Gamevice for iPhone – The AfterPad Review
The iPad Mini version of the Gamevice is one of the best controllers ever made. For prospective customers, the only questions are “do you own a compatible iPad?” and “are you okay spending $99 on a controller?” If the answers to those questions are yes, you should buy the iPad Gamevice immediately. The iPad Mini Gamevice truly is a controller without compromise.
The iPhone Gamevice, on the other hand, is not a slam dunk. It is a flawed controller. Unlike the iPad Gamevice, the iPhone model is full of compromises, done with the goal of making the controller more portable. As I’ll cover in this review, these compromises are not enough to stop me from recommending the iPhone Gamevice. They do, however, add up to make it worse controller than it could have been. You’ll be happy with the iPhone Gamevice, but throw away any expectations of getting something as good as the iPad model.
The iPhone Gamevice tries to talk a delicate line: be portable, but without losing features. As such, it is a full Extended format controller, featuring real analog sticks, decent buttons, 4 shoulder inputs, and a full d-pad. This is a first for any MFi controller that connects directly to the iPhone, and it means the Gamevice is compatible with virtually every one of the almost 900 MFi-supported games.
The build quality of the Gamevice is first-rate. The plastic is nicely textured, with a pleasant matte finish reminiscent of the iPhone’s aluminum. The whole thing feels first-rate – no creaking, no blemishes, and no seams. Absolutely worthy of the $99 price tag.
Inputs are positioned modern-Nintendo-style, with analog sticks placed in the prime position and the d-pad and ABXY buttons placed in the harder-to-reach lower position. This worked well on the full-sized Gamevice, but the tighter layout of the iPhone Gamevice makes the lower inputs much more difficult to reach comfortably. For the handful of games designed around using both analog sticks at once, it makes for a nice layout. But as I’ll cover further in this review, this layout often makes the ABXY face buttons painful to use over long game sessions.
The Gamevice is compatible with both the regular and the “plus” variants of the iPhone 6 and 6S product lines. The way it achieves this compatibility is really quite clever. Each half of the Gamevice is connected with a folding rubber bridge, both for stability and to route wires between each half of the controller. Using a sliding switch on the back of the controller, you can adjust the width of this bridge – roll some of the rubber up inside the controller, and the controller goes from Plus sized to regular sized. This makes for an extremely sturdy connection, regardless of which iPhone you go with.
Presumably, the Gamevice can also be used with the iPod Touch, but it isn’t designed to do so. The connection would likely be unpleasantly loose. The iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S don’t appear to fit at all.
The iPhone Gamevice is designed with portability as its focus. Everything exemplifies this. It has tiny plastic analog sticks that occupy much less space than console analogs. It has small buttons bunched close together. It has oddly shaped handles that are uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time.
The problem is, even with all of these sacrifices, the iPhone Gamevice is not particularly portable. Attached to your iPhone, it more than doubles the space the iPhone occupies. Removed from your iPhone and folded up, and it becomes a big block of plastic almost the size of a bunched-up fist. Neither option fits in any reasonably-sized pocket. You’ll need a backpack or purse to carry the Gamevice with you. And if you’re carrying your Gamevice in a bag, then what was the point of all those sacrifices in component quality? If needs to be transported in a bag, would giving it real analog sticks have made much of a difference? Would making the handles slightly wider and outfitting the controller with full-sized console-quality buttons make it that much bigger? Would real triggers have broken the design?
This is the crux of the Gamevice: it tries to walk two paths at once – portability and quality – and it doesn’t really excell at either. If you require a controller that is portable enough to fit in a pocket, the Gamevice won’t work for you. And if you don’t care about portability, many of the Gamevice’s design decisions will be baffling.
The Analog Sticks
The goal with the iPhone Gamevice’s analog sticks was laudable: bring real, honest-to-god analog sticks to a portable device. No analog nubs, no circle pads – these were custom designed by the people at Gamevice. The problem is, while they’re real, pretty much everything about them has been compromised for the sake of portability. They are tiny, sharp, plasticky, and generally uncomfortable to use. They’re functional, and superior to the analog disks used by the MOGA Ace Power and PSP, but they’re not pleasant.
These analog sticks are particularly bad compared to the excellent analog sticks on the iPad Gamevice. It further highlights the difference in focus between the two products. The iPad Gamevice is designed to be an amazing controller that just happens to be focused around the iPad; as such, it’s analog sticks are comparable to the excellent sticks on the Xbox One controller. The iPhone Gamevice is focused entirely around being portable, and sacrifices much usability in order to achieve that goal; as such, its analog sticks are comparable to the middling sticks on the PSVita.
Good news: the iPhone version of the Gamevice might make a ton of compromises in most of its components, but it does not compromise on the d-pad. Just like the iPad version before it, the iPhone Gamevice contains one of the best d-pads you can get on any MFi controller. Seriously, Gamevice did a great job on this one – the d-pad is the best part of this controller. No surprise, since it’s the only part of this controller that is identical to the iPad model.
The iPad Gamevice was the first MFi controller to ship with a plus-shaped d-pad. And even though the Nimbus and the Horipad Ultimate have subsequently shipped with plus-shaped d-pads, the Gamevice is still the best of the bunch. This d-pad is glossy, perfectly sized, and activates with just the right amount of pressure. Because it isn’t oversized, there are no issues toggling diagonals. But because it isn’t a circular d-pad, you won’t accidentally trigger diagonal inputs. The iPhone Gamevice’s d-pad is a bit more shallow than the iPad Gamevice’s d-pad, but it is still top quality.
