Does the Backbone One live up to the promise of turning your smartphone into a games console? We put the new PlayStation edition through its paces.
Playing home console games remotely on mobile devices has always felt compromised and unwieldy. The only time the experience felt truly seamless was when I used to play PlayStation games remotely on a PS Vita. It wasn’t the best way to experience an HD game, but the comfort of traditional controls and a clean interface mitigated the relatively low screen resolution of Sony’s portable.
Replicating that experience between an Xbox or PlayStation and a smartphone has never been as satisfying. Screen technology is usually better, but comfortable control options are a common area of failure. A host of cheap Bluetooth and MFi controllers are available – as well as peripherals that connect your phone to a controller – but build quality is often lacking, and there is usually a fussiness to the experience.
The Backbone One aims to fix this and to simplify the process of playing console games – via Remote Play using the internet or local Wi-Fi or via cloud streaming – with a combination of hardware and software.
The controller launched in 2020 as an Xbox-specific peripheral but is now available in a gleaming white PlayStation edition. No matter which version you choose, the Backbone One controller is essentially the same, the only difference being its colour and face buttons that match their respective consoles. Each edition also comes in iOS and Android flavours.
To prove its flexibility, I used a PlayStation edition Backbone One with an iPhone 12 and streamed games from an Xbox Series X console.
Attaching the controller to a phone is a thankfully simple process. The Backbone One’s backbone is an extendable and resistive spine that stretches to accommodate different-sized devices. All you do is slip the top end of your phone into the left side of the controller and then slide the right side – which holds the power connector – over the bottom end of your phone. It’s quick and easy, and once your phone is in place, it feels secure.
For this review, I also spent around two hours using the Backbone One as an exercise strap, plus another hour pretending to play the accordion to the hits of Lawrence Welk. I’m pleased to report that the exhaustive workout had no effect, and the controller remains as taut as the moment I prised it from its beautiful packaging.
Whether you get an Xbox or PlayStation edition, the construction and ergonomic design are identical. The textured plastic feels solid, and it sits comfortably in the hands. It’s nicely weighted and much more comfortable than, for example, a Joy-Con grip or having your phone clipped precariously to a standard controller.
The controller’s construction is outstanding in every respect. The control sticks have just the right amount of travel despite their small size, and the triggers offer just the right amount of tension. The D-pad is precise and, mercifully, much quieter than the official Xbox D-pad, which drives my household mad with its incessant clicking. A rubber-coated cradle also ensures your device is secured snugly. Overall, it’s remarkable how sturdy and premium it feels.
The Backbone One doesn’t require charging and draws power directly from your mobile device. In testing, it made no appreciable difference to my iPhone’s battery consumption. Helpfully, it does include a pass-through charging connector, should you need extra juice while playing. The 35mm headphone jack is another welcome touch. (And a brave one, for iPhone users.)
As the controller connects directly to your device, it has minimal latency. However, the quality of your gaming experience will ultimately depend on your network environment. A Backbone One won’t make games perform any better if you have slow internet or a patchy Wi-Fi connection. Nonetheless, it’s the best mobile video game controller I have used by some distance.
But hardware is only part of what the Backbone One offers.
The Backbone One also tries to simplify the process of playing games across multiple platforms with a companion app which can be launched using the controller’s dedicated button.
The app is free to download and use but is most useful when upgraded to the Backbone+ premium tier. Membership gives access to text and voice chat, friend lists, gameplay recording, cloud storage, and Twitch streaming.
Most useful is a singular, console-like UI that consolidates games from a range of separate gaming platforms. In effect, it’s a launcher for Xbox Remote Play, Xbox Cloud Gaming, PS Remote Play, Steam Link, Apple Arcade, and, at the time of writing, Stadia.
The interface is cleanly designed and categorises games by platform and genre. It also provides swift access to the app’s social and content creation tools, plus a library of support videos that make setting up each game service a breeze. It’s far more intuitive and user-friendly than the current Xbox and PlayStation dashboards.
Each new Backbone One comes with a year’s free access to Backbone+. Unfortunately, after the first year, each annual subscription will set you back $50. It’s expensive, but if you are a committed – and overtly social – mobile gamer, there’s probably enough value on offer to take the hit.
Backbone+ is also not mandatory. You can use app’s core feature set for free, or ignore it completely and access the various platforms you use directly.
The official Xbox and PlayStation branding gives the Backbone One a sense of legitimacy, but it’s worth mentioning its compatibility beyond consoles. It also works well with Steam Link, plus a host of native iOS and Android titles. For a touchscreen-averse dinosaur like me, it has opened up a wealth of hitherto ignored mobile games.
The Backbone One is not a cheap solution for playing games on a smart device, but it’s an elegantly designed, well-made, and well-supported product. If you’re interested in remote play or game streaming, the controller – and its app – come recommended.