SteelSeries Nimbus+ Review
The SteelSeries Nimbus+ is barking up the wrong tree. SteelSeries’ latest Apple-only gamepad does a lot of things right: It has a good shape, well-made inputs, and very good battery life. But it has a critical flaw, too: It comes with a phone mount that doesn’t hold an iPhone in place very well. Increasingly, mobile-focused peripherals aren’t just buttons and analog sticks but a means of transforming your phone into a portable console. And while it works with Macs, it is no better than other, more popular gamepads. Thus, while the Nimbus+ is a pretty great controller, it is hard to recommend.
SteelSeries Nimbus+ – Design & Features
The Nimbus+ looks about as generic as they come. The design seems hellbent on splitting the difference between the PlayStation and Xbox controller styles: It has Xbox face button lettering – “A,” “B,” “X,” and “Y” – but the bumpers and triggers are labeled “L1”, “R1,” “L2,” and “R2.” Its wide body and large handles scream “Xbox,” but the symmetrical thumbsticks read as “PlayStation.” There are three buttons in the middle – “Menu,” “View,” and a “Home” button marked with a picture of a house. There’s nothing wrong with trying to blend the two styles, in theory, but Nimbus+ makes only a few logistical changes to distinguish itself from its influences, giving it a strong knock-off vibe.
That vibe is purely aesthetic, though. In fact, the Nimbus+ is a well-made controller with a comfortable shape and strong design. Measuring 5.88 by 4.63 by 2.63 inches (WDH), it’s wide with long handles that sit well in your hands. The handles feature the same matte plastic finish SteelSeries uses on many of its mice, which acts as a very effective grip. It’s also very sturdy and well balanced: Given that, you might be surprised to hear that it’s lighter than average: At 246 grams, it weighs slightly less than the Xbox Series X controller (287 grams) or the DualSense (282 grams).
That’s just the gamepad. The full controller-and-phone-mount device weighs considerably more. The controller with the mount attached weighs 282 grams, the same as the modern Xbox and PlayStation controllers. But that’s before you add your phone. The weight will vary by model, but my iPhone 12 Pro weighed in at 233 grams, so you’re almost doubling the weight. I wouldn’t describe the controller as “heavy,” per se, but it’s enough that you may start to feel the weight in your arms if you play for hours on end without supporting yourself.
Likewise, the core buttons and inputs all feel very good, especially for a mobile-only gamepad. The face buttons are snappy, and I’m a fan of the clicky, tactile response you get from the unibody D-pad. (Even though it tends to wiggle a bit). The triggers, perhaps the highlight, feature magnetic resistance that enables smooth action for the full length of their travel. Lastly, the clickable analog sticks are tall and snap back to position quickly.
There are a few extra elements on the controller, most of which are for system-level actions. There are two system buttons on the top of the controller. One triggers pairing mode, or you can hold down the Home button to pair, which is easier and makes the top button a bit superfluous. The other shows you the controller’s battery status using the four-part LED indicator light on the front of the controller, just above the home and menu buttons. The LED also shows pairing status and, by default, lets you know whether the controller is on or off.
Speaking of power, the Nimbus+ gets great battery life. According to SteelSeries, it should last up to 50 hours on a single charge. After using the controller regularly for over two weeks, I never had to charge it. On the other hand, when you do need to charge it, you’ll need to find a Lightning cable because it doesn’t come with its own charging gear.
Next to the pairing and battery buttons, there are two small holes, which allow you to connect the Nimbus+’s included phone mount. The phone mount, which clamps around your iPhone and attaches to the controller via two slim metal rods that slide into the controller, is something of an Achilles’ Heel for the Nimbus+. Even when fully inserted, the rods feel flimsy and unstable when carrying the weight of a phone, which makes sense when you note that some iPhones (like mine) weigh almost as much as the controller itself.
