Review: Backbone One turns your iPhone into a powerful handheld game console
The Backbone One combines a slim and modern controller design with specialized software for a complete portable gaming experience.
Modern mobile gamers may have gotten used to touchscreen controls, but nothing beats a physical controller. The Backbone One takes on a familiar form factor with built-in software that completes the console experience better than any previous iOS controller.
Many companies have tried to tackle iOS controller design, from mounting the iPhone on a stand above the controller to simply using a stand and playing like the iPhone is a small TV. Even the unfortunate Gamevice used a similar mounting system, but Backbone One perfects it.
When playing games on Apple devices, users can opt for many controllers, even Playstation or Xbox controllers work on Apple platforms. Using traditional controllers on the iPhone can be challenging or not optimized due to the small screen and lack of mounting options during playback.
The Backbone One controller addresses those issues and more.
While other controllers like Gamevice have apparently solved this problem, the controllers were bulky and limited by the AppleAPI of the old controller. Backbone One can take full advantage of current controller settings on iOS and adds unique software on top.
The Backbone One fits your iPhone with a minimalist design
The Backbone One consists of two controller sections connected by a “backbone” that can be adjusted to fit the size of your iPhone. Once attached, it takes on a similar look to a Nintendo Switch or Sony’s PSP.
The joysticks adopt the Xbox style with diagonal juxtaposition, and the buttons are click-sensitive. The triggers are easily depressed and have a satisfying travel.
The lightweight plastic makes the controller feel light in the hand and doesn’t add much to the weight of your iPhone. The controller is bulky when plugged in, but not as bulky as older controllers like Gamevice.
The design of the back plate where the iPhone rests is rigid and slides to allow for larger iPhone accessories. The controller easily extends to fit even the iPhone 12 Pro Max with some room to spare for future large iPhones, although you can’t use an iPhone inside a case.
The controller connects via a Lightning port, so this $ 100 controller is a great investment for a port that could be completely gone in a generation or two. A headphone jack and Lightning port are included for charging while the controller is in use.
The Backbone One connects via Lightning
There are additional buttons that are assigned to system functions on the iPhone. These buttons are exclusive to the Backbone One and help make the iPhone feel like a dedicated gaming device rather than just a controller.
The ellipsis button can mute your microphone when you are in a voice chat. The square button starts a video recording when pressed once or takes a screenshot when pressed and held.
The orange “Backbone” button opens the Backbone application from anywhere, even if you are in a game. Lastly, the hamburger button opens menus of in-game options, such as a start or pause button on a console controller.
The game changer menu is the highlight of the Backbone app
The Backbone app is central to what makes the Backbone One transform the iPhone into a game console. Instead of navigating the iOS user interface to switch games or operate social functions, the Backbone button on the controller launches the app for easier game switching.
Once you connect the controller to the iPhone, you will be prompted to download the Backbone app. The app requires you to use Sign in with Apple, so users with Apple IDs under 13 will not be able to use the Backbone app.
The app is not required for the controller to work, so you can still start a game and start playing normally if you want. Otherwise, the app acts as a splash screen for your controller-compatible games.
The Backbone app wants to be the center of the experience by providing users with a social account to connect with other Backbone users.
This, of course, limits who you can play with while using the app, given that you use a proprietary account rather than Game Center or Xbox Live. Even if a friend downloads the app to use the chat features, it won’t start without connecting a Backbone controller for the first time.
You can’t get past this screen without a Backbone One connected
If you and a group of friends invest in the expensive controller, you can get the most out of the app experience. The decision to lock features behind a physical purchase is not a good one and is the main detriment of this product.
Beyond the walled garden social features, the app works as an excellent game launcher and screenshot / video management platform. However, any video recorded with the screen recording option is saved in the app only and will not appear in the Photos app without exporting it. Screenshots appear in both the Photos app and the Backbone app.
The application contains “Highlights”, which are parts of videos uploaded by Backbone players. How these videos are chosen is unknown, but any video saved in the featured part of the app becomes public and can be viewed via a link.
I shot this video for “Sky: Children of Light” using Backbone’s highlights feature.
Sharing your highlights is easy, although it lacks privacy notices.
Due to the nature of screen recording in iOS, any data displayed on the screen is saved in the video. This includes notifications, so if you are recording and receive a message, it will appear in the video.
Keep this in mind when saving highlights to your Backbone app. The application does not have any language to suggest that the clips are public on the Backbone server, although the videos are hidden behind a specific URL.
The app suggests games to play with a controller based on what other Backbone players are playing. Games range from “Call of Duty Mobile” to Apple arcade titles.
To add a game to the Backbone app, you need to press the Backbone button while playing a game that works with controllers.
Using the Backbone One
Despite the social account issues and weird decisions in the Backbone app, the controller itself is amazing. The iPhone slides into place effortlessly and you’re playing a game in seconds.
The buttons respond easily and are easy to reach. The size and feel are similar to the Nintendo Switch “Joycon” controller. The joysticks are clickable, which was a controller feature added in iOS 12.1.
The Backbone One does not fold down for storage, so it requires some dedicated space when traveling. That said, it takes up less physical space than a standard Playstation or Xbox controller.
Playing and using the Backbone app to switch between them is simple. The other functions of the app are unnecessary unless you have a group of people with this specific controller.
Since the controller connects to the iPhone, it gets in the way when you need to do something like make a call or send a text message. If you need to use an app that can only be used in portrait orientation, you will likely need to remove the phone first.
This is not a deal breaker, but a minor inconvenience given the form factor of the controller.
Should you buy the Backbone One?
This social menu is pretty empty when no one you know owns the $ 100 controller
Backbone has something special here and should focus on the gaming aspects of the controller and the application. The social account and in-app sharing options crack this experience just a bit and could easily be remedied by adding Game Center support to the app and removing hardware requirements for using the app.
Ignoring those shortcomings, the controller is well made and playing with it is fun. However, you are paying for the full experience, so the app and its issues should be taken into account when purchasing.
Slim design Large controller Unique hardware buttons tied to iPhone software Poorly conceptualized social experience Privacy issues with clip sharing tool More expensive than other controllers