As a lifelong fan of both Sony and Nintendo, there’s still one area where the House of N has PlayStation beat: the hybrid play experience. Say what you will about the Wii U, but that second screen technology was a lifechanger, and the Switch carries on its legacy today. Being able to play console games without hogging the TV has made a world of difference, and often my Switch will see far more use just because of this convenience.
Here’s where the Backbone One controller comes into play. Sony and Microsoft have both incorporated Remote Play into their modern consoles, allowing gamers to stream software from their system to their phone. Backbone has facilitated this process by providing a controller/phone grip that allows you to essentially turn your iPhone into a Wii U gamepad.
(For the purposes of this review, we were provided with an iPhone model, but the pros and cons will generally hold true for Backbone’s Android edition. I tested the product using an iPhone 13, but it’s compatible with “all iPhones running the latest iOS software.” That being said, iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max, or other models with larger camera bumps, should utilize the included adapter to ensure a better fit.)
The Backbone One, like the Razer Kishi, is a grip that cradles your smartphone for an enhanced gaming experience. Simply slide out the right handle, slot your phone into the grooves, and close the grip to plug the device into the Lightning port.
“What I immediately liked about the Backbone One over other grips I’ve tried is the sturdy, yet easy operation of the device overall”
What I immediately liked about the Backbone One over other grips I’ve tried is the sturdy, yet easy operation of the device overall. Where others can feel flimsy, or require an awkward balance of force to get the phone situated, Backbone’s grip is as strong and intuitive as the company’s namesake. It wasn’t a hassle to remove or insert my phone at all, aside from removing its usual case beforehand.
What it gives up in complete foldability and compactness, it makes up for in firmness. Without feeling bulky or heavy, the Backbone One feels structurally sound; the contracting arms that extend to fit your phone impart total confidence that your phone is secure.
As this is the PlayStation Edition, the design complements the DualSense controller. It does, however, switch up the locations of its clickable analog sticks. Where the DualSense has both thumbsticks in its middle region, the BackBone One uses the same staggered layout of the Switch Pro Controller or Xbox’s gamepads. A quiet D-pad sits below the left stick with the capture and “select” buttons, with the four face buttons above the right stick and the Backbone and “start” buttons at the bottom of the right side.
Compared to the DualSense, the Backbone One feels slender; I found myself missing the heftier handles and haptic feedback of the PS5 controller, and the thumbstick orientation took some acclimatizing in my favourite PlayStation titles. However, it’s also very comfortable to hold over longer sessions, and I soon forgot the differences, outside the most heated firefights.
Once the phone is plugged in, it’s time to game. Users are heavily encouraged, but not required, to download Backbone’s app. It’s a small, relatively unobtrusive piece of software that can function like a hub screen for your dedicated phone gaming experience. This app can be summoned with a press of the orange Backbone button near the right thumbstick.
Again, as I was reviewing the PlayStation Edition, the PS5’s Remote Play was my focus, and neither the service nor the Backbone One disappointed. Haptic feedback was noticeably absent at some points, yet that’s also a sacrifice I can make to play my PS5 games Switch-style. There was no feedback lag to speak of on either the controller or app’s end; aside from the different grip, there was little impact on my performance in online shooting games.
That being said, there are a few caveats, and none that really hinder the Backbone One specifically—rather, they’re larger systemic issues that may affect other players’ mileage with this or any other device.
Remote Play can be hamstrung by bad internet or network performance (just ask the Stadia), Also, you’re essentially turning your phone into your game console temporarily, and notifications or other interruptions can interrupt your experience. I once tried to swat away a notification, accidentally clicked it, and was disconnected from my PS5 when the app lost focus. Consider shutting off non-essential push notifications when you get into a heated online game.
Of course, despite the PlayStation branding of this particular edition, the Backbone One is also a viable option for Steam and Xbox remote play, or even controller-supported games on your iPhone itself. Controller usage on mobile games isn’t exactly as universal as I’d like by this point, but it still sweetens the deal of this $140 grip.
Helping the sleek design justify that price are a couple of handy conveniences. First, the Backbone One doesn’t require its own charge, instead relying on “minimal power from your phone.” Compared to the enhanced battery usage of Remote Play services, this seemed like a drop in the pond. If you’re really hard-up for charge, there’s a pass-through charging port on the right handle to keep you in the game.
There’s also a headphone jack on the left side. Naturally you can still pair Bluetooth audio to your phone while using the controller, but it’s nice to see this remains an option. That being said, game audio still came out nice and clear from my iPhone 13, despite the speakers being obscured by the grip.