Reviewed: The Best Controllers for Apple TV
In Part 1 of the AfterPad Apple TV Guide, I covered some of the top games for the platform. This time, I want to talk about something near and dear to this site: controllers with which to play these games.
The Apple TV’s included Siri remote can be used to play every game on the Apple TV, but the experience is less than ideal. Fortunately, there are other options. The MFi controller program has been going strong for 2 years now. With so many different controllers out there, deciding which one to get looks like a daunting task. I want to make it easier.
The Best Apple TV Controllers
#1 – The SteelSeries Nimbus
The Nimbus is the newest MFi controller, and also the one Apple is throwing the most weight behind. The good news is, it happens to be excellent.
Everything about the Nimbus feels like a premium product. The finish is a high-quality matted plastic with no sharp edges or inconveniently placed screw holes. The analog sticks are solidly built, perfectly textured, and highly responsive. The buttons are among the most beautiful to ever appear on a game controller, featuring a glossy transparent surface housing 3D raised letters on a black background. Unlike previous SteelSeries controllers, the triggers and bumpers have a perfect amount of pressure.
The Nimbus rises above the rest in other ways, too. The integrated battery charges via Lightning cable, rather than requiring obsolete micro USB connections. The Bluetooth connection is via the more modern, less laggy 4.0 standard, unlike previous controllers which use the 2.1 version. And the price is a reasonable $49, unlike most other controllers which range from $59 to $79. And even with the lower price, the Nimbus is a top-quality product, the rival to the Dualshock 4 and Xbox One controller.
The Nimbus is a big deal for MFi controllers. It's being heavily promoted by Apple, it's reasonably priced, and it's excellent quality. This is the controller most Apple TV gamers are going to purchase, and that's not a bad thing.
#2 – The Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i
The Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i is a great controller, and it raised the bar significantly from the controllers before it. It isn't nearly as premium a product as the Nimbus, it generally has a higher price tag, and it suffers from a few notable flaws, but it is still a great choice for gamers accustomed to Xbox 360 controllers.
Unlike the Nimbus, the C.T.R.L.i uses the Xbox's staggered analog stick layout, placing the left stick in the prime position under the left thumb. The sticks themselves are almost identical to those of the 360 controller – rubberized, with 4 little bumps to grip and orient your thumb. The trigger layout is also identical to the 360's, with more distinction between shoulder bumpers and triggers than the Nimbus.
The C.T.R.L.i suffers from a couple of notable flaws. First, and most importantly, is its d-pad. It's a mess. Most MFi controllers have terrible d-pads, but the Nimbus doesn't – it's d-pad is quite good for the types of games that will need it. The C.T.R.L.i's is a mushy mess, and you'll want to actively avoid using it with games that require it. It's better than the Siri remote's track pad, but just barely.
Instead of using an integrated battery that charges via Lightning, the C.T.R.L.i requires disposable AAA batteries. Bluetooth 2.1 standard means you'll go through these batteries faster than you would with the Nimbus' Bluetooth 4.0 connection. Build quality is solid, visual aesthetics are a big of a mess, with sharp angles and garish logos that are out of place in the Apple ecosystem. The C.T.R.L.i is a highly functional, generally pleasant controller, but it does NOT feel like a premium product deserving of a $10 price premium over the Nimbus.
The C.T.R.L.i does, however, have one significant feature the Nimbus lacks: a grip for your iPhone. While this obviously doesn't matter for the Apple TV, the C.T.R.L.i makes a great controller for iPhone as well. The Nimbus works with iPhone, but the lack of a way to attach your iPhone to it makes it less than ideal.
For most gamers, the Nimbus is the best choice. But for hardcore Xbox 360 fans and gamers looking for a universal controller to use with their iPhones and Apple TVs, the C.T.R.L.i is a great choice. And its currently on sale for about $10 off, making it even cheaper than the Nimbus.
#3 – The Mad Catz Micro C.T.R.L.i
The Micro C.T.R.L.i is like the regular C.T.R.L.i controller (or Xbox 360 pad), only smaller. Everything has been shrunk down – the body, the analog sticks, the buttons, and the d-pad. This is not a bad thing. The C.T.R.L.i is one of the biggest MFi controllers out there. The Micro C.T.R.L.i brings the same design to smaller hands.
The Micro C.T.R.L.i improves on the full-size C.T.R.L.i with a much better d-pad. It's still not great, but it lacks the larger pad's mushiness. In exchange, it gives up the high quality iPhone clip. It does have a clip, but it is poor quality, and you won't want to use it. Still, for Apple TV gamers, this doesn't matter. Like the C.T.R.L.i, it uses AAA batteries to charge instead of rechargeables, but the battery does seem to last a long time.
The smaller size actually makes the Micro C.T.R.L.i a great choice for gamers with smaller hands – such as kids. If you're interested, the Micro C.T.R.L.i is the same price as the Nimbus and regular C.T.R.L.i – $49 on Amazon right now.
