Backbone One for iPhone review: Clever clip-on game controller

This clip-on controller is the secret to better iPhone gaming [Review]

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Backbone One for iPhone review: Clever clip-on game controller
The Backbone One for iPhone takes your gaming to the next level.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Clip the Backbone One to your iPhone to get the physical buttons and sticks you’ve been missing. It has a lot in common with an Xbox controller, while being designed specifically for iPhone gaming. And a Lightning connector makes hookups easy.

I spent many hours testing the Backbone One. Here’s why I completely love it, especially for cloud gaming.

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Backbone One for iPhone review

Playing with on-screen virtual controls is fine for casual iPhone games. But role-playing games and first-person shooters are a lot easier to play with a physical game controller. These types of games require so many buttons, sticks and triggers that keeping track of them on an iPhone screen is a real challenge. I have to frequently glance at the display to find the button I need, and that gets my character killed.

The Backbone One for iPhone sort of wraps an Xbox controller around the handset, making gaming so much more fun. I never fumble for the controls – I can feel them without looking.

And many iOS games work with this type of accessory. That includes much of what’s in Apple Arcade, and plenty more, too.

A wrap-around iPhone game controller

Backbone One for iPhone mimics an Xbox controller
Backbone One for iPhone has all the buttons, sticks and triggers of an Xbox controller.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Split an Xbox controller in half and insert a telescoping iPhone holder in the middle and you’ll have the Backbone One.

The buttons, sticks and triggers are arranged the way Microsoft does… nearly. The left-side D-pad and the left stick aren’t lined up but neither are they as angled as an Xbox controller. The same goes for the controls on the right side. And the two triggers aren’t as offset from the bumpers as I’m used to.

All this doesn’t affect playability. Not to me, anyway. While the buttons, sticks, etc. aren’t exactly where my fingers expect them to be after many hours of using a Xbox controller, they’re close enough. I never found myself fumbling for them – my hands adjusted immediately.

Before I comment on the usability of the various buttons, I want to say that the Backbone One is enormously easier to use than on-screen buttons. But nothing is perfect. The ABXY the buttons are wonderfully clicky, but the left D-pad is mushier than I like. The two sticks are good, with a decent amount of travel, though less than I’m used to.

I miss the handgrips a bit on long playing sessions. But all-in-all, the iPhone game controller is comfortable to hold and easy to use.

Backbone rearranged the buttons and left off the grips to slim down its accessory. It’s 6.8 inches wide, 3.75 inches tall, 1.2 inches thick and 0.3 pounds, which makes it considerably more portable than Microsoft’s version.

Connecting your iPhone to the Backbone One

Backbone One for iPhone ports
A Lightning connector and Lightning port are a couple of the best features of the Backbone One.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Slide the two halves of the Backbone One apart, put your iPhone in the middle, then close the two sides in. The handset is now locked into place.

The game controller is “compatible with all iPhones,” according to its developer. It certainly fits my 6.1-inch iPhone 13 very well. The iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max are also compatible, but are so thick they require an adapter, which comes in the box.

The Backbone One connects to your iPhone through a Lightning connector on the right side. This means you don’t have to pair the game controller with your handset: it’s literally plug and play. And with a wired connection, there’s no question of controller lag. I couldn’t detect any no matter how hard I tried.

The accessory draws its power directly from the iPhone – there’s no battery to charge. And there’s a Lightning port on the bottom right edge of the controller so you can plug it in to recharge your phone while you’re playing.

There’s a 3.5 mm headset jack on the bottom left edge so you can plug in set of headphones while you game.

Finding iPhone games with controller support

You won’t have a hard time finding iPhone games to play with the Backbone One. Support for external game controllers like this one is baked into iOS, and Apple encourages developers to make use of it.

Backbone’s own iOS application recommends plenty of games that support the accessory, and helps you keep track of the ones you already have installed.

And a large percentage of Apple Arcade games support controllers, like the excellent Oceanhorn 2. I also tested the Backbone One with other Arcade games, including Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time and Oceanhorn: Chronos Dungeon. (My job is sometimes just terrible.) All of these worked perfectly. As I see it, just about any subscriber to Apple’s gaming service can benefit from a external controller.

I highly recommend an external controller for cloud gaming services, too. For example, I played the just-released Epic Games Fortnite on Xbox Cloud Gaming with this clip-on controller and it worked very well.  Other such services are Google Stadia and Amazon Luna.

Note: The Backbone app is free. Backbone+ is an optional for-pay service with some extra perks. The controller comes with a one-year subscription to the service.

Backbone One review final thoughts

Backbone One for iPhone wraps around your handset.
The Backbone One for iPhone could be the mobile game controller you’ve been looking for.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Over the years, I’ve spent a few thousand hours with a game controller in my hands. While I’m not a hard-core gamer, I play more thuan average. The Backbone One felt immediately comfortable and natural to hold. It’s undoubtedly much easier to use than on-screen controls.

The controller makes your iPhone into a far better gaming platform, especially for playing PRGs and FPS.

Pricing

The Backbone One costs $99.99 on the Backbone website. Or you can purchase it from Amazon.

Buy from: Amazon

If you want to shop around, the GameSir X2 Lightning ($69.99) is very strong competition. Read my review to see if you’d prefer this alternative.

Those who simply can’t give up the actual shape of an Xbox controller should check out the RiotPwr Rotor Riot iOS Controller RR1852 ($49.99). I reviewed this controller, too.

Anyone who already has an Xbox wireless controller and would alike to use it with their iPhone can consider the OtterBox Mobile Gaming Clip for MagSafe ($39.95). I also reviewed this accessory.

Backbone provided Cult of Mac with a review unit for this article. See our reviews policy, and check out more in-depth reviews of Apple-related items.