Backbone One 2nd Generation Smartphone Controller Review

My favorite smartphone game controller was the original Backbone One that I first reviewed back in 2021. The controller was the first product for Backbone and I was impressed with its design and overall quality. But it was designed to only work with iPhones that were available at the time of its release and the company had to rush to produce adapters for newer phones. I had to 3D print my own adapter to get it to work with the iPhone 13 Pro!

To address these issues, and expand compatibility to non-Apple phones, Backbone recently introduced their 2nd generation controller which is the subject of my latest review. The hardware is as good as ever, but unfortunately Backbone is holding back features from users who don’t subscribe to their ongoing Backbone+ service.

The Backbone One 2nd Gen comes with a price tag of $99, although they do go on sale from time to time – for example right now it’s selling for $79 at Best Buy (compensated affiliate link).

The 2nd generation controller is available in a USB-C variant for the iPhone 15 and up and Android phones along with a lightning variant for older iPhones. Its design closely mirrors that of its predecessor, which I found quite satisfactory. This new version, however, extends support to a broader range of phone sizes, especially those encased in protective covers, addressing one of the original model’s significant limitations.

Like before the build quality rivals the Nintendo Switch in terms of thumbstick feel and button responsiveness. The thumbsticks don’t have much travel but they also don’t have much of a deadzone either. I like the D-pad quite a bit and found it to be accurate, responsive and lacking any errant diagonals. I tested it on both iOS and Android and the experience was a seamless one on both platforms. The controller fit very comfortably in my hand too.

The controller has a male USB-C connector that connects to the smartphone, along with a second female charge-only USB-C connector on the bottom of the controller to allow for pass-through charging. There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the other side of the controller.

As for smartphone fit, Backbone includes two pairs of magnetically attachable spacers to accommodate various phone sizes. Phones with thicker cases work best with no spacers installed.

But as great as the hardware is, Backbone is locking some of its feature set behind an expensive paywall called the Backbone+ subscription. This subscription, priced variably by region but estimated at around $30 to $50 annually, locks away features such as compatibility with PCs, Macs, and iPads, higher frame rate video capture, cloud video storage and social chat features that were once free on the prior version.

Backbone did grandfather in owners of their original controllers who set up an account with them, but everyone else will have to pay up. While I can understand paywalling cloud video storage, locking out a key hardware feature like tablet and computer compatibility is not a good look for a company trying to establish itself in the gaming market.

Because I was the owner of the previous Backbone controller I was able to get it to work with my PC without having to pay for a subscription. There is a setting to enable that compatibility in the Backbone app on the phone, and the controller then works on the PC when it’s connected through its USB-C port on the base. Once connected it appears as a standard x-input device.

Overall I found the 2nd gen Backbone One controller to be excellent from a hardware standpoint, but I’m very disappointed that the company is locking away functionality behind a subscription paywall. Gamers are some of the most discerning consumers in the marketplace, and this is something that will end up costing them more revenue than they’ll ever gain through a recurring fee.