While the high-profile disputes over what content to play on your iPhone rages between Apple, Epic Games, Google and Microsoft, a company called Backbone is instead focusing on making sure you get the most out of the games currently available. Just like Razer did with its Kishi controller for iOS, and as other companies have done with their own snap-on controllers, Backbone is introducing one for $ 100 calling it the Backbone One. You can buy it on Backbone’s site.
With the fully extended controller, it fits any iPhone with iOS 13 or later, starting with the iPhone 6S and including the new iPhone 12 series. It’s great for Apple Arcade games that support controllers. Sky: Children of the Light and Call of Duty: Mobile play wonderfully with the One. And for popular games such as COD: mobile who have not enabled controller support from the start, Backbone manages visual tutorials that appear before launching to walk you through the steps to enable it in the game’s settings.
Since the launch of the Backbone One, it now works with Genshin Impact, the xCloud iOS beta for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers, as well as Google Stadia. Even play games like Hades via the Steam Link app (connected to my PC via Wi-Fi) felt surprisingly natural.
Unlike most controller accessories made to date, the Backbone One is a hybrid of tightly integrated hardware and software. Looking at the hardware, this might be the best of its kind yet. Both sides of this controller have rounded edges that naturally fit my hand. I praised the Razer Kishi’s design, but it has a more subtle look that doesn’t cover the edges of your phone as much. Each button has a more responsive, tactile click, and the analog sticks feel about the same size as the Joy-Con for Nintendo’s Switch. Speaking of the Joy-Con, the triggers on the back of the One feel real better.
The Backbone One features Lightning passthrough, with support for Lightning headphones if you have a set. It also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you can listen to audio differently, even if your iPhone doesn’t have a port of its own. In terms of power usage, Backbone says the One itself draws less power from your iPhone than many wired Lightning earbuds. I didn’t notice more battery usage while gaming with the controller plugged in than I normally do without.
The hardware alone makes it worth buying, but the software makes it truly unique. The One doesn’t need a companion app to work with an iOS game that supports a controller, but using the app turns your iPhone into a game console of sorts.
Pressing the orange Backbone button on the controller while the One is connected to your phone will open the Backbone app, which looks like an operating system. There you will find all your installed games neatly arranged in an almost tvOS-like interface. The app also shows new games available for download from the App Store that support controllers. To add games to the Backbone interface, just tap the orange button when you first start up each new game. This app takes advantage of the iPhone’s excellent haptics to buzz when you scroll through the menu, and the company created its own satisfying subtle vibration effect that you feel as you fly quickly through a number of tiles in the interface with the L1 and R1 shoulder keys.
Scroll down a bit further in the app and you will find photo and video clips that you have saved and those of friends. This controller has a dedicated button that allows you to take a screenshot or even record a video clip in-game, these are features that anyone who has used a modern game console should be familiar with. The important thing here, however, is that you can hold that button for a moment to instantly bookmark important moments. The Backbone button illuminates a red LED while you are recording, so you can see at a glance when you are live. Backbone handles recording and opening clips much more gracefully than the Xbox One, PS4, PC or Switch.
After a video clip has been saved, you can trim and share the clip in the Backbone app, as well as through iMessage or other social media apps you use. One special thing to note is that Backbone says it can record 1080p clips at 30 frames per second in the HEVC / H.265 codec (supported on the iPhone 7 and newer), so you have higher quality video without sacrificing as much storage space as other codecs require.
Yet another software feature that you get with the controller is the ability to create parties and voice chat with friends in the app. These parties work independently of the game you’re playing (you don’t even have to play a game), so it’s a good way to connect even if you’re not completely into Call of Duty: Mobile, for instance. If you enjoy recording clips with your friends, the video recording feature will include your voice in the mix, along with everyone else in the party (indicated by the little orange light near the top edge of the iPhone in iOS 14). Each participant can choose to mute their microphone by pressing the leftmost button with three horizontal dots twice.
Snapshots, video recording, and hosting parties for voice chat are just some of the ways Backbone is taking the reins in iOS to create a more engaging experience than Apple itself offers gamers. It also offers rich presence notifications, where you join with a notification – whether you’re in the Backbone app or not – to tell you when a friend has signed up, or with an invitation you can click to join a party.
At first glance, the Backbone One is just a controller – and a really good one too. But with software enhancements that cleverly take advantage of iOS, Backbone makes the iPhone feel like a bona fide gaming platform that I want to stay a part of. When the hardware and software all work together, with the ability to easily collaborate with friends and record clips, the One feels like a gaming experience that somehow beats Apple to pursue its own gaming ambitions. to work. It is no longer just a phone tied in a few pieces of plastic, but the start of something really special. And for $ 100, with no monthly fees to use the software and party tools, it’s an attractive price if you play a lot on mobile.
Aside from running on iOS, the Backbone One may seem better suited to boot on Android, given that Fortnite is not available in Apple’s App Store. Although, since the launch of the One, Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud game streaming services have come to iOS, allowing you to play more content than before. Backbone declined to comment when I asked about an Android specific version of the One. But this iOS controller is already worth the cost of entry if you’re an Apple Arcade subscriber or just enjoy a few one-time games.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge
Update April 27, 10:30 a.m.ET: Backbone confirmed that Genshin Impact is supported by The One. I have also updated this review to note that Google Stadia and xCloud are both accessible on iOS.