Report Card: Backbone One Controller

More than any other time that I can remember, players are looking to take their favorite games on the go with them. The Nintendo Switch continues to dominate the hardware sales charts, Valve is bringing PC gaming on the go with the recently announced Steam Deck, and Xbox Game Pass subscribers can play their games on practically any device they own thanks to Xbox Cloud Gaming. Being able to play games on your phone in particular has become hugely popular, but it’s not always the most comfortable way to play and touch controls are often times a poorly implemented substitution for traditional analog sticks. That’s where the Backbone One controller comes in, and to be honest, it has completely changed how I look at mobile gaming.

The controller connects to any iPhone ranging from the 6s Plus to the current iPhone 12 Pro, you simply slide your phone into the controller and plug it in using the lightning port. Once you’ve downloaded the companion App, you simply press the Backbone Button and it’ll take you to the home screen where you’ll have access to all of the games available on your device. All of your Apple Arcade games are there as well as access to Xbox Game Pass, NVIDIA GeForce Now, Google Stadia, and remote play to your PS5 or Xbox. I didn’t know going in that the controller used a dedicated app to sort and play your games, but after seeing how it all works together, I was impressed by how quick and intuitive it was to get around and find what you’re looking for. The home page also features areas to view trailers and gameplay clips shared by the community.

So it’s easy to use and scroll through your games, but how does it feel to actually play them on the device? Pretty darn good it turns out. Holding the Backbone in your hands feels not too dissimilar to playing your Nintendo Switch, but in my opinion feels more natural and comfortable than Nintendo’s handheld. And if you’re used to playing games with an Xbox controller you should feel right at home with the layout. The analog sticks are offset like Microsoft’s controller and the buttons are set up in the familiar A B X Y configuration, which feels good but may be slightly confusing when you use the device for remote play with your PlayStation. The only real complaint I have about the feel of the controller is that the analog sticks are perhaps a little looser than I prefer. It’s nitpicky, but the Backbone feels so great in every other regard that it’s a bummer that the sticks don’t feel better.

The Backbone features some other nice touches that really make it feel like a fully featured controller, like it’s own share button with allows you to take screenshots or record gameplay clips directly to your phone’s Photo app, and you can then edit and share your clips right in the app without having to use any other software. It’s a nice touch that, again, I wasn’t expecting the controller to have but just adds that extra bit of functionality that really makes it feel like you’re not sacrificing anything by playing your games on a mobile device. A headphone jack and a passthrough lightning port for charging your phone while you play round out the additional features.

While most of my impressions of the Backbone One have been very positive, depending on what kind of gaming you plan doing on the device I recommend trying a few things out before you add it to your cart. First, if you plan on streaming or using remote play to a console I would test how your internet speeds and WiFi setup affect the performance. I found streaming Xbox games from the cloud to be super quick and responsive with zero to minimal lag depending on where I was, but when I tried using remote play from my PS5 the lag made everything essentially unplayable. My PlayStation is in my basement family room while my WiFi router is a floor above, so I’m not able to say if the issue is with the PlayStation or my setup itself, but if that’s going to be a major part of how you use your Backbone, maybe give it test run with just your phone first.

Also, not all Xbox and PlayStation games are great fits for mobile devices. I was using my iPhone 11 which is a decent sized phone, but games with small details and text like Halo: The Master Chief Collection were hard to play without squinting. Games with larger characters and simpler UI’s might be preferable. Again, this is all depending on which phone you have and if your eyes maybe work better than the 43 year old orbs floating around in my own skull. These concerns are really more about things other than the device itself, but they will definitely affect your experience with it and are worth considering.

With a retail price of $99 dollars, the Backbone One isn’t the cheapest of options for mobile gaming. You can obviously use touch controls if you don’t want to spend any money, and there are a number of clips available for purchase that allow you to connect your controller to your phone which work pretty well. But despite some initial hesitation due to the price, after spending enough time with the device it becomes clear that you get what you pay for, and the Backbone justifies it’s asking price with a great feel and impressive features.

The best thing that I can say about the Backbone One is that it feels less like a controller to use for gaming on your phone and more like a full fledged gaming platform. With it’s slick UI and list of features it truly feels like a high quality dedicated piece of gaming hardware when you’re sitting there using it, but for a fraction of the price that you would pay for one. Your mileage may vary depending on how you’re planning on using it and things like internet speeds, but if all of the dominos are set up in your favor, the Backbone is definitely the best option I’ve experienced for gaming on the go.

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