#4 – The Horipad
The Horipad is the other controller I recommend for the Apple TV. It's not for everyone – it's a limited-appeal controller compared with the other options on this list – but a certain subset of retro gamers are going to love it.
If the C.T.R.L.i is a spiritual sibling to the Xbox 360 controller, the Horipad is a sibling to the PlayStation controller. It features the same layout. It features the same button spacing. It features R2 and L2 shoulder buttons instead of triggers. It shakes things up with a circular d-pad and Xbox 360 style analog sticks, but PlayStation gamers will still feel right at home with this one.
The d-pad is the Horipad's biggest asset. It's excellent. Far better than the C.T.R.L.i series, noticeably better even than the Nimbus. For retro gamers looking for the best d-pad money can buy on an MFi controller, the Horipad is it. If you're primarily getting an MFi controller to play retro games or emulators, the Horipad is seriously worth considering. The killer d-pad and retro-friendly shoulder buttons make it a better match for the old classics than any of the newer pads.
Buy the Horipad if you want the absolute best controller for games from the PlayStation era and earlier, and you don't mind spending $79 on a controller. For everyone else, unless the Horipad gets a serious price drop, the Nimbus is the way to go. It's cheaper than the Horipad, it looks nicer, it charges via lightning instead of obsolete Mini USB, and it's more suitable for modern 3D games and shooters.
The Rest of the Apple TV Controllers
The TteSPORTS Contour
TteSPORTS recently released their long-awaited Contour controller, and I found the results disappointing. It's not a bad controller exactly. And it does have a killer iPhone clip. The problem is, it's worse than the competition in pretty much every other way.
The analog sticks are worse than the others. The d-pad is worse than everything but the C.T.R.L.i. The triggers are far too sensitive, and register unintended presses. The overall shape is angular and uncomfortable. The buttons are slightly too small and too close together.
All of this would be fine for a budget controller, but for $79, there's really no reason for Apple TV gamers to consider this one. Only get it if you want an iPhone controller with a great grip first, and only occasionally want to use it with the Apple TV.
The MOGA Rebel
The MOGA Rebel is like the Contour, but worse in almost every way. It's cheaply built, the components aren't up to the standard of the competition, it has software issues that remain unaddressed months after launch. Not a good controller.
If you already have one of these, it will work well enough with the Apple TV. And it isn't so terrible that you should run out and replace it. But I can't think of a single reason why anyone should buy one of these controllers – for every conceivable purpose, at least one of the other MFi controllers is better.
The SteelSeries Stratus XL
The SteelSeries Stratus XL is a deeply flawed controller. It had a great industrial design and build quality, but the components themselves were poorly made. The d-pad was mushy and oversized, the analog sticks were small and slippery, the buttons were cheap and placed too close together, and the triggers were overly sensitive to the point that they registered unintended taps.
The Nimbus fixed every problem with the Stratus XL, and improved the overall design in the process. And it does so at a lower price – $49 for the Nimbus, compared to $69 for the Stratus XL. There is zero reason to spend more for a worse controller. Don't buy the Stratus XL.
The SteelSeries Stratus
By any metric, the original Stratus is a terrible controller. Bad d-pad, face buttons, bad shoulder buttons, bad analog sticks – bad everything.
The Stratus' only saving grace is its size. You can stick it in your pocket or throw it in a small backpack flap for quick transportation. Useful for iPad gamers perhaps, but useless for the Apple TV.
If you want a controller for gamers with small hands, get the Mad Catz Micro C.T.R.L.i instead of this. The Stratus retails for $69, and it isn't worth even 1/3 of this price.
Hopefully this guide should make your decision about which MFi controller to get a little bit easier. The vast majority of Apple TV gamers are going to get the Nimbus anyways. That's okay. It's a great controller. For the vast majority of gamers, the Nimbus is the best choice. I highly recommend it.
If you're a hardcore Xbox gamer, you might prefer the C.T.R.L.i with it's staggered layout and 360-inspired design. The addition of a high-quality iPhone grip makes it the best option for those looking for a universal controller to use with Apple TV and iPhone. The sale price of $48 makes it comparably priced to the Nimbus – definitely worth a look!
The Micro C.T.R.L.i is a great controller for gamers with smaller hands. It may be lesser in size, but it loses nothing in quality, featuring the same killer build quality of the C.T.R.L.i, and picking up a much improved d-pad as a bonus. The only downside is the iPhone clip – it's cheap, and I don't recommend using it. But for a pure Apple TV controller, the Micro C.T.R.L.i is a great option, and it's $49 price tag puts it on equal footing to the Nimbus and C.T.R.L.i pads.
The Horipad is not something I'd recommend to most gamers. For retro gamers, however, it's a tough option to beat. A killer d-pad, real shoulder buttons, and top-notch build quality justify its $79 price tag. It's not the controller most people should get, but a certain contingent of retro gamers are going to absolutely love it.
These 4 controllers stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The Nimbus is probably the one you should buy, but I'd recommend any of my other three favorites to the right person.