Handheld gaming has come a long way since the days of the Game Boy and Game Gear. Many of us moved from plastic cartridges and link cables to smartphones with console-level graphics and five-point multi-touch. But even with games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja that make excellent use of the ever-expanding real estate of today’s HD smartphones, it’s hard not to feel like we’ve taken a step backward as we strain to look past our own fingers in titles like Minecraft and Zenonia. Some games are just more fun with real analog sticks and a full gamut of triggers and buttons.
Fortunately, several hardware companies have come to a similar conclusion. At CES last month, Nvidia announced its Android-based handheld, Project Shield, and Archos gave us a hands-on look at its dedicated gaming tablet. Both are slated to ship later this year, but if you’re looking to add a little tactility to your smartphone, there are already several accessories on the market specifically designed to do just that. Products like the PowerA Moga and the iControlPad promise to bring console-like controls to your existing smartphone, and to many of your existing games.
The question is, can any of these smartphone gamepads actually live up to that promise? And if so, which ones will work best your existing gear? To make the choice a little easier, we’ve gathered the most popular models on the market today and compared their features, compatibility, and price.
iControlPad - $69.99
The matte plastic and rubber grips make the iControlPad comfortable to hold
In many ways, the iControlPad is the smartphone gamepad that started it all. It was conceived back in 2008 by a group of console emulator enthusiasts who’d gained notoriety in the scene surrounding the GP32 (one of the first open gaming handhelds), but the actual device wasn’t released until early 2011. Like the Pandora – which was also being made by members of the iControlPad group – the difficulty of bringing a product to market without Kickstarter meant a very slow development cycle.
At $69.99, the iControlPad is a bit pricey compared to the other options out there. The device consists of two parts: the gamepad itself, and the retention bracket. For its part, the gamepad is well made – it feels very solid, and the matte plastic and rubber grips make the iControlPad comfortable to hold. Both the directional pad and the buttons on the unit’s face feel very similar to those of early Game Boy handhelds, no surprise given the the iControlPad team’s dedication to console emulation.
Like the PSP and the 3DS, the iControlPad uses analog sliders that glide horizontally over the gamepad’s surface rather that tilting like true analog sticks. They work well and perform far better than the one included on the original PSP, but they aren’t as smooth as the one on Nintendo’s 3DS XL. Their low profile keeps the iControlPad slim and pocketable, which is understandably important for a smartphone gamepad. The back features two triggers, each with a small depression that helps balance the whole ensemble when a phone is attached to the top. These generally work well, but their position in the center of the unit takes a moment to get used to.
The whole assembly is very sturdy once you’ve gotten everything just right
Of all the gamepads we tried, the iControlPad’s retention bracket offered the most awkward and unattractive way to attach a controller to a phone. The company used to offer rubber guards that wrapped around 3.5-inch iPhones, but those have been sold out for some time. Instead, the iControlPad is sold with a metal "L" bracket, double-sided tape, and a handful of plastic rivets that hold the whole thing together. You’ve got to find the hole in the bracket that corresponds to the width of your phone, then push a rivet through the bracket and into the iControlPad, then depress the little plastic pin in the center of the rivet to make the bond (semi)permanent. Still with us? It’s just as awkward in practice as it sounds, but we have to admit – the whole assembly is very sturdy once you’ve gotten everything just right.
The iControlPad is compatible with both Android and iOS, and can be charged and updated via its Mini USB port. While it’s expensive and crude in some ways, its attention to detail and superb buttons make it worth considering. Coming soon is the iControlPad2, which will have a better clip design and a smaller footprint when it’s officially released.
Compatibility: iOS and Android
Gametel - $29.95
The Gametel is one heck of a bargain. For $29.95 you get a Bluetooth gamepad that works with iOS and Android, and unlike the iControlPad or the SteelSeries Free, the Gametel includes a retractable retention clip that holds your phone snugly against the gamepad. It also includes a convenient, Micro USB-powered rechargeable battery, meaning you only have to carry one cable if you’re using it with an Android device.
There are a few downsides to Gametel, most notably the lack of analog controls. This isn’t much of a problem if you’re only interested in 2D games and retro console emulators, but most 3D games that have a "look" mechanism will present a problem. The directional pad is somewhat mushy and the buttons on the right feel a bit cheap, but the triggers are positioned well and have a very satisfying click. It should also be noted that the 5-inch phones being released this year are almost guaranteed not to fit the Gametel, as both Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 4 both came within millimeters of being too large.
The Gametel redeems itself with one of the best software implementations out of any mobile gamepad
Despite these minor flaws, the Gametel redeems itself with one of the best software implementations out of any mobile gamepad. In addition to iCade compatibility for Apple devices, the Gametel includes a generic Android mode, a native gamepad mode used with Android devices running Android 4.0 and above, as well a keyboard mode for older Android devices and picky emulators. The Gametel also paired with our devices quickly and reliably – something other gamepads in this price range struggled with.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a game compatibility list as well-curated as the one on Gametel’s website. It isn’t complete by any means, but games listed on the site are tested and include a 5-star "Experience" rating that gives you an idea of how well a game functions with a physical gamepad. You can also find compatible games directly from the Gametel app itself, available for both iOS and Android.
