iOS 7 brought with it standardised game controller support to Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad ranges, finally giving the iOS line parity with Google's Android platform, which has offered similar connectivity for quite some time now. Finally, Apple fans could play games with proper, physical buttons, offering a console-quality experience on the move. A slew of compatible pads appeared alongside the new software, but since then the pickings have been somewhat slim.
We've seen very few new pads and Apple has done precious little to promote games which come with "Made For iOS" (MFi) pad support, but that's not to say that ardent players should ignore the concept altogether: when MFi works, it really works, dramatically enriching compatible titles and making it feel like you've got a fully fledged games system in the palm of your hands. With the second generation of MFi pads now on the market, we thought it was time to take another look at this unfairly ignored aspect of iOS tech.
Apple's MFi initiative is all about standardising controller input for iOS devices, so when reviewing these pads we've focused more on the overall design and ergonomics of each product rather than how they connect to your iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch; after all, that process is almost identical across all of the controllers, the only key difference being whether or not the pads use a Bluetooth link or a physical connection using the Lightning port.
Other elements we've considered are battery life and whether or not the pad has any means of physically connecting to your device. For example, with the Mad Catz pads, there are clamps included which effectively transform your iDevice into a portable games system.
First Place: Mad Catz C.T.R.L. i
Mad Catz has taken a slightly different approach to what we've seen from other MFi pad designers: it hasn't even attempted to make the C.T.R.L. i a pocket-sized affair (although the C.T.R.L. i Micro, which is also included in this roundup, is a different proposition). It's around the same size as an Xbox One controller, and boasts a similar button and offset stick arrangement; even the pressure-sensitive fascia buttons use the same four colours, albeit in a different configuration.
By aping Microsoft's controller, Mad Catz has created one of the most comfortable smartphone gamepads we've ever had the good fortune to use. The circular, rolling D-Pad is the only weak link, and even that is a lot better than some of the digital pads we've seen on similar products. Four shoulder inputs – two pressure-sensitive buttons and two analogue triggers – round off the design, offering the kind of gaming interface that you'd normally expect to find on a proper console.
The C.T.R.L. i comes with a expanding "travel clip" clamp attachment that can be bolted on the top of the controller. Slot in your iPod Touch or iPhone (the clamp can accept any iOS 7 device up to the iPhone 6) and bingo: you've got a handheld gaming powerhouse. Should you wish to use the controller with an iPad, then you can keep things clamp-less – just try not to misplace the screw which holds the attachment in place.
Another bonus is that Mad Catz has produced its own app for the pad, which it prompts you to download when you pair it with your device for the first time. This app allows you to test button inputs and check on your remaining battery, as well as seeing if the pad is running the latest firmware; the C.T.R.L. i has a Micro-USB power in the battery compartment which allows you to flash new software to the controller, which could potentially allow for improvements in the future. Possibly the most important aspect of the app is the ability to browse titles that are MFi compatible (something that even Apple itself doesn't offer at present).
The biggest downside to the C.T.R.L. i is that it uses batteries rather than having its own built-in rechargeable power source, so you'll have to invest in a steady supply of AAAs if you plan on using it aggressively. A fresh set will last you around 35 hours, however.
Second Place: SteelSeries Stratus XL
Like Mad Catz, SteelSeries has looked to traditional home consoles when seeking inspiration for its latest MFi controller. The Stratus XL is roughly the same size as the C.T.R.L. i (and, by association, the Xbox One pad) although there are differences to note: the analogue sticks aren't offset and instead sit side-by-side, just like they do on Sony's PlayStation range of pads; the D-Pad sits higher up on the controller, but has the same disc-like design as the one seen on on Mad Catz's offering.
Another similarity is the general button arrangement: there are four face-buttons, all pressure-sensitive, as well as two pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons and two analogue triggers. It's powered by AA batteries as opposed to a rechargeable cell, with SteelSeries quoting a lifespan of about 40 hours per set, which is pretty similar to the C.T.R.L. i.
