Backbone One iPhone review: Smart clip-on game controller
Attach the Backbone One to your iPhone to get the physical buttons and sticks you’ve been missing. It has a lot in common with an Xbox controller, while being designed specifically for iPhone gaming. And a Lightning connector makes it easy to hook up.
I spent many hours testing the Backbone One. Here’s why I completely love it, especially for cloud gaming.
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Backbone One for iPhone Review
Playing with virtual on-screen controls is fine for casual iPhone games. But role-playing games and first-person shooters are much easier to play with a physical game controller. These types of games require so many buttons, joysticks, and triggers that following them on an iPhone screen is a real challenge. I often have to glance at the screen to find the button I need, and it kills my character.
The Backbone One for iPhone somehow wraps an Xbox controller around the handset, which makes gaming a whole lot more fun. I never look for the controls – I can feel them without looking.
And many iOS games work with this type of accessory. This includes much of what’s in Apple Arcade, and more.
A wraparound iPhone game controller
Split an Xbox controller in half and insert a telescoping iPhone stand in the middle and you have the Backbone One.
Buttons, joysticks, and triggers are laid out the way Microsoft does…almost. The left D-pad and left stick aren’t aligned, but they’re also not as angled as an Xbox controller. The same goes for the controls on the right side. And the two triggers aren’t as offset from the bumpers as I’m used to.
None of this affects gameplay. Not to me, anyway. Although the buttons, sticks, etc. aren’t exactly where my fingers expect them to be after many hours of using an Xbox controller, they’re pretty close. I never found myself fumbling for them – my hands immediately adapted.
Before commenting on the usability of the various buttons, I want to say that the Backbone One is extremely easier to use than the on-screen buttons. But nothing is perfect. The ABXY buttons are wonderfully clicky, but the left D-pad is beefier than I like. Both sticks are good, with decent travel, although less than I’m used to.
I miss the grips a bit on long gaming sessions. But overall, the iPhone game controller is comfortable to hold and easy to use.
Backbone rearranged the buttons and left out the handles to slim down its accessory. It’s 6.8 inches wide, 3.75 inches tall, 1.2 inches thick, and 0.3 pounds, making it considerably more portable than Microsoft’s version.
Connect your iPhone to Backbone One
Slide the two halves of the Backbone One, place your iPhone in the middle, then close the two sides. The handset is now locked in place.
The gamepad is “compatible with all iPhones”, according to its developer. It certainly fits my 6.1-inch iPhone 13 just fine. The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max are also compatible, but are so thick that they require an adapter, which is included in the box.
The Backbone One connects to your iPhone via a Lightning connector on the right side. This means you don’t need to pair the gamepad with your handset: it’s literally plug and play. And with a wired connection, there’s no question of controller lag. I couldn’t detect any no matter how hard I tried.
The accessory draws power directly from the iPhone – there’s no battery to charge. And there’s a Lightning port on the bottom right edge of the controller so you can plug it in to charge your phone while you game.
There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom left edge so you can plug in headphones while you game.
Find iPhone games with controller support
You’ll have no trouble finding iPhone games to play with the Backbone One. Support for external game controllers like this is built into iOS, and Apple encourages developers to use it.
Backbone’s iOS app recommends many games that support the accessory and helps you keep track of which ones you’ve already installed.
And a large percentage of Apple Arcade games support controllers, like the excellent sea horn 2. I have also tested the Backbone One with other Arcade games, including Samurai Jack: Time Battle and Horn of the Ocean: Chronos Dungeon. (My job is sometimes fair terrible.) This all worked perfectly. In my opinion, just about any subscriber to Apple’s gaming service can benefit from an external controller.
I also highly recommend an external controller for cloud gaming services. For example, I played the Epic Games that just came out fortnite on Xbox Cloud Gaming with this clip-on controller and it worked great. Other such services are Google Stadia and Amazon Luna.
To note: The Backbone app is free. Backbone+ is an optional paid service with some additional benefits. The controller comes with a one-year subscription to the service.
Backbone One revises the final thoughts
Over the years, I’ve spent a few thousand hours with a gamepad in my hands. Although I’m not an inveterate gamer, I play above average. The Backbone One immediately felt comfortable and natural to hold. It’s undoubtedly much easier to use than the on-screen controls.
The controller makes your iPhone a much better gaming platform especially for playing PRGs and FPS.
The Backbone One is $99.99 on the Backbone website. Or you can buy it on Amazon.
Will buy: Amazon
If you want to shop around, the GameSir X2 Lightning ($69.99) is very strong competition. Read my review to see if you prefer this alternative.
Those who just can’t let go of the actual shape of an Xbox controller should check out the RiotPwr Rotor Riot RR1852 iOS Controller ($49.99). I also tested this controller.
Anyone who already has an Xbox Wireless Controller and wants to use it with their iPhone can consider the OtterBox Mobile Game Clip for MagSafe ($39.95). I also tested this accessory.
Backbone provided cult of mac with a review unit for this article. See our review policy and see more in-depth reviews of Apple-related articles.