When I first saw the Backbone One, I figured it would be just another gimmicky mobile phone controller alternative. In a world of clunky phone clips, latency issues, and bad designs, no solution has really grabbed my attention and made me seriously consider mobile gaming as a viable option. But, with the mobile market comprising over 2.2 billion gamers, it’s a shame there isn’t a ubiquitous solution yet. Enter Backbone. While it’s got some shortcomings, it’s laid the foundation for a unified platform ecosystem that mobile gaming desperately needs.
Backbone One – Design and Features
The Backbone One is aptly named due to its dog bone-shape that attaches directly to your iPhone. It features two independent sides of the controller, each roughly the size of a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con controller, held together by an expandable middle section. To connect it, you simply pull the two ends apart and plug your iPhone into the Lightning connector. That’s it. There’s no Bluetooth settings to worry about or pairing that needs to take place – it just works. The direct connection allows for almost no latency when playing games, bringing it closer to a console experience. It’s also extremely low-power, taking less energy than a pair of Lightning-connected headphones.
Ergonomically, the Backbone is comfortable to hold – albeit better suited for smaller hands. It’s extremely lightweight, weighing just 138g. With an iPhone 12 attached it’s just over 300g, or roughly the weight of a Nintendo Switch Lite. It has a slightly bulbous base on each side of the controller that evenly distributes the weight and doesn’t make the unit feel top-heavy while playing. It also features a matte black finish with a slight sheen to it that unfortunately picks up a lot of fingerprints.
There are two offset analog sticks in total, one on each side of the controller. They are smaller and a bit stiff, and the closest comparison I can make in terms of how they feel are the analog sticks on Joy-Con controllers. There’s a surprisingly good D-pad just below the left analog stick taking the shape of a rounded plus sign. It’s not clicky like everything else on the controller, but instead almost silent with a satisfying press.
Below the D-pad is an options button and a dedicated button for screenshots and video recording. Both buttons are extremely low-profile – almost flush with the face of the device – and have a bit of a mushy press to them. Up top are the L1 and L2 buttons. The L1 button is a slim, clicky, tapered button that gently contours with the shape of the controller. L2 is lightweight and easy to press, although there’s not much tension. What’s nice, though, is that it’s an analog trigger meaning it can register exactly how far it’s pressed down and benefits from a 5mm travel.
On the right side of the controller are the four primary face buttons: A, B, X, and Y – laid out like an Xbox controller with A on the bottom and B on the right. All four buttons are small and have a mushy click to them. They also suffer from a very slight wiggle in their individual slots. Below the face buttons is another analog stick, identical to the one on the left. Just below that are two more buttons: the orange Backbone button and a menu button, both low-profile and mushy like their counterparts on the left side of the controller. And, as expected, R1 and R2 up top.
Because this controller plugs into your phone, there’s a Lightning passthrough charger on the bottom of the right side of the controller, allowing you to charge and play at the same time using the cable you already use for your iPhone. It also supports using Lightning accessories or Lightning headphones, too. On the bottom of the left side of the controller is a 3.5mm auxiliary port for connecting a pair of traditional headphones.
The Backbone supports everything from iPhone 6s to the latest iPhone 12 series – including the larger iPhone 12 Pro Max – running iOS 13 or later. Because of the various shapes and sizes of these devices, it has a large groove that wraps around both sides of the phone. Since it’s not custom-fit for each iPhone it doesn’t sit perfectly in the groove, allowing it to twist slightly in your hands and bow a bit on the back portion that pulls apart. The result is a controller that doesn’t feel perfectly secure, but I never worried that my phone was going to fall out while playing.
Backbone One – Software
Where the Backbone really shines, however, is its tight integration of hardware and software. When first connected, it will prompt you to download the Backbone app. This effectively acts as a “hub” to keep all of your games and various remote play apps organized. While it’s not required to use the controller, it solves one of the major issues of mobile gaming: creating a cohesive experience that blurs the lines between console and mobile games through what feels like a natural home screen experience.
The first row of icons includes your installed games and remote play services like PlayStation Remote Play, Xbox Remote Play, and Steam Link, just to name a few. Having everything side-by-side creates the illusion that you’re bouncing between games on your console and clicking one jumps right into that experience. When you’re finished playing, simply press the Backbone button again and you’re taken back to the app’s home screen; once again making you forget you’re actually playing on your phone.
