I’ve had the iControlPad, a Bluetooth game controller for the iPhone, Android phones and other devices, for some time now and have thoroughly enjoyed catching up on my classic gaming favourites. Read on for an exhaustive review of its ins and outs.
After waiting years for the Pandora, and continuing to wait with unwavering patience, it’s refreshing to see a distraction like the iControlPad pop up out of the blue and ship without a hitch. From my perspective, its launch has gone swimmingly and only around two weeks passed between me placing my order and it arriving at my door.
The iControlPad is a bluetooth game controller from the same guys who, all those years ago, kicked off the inspirational OpenPandora project, not to be confused with Pandora the music discovery service. It represents a second stroke of inspiration, and a second impressive product to come out of the tiny, yet devoted team. The concept is simple, it’s a bluetooth game controller which you clamp onto your phone, or other hand-held device, and use to play games, emulators and more. Because it clamps on, it’s easy to hold and easy to play making for an excellent on-the-go gaming system with your smartphone as the brains.
Unlike a few other non-starter projects out there, the iControlPad is the culmination of quite a number of prototypes and began life as an iPhone-only controller which would use the dock connector. Due to some Apple licensing issues this design didn’t last, and the Bluetooth support, which the team had been keeping a secret, suddenly surfaced as the only way the iControlPad would successfully connect to any device. This isn’t a bad thing, however, as it opened up a whole new realm of possibility for the iControlPad and prevented it from being overly associated with the iPhone- although its now somewhat misleading name still survives. Despite the “i” prefix, the iControlPad supports all walks of device, from desktop computers running OSX/Linux or Windows, to mobile devices from the humble Nokia N900, to Android handsets and much more.
As you would expect from an indie hardware project ( Is there really such a thing as independent hardware? nobody “publishes” hardware… you probably know what I mean, anyway. ) the iControlPad isn’t exactly the pinnacle of manufacturing perfection. It’s unashamedly ugly, yet still has a certain classic-controller charm about it. The plastic is tough as nails, and spark-finished so it wont attract fingerprints like a magnet. This makes the iControlPad wholly utilitarian in appearance, but is that really such a bad thing? Your hands will be covering it most of the time. Overall it’s durable and reasonably well built, I’ve taken mine apart dozens of times for fiddling and photography and it feels no less sturdy than it did fresh out of the box.
Battery life is pretty good, the 1350mAh battery can be re-charged easily via Mini-USB (cable supplied) and is more than sufficient for something as simple and power-light as the iControlPad. An LED at the bottom of the controller will flash to let you know when the battery is running low. The battery is soldered in, so it’s not user replaceable, but it will take a long time for the battery to be substantially enough worn down for this to pose a problem. In theory you could get it replaced by someone technically competent enough, perhaps we’ll see such services pop up later in its lifespan.
If you tire of the iControlPad outlasting your phones battery, and it will, then you can also connect your phone to the iControlPad to charge. I wont get into technical details, as I have a habit of getting them wrong.
The iControlPad brings a wealth of controls to your table, filling in the painful lack of gaming controls on any compatible mobile device. It borrows the tried, tested and improved analogue nubs from the Pandora coupled with a D-Pad, 4 face buttons, Start, Select and two “shoulder” buttons (which are actually located on the back) granting a near complete complement of controls to suit your classic emulation desires and even do a fairly admirable job of PSX/N64 emulation. Yes, there might be the odd occasion where you miss L2/L3 and their right-hand counterparts, but for the most part all your classic gaming needs will be covered.
Most of the buttons are plastic, excepting Start and Select which are raw, untamed rubber key-mat sticking up through their designated holes. The plastic capped buttons have a great tactile feel and a liberal amount of travel with a good response. They bear the familiar AB/XY markings and can even be reconfigured if you’re brave enough to take a screwdriver to the iControlPad. The shoulder buttons are obviously not on the shoulders of the iControlPad, due to where your phone normally clamps in. This is a shame, as the compromise we have is some slightly awkwardly placed buttons which can be prone to accidental presses, as a result you need to be careful about what you assign these to. I find that they are a little too low for my index fingers, and press them with my middle fingers instead,
I keep mentioning emulation because, frankly, that’s the iControlPad’s real strength at the moment and will likely continue to be its mainstay, even though iControlPad support continues to improve for non jailbroken phones. Emulator developers are already hard at work implementing iControlPad support into their products, most notably nes.emu, pce.emu and gbc.emu, all fantastic emulators, have comprehensive support for the iControlPad with constant improvements in the works. Those latter two are PC Engine and Gameboy Colour, if you didn’t know.
More recently Snes9x EX and md.emu have surfaced from the same developer as the previous .emu emulators. They emulate, as you might guess, the Super Nintendo and MegaDrive respectively, and do a damned good job of it, too. Robert Broglia (http://www.explusalpha.com/), the guy who ported these emulators and enhanced them with iControlPad support and a thoroughly brilliant yet simple UI, is engaged with the community in the iControlPad forums and is an emulation-enthusiasts dream come true. Definitely check out his emulators if you have a compatible device.
