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iPhone game controller from Backbone sports social and streaming smarts

The $99 Switch-style mobile controller has a smart design, too, making it the perfect complement to Apple Arcade.

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Lori Grunin/CNET

Startup Backbone's inaugural product, an app-integrated game controller for the iPhone that the company considers more a "gaming content creation tool" than the typical run-jump-crouch-shoot accessory, has a very well-thought out design and novel feature set that raises the bar for its category. Like the Razer Kishi, the $99 Backbone One expands to slip on either end of the iPhone and plugs in via the phone's Lightning connector to work with most Xbox controller-compatible games, which means lower latency between the game and controller responses. 

But the Backbone One has a host of key differences from the Kishi. On the hardware side, it delivers passthrough chat and audio from Lightning via an analog jack, circumventing the restrictions of using the special type of Lightning connector required for typical passthrough. According to the company, it consumes less power than typical Lightning headphones, which makes sense. Not only that, but the chambers in the controller help keep the sound at full volume rather than muffling it as you'd expect. 

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On the bottom you'll find a 3.5mm analog headset jack (left) and Lightning connector for charging (right).

Lori Grunin/CNET

The hardware incorporates noise cancellation for the button presses so they don't impact that audio. Plus, it has on-controller mic muting (double tap one of the buttons), and when it's muted an illuminated indicator appears.

And I really like other aspects of the physical design. It doesn't collapse into a small, pocket size package like the Kishi, but it's a lot easier to slip on and off the phone. (I don't know if it will work over thin cases, as mine is a thick battery case.) And that stiff but expandable, um, backbone connecting the two halves helps make the audio wizardry possible. It works with any iPhone from the 6S onward running iOS 13 or later.

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Lori Grunin/CNET

The app adds a lot more. In fact, Backbone's software is the tail that wags the dog. You even buy the controller via the app, for instance. In conjunction with the controller, it can trigger screenshots and 30 frame-per-second 1080p video capture directly and with chat, automatically create highlight clips, share on social and via Messages. It can also initiate play parties with friends, handle chat (so you can chat and hear in-game audio simultaneously as well as chat outside games), receive push notifications when any friend signs on (sadly, only from other Backbone One players) and, depending on the game, remove the touch overlays.

It works seamlessly and the whole system feels very polished for the launch of a company's first product, which bodes well. As a controller, the buttons and sticks feel natural and fluid; I wish the menu button were above the right stick, because muscle memory, but it's not an uncommon layout for space-constrained mobile controllers.

The app includes a calibration utility so you can verify that the buttons and sticks are operating as expected and to adjust them, a great perk. And when you slide the iPhone into the grips, the Backbone button briefly illuminates, so you know it's connected. Little touches like this make the experience feel smooth and can minimize frustration if something's not working correctly. The size is just right: bigger grips than the Kishi, but not as bulky as full-size controllers with phone mounts. A rubberized or textured finish on the back would be nice for us fumblefingers, though.

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During testing the app's features worked pretty well, although not quite as well on the iPhone 8 Plus as the iPhone 11 -- saving to Photos seemed to hang on the 8 Plus, but I didn't have time to diagnose the problem. While recording you have to manually enable Do Not Disturb to keep notifications and calls coming through, but the app reminds you to do that. You can select the clip from which it draws the highlights, which lets you trim the interface screens at the start and ends, but you can only share highlights, not full recordings. As a bonus, you can use the controller to capture and share screens and recordings of other apps, not just games.

The feel and functions of the Backbone One make it a great general game controller that stands out from an growing crowd, even if you're not social (ahem), and a perfect complement for casual Apple Arcade gamers and fans of mobile multiplayer games as well. I do wish there was one for Android, too.