Mobile gaming has been one of the joys of modern smartphone development for years. And from the very beginning, it’s been bedeviled by the bug bear that phones themselves are rather uncomfortable to play games on. Many companies have tried to marry mobile gaming with the comfortable ergonomics of a game controller, with middling results. But a company called Backbone thinks it’s cracked the code — and having played with their gaming controller myself, I agree.
Backbone makes your iPhone a serious gaming device. ?
✅Record and share game clips instantly
✅Get notifications when your friends hop on and party up
✅Take it anywhere
— Backbone (@backbone) October 27, 2020
The Backbone One is an expandable snap-on controller exclusive to iPhone. To use it, you widen it up and put your phone between the grips, slotting the controller into the charge port to connect. It works on every model of iPhone newer than the 6s, and I tested it with both an iPhone 11 and an 8 Plus, and it worked perfectly with both.
In addition to the controller itself, Backbone is also an app meant to be used in conjunction with the controller — which you’ll be prompted to download when you plug the Backbone One into your phone — that acts as a social hub for your mobile gaming. From here, you can record gameplay, share screenshots, and join chats with friends.
The controller has much the same button layout as an Xbox One controller or a set of Switch Joy-Con: twin thumbsticks, four letter buttons (in the same ABXY layout as the Xbox), a D-pad, and two options buttons. It also has two unique buttons: a capture button, for capturing video or screenshots; and an orange Backbone button that takes you directly to the app. It’s designed to work with any mobile game that has controller support, including Apple Arcade games. I tested it with Call of Duty Mobile, Sky: Children of Light, Asphalt 9: Legends, and Murder Mystery Machine.
Let me just say, this little piece of hardware was a revelation. I’m a very picky person, because my purpose is to represent you, the consumer, and I’m no good to you if I get starry-eyed over every flashy piece of tech on the market. But even I have nothing but positives when it comes to the design of the Backbone One.
Purely from a design standpoint, it’s got lots to recommend it. The button layout and triggers feel as responsive and familiar as with any conventional console controller. The expanding back makes it easy to slot your phone into and out of the controller (you will need to remove most cases, though). There are even divots on the side of the grip, which function as little amplifiers to keep the controller from muffling the built-in speakers. The thing that perhaps pleases me the most is that it has two passthrough ports, one a lighting port for charging and one for headphones — that’s right, it adds a goddamned headphone jack to the iPhone. Call me easily satisfied, but I was pretty infatuated when I heard that.
The controller is also more ergonomic than lots of other mobile controllers. There are lots of other devices designed to snap to the phone, as the Backbone does, but this one’s the most comfortable I’ve yet used. There are some, like the Razer Kishi, that are designed like the Switch Joy-Con — devices known for lots of stuff, but comfort not being one of them. The design could use maybe a little tweak for the bottom parts of the grips — the base is a little thick and my pinky fingers really have to reach to wrap around. I would prefer a slight taper, like most other game controllers have in that place. But that’s a nitpick at best.
So much for the hardware… what about the software? Backbone is a social app for the frequent mobile gamer — indeed, it could allow you to be a mobile game streamer or video creator, should you so choose. It comes with a suite of tools that allow you to not only play mobile games with friends, but to easily make and edit your own in-game clips.
It’s dead easy to set-up, which I appreciate. As soon as you plug the controller into the phone for the first time, you’re prompted to open the app. The app will walk you through each of the controls, including how the social aspect works. The main app interface shows you each of the games installed on your phone that work with Backbone — it does tease a little bit by showing Fortnite, which we know isn’t currently available on most iPhones, but I can forgive that.
Using the controller with the games was great. The built-in software doesn’t distract too much from what you’re doing at all — both Sky and Murder Mystery Machine are not single-player games, so the social aspect of the software went unused, but was not at all obtrusive. But for Call of Duty, it was great for setting up a party — I was able to play with Maneet Khaira, the founder and CEO of Backbone for a while, and the controller did wonders for my K/D ratio.
Speaking of which, the social aspect of Backbone is an unexpected delight. I was able to speak with Khaira and hear him and the game perfectly well without headphones, and it made setting up a party fairly easy. Considering Apple doesn’t really have a comparable social network for games — especially not since it removed the Game Center app — this feels like it’s filling a forgotten niche.
You can also record long gameplay clips and edit them within Backbone itself. The methods aren’t perhaps very precise, but are user-friendly. While playing Khaira, he told me that they tested the software with various content creators, who’d resorted to using third-party software to record themselves playing, to middling results. Backbone simplifies the process with built-in recording and editing software, triggered with a simple capture button. I also appreciate that the orange button will glow red while you’re recording — it’s the details that really make this.
Like I said, I’m usually pretty cynical when it comes to devices like this, but I think the Backbone One is everything a mobile gamer could ever want. Not only is the hardware solid, the app and social experience fill a much-neglected gap in the iOS space. It makes an iPhone into a proper handheld gaming device in every way. If you’re an Apple Arcade subscriber, or even if you just play a lot of games like Call of Duty Mobile, this will be more useful and more fun to use than most “regular” controllers.
If I have a complaint, it’s the same complaint I have about every kind of apparatus that tries to turn phones into game controllers: it’s just a little too bulky. While the Backbone One isn’t big compared with a typical game controller, it’s still plenty big enough to not fit into a pocket or a small purse. When attached to an iPhone 11, for example, it’s roughly the same size as a regular, undocked Switch.
There’s also the price tag. Personally, I don’t think $100 is too much, because I think good controllers and devices like this are worth investing in, and I’d probably use it for years. But I can definitely see that this would be a dealbreaker for lots of gamers, especially when you factor in the cost of an iPhone itself, and that you can get a DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller for roughly half the price.
I still recommend the Backbone One, without reservation, to those who love gaming on iPhones. It just makes the whole experience better and more in every way. Even if it’s a bit on the expensive side, I think it’s worth it.
Get the TNW newsletter
Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.Follow @thenextweb