The ABXY Buttons
The iPhone Gamevice’s ABXY buttons are fine for an iPhone-focused controller. They’re small, but not painfully so, in the way previous iPhone controllers’ buttons were. They’re made of a premium double-shot plastic with a gloss finish – not as nice as the Nimbus’ buttons, but still high quality.
Still, something about these buttons feels off. It took me a while to determine what it is, but I figured it out: they’re too low. The A button – the button that should be your primary input – is positioned so low that it’s furthest away from where your thumb naturally falls. The B button – the second most common input – is almost as difficult to reach, positioned right up against the right edge of the controller, near your palm.
I get that the design of the controller limited the layout options, but I think they made a mistake here. Switching the seldom-used right analog stick with the constantly-used ABXY buttons would make for a far more usable layout. And unlike one of the many areas where iPhone Gamevice is functionally compromised in the name of increased portability, there wouldn’t be a trade-off here – putting the buttons this low was simply a mistake.
The Shoulder Buttons
The iPhone Gamevice’s shoulder buttons are top quality for a controller this size. They’ve accomplished a task that has proved impossible for Sony, Nintendo, and SteelSeries: they fit 4 shoulder buttons on the back of a portable controller without making them feel cramped.
One thing to keep in mind, though: these are shoulder buttons, not triggers. Unlike the iPad Gamevice, which uses Xbox-style triggers, these are buttons that happen to be shaped like triggers. They’re pressure sensitive, so they’re fully capable of analog movement. It’s a bit off-putting at first, but it feels great once you get used to it. These shoulder buttons actually work better than the MOGA Ace Power, which used console-style triggers.
Sound with the Gamevice is a very mixed bag. The Gamevice includes a built-in DAC for sound output through the integrated headphone port. In short, the iPhone doesn’t actually do sound processing itself, and instead sends the sound digitally to the Gamevice, which uses its DAC chip to turn the digital audio into sound you can here.
Unfortunately, the Gamevice’s DAC chip is terrible. Seriously, unequivocally terrible. Most games work fine, but if you attempt to listen to music or audiobooks while you play, you’ll run into a whole host of problems. Low maximum volume, static, choppiness in certain frequencies, stuttering between songs, audible noise, distortion – nothing about this DAC feels like it belongs in a controller that costs $100.
Again, to be fair, most games sound okay. This problem is most noticeable on music, audiobooks, and podcasts. But if you’re like me, sometimes you want to put on some other audio while you’re playing a game. And the Gamevice really doesn’t work well for this.
It’s a shame. The iPad Gamevice had issues with its DAC, and I’d hoped those issues would be solved by now. I let the makers of the Gamevice know about these issues many times in the lead up to the launch of the iPad Gamevice, but I didn’t have a chance to test this iPhone version in advance, so I didn’t know if it was fixed here. Sadly, no such luck.
Batteries and Charging
Because the Gamevice connects directly to the iPhone via Lightning, it doesn’t require a separate power source – no fumbling with batteries here! And unlike the previous iPhone controller to try this design, the Gamevice allows you to charge your iPhone and charge the Gamevice at the same time, while you’re playing.
Charging happens over a (included) USB Micro cable, rather than Lightning. Perhaps the Gamevice was in production before Apple started allowing Lightning connections for controller charging, but still, it feels like a mistake to ship a supposedly portable-focused controller without a Lightning charge port. The Gamevice isn’t small enough to leave attached to your iPhone all the time, so you’ll want to bring a separate cable for the Gamevice to be safe – a solution that doesn’t seem particularly portable.
Just like the iPad model, the iPhone Gamevice includes it’s own integrated battery. This small battery doesn’t actually charge the iPhone, and is used solely to power the Gamevice. This makes absolutely no sense to me – I don’t understand why the Gamevice doesn’t simply draw power directly from the iPhone, and instead includes yet another battery that could die or go bad. And if it does need to include a battery, why not include a big one that can power the iPhone? The MOGA and PowerShell controllers could double your battery life with their integrated batteries, and the Junglecat was able to be super-slim by eschewing the battery entirely. I’ve asked the people who make the Gamevice about this several times, and I’ve yet to get an answer – not saying there isn’t a good reason, but if there is, I can’t see it.
Still, battery questions aside, there isn’t much to complain about here. The Gamevice never ran out of juice while I was using it, and power pass-through worked perfectly, as long as I remembered to bring a Micro USB cable.
I like the iPhone Gamevice. I’ve enjoyed using it in bed, I’ve killed time with it while waiting for appointments. I intend on continuing to use it in the future. But I have to review the Gamevice for what it is. And fundamentally, the iPhone Gamevice is a confused product. It is a product that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It can’t choose between trying to be portable and trying to be full-featured, and it does a decidedly mixed job at both. It sticks you with tiny analog sticks, awkward buttons, and uncomfortable handles in order to make itself as small as possible, but it fails to be small enough to actually be portable; it makes these sacrifices in vein.
All of this is frustrating, because I want to love this controller. I can’t stand gripping my iPhone into a clip on the back of a Bluetooth controller. Controllers like the Gamevice, where your device is centered in the middle of the controller body, are the only designs I like. So it kills me to say that this controller is okay, when it should have been amazing. It is the best iPhone MFi controller, but in a sense, it wins that title “by default”, since it’s the only MFi controller actually designed for modern iPhones. Anything is better than nothing.
The iPhone Gamevice is available for $99, right now, today. If you’re looking for the best (and only) controller specifically designed to work with an iPhone, pick one up. Just understand that you’re making a lot of compromises in order to get that iPhone compatibility. But even so, the Gamevice is the only controller I want to use with my iPhone 6S, so it gets my recommendation.