Whether it’s Xbox Cloud gaming, Stadia, PlayStation Remote Play or just a very severe addiction to Apple Arcade, gamepads are a better way to play many games on your smartphone of choice. Normally that means using some kind of smartphone clip to attach your phone to your existing controller, propping up your phone and hoping for the best, or choosing from an increasing selection of controllers that snap directly onto your phone. Instead of demanding compatible phone cases or separate pieces that connect either side of the phone, the $100 Backbone One is a single-piece controller that extends to fit it.
Unlike the Razer Kishi, which we tested in detail here, the One is a single device with a telescopic backplate that fits around any iPhone.
So why invest in another controller for your phone when most mainstream console gamepads you probably already own already do the job? There are a few reasons. Backbone One, with its direct Lightning connection, sidesteps the extra jeopardy that comes with Bluetooth-connected controllers, which introduce another latency bump in the road. The company has wisely included a charger pass-through (gaming can burn through your battery) so you can keep your phone plugged in as you play.
The device has a subtle matte black finish, with two collar buttons on each side, a four-button layout on the right side (X, Y, A, B), a slightly-too-spongy d-pad on the left and an analog stick on each side. The sticks feel a little looser than others I’ve used, but they’re accurate and comfortable.
Backbone struck a deal with Microsoft, offering a one-month trial of Xbox’s Game Pass Ultimate for new Backbone owners. It said so on the box, it says it in the app, and it’ll say it in an email if you register the controller. You will get the hint.
The button layout does lean more towards Xbox gamers, but my PlayStation muscle memory meant I didn’t have too many issues using the One to play my PS5 remotely – just the usual drawbacks of playing with a controller that isn’t a DualSense, with its unique tricks and features. Using the touchpad will mean reaching for a section of the iPhone screen, while you’re not going to get any haptic feedback from the triggers or controller itself.
There are a handful of buttons in addition to the stable gaming ones. The orange button launches Backbone’s own game portal.
The Backbone One is a capable iPhone gamepad, so much in fact that sometimes I actively choose to play Stadia and even remote-play PlayStation when I’m in another room. It is, however, an expensive one. $100 can buy a couple of PS5 controllers, or an entire box of third-party Bluetooth gamepads and smartphone clips.
But for that price, you get a slick experience that marries well with your iPhone. Over the holidays, when I visited my family, I was able to effortlessly play Deathloop while being hundreds of miles away from my console. Like several existing split gamer pads for smartphones, it’s like a tiny Switch. The app also tries to pool together all your iOS gaming experiences in a single place, which is a nice idea, even if Backbone doesn’t quite nail the execution.