Mad Catz C.T.R.L. i Review: A Serious Controller for Proper iOS Games

By Gerald Lynch on at

The promise of a MFi controller standard for iPhone, iPod and iPad devices was like a dream come true for Apple’s mobile gamers. While Android users could use workarounds to get a number of Bluetooth controllers working with their devices (even proper console pads in some cases), a standardised controller blueprint for iOS could turn Apple’s mobile platform into the true gaming giant it always threatened to become.

But the first wave of controllers underwhelmed. Pricey and paling in comparison to both portable machines and the console controllers from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo that they aped, they were mostly uncomfortable to use and difficult to recommend.

But there’s still hope. While the Mad Catz C.T.R.L. i has issues of its own, it’s the first iOS gamepad to come anywhere close to the level of precision and comfort we need from a mobile game controller.

What Is It?

A Bluetooth gamepad for Apple’s mobile devices running iOS 7 and above.

Who's It For?

Gamers that refuse to accept mobile gaming has to be about tapping birds or swiping numbers. First person shooter fans. Anyone that thinks it’s a shame to obscure mobile gaming’s increasingly-beautiful visuals with a pair of stubby thumbs. Those that think weird punctuation is a necessity in gadget naming conventions.

Design

Have you seen an Xbox 360 or Xbox One gamepad before? Then this will feel very familiar. With dual, offset sticks, X, Y, A and B face buttons and a D-Pad, it’s clearly taken inspiration from Microsoft’s controller. With triggers and shoulder buttons present, the only thing missing from a standard console controller is the ability to click-press the analogue sticks, but that’s down to Apple’s own controller API standards, and out of Mad Catz’s hands.

A little more squat than an Xbox pad, it runs off of two AAA batteries that slot into the back of the controller (behind which sits a microUSB port for firmware updates). There’s no rechargeable battery in here, which helps keep the price relatively low at £49.99. Each button has been tested to 1 million pushes, and while I can’t say I’ve pressed them all that many times since picking up the controller, it certainly feels sturdy.

The most notable difference between it and a regular Xbox pad are its spring-back On/ Off slider sitting on the lower edge of the pad, a Bluetooth pairing button near the top front face of the controller and a gaming pause button that sits where an Xbox’s home button sits.

Oh, and it’s got a sizeable screw-on attachment that sits between the shoulder buttons too. This holds an adjustable, spring-loaded cradle that you can plonk your iPhone or iPod into, and attach it onto the end of the pad for Shield-like handheld gaming. Though the cradle is designed for an iPhone 5 or 5S, you can just about squeeze in a giant iPhone 6 Plus too.

The glossy black finish on the front (complete with Mad Catz’s signature red claw stripes on the right-hand arm) is inoffensive, but it is a bit of a fingerprint sponge.

Using It

As far as iOS controllers go, the Mad Catz C.T.R.L. i is as good as they come when in the hand. Its sticks in particular are superb, with just the right amount of tension and give for accurate movement controls. For first person shooters in particular they’re perfect, letting you pull off precise shots that would be far more difficult with other iOS pads and near impossible with touchscreen controls alone.

The face buttons feel a little shallow for my liking, but the triggers have just the right sensitivity for handling quick-fire shots or braking and boosting in racing titles. In terms of inputs, the only genuine disappointment is the D-Pad. It’s a problem plenty of manufacturers suffer from, what with Nintendo having nailed and patented the D-Pad design long ago, but the C.T.R.L. i’s disc-shaped attempt feels very imprecise -- it’s almost impossible to tell if a diagonal press has been made unless you spot the corresponding movement on screen.

Weighted just right on its own, the controller can feel a little top heavy when it has a mobile device clipped onto the back of it. It’s angled perfectly and isn’t an awful solution for playing with a smaller iOS device on-the-go, but it’s much better when you mirror your device onto a big living room screen, or play paired up with an iPad.

The difference it makes when playing games is significant. With your hands off the screen, titles like Tomb Raider or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic really open up. These console ports, where controller input was always originally intended, are made to feel far more at home on mobile devices as a result. With the full screen dedicated to the game’s visuals and not obscured by your swipes and fingerprints, you can really appreciate how great iPhone games like Dead Trigger 2 and Real Racing 3 look.

Like

Unlike other MFi controllers, the C.T.R.L i feels like a proper pad. No tiny buttons to fiddle with or silly form factors to curl your fingers around, if you’re comfortable with an Xbox controller then this will feel like a natural extension for your iOS gaming sessions.

No Like

It’s a real shame that the Mad Catz pad doesn’t have a rechargeable battery. Sure, it makes it a few quid cheaper than comparable controllers from rivals, but that’s a saving made at the price of convenience.

It’s also not truly a portable controller, certainly in comparison to the case-like Logitech Powershell or Moga Ace Power. It’s too big to fit in a pocket and, with its full-sized sticks and form factor, you may wonder how well protected its protruding parts are if bunged inside a bag. But that’s an either/or choice that you’ll have to make peace with at some point -- you’re unlikely to find a pocketable pad that offers the same level of precision or comfort as the C.T.R.L. i.

Test Notes

-- Mad Catz has an accompanying app for the pad that lets you check button response, battery levels and up-to-date controller compatible game lists. The games list in particular is useful as there’s no obvious way of finding MFi-compatible games on the App Store. It’s from the app that you’ll be able to upgrade the firmware of the C.T.R.L i as required in the future, with the aforementioned USB port behind the battery slot allowing you to transfer settings from a computer too.

-- The C.T.R.L i’s quoted battery life span of 35-ish hours is accurate (revised from a 50-hour estimate when first revealed back at MWC 2014), but make sure you’ve switched it off when it’s not in use -- power control is a spring-back slider, not a switch, and it can be easy to forget you’ve left the controller powered on.

-- Pairing, indicated by a line of four red flashing LEDs on the front of the controller, seems very reliable. Good for a 30ft range (which you’re unlikely to ever need, seeing as this is designed for use with mobile devices) it never lost connection with my iPhone or iPad in all the time I spent using it.

-- Should you have a multiplayer game that you’re looking to take part in, and a few other iOS control pads handy, the C.T.R.L i can play alongside any other third-party pad that may also be paired with your iOS device without interference.

Should I Buy It?

If you’ve got the compatible apps and a steady supply of rechargeable batteries, then yes. The App Store’s controller-supported game list is steadily growing, but it’s also worth noting that many top iOS games still won’t support controllers, and even those that do can sometimes feel like controller input has been added as an afterthought. The Mad Catz iOS pad is flexible and comfortable (if not portable) and proves that, when a mobile game’s control scheme allows for it, mobile gaming can be every bit as deep and enjoyable as the experiences found on consoles.

Mad Catz C.T.R.L. i Specs

• Platform: iOS 7 and newer
• Battery Life: Around 35 hours, depending on usage (requires two AAA batteries)
• Connectivity: Bluetooth
• Price: £49.99