The Backbone One is a controller that turns your mobile phone into a games console. Costing £99.99, it’s a damned sight cheaper than a full-blown console such as a Steam Deck or Nintendo Switch. But is the gaming experience as good? Here’s our Backbone One review.
What is the Backbone One?
The Backbone is a games controller into which you slot your smartphone, so you end up with the controller buttons on either side of the phone’s screen.
Compatible with both Android (with USB-C connection) and iPhone, there are two versions of the controller available – the black Standard model and a white PlayStation Edition. Apart from the colour, the main difference is that the ABXY buttons are re-labelled with the equivalent PlayStation symbols. For this review, I’m testing the iPhone PlayStation Edition, although images shown in this article are for the standard iPhone version.
Whether to buy the standard or PlayStation version is a personal choice. Mobile games will refer to the side buttons in terms of the usual ABXY arrangement, rather than PlayStation symbols, so the latter may be confusing. However, if, like me, you want to use the Backbone One in combination with the PS Remote Play app, then the changes are welcome. The Remote Play app, for those of you unaware of it, allows owners to remotely sign in and stream games from their PlayStation.
All models of the Backbone One retail for £99.99.
The packaging for the Backbone One is very nice. Inside the flashy outer box is a simple, matt black box that opens up to reveal the controller. Everything inside is cardboard, bar three blobs of foam, which is great to see.
Inside is a paper safety guide, a piece of card that tells you how to set up the Backbone One, the controller itself and, if you have the iPhone version, an adapter (more on this later). And that’s it.
How to use
The controller won’t work if your phone is in a case or has anything connected to the back, such as a Pop Socket. So, they’ll need to be removed first.
To insert the phone, you pull the Backbone One apart – a sliding mechanism in the middle ensures this opens up smoothly. You place the phone in between the two side controller sections and the spring mechanism will then grip the phone securely in the middle. A connector on the right hand side should be aligned with your phone so that it slots in.
You’ll need to install the Backbone app for it to work. On the iPhone, as soon as I started hitting buttons on the controller, it immediately prompted me to install it.
The controller doesn’t require any power, drawing everything it needs from your phone. On the underneath of the left-hand side is a headphone socket and on the right-hand side, a power connector, allowing a pass-through connection if you need to charge the phone during gaming.
The Backbone One has another trick, which allows you to connect to other devices, but this only works for the iPhone version. Essentially, you take your phone out and, after a quick settings change in the app, you can then connect to an iPad, Mac or PC using a Lightning to USB-C connection (so, yes, only iPads with USB-C connectors will work here).
This is a handy, but rather limited, feature.
The Backbone app
The app is very much a product of two halves. For all users, it provides basic features such as firmware updates and one-button screenshots. On the iPhone, built-in controller settings allow you to do things such as remap the buttons (generally and per game).
Then there’s the optional Backbone+ element, which is a premium service. Backbone+ adds extra features, and you get 30 days free with your purchase. After that it’s $39.99 a year. There’s a huge long list of features added by Backbone+, but what it effectively boils down to is:
- All your games shown in the Backbone app
- Screen recording
- Improved streaming
The following video and screenshots should give you a better idea of what of these features look like…
It doesn’t do enough to justify that annual subscription fee, in my view.
There’s also some confusion over what are premium Backbone+ features and what aren’t. During the installation of the app, whilst asking for access to your photos and your contacts, you get these screens:
Nothing here suggests this is a premium option but, without Backbone+, pressing the share button only took screenshots. Even on the product box it says “Record and edit game clips”. But, on the Backbone+ site, it specifically lists “capture, edit and share 1080p video at 60fps with cloud storage” as one of the premium perks. Is that the same thing?
Confusion aside, gameplay recording is incredibly handy and, like consoles, you can also have it so that it’s constantly recording – a tap of the button saves the past 15 seconds (not a great amount of time, but normally enough).
It should be noted that this option isn’t available for Android. The Backbone product was originally iPhone-only and Android compatibility has only come recently, hence some features are missing.
At one point during testing, the app refused to load, simply stopping on a “spinner” and not progressing. I contacted Backbone via a contact form on its website. The company got back to me a couple of days later but, in the meantime, I’d managed to solve it by reinstalling the app.
The iPhone adapter
If you have an iPhone 13 or later, the camera bump on the rear means that, although it still fits, it doesn’t do so comfortably. For this reason, an adapter is included – a piece of rubber that fits on the left-hand side of where the phone fits into the controller. It works but the downside is that the phone sits slightly further forward on the left-hand side. It’s not the greatest solution.
If you have an older model of the Backbone One, you can order a free adapter or, if you have a 3D printer, a template is available for it.
Gameplay with the Backbone One
With out-of-the-box compatibility for most mobile gaming platforms (Apple Arcade, Stadia, PlayStation or Xbox streaming), essentially anything that supports a controller just works.
I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks, initially without the Backbone+ upgrade, and found no problems at all, other than the constant nag to upgrade every time you launch the app. Compatibility just works and the ability to remap buttons per game is a great feature.
Other than playing games from Apple Arcade, I got most benefit using it with PS Remote Play. The ability to use my PlayStation remotely is a joy and this made it a lot easier – especially with the PlayStation branding on the buttons.
Build quality is good, particularly on the sliding mechanism that allows you to insert and remove your phone. However, the buttons are a little spongy for my liking. The thumbsticks remind me of those on the Nintendo Switch.
It’s a shame too that anybody using a case is going to have to get used to taking it off every time they want to use the controller. Alternative controllers mount the phone above them and don’t have that problem.
Backbone One alternatives
What’s different about the Backbone One is that it doesn’t work independently of the phone, but wraps around it, making your phone into a console-like device. This is one of the reasons why the price is so high.
In comparison, I also have a SteelSeries Nimbus+, which you can get for a smidge under £70. This is a traditional style controller with excellent build quality, which doesn’t grip the phone. It does include a mount, though, so you can have it placed above and leave your phone in its case. There are no software extras, such as screen recording, but no additional cost. It also needs charging separately, but doesn’t drain your phone battery when being used.
The Backbone One definitely edges it for build quality, but if you don’t want the faff of removing a case every time you play, the Nimbus+ is a good alternative. The SteelSeries I mention here is for iOS but an Android equivalent is available.
Backbone One Review
Value for Money
A well-built controller with lots of features, although some come at extra cost. But if you want the ultimate gaming controller for your phone, this is hard to beat!
- Strong build quality
- Lots of great hardware features, such as the headphone socket and Lightning/USB-C pass through
- The accompanying Backbone software adds useful, additional features
- Expensive, potentially with an ongoing subscription too
- Confusion over what works without the Backbone+ service
- Buttons a little spongy