The dual analogue design of the iControlPad, aside from its obvious usefulness with Playstation emulation, also leaves much potential to be explored in the form of fresh, new 3D games for capable smartphones, but whether or not any of these come to fruition remains to be seen. The analogue sticks are supported in Robert’s classic emulators, but are generally consigned to things like entering the menu, or saving/loading states. Away from mobile phones, however, I found them useful in Project 64 for getting full control in 3D n64 games.
Enabling iControlPad support on non-jailbroken iPhones is an ongoing struggle which seems to be making good progress lately. The ability for the iControlPad, with an experimental firmware, to emulate the iCade ( a similar, but less mobile game control product for the iPad which started out life as an April Fools prank ) might bring a wave of new compatible games to the table. There have also recently been app-store submissions with support for the iControlPad.
Thus far I’ve had great experiences with the iControlPad and nes.emu, by far my most used of the emulators. It’s really easy to get up and running, requiring only a little patience whilst the controller negotiates the bluetooth pairing process. Actually initiating the pairing is simple; you turn it on in the default mode, tap a single option in the emulator, and that’s it. nes.emu cleverly does the controller set-up in the background, so you can tap your way to the game you want to play whilst it finishes pairing.
I’ve also used it with the iPad, making for some much more satisfying big-but-still-portable-screen gaming. Obviously the iPad doesn’t clamp into the iControlPad, but the emulators run fine, look good enough scaled up and work just as effectively with the controller as they do on the iPhone. Rubber end-caps for the iControlPad have just started shipping with new units, and are free ( although shipping will cost ) to existing iControlPad owners. These make the controller much more ergonomic and comfortable for gaming with a device you can’t clamp it to. I can’t wait to see support for multiple iControlPads surface, as the TV-out on the iPad or iPhone 4 makes them into an excellent portable classic gaming system.
Alas, I don’t have an Android phone in my possession at the moment for testing, but I have tried the iControlPad with the N900 in Keyboard Mode. N900 owners who have ever attempted to use a bluetooth keyboard know the perils that it involves, these extend to the iControlPad and make it a nuisance to pair. However, it is possible to set the iControlPad up on the N900, and once it’s up and running it really works beautifully. I prefer the iControlPad to my Sixaxis controllers, which I tend to want to use with my PS3 and thus have to continually re-pair with Sixpair on a separate linux computer ( despite compiling Sixpair for the N900, I’ve as of yet been unable to get it to detect PS3 controllers via my shoddy USB host setup ). Unfortunately the N900 is a little too chunky to fit in the currently available iControlPad clamps, but this might change in the future. Fortunately the N900 also has TV-out, so you can hook it up to a TV and sit back with your iControlPad for some classic gaming fun.
At first the iControlPad didn’t ship with rubber end caps, but all new customers will get these in the package at no extra charge, existing customers even have the opportunity to grab a set for free, paying only for delivery. I took advantage of the recent offer to grab a second iControlPad and save on the shipping of the rubber end-caps and replacement key-mat for my first unit. Yes. I’ve actually bought two of these things, they’re absolutely worth it. The new key-mats are much softer than the old, making for a far more responsive D-pad and buttons which you can’t fault.
The rubber end-caps are brilliant, and round off the iControlPad (literally!) as a perfect companion for a Jailbroken iPad. With the iPad hooked up to the TV via HDMI, and a couple of iControlPads in our hands, both myself and my daughter can play Sonic, and I can get her through the tricky bits without having to hand controllers back and forth. At the moment, Robert Broglia’s emulators don’t properly support two or more iControlPads. Despite them pairing successfully they’re all mapped to Player 1, but hopefully this will be fixed in an update.
Although relatively in its infancy, the iControlPad already shows massive amounts of promise and things like nes.emu represent exactly how awesome it is for emulation on the go. Things, they say, can only get better (oh, dear, did I just quote song lyrics?) and with the recent steep promotional discount of the iControlPad a great deal of new owners will be joining the fray and motivating developers to take an interest in the product. Suffice to say, I dream of the day when the iControlPad works with the Apple TV2.
Future improvements for the iControlPad will include a spring-loaded clamping mechanism that should allow it to attach to more obese phones, this is currently in development and the team have stated that they really don’t want to rush it.
If you’re reading this, and you don’t own an iControlPad then you’ve missed the awesome sale deal, sadly, but the price of $69.99/£43.42/€48.99 is well worth it. Although in the UK, after VAT and shipping that price actually works out as £55.61. This package includes both clamps, which support a fair variety of phones, and rubber end-caps for using the iControlPad un-clamped. The guys behind the iControlPad are trying to snare a distributor in the USA, to lower delivery costs to customers across the pond.
You can find more information about the iControlPad, compatibility and more at the iControlPad.com website.
If you want to meet the community, you can dive straight in to the iControlPad forums. It’s also a great place to get any other questions answered, keep abreast of new software support or firmware updates, and see how some of the developers and the iControlPad team themselves engage with the community.
There’s also an unofficial iControlPad wiki, which I’ve been instrumental in creating and maintaining along with a handful of heros from the forums. Quite a few questions are answered there, but it’s a little out of date.