Under ideal conditions, with your arms resting on a table, the phone feels balanced and sits perfectly in front of your face. But if the controller shakes even slightly, the mount starts to wobble and your phone almost always winds up dropping off the controller. Sitting on my couch, I could shift my grip on the controller, but if I ever readjusted my sitting position, the phone started rocking. On the off chance it doesn’t, you’ll still need to reconnect the mount to the controller. Given that, using the Nimbus+ on a bus or train, in a car, or even standing still while holding it freeform is a nonstarter. All it takes is one involuntary tilt and the phone falls down and goes boom.
The Nimbus+’ mounting issues force us to consider a certain elephant in the room. Using a mount to let your phone hang above a traditional gamepad has been the most popular approach to creating a makeshift phone-controller combo console, but a pair of high-profile wrap-around controllers, the Razer Kishi and Backbone One, suggest that a gamepad and phone mount isn’t the best approach for dedicated mobile hardware. A phone locked in the embrace of the Kishi or Backbone never shakes loose. I prefer the buttons on the Nimbus+, but phone stability (and security) are higher priorities.
SteelSeries Nimbus+ – Gaming
Setting aside the mount stability issues, the Nimbus+ is a very solid controller. Despite connecting over Bluetooth, which tends to add a small, but noticeable amount of input lag, I had no problem playing a fairly wide range of iOS games, including Sneaky Sasquatch, World of Demons, Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm, and Exit The Gungeon. It likely helps that the Nimbus+ supports Apple’s IAP2 wireless protocol, which presumably syncs the controller and phone better than Bluetooth would on its own.
Across all the games I tested, the Nimbus+ felt good in hand and delivered snappy inputs. I had no trouble parrying enemy attacks in World of Demons, a character action game, or dodging through bullets in Exit the Gungeon, both of which require relatively precise timing. Even more impressive, you can perfectly keep time in rhythm games like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Taiko no Tatsujin Pop Tap Beat.
Obviously, the phone mount can create some issues for playing any game with the Nimbus+, but they’re conditional and not related to playing any specific game. When you’re set up properly, with your arms braced, you can hold the controller up and close enough to your face to make the experience of playing on a phone feel immersive. Even small text is easy to read. Outside of that scenario, any game session is subject to outside interference: I didn’t test the Nimbus+ phone mount on a bus or train but, frankly, I wouldn’t use the phone in a public place where dropping your phone could lead to it getting stepped on or stolen.
On MacOS, the Nimbus+ often works fine, but is a tad unpredictable and requires more work than pairing an Xbox or PlayStation controller. I played a little Destiny 2 via Stadia but found that Stadia didn’t recognize the controller, so the menu and home buttons didn’t work. (You can access the menus using the keyboard). I was able to play Dead Cells and Into the Breach on Steam, but only after creating my own custom controller profile. In all of these cases, the controller worked well once the issues were resolved – or the limitations were established – but it was more of a process than it had to be.
Ironically, Apple Arcade games seemed to have the most problems. In a couple of instances, I also experienced some wonky connection issues. Sneaky Sasquatch, an Apple Arcade game, frequently reverted to mouse and keyboard mode until pressed the D-pad to “resync” the controller. World of Demons simply wouldn’t detect the controller on Mac. These issues seem to be at least partially game-specific – Grindstone, another Apple Arcade game, works fine with a controller – but the increased probability of problems makes you question the merits of pairing any gamepad with your Mac, let alone buy one specifically for that purpose.
The Nimbus+ is a perfectly good controller. But in a world where PlayStation and Xbox controllers can sync with Apple devices, and there’s a new dedicated mobile gamepad form factor in town, I’m not sure if there’s a widely applicable use-case where the Nimbus+ is the best choice. It’s a shame – I think a multi-platform version of the Nimbus that retained superior performance on iOS but also worked on PCs and/or consoles would be an extremely strong, versatile controller. Meanwhile, I’d love to see SteelSeries take the buttons and features of the Nimbus+ on a wraparound iOS gamepad. As it stands, though, the Nimbus+’s flaws not only make it a hard sell, they highlight why the traditional mobile-only controller may be ready for retirement.
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