The Backbone One is an iPhone controller that successfully joins the dots between the disparate gaming experiences that are available through Apple’s smartphone.
It might seem somewhat expensive at £100, but the Backbone One’s true value goes well beyond offering a very good set of physical controls for your iOS gaming sessions. It’s nothing less than a highly polished gateway to a world of full fat console and PC gaming.
In the hands, the Backbone One is an impressive device. Its no-nonsense expandable form factor sees two handholds splitting either side of your iPhone in a manner that’s reminiscent of the Nintendo Switch or the Steam Deck.
I used it with an iPhone 13 Pro, the chunky camera of which has necessitated a special adapter being bundled in, but anything from the iPhone 6S upwards should work fine. The process of actually getting the phone into the telescopic mechanism isn’t the easiest I’ve ever used, though. Some kind of catch or tension-holding switch would have been welcome.
The device is made from high-grade plastic, and its twin analogue sticks offer a nice degree of precision despite being on the compact side. It was perfectly capable of meeting the precision required of fully-fledged console shooters like Halo Infinite, which is the ultimate test for any analogue stick.
The four main fascia buttons are incredibly clicky, almost to a distracting degree, but they’re otherwise of decent quality. On the shoulders you get a pair of solid buttons and another set of responsive analogue triggers, mirroring the set-up of recent PlayStation and Xbox controllers.
Finishing this off is a decent-quality D-pad. The best thing I can say about this oft-overlooked input method is that it passed the Spelunky 2 test. Derek Yu’s superlative roguelite platformer is capable of exposing all but the most reliable directional controls.
Elsewhere you get two buttons that map to the Start/Options (or equivalent) on home console controllers, as well as a Backbone button (more on that later) and a button for recording and broadcasting gameplay, you should be into that sort of thing .
On the bottom edge of the left and right handholds, you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and a Lightning port for charging your phone, respectively.
Backbone’s custom UI layer, which is accessed through a dedicated button adjacent to the right analogue stick, is a slick thing indeed, and a large part of the package. Everything from the magazine-like layout to the instant video previews to the responsiveness of the animations is of a quality that’s worthy of any of the game service storefronts.
Scroll through this UI’s entries and you’ll encounter installed iOS games, featured titles that you might want to check out, new releases across the various game streaming services and more. The Backbone UI also lets you connect to your fellow gamers through lobbies and chat groups.
I’ve referenced both Halo Infinite and Spelunky 2 above, neither of which are available on the App Store. When you enter one of these streaming recommendations, you’ll be offered a shortcut to set up the related services. In my case, that involved pinning a browser shortcut to the home screen so that I could access Xbox Cloud Gaming (a three month trial for three Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is included), though PlayStation Remote Play and Google Stadia are also featured.
The Xbox Cloud Gaming integration isn’t exactly seamless. I was unable to continue my Xbox gaming sessions directly through the UI, and had to exit and go through the Xbox Cloud Gaming Beta shortcut I had pinned to my iPhone’s home screen. That’s less Backbone’s fault, though, and more to do with Apple’s intransigence on the matter of dedicated streaming apps.
At a base level, the Backbone One is one of the best iOS controllers I’ve ever used. Well beyond that, it represents the most successful attempt yet at curating and funnelling the jumble of gaming sources that are at an iPhone user’s disposal.
It essentially turns your iPhone into a surprisingly complete games console, providing you’re in close proximity to a high-grade broadband connection. And that’s mightily impressive.