Below your games are more categories of horizontally-scrolling tiles that include recent highlights taken by other Backbone users, trending games, multiplayer games, single-player experiences, classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Doom, as well as a dedicated section highlighting some popular Apple Arcade games. If you see something that interests you, simply tap or click on it and you can download it on the spot without ever leaving the app and transitioning over to the App Store. It’s as seamless as it could possibly be while focusing on the most important thing: never breaking that illusion of a “home screen.”
Also contained within the app is a friend system which allows you to add other Backbone users, as well as voice chat rooms that you can easily jump into for popular games like Call of Duty Mobile, Minecraft, and Brawlhalla. You can even create your own party for up to eight players within the Backbone app – complete with invites and system-wide voice chat. Friends’ play activity is shown and you can easily party up and jump directly into their game right from the app or by tapping on a push notification.
Video capture and screenshots work similarly, too. Since the feature is bound to a hardware button on the controller, you can activate it across any game or service and your recordings are automatically saved in a gallery section inside the Backbone app – allowing you to easily view, clip, and share them without cluttering up your Camera roll. The Backbone button slowly pulses red while recording to provide a subtle visual reminder, too.
There’s also a system-wide shortcut to mute your microphone audio by double-pressing the options button, allowing you to quickly mute yourself without having to leave the game and fiddle with the native iOS microphone settings. What’s even better is your recordings intelligently filter out the sounds made from the analog sticks and buttons, leaving you with just the audio from your gameplay and party chat. Recordings are high-quality, too, capturing footage in full 1080p at 30fps with a 20mbps bitrate. You can also choose between recording in the smaller HEVC or more-compatible H.264 formats.
The Backbone is still relatively new, having been released in late 2020, but the developers have continued to push out weekly updates to the Backbone app, adding or tweaking aspects of it based on community feedback. Not only is it encouraging to see such frequent updates, but because so much of the magic lies in the app itself, the Backbone could theoretically gain new features without necessarily requiring a hardware revision.
Backbone One – Gaming
Whether you’re using the Backbone exclusively for playing mobile games, playing or streaming games remotely over Wi-Fi, or a mix of both, this controller feels right at home. It works with more than 1,300 mobile games on iOS that support a controller as well as PlayStation Remote Play, Xbox Remote Play, Steam Link, Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, Nvidia GeForce Now, Shadow, and Rainway.
I tested it with a handful of mobile games such as Genshin Impact, Call of Duty Mobile, and The Pathless. There was virtually no latency using any of the buttons, sticks, or triggers on the controller, with everything feeling quick and responsive. Aiming with the analog sticks took some getting used to in something like Call of Duty Mobile as the controls felt a bit jumpy and not as smooth as I’m used to when turning, although some of those issues can be chalked up to the individual sensitivity levels within each game.
The analog triggers felt great and truly replicated the console experience when aiming down sights and firing. Since the Backbone doesn’t feature its own built-in rumble, it instead makes clever use of the iPhone’s haptic feedback and makes it feel like it’s vibrating both sides of the controller. This is a welcome addition as most iOS controllers don’t have built-in rumble, yet having that extra sensation definitely increases immersion.
Playing games remotely from my PS5 and Xbox Series X, as well as gaming PC all felt great on the Backbone, as well. Aside from minor internet-related latency issues, all the controls were responsive. This feels like a worthy successor to the PlayStation Vita for playing games remotely, and being able to play console games on the couch while watching TV or while lying in bed felt extremely comfortable.
The location of the Backbone button and screenshot buttons are great, but pressing the options and menu buttons in-game can be a bit uncomfortable as they force your thumb into an awkward angle. This is especially prevalent when using Remote Play functionality for PlayStation and Xbox as these buttons become used more frequently.
Overall, playing games on the Backbone was enjoyable. Switching between native iPhone games and Remote Play options was seamless, with everything filtered through the Backbone app. With notifications silenced, I really did forget I was using my phone much of the time. There were even instances where I’d set the Backbone down and start searching for my phone – only to realize it was still attached.
The Backbone One’s unique expanding controller connects directly to your iPhone for a low-latency gaming experience that feels great to use. Despite some lackluster buttons on the controller itself, it manages to create a seamless experience that blurs the lines between console and mobile gaming by producing a true “home screen” experience in the Backbone app. The tight integration between hardware and software makes it feel like a real platform, and one that will only continue to evolve through updates as time goes on.