We’re in the early days of what could be a cloud gaming renaissance, as the technology and bandwidth is finally catching up to the ambition and promise of a “play anything anywhere” kind of future. The only problem is figuring out exactly which device you’ll be playing everything on when that future gets here.
Where companies like NVIDIA and Steam (and a whole lot more) are looking to be the answer with a full-on handheld streaming computer built into a rig with a screen and modern controller trappings, a few others are trying to find a solution that takes advantage of the super-computer you have in your pocket already. No extra full-size piece of tech required.
That’s where the Backbone One comes in. The device is basically an expandable smart controller that lets you to snap your iPhone into the middle of it. Once connected, the iPhone serves as the screen and computing power, and the Backbone is the controller. It’s small enough to fit easily in your bag without eating up much space but checks all the boxes you’re likely looking for in a handheld controller, plus a few more.
The Backbone supports pretty much all the major services gamers would be looking for, including PS Remote Play for PlayStation, Xbox Remote Play and Game Pass Ultimate, Steam Link, Google Stadia, Nvidia GeForce Now, Apple Arcade titles and most major mobile games. Taking things a step further, the unified Backbone app serves as a one-stop hub to access your games across various platforms from one convenient spot. Considering how many different services it brings under one umbrella, it makes for a surprisingly elegant solution.
The hardware itself has everything gamers have come to expect from a modern controller, with dual joysticks, trigger buttons on the shoulders, a record/screen shot button, a D-pad, and the buttons all feel solid. But the devil is in the details, and the Backbone gets most of them very right. Instead of relying on Bluetooth to connect, the Backbone snaps the iPhone directly into its own Lightning port. That means no input lag, and no need to charge the Backbone, as it draws the power it needs directly from the iPhone (but don’t worry, it doesn’t pull enough juice to really notice).
In gameplay use, the Backbone feels surprisingly natural. The device’s layout and usability is pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve ever played anything like a Nintendo Switch or SEGA Game Gear. After a few minutes, it’s easy to forget this isn’t one unified device. The phone locks in tight, and the input is instant across pretty much every service, from Apple Arcade games to PS Remote and more. It all works seamlessly.
For players who are used to snagging screen grabs and gameplay clips, the Backbone records up to 1080p at 60fps with a 20mbps bitrate for clips up-to 15 seconds, all from a dedicated physical button.
The Backbone’s design choices sidestep some of the typical problems you might run into with video game controllers. Along with skipping the Bluetooth connection for latency, the controller also has a dedicated headphone jack, in case you want to avoid all things Bluetooth and plug straight in for audio. The controller expands out to allow a phone to slide in, and closes with a satisfying click, with the phone cradled between rubber lips to keep it firmly in place.
This is also where the one negative of the Backbone comes in: you can’t use it while your iPhone is in a case, which can be a bit annoying, considering most folks keep their iPhone protected inside one. Of course, you can just snap your phone out and put it in the Backbone when you want to use it, but it creates an extra bit of hassle every time you go to play. Not a dealbreaker, obviously, but it is something to keep in mind if you use a particularly hard-to-remove case. It obviously makes sense from a practical perspective — you don’t want your phone coming loose and flying across the room during a particularly heated Fortnite or Madden session, of course — but still something to keep in mind. There’s also an adapter for the larger iPhone 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max models to ensure it has a snug connection in the cradle.
If you’re serious about cloud gaming, or even just mobile gaming, the Backbone is a fantastic controller. It showed no signs of wear after a few weeks of marathon use, so it seems well-constructed and solid enough to survive a good bit of continued use. Considering it retails for $99, it should last. That’s admittedly a bit more expensive than some comparable mobile controllers, but it’s worth it for the clever usability and design perks.