In terms of comfort, the Stratus XL is a close second to the C.T.R.L. i, and it may find favour with Sony fans due to the stick arrangement which is so similar to the PlayStation DualShock controller. Where it loses out slightly is the lack of a means to attach your device to the pad itself; SteelSeries has intentionally pitched the pad to iPad owners, although it will naturally work with any product using iOS 7 or up.
Third Place: Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i Micro
The name really says it all. The C.T.R.L. i Micro is essentially a pint-sized version of the standard C.T.R.L. i. Everything is practically identical, from the button and stick configuration to the fact that it comes with a handy travel clip that allows you to attach the pad to your iPod or iPhone. Predictably, the big difference is one of size; the pad is significantly smaller than its larger sibling, and that means all of the various inputs and sticks have been shrunk. This miniaturisation makes the Micro a much better option if you plan on gaming while travelling, say, but also comes with some less desirable side-effects.
The smaller form-factor means that the pad is not as comfortable to use as the fuller-bodied variant, making it less appealing for longer gaming sessions. On the plus side, the travel clip is easier to install as it merely slots onto the pad rather than being attached by a fiddly screw. The caveat here is that the tiny size of the pad creates a very top-heavy setup: laying the controller down on a flat surface usually results in the whole thing tipping backwards. Like the C.T.R.L. i, the Micro is draws its power from two AAA batteries, with a quoted stamina of 35 hours.
The Micro may not be as comfortable as some of the other controllers in this roundup, but its dainty size is certainly a selling point – especially if you value portability above all other things.
Fourth Place: Razer Junglecat
The strangely named Junglecat is a unique offering when set against these other challengers: it's not just a pad, but also a case for your iPhone 5 or 5s. Bolting the Junglecat to your phone is quite a process, and Razer clearly intends for the controller to be a near-permanent addition to your handset. There are cut-outs for all of the usual features: the camera, power button and volume controls. But the fact that the iPhone's Lightning port is obscured means that the Junglecat comes with Micro-USB socket for charging duties, which is a bit of a pain if you're already heavily invested in Apple's cable ecosystem, but not such a disaster if you live in a house with plenty of Android users.
Once attached, the gaming controls slide out the bottom of the Junglecat in a fashion that is quite similar to Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play handset from 2011. It comes with a D-Pad, four face-buttons and two shoulder-buttons, but no analogue inputs. That limits it when compared to rival MFi pads, and means that titles that benefit from analogue control won't play as well on this pad. It doesn't help that the controls are also pretty uncomfortable to use, with the buttons requiring quite a firm press to register an input. There are built-in speakers as well, but to be honest they're a bit on the weak side.
While some iPhone owners will balk at the idea of making their handsets larger with plastic gaming attachments, having physical gaming controls on tap does have its benefits, and the Junglecat does look rather cool when locked in place.
Fifth Place: Logitech PowerShell
The PowerShell is one of the first-gen MFi controllers, but warrants a look-in today because it offers something unique when compared to its rivals: the ability to charge your phone's battery using its own internal power cell. This actually comes in more handy than you might imagine, allowing you to extend the stamina of your iPhone when you're out of the house. It also addresses one of the big issues with smartphone gaming, mainly that complex 3D titles put more strain on the processor, which means your battery life is impacted dramatically. The PowerShell allows you to game guilt-free.
Like the Junglecat, the PowerShell acts like a case when you're not gaming. It's not as thick as Razer's option, but it is lengthier; unless you own a pair of clown trousers, then you might have problems cramming it into your pocket.
The PowerShell has a similar control setup to the Junglecat, with a solitary D-Pad and four-face buttons, along with two shoulder-buttons. Twin-stick shooters are therefore off the menu, but the D-Pad does make up for this somewhat by offering analogue input. The big issue is that developers have to code their games to take full advantage of the PowerShell's unique pad: unoptimised titles require pretty firm directional pushes to register your inputs.