Backbone One 2nd Gen review
Image: Chris Button

Backbone One (2nd Gen) review: a mobile gaming essential

Elevating the mobile experience, the 2nd Gen Backbone One controller makes gaming more comfortable and enjoyable. Several iterative design improvements mean this version is the ultimate mobile gaming companion.

After finally getting hooked on playing games remotely via the PlayStation Portal, I immediately sized up the $330 investment. Alternatively, for nearly half the price, I could get a Backbone One and take advantage of a device I already own: my phone.

Remembering the now-infamous “do you guys not have phones?” remark made when Activision Blizzard first revealed Diablo Immortal, I thought it would be remiss not to try the ultra-powerful computer in my pocket first.

A bespoke device like the PlayStation Portal excels at its chosen niche. From its form factor to its native aspect ratio screen, the Portal streamed PlayStation games beautifully. But what if I wanted to stream Xbox games, or PC games, or even a game actually installed on my phone?

Enabling a much more versatile solution, the Backbone One controller is a simple but brilliant peripheral. It plugs into your phone and just works. The result may be marginally less optimised than a single-purpose device, but it barely matters when you benefit from a near-endless sandbox in return.

Backbone One (2nd Gen) review

First impressions

More people play and spend money on mobile games than any other platform. Yet I’ve always struggled to maintain interest in mobile gaming for any length of time. Even after co-hosting an Apple Arcade podcast for several years, I struggled to view my phone as a dedicated games machine.

Some of this might be because the types of games I enjoy are typically found on consoles. Another aspect is my lack of affinity for touch controls. More involved games like Fortnite use virtual thumb sticks to control movement and camera angles, which I’ve never found particularly intuitive.

Pretty much every modern phone now supports a conventional game controller via Bluetooth. You can even buy cheap phone mounts that attach to a controller, but it’s always felt like a clumsy stopgap.

That’s certainly not the case with the Backbone One. A cleverly designed attachment with controller grips on each side, and an adjustable space for your phone in the middle, it’s the perfect solution for augmenting your phone with a conventional game controller.

It looks rather cute too. Easily fitting into a backpack, it takes up less space and weighs less than a DualSense or and Xbox controller, for example. If anything, it might be a little too small for people with big hands. Otherwise, the Backbone One literally plugs in and plays. If only most devices were so simple.

Specifications

Dimensions93.9mm x 176.2mm x 157.6mm
138 grams
ConnectivityChoice between USB-C or Lightning model
3.5mm headphone jack
USB-C or Lightning passthrough (depending on model)
Price (RRP)$179
WarrantyOne year
Official websiteBackbone Australia

Design

Various iterations of the Backbone One have existed for a few years now. At first, it was an iPhone-exclusive peripheral, supporting only devices with a Lightning connector. Now, you can choose between Lightning and USB-C versions, supporting Android phones and the recent USB-C iPhones.

A little while ago, a PlayStation-themed version arrived, a functionally identical model but styled to look like a DualSense controller. It still used the asymmetrical control stick layout, but the face buttons looked more familiar to PlayStation gamers.

Heralded as the best way to enjoy mobile games, the Backbone One developed a strong following. However, early models usually necessitated removing your phone case to fit in the controller grip. We spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, on our phones, so forgoing any layer of protection is a big ask.

Fortunately, the 2nd Gen Backbone One comfortably fits more phones and supports way more cases. You can thank the swappable magnetic adapters for that. Two pairs of adapters come included: a large set and a small set.

Backbone One magnetic adapters
Multiple magnetic adapters come with the controller, helping you secure a fit with your phone. Image: Chris Button.

Other than my initial attempt at prying the left magnetic part free – I needed to apply more force than what felt comfortable – these adapters are easy to swap as needed depending on the phone you’re using or the size of the phone’s case. For example, my iPhone 15 Pro doesn’t fit with the large adapters installed, but slots in perfectly with the smalls. It’s a simple yet clever addition that eliminates the anxiety of needlessly gaming with a naked phone.

Once securely nestled in the controller grip and plugged in, the Backbone One instantly works as a recognised gaming input. Its control sticks and face buttons are tactile and responsive, while the analogue triggers enable precise levels of input – which is great for racing games.

Under the left grip is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the right grip houses a USB-C passthrough port. Both are excellent design considerations, providing access to your phone’s most important inputs, even when plugged in.

Backbone One 2nd Gen ports
Passthrough 3.5mm and charging ports are nice touches. Image: Chris Button.

Nearly everything is perfectly spaced out, too. I say nearly because I found the space between the “X” button and the right control stick slightly too narrow. Sometimes, when using the base of my thumb to press the button, the control stick got in the way, so I’d bump the camera controls accidentally.

Minor inconvenience aside, I found it easy to manoeuvre my fingers and thumbs around the controls at all other times. Really, the best thing I can say about the Backbone One is that it feels like a genuine game controller. Pressing each button feels nice – although the four main face buttons are a touch loud when gaming in a quiet environment. I’d also like to see the “Options” button higher up so it’s easier to quickly pause a game.

User experience

If there’s any device out there that truly offers a plug-and-play experience, it’s the Backbone One. Simply stretch the controller grip out, align your phone, and snap into place. You now have a fully operational game controller.

Alongside the hardware is a standalone Backbone app. It’s completely optional and mainly acts as an easy way to customise controller settings. For even more software functionality, there’s also a Backbone+ subscription service. In Australia, it costs just under $60 annually, unlocking the ability to stream directly to Twitch, discounts on Backbone hardware, and native voice chat, among other bonuses.

Using the Backbone app as an all-in-one mobile gaming dashboard is listed as another subscription perk. This brings together all your mobile games in one place like a pseudo game-themed operating system. However, there’s a discrepancy between the iOS and Android platforms in how this works.

When connecting the Backbone One to an iPhone, all you can do is tweak the basics without a subscription. On Android, you have access to the game dashboard without paying any extra. While potentially subject to change, Android devices currently have access to more features via the app than iPhones. Annoying as it is, the functional difference between platforms is not great enough to choose one over the other.

Once you start playing a game, any of these superfluous irritants quickly disappear. It’s just like using an actual controller, sans any convoluted setups or top-heavy mounts. I plugged the Backbone One into an Oppo Reno 11 F 5G most of the time, enjoying a big OLED screen while streaming PS5 games from my console. I could even play Stellar Blade using hotel room Wi-Fi while on a work trip.

I’m so impressed by the Backbone that I’m eyeing a return to my Apple Arcade backlog. Hello Kitty Island Adventure beckons, after all.

Who is the Backbone One (2nd Gen) for?

The 2nd Gen Backbone One controller is easy to recommend to anyone who regularly plays mobile games. Genres that use twin-stick controls – like shooters, 3D platformers, and open world adventures – benefit greatly from the excellent controller design.

Now more widely compatible with different phones and cases, the Backbone One is an essential gadget for gaming on the go.

GadgetGuy occasionally uses affiliate links and may receive a small commission from purchased products.

Backbone One (2nd Gen)
Improving on a winning formula, the 2nd Gen Backbone One controller is an essential accessory for on-the-go gamers.
Features
8.5
Value for money
9
Performance
9.5
Ease of use
9.5
Design
8.5
Positives
Tactile and precise buttons
Increased compatibility with magnetic adapters
Works seamlessly to make mobile gaming better
Negatives
Slightly too small for larger hands
Inconsistent app features between iOS and Android platforms
9