Best iOS Games controllers: our top 4 reviewed and rated

1st May 2013 | 09:00

Best iOS Games controllers: our top 4 reviewed and rated

Keep your screen smear-free

If you're traditionally a console gamer, you probably miss physical buttons when playing games on your iOS device.

Fear not though, for this little bunch of accessories is here to save the day. So whether you're playing on iPhone, iPad or iPod touch there's always a way you can get your physical controls back.

So will these four iOS games controllers leave us gripped for more gaming action, or send us into a red-eyed, button-bashing frenzy? Read on to find out.

1. Gametel

Gametel

Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Price: £37
Website:gametel.se
Dimensions: 120×67×24mm
Weight: 80g
Connectivity: Bluetooth
Power: Micro-USB (lead not supplied; up to 9 hours)

The Gametel was originally designed for Android. The packaging doesn't mention iOS, and omits the micro-USB lead for charging because the assumption is that you already have one.

Fortunately, the controller is actually iCade-compatible and is easily paired with an iOS device over Bluetooth. Uniquely for the devices on test, it can house a device in landscape in an extendable clip, although this also means it's uglier than the 8-Bitty and SteelSeries Free.

The Gametel D-pad had almost the opposite problem to the 8-Bitty: diagonals weren't hard to find, they were too easy to slip into. The D-pad felt good, but we found it too often lacked precision, causing errors in games that demand tight all-round controls.

For titles such as Gridrunner and Forget-Me-Not, we were often frustrated; with more forgiving games such as Ice Rage, the sloppiness was fine; and for platform games where you merely need left, right and action buttons, the Gametel is a potentially decent bet, with action buttons that are responsive enough.

Sadly, the Gametel falls down in terms of button mapping. Identical to the 8-Bitty, too many titles map important actions to the tiny centre start/select buttons or the shoulder buttons, which rest on the middle of your fingers.

Verdict: 3/5

2. iCade 8-Bitty

iCade 8-Bitty

Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Price: £30
Website:thinkgeek.com
Dimensions: 125×55×20mm
Weight: 75g
Connectivity: Bluetooth
Power: 2×AAA

Being of a certain vintage ourselves, we were instantly drawn to the 8-Bitty. It has the chunky appeal of a classic NES controller, and despite being a cuboid slab of plastic, it's surprisingly comfortable to hold; it feels rugged, if light.

In use, though, two problems become clear: the D-pad is stiff and has longish travel, making diagonals too tricky to reach, and button mapping is, to be polite, sub-optimal. The former issue was stark when playing high-paced shooters such as Gridrunner, where we'd regularly see our ship obliterated through it sticking purely to the horizontal and vertical axes against our wishes. Ice-skating game Ice Rage also proved tiring due to the raised nature of the D-pad.

The mapping issue rendered platformers such as League of Evil, Super Crate Box and Mikey Shorts (along with many of the games in retro compilation Midway Arcade) unplayable, through assigning actions (jump, shoot, slide and so on) to the shoulder or centre buttons. On those games it's more suited to (for example: platformers such as Qwak HD, which has mapping that corresponds to what the 8-Bitty expects; simple overhead racer Retro Racing; Pac-Man-style efforts), the 8-Bitty provides a glimpse of what it could have been.

It's also easy to pair and is reasonably priced (even if the $30 US price-tag has apparently translated to £30 in the UK), but its shortcomings are too overt to allow us to offer a recommendation.

Verdict: 3/5

3. Steelseries Free

SteelSeries Free

Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Price: £50
Website:steelseries.com
Dimensions: 108×55×20mm
Weight: 54g
Connectivity: Bluetooth
Power: Micro-USB (lead included; 10+ hours)

At first, we thought the SteelSeries Free was ridiculously small, as if someone had left it in a hot wash overnight. We played with the dual sticks, watched our thumbs collide, and grumbled a bit.

With low expectations, we were therefore shocked at how well the controller worked with the majority of games we tested. Like the 8-Bitty and Gametel, the SteelSeries Free is an iCade-compatible controller. It pairs with relative ease, although there are two modes (one for PC/Mac use), which slightly complicates matters.

However, unlike rivals, this controller's button mapping wasn't designed by someone who hates you, hence actions in games mostly working as you'd expect. There were exceptions - Qwak HD, for example, was simply unplayable - but out of all the iCade-compatible controllers on test here, this was the only one where we found we could really get stuck into League of Evil, Super Crate Box and Midway Arcade.

The D-pad proved reliable too, although diagonals were perhaps a touch too easy to slip into on occasion. However, we mostly ended up using the left-hand joystick; this resembles an analogue stick, but on iOS it's really another digital directional controller. Still, for titles such as Gridrunner, Ice Rage and Air Attack it proved excellent, and we even ended up using the stick for platformers and racing games.

Really, all SteelSeries Free gets wrong is the price. At £50, it's a tenner more than we'd like to part with. However, we have to admit that you are paying for quality, as well as comfort and the best compatibility outside of a full-sized iCade, and so if you have the funds, this tiny controller comes highly recommended.

Verdict: 4/5

4. Duo Gamer

Duo Gamer

Works with: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Price: £60
Website:duo-games.com
Dimensions: 145×80×35mm
Weight: 175g
Connectivity: Bluetooth
Power: 2×AA (up to 24 hours)

The Duo Gamer is unique in this group in pairing as a Bluetooth headset and having dual analogue sticks akin to those on traditional games consoles, offering impressive integration with compatible games - this one isn't iCade-compatible, like the others, but instead works only with certain Gameloft titles.

Games refer to specific aspects of the controller as you play, rather than you scrabbling around, trying to find out what each button does. This is admirable, but that's where the good stuff ends.

The first thing you'll notice on using the Duo is that it appears to have been sculpted with all the grace of a brutish woodsman hacking away at a log with a massive axe. It's not so much unergonomic as anti-ergonomic - imagine holding a lightweight brick that cuts into your hands.

Fortunately, the D-pad and buttons are solid and reasonably responsive; less fortunately, the analogue sticks are stiff and twitchy, and take time to get used to.

On the games front, racer Asphalt 7's default tilt controls gave more precision than the Duo, meaning the controller's only worth considering if you use your device at a distance, wired into a TV.

For first-person shooters (N.O.V.A. 3; Modern Combat 3) the Duo suddenly makes sense, your set-up resembling something like an Xbox or PlayStation, even if the controls still aren't nearly as fluid as a traditional console's; and even then, we'd say you'd need to be a massive fan of the very few compatible titles to take the plunge at this price. Everyone else: stay away.

Verdict: 3.5/5

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