you have to fiddle with the game options to activate the controller's inputs. For mobile devices, as well as Flash based games, the games may not all suit your tastes, but the ones you will like are much more fun to play with a controller than using buttons on the keyboard. This also works in conjunction of the SteelSeries Engine to allow buttons on the controller to be remapped for a bit of customizability. As for standalone titles, games like Trine, Grid, CoD Black Ops, Burnout, and many others are also supported. With some fiddling, and the game offering gamepad control option in the menu, you can get the FREE to function for those as well.
Looking at branded controllers that are typically used with the PC, you would be required to spend along the lines of $35 to $50 dollars to obtain a wireless PS3 or XBOX controller to use. The thing is, with these, they don't cross platforms to mobile devices like phones and tablets, and the FREE does this flawlessly. Shopping for the FREE leaves limited choices currently, as this device is still brand new, but there is a listing via Amazon.
Here they are asking $43.87 plus shipping unless you are a Prime member. While it does seem to be a bit on the high side for wireless controllers, the FREE still has two other groups of devices to play with, while others are stuck to their base systems or PC only. That alone is worth a pretty hefty chunk of that price, and in our time using the FREE, we feel it is well worth the investment, and personally makes mobile gaming so much easier.
In typical fashion, this SteelSeries product also comes in black paging with bright orange trim. A clear plastic outer packaging is used to allow the FREE to sit visible at the top. This leaves the bottom to house the goodies as it is covered with the naming, device compatibility list, Bluetooth connectivity, and the ten plus hours of time offered on a single charge for heavy gaming.
The right side offers very little other than a view of the side of the FREE, since the panel at the bottom only offers the SteelSeries logo.
The back offers a rendering of the FREE as it would wirelessly connect to the devices shown. The image to the right offers three features that are listed first in the multilingual lists of six features that take up the bulk of this panel.
The left side of the packaging offers a view of the controller at the top, but we had to lay it on its face to orient the sticker displaying the specifications in a readable manner. It uses Bluetooth 2.1, offers ten or more hours on a single charge of the Lithium ION battery with just a two hour charge, and concludes with a compatibility list.
This is one location to reference the serial number, and it is also on the back of the FREE. We also see that this product was designed in Denmark, but is made in China.
So that the FREE isn't left to be so free in the packaging, there is this three sided plastic inner package. It keeps the FREE in one place at the top of the box, and acts as a buffer if the packaging is dropped. All of it worked well together inside of a cardboard box to get here, and allowed the FREE to arrive in perfect condition.
SteelSeries FREE Mobile Wireless Controller
The first uncluttered view of the FREE shows that the design is something anyone can get used to in a matter of seconds. With a D-pad at the left, two joysticks, and the familiar four button layout at the right, it just takes time to feel for the size since it requires little movement for operation.
At the bottom edge, between the joysticks, there is the small Micro-USB charging port to recharge the Lithium ION battery inside of the controller.
The front edge of the FREE has the SteelSeries name on the angled section, but the leading edge here offers an R and L bumper buttons here. It is lacking the extra pair from an XBOX controller, but most games don't require more than eleven functions.
The back of the FREE is entirely coated with the rubberized surface to ensure it won't slide around in your hands. In the center is a sticker that shows the serial number along with how to change the mode from Droid and PC over to iOS mode.
Accessories and Documentation
The provided USB to Micro-USB cable is strictly to charge the FREE from any USB port. This is just a rubberized cable with a SteelSeries logo on the USB connection, and it is three foot five inches long.
Also as part of the kit there is this grey nylon carrying bag for the FREE. The outside is silky smooth and has the SteelSeries name and logo painted in black on one side. Once unzipped, the inside of the bag can be seen and there is a mesh liner that is a second layer to protect the FREE from scratches and light scrapes.
Just to put the bag and the FREE into perspective, the bag is slightly larger than the controller, making it easy to get in and out of the bag.