Compatibility: iOS and Android
SteelSeries Free - $84.99
It's one of the few gamepads that includes true analog sticks like those found on full-sized console controllers
Of all the smartphone gamepads on the market right now, the SteelSeries Free is probably the most expensive at $84.99. The price isn’t entirely unjustified, as it’s one of the few gamepads that includes true analog sticks like those found on full-sized console controllers. It’s also very compact, fitting easily into a pocket or a purse, and the build quality is arguably the best out of any we tested. The textured matte plastic feels almost as good as the materials in the Xbox 360 controller, and the junctions between the various parts are precisely fitted. The buttons, while small and somewhat cramped, have a very pleasing amount of travel and clickiness to them, and the triggers are large and ergonomic despite the controller’s size.
The biggest disappointment of the SteelSeries Free is that the analog sticks, which are arguably the main attraction, just aren’t that great in real world use. They feel hollow, and have subtle-but-noticeable "notches" in their circular action. Unfortunately, the sticks are only marginally better than the sliders used on other gamepads, and if you’re serious about getting the most accurate controls on a smartphone, a GameKlip (see below) and the requisite PS3 controller is more comfortable and affordable. When you factor in the lack of a built-in retention mechanism and a relatively sparse app, that $84.99 price tag is hard to justify.
Compatibility: iOS and Android
GameKlip - $14.95
If you've got a spare PS3 controller, it's one of the most affordable ways to start gaming with real buttons
Unlike the pricey SteelSeries Free, the GameKlip is an affordable $14.95 adapter that lets you attach your smartphone to a PS3 controller. It’s available in two configurations; one that’s designed specifically for the Galaxy SIII, or a "universal" clip that attaches to the back of a smartphone case, making it theoretically compatible with any Android handset you can stick it to. Despite its price and simplicity, the GameKlip is manufactured surprisingly well; even the angle at which it holds your phone seems to be carefully considered.
Alone, the GameKlip isn’t an awe-inspiring device, but what it allows you to do certainly comes close. The materials blend in with the controller so well that the GameKlip effectively disappears, leaving you to focus solely on your smartphone and arguably one of the best controllers on the market. Games that require quick and accurate input – like racing games and first-person-shooters – feel completely different when played with the PS3 controller. Everything feels smoother and more responsive. And since you’re not obscuring the screen with your thumbs, the level of in-game immersion is often much higher.
While using a real console controller with your smartphone may be wonderful, getting it to work can be very frustrating depending on which smartphone you have. Stock Android phones, or ones that haven’t been rooted, can only be connected to PS3 controllers via an optional $5 USB cable. However, some devices (like the Nexus 4) don’t support USB accessories, and the only alternative is to connect to the controller via Bluetooth with an app that requires a rooted device. When we tested this method, we found that using Bluetooth significantly reduced the responsiveness of the controls. On the other hand, using the USB cable with a Galaxy Nexus (which does support USB accessories) was essentially plug-and-play. The GameKlip website has a frequently updated compatibility list that clearly shows which phones work with the optional cable, making the choice much easier.
PowerA Moga - $49.99
The PowerA Moga is one of the most visible smartphone gamepads on the market right now. It’s sold in T-Mobile and Best Buy stores, and at $59.99 (less, in some places) you could easily find yourself owning one after a hasty impulse-buy. However, the Moga cuts corners at nearly every pass – the entire unit is made out of cheap-feeling plastic and the tiny, slippery buttons have an unsatisfying action that accompanies their loud clicking sound. The analog slider on the right is serviceable, but the one on the left is no substitute for a real directional pad in 2D games, which comprise a sizeable portion of compatible titles.
Conceptually, the Moga’s fold-away clip seemed like a clever and space-saving way to attach your phone to the unit, but the angle at which it’s held is awkward, and you can’t adjust it in any way. It gives the unit a 3DS-like appearance, but we found ourselves straining just to hold it comfortably. Otherwise, the grips on the Moga are rounded and have a pleasant texture, and they serve double-duty as receptacles for AAA batteries on either side. Of course, a rechargeable battery would have been preferable, but the battery life is quite good.
However, it isn’t the poor build quality or the awkward clip design that makes the Moga a struggle to use, but rather the chronically unreliable Bluetooth pairing. While the other gamepads had little problem connecting to our handsets on the first or second try, the Moga consistently gave us pairing errors on a variety of Android devices.
If I had to describe the Moga in a single word, it would be "cheap" – and that’s probably why retailers are carrying it. To its credit, though, PowerA was smart to bring the Moga to market at E3 last year, capitalizing on a first-comer advantage while companies like Nvidia raced to catch up. While the Moga has its obvious shortcomings, the company might get it right with its upcoming Xbox 360 controller-inspired Moga Pro, which has yet to receive an official release date.
The Moga consistently gave us pairing errors on a variety of Android devices
Among the gamepads we tested, no single product stood out as the best. The iControlPad has excellent controls and build quality, but its price, complexity, and retention clip make it hard to recommend to anyone except die-hard retro gamers. We liked the Gametel despite its middling build quality because its attractive price and software compatibility make it a pleasure to use on a day-to-day basis. However, we felt the opposite about the SteelSeries Free; it may be the most handsome and well-made product we tried, but that doesn’t make up for its exorbitant price or the lack of a built-in retention clip. And while the GameKlip and a PS3 controller can potentially offer the best gaming experience possible, it only offers this experience to a select number of handsets without having to go through the trouble of rooting. The Moga is easy to pick up on a whim, but its low build quality, poor Bluetooth performance, and limited game support make it hard to recommend to anyone, especially for the price.
If anything, playing a first person shooter like Dead Trigger, then switching to a classic side-scroller like Sonic CD, all on the same device and with real controls, was an eye-opening experience. The walls that have separated mobile and console games are falling fast, and with products like Project Shield and the Moga Pro on the horizon, 2013 stands to be an exciting year for handheld gamers on every platform.