The last bits of the kit are the quick start guide, the SteelSeries sticker, and a card explaining the reasoning behind this design and the freedom it offers its users, every way, everywhere, on everything.
To get started, there is more story of why this was a good decision when purchasing the FREE. It then advises that the FREE be plugged in for two hours to charge before anything else. It also describes the controllers LED notifications.
The sticker on the back of the FREE alluded to this, game mode, or arcade mode. The controller ships in-game mode which works with Mac, Windows, and Droid, but if the controller is off, and you press both the A and B buttons together, you can swap over to arcade mode to use the FREE with iPhone, iPad, and iTouch devices.
Inside the FREE
Removing the back half of the FREE for a peek inside, it is apparent that this is as far as we go to be sure not to damage the PCB connections or the clips used to hold in the lower section. We do obviously see the 3.7V, 300mAh, Great Power, Li-ION rechargeable battery.
The pair of chips here deals with the communications of the CSR Bluetooth IC painted with the blue dot. Finding information on the MX chip is tougher, and I can only guess it is some form of a controller to take the signals from the FREE and codes them for the BT 2.1 transceiver.
The pair of LV165A chips are 8-bit counter shift registers made by Texas instruments. These allow functionality of the switches and buttons used, works in conjunction with the Bluetooth, and speaking of which, there is a decent antenna traced at the bottom of the PCB.
When charging the FREE upon initial setup, the LED next to the A button will be red. When the charge is completed, the light will go off. During use, when you hold in the A button it sets the FREE into pairing mode where the LED will blink fast, and is white. Once paired and ready for use, in gaming mode, the light blinks slowly at about one blink per 3 seconds. In arcade mode, the light will blink faster when paired, at the rate of about one white blink a second.
If you do happen to grab the FREE, it is well worth the time to venture over to the SteelSeries site, and start off simply charging the FREE, put it in pairing mode, and enjoy it on any Droid device. It really is that simple and with the long list of games to search for on your device, there are plenty of options to get you happily gaming with the FREE. An added bonus to this is once the FREE is paired onto the phone or tablet, you can also use the FREE to cycle pages, select apps, start them, and even exit them, on top of the gaming perspective of it. For iDevices, you will need to press and hold both the A and B buttons while the FREE is still off. This will set it up for arcade mode, and allow it to pair there; unfortunately there are no Apple products here to test the functionality on.
As for the PC setup, it is quite the process. First you set the controller to pair the device. Open up the Bluetooth window and add the device. Once that is set, go to the site and grab the SteelSeries engine 2.8 and install it. While at first this is where I was stuck, after getting another Bluetooth mSATA card, on another PC I did not run into the same driver issue that was plaguing me in the beginning. This time the software installed and once opened, there is a tab that will allow you to configure the FREE to suit your needs. This is when I went to Grid and ran quite a few laps, as well as playing many hours of various flash games over the last couple days. Even with all the haste we did run into at first, once solved, the FREE was an absolute pleasure to use and a welcomed addition. It saddens me, but we did not test on Mac because there is not one for me to test with. I can only assume that the FREE is just as enjoyable there.
I have had a lot of fun with the FREE. Even when things were not looking good for my PC testing, I was still really enjoying all of the Droid games that worked with the controller. Once I got the PC angle sorted out, I was trying to connect the FREE to every game I had. Some like Grid take very little effort, others took more finesse to make it work out, and some titles plain do not work with it, but that is okay because I enjoyed the fact of no cables like I have with my wired controllers I typically use. Taking it further, when I am at the airport, getting an oil change, or even when I'm sitting on the couch, I can slide the FREE out of my pocket and game on when things like Facebook just aren't entertaining enough.
The $43 pricing may make some think it is too small for that sort of an investment, but I'm telling you, ten minutes in your hands, and you will wonder why you liked the large controllers in the first place. The fact that it is so multi-platform capable just makes it a more obvious solution for more people than products before have ever even thought to include into one device. SteelSeries is right on the mark with the FREE, and I can't stress enough, how intuitive and fun the experience has been.