Gamevice Hands-on Preview

From the first minute I was informed about the Gamevice, it’s been right on top of my own personal Most Wanted list. Many gamers like Bluetooth controllers, and have no problem attaching their phones to the controllers with grips, or standing their iPads on a table and holding the controllers close to them… not me. To me, the multitude of bluetooth MFi controllers on the market right now all miss the mark. Not in execution – if you’re a fan of that design, there are some seriously good options available today – but in design. That way of playing just doesn’t make sense to me. As terrible a controller as it was, I think the Moga Ace Power actually hit closest to the design mark – a well made version of that controller is how I’d want to play1.

So when the creators of the Gamevice told me about their upcoming controller, I was understandably excited. Here, finally, is a controller that fits exactly the design I was hoping for: a way to play games while holding the device in my hands. No need to clamp an iPhone into an oddly-angled rear grip, no squinting at an iPad on a table in front of me. The best MFi controllers you can get today are the latest round of Bluetooth MFi controllers, but if someone could take the best aspects of those controllers and put them into something I can hold in my hands while I play, I would be overjoyed.

Well here we are, many months later, and the Gamevice is almost here. I was actually given a pre-production unit at CES a few weeks ago, and I’ve been spending the time since then putting it through it’s paces. The controller isn’t quite final yet, so a full review will have to wait for the official (hopefully this March!), but there is a lot I’ve been able to learn from the model I have in front of me.

The Gamevice

Hands On with the Gamevice

The fascinating thing about the Gamevice is just solid absolutely everything about this controller is. Not just solid in that it works, but solid in that it works perfectly. Seriously; I’ve reviewed five different MFi controllers, and there are a heck of a lot more I have yet to review. At this point, writing about awful d-pads, buggy software, loose analog sticks, and indifferent hardware developers has gotten really old. From an outside perspective, it doesn’t seem like it should be this difficult to create an MFi controller that isn’t fundamentally broken in one way or another. And yet, here we are, a year later, and nobody has managed this task.

So it is with great pleasure that I say this: the Gamevice is an excellent controller. Shockingly excellent. Excellent in basically every way I know of to judge a controller. The analog sticks are nicely constructed – very close to those of the Xbox One controller, though with the layout of the WiiU. The buttons are the perfect size and depth – again similar to those of an Xbox One or WiiU controller, with none of the closeness or reduced size of a “mobile” controller. The rear of the controller is nicely designed, and although the prototype I’ve been using has a notable flaw I’ll address later, the overall design of the triggers and shoulder buttons is well thought out and easy to access. The overall build quality of this is first-rate.

At first glance, the design of the Gamevice would seem to have a few obvious red flags: Is the combined width of an iPad and a game controller uncomfortable? Is the controller too wide to hold comfortably? And aren’t the grips angled backwards from what an ergonomic controller should be?

All I can say to these is that everything makes sense as soon as you’re actually using the controller. Nothing about this design is accidental; a great deal of thought went into how this controller feels, and how it plays in real life. The combined weight could be a problem – if gamers held their controllers up above shoulder-level while they play. But real humans don’t do that. If they’re standing, they hold the controller down almost at waist level, and if they’re sitting, they rest it in their lap; in both of these situations, your body distributes the weight such that it becomes unnoticeable. The controller melts away and you just get into the game.

As for the potentially large size and the unusual handle shape of the Gamevice, it turns out those two are intertwined. The inward tilt of the handles is precisely because of the width of the controller. You see, the outward handle curve on traditional controllers only makes sense when your hands are close together. When your hands are further apart, ergonomics change. Try a little experiment: hold your hands in the air like you’re holding an Xbox controller – close together, tilted inwards. Now pivot your elbows outwards, a little wider than an iPad. Watch what your hands do – the design of the Gamevice will make perfect sense. Trust me, I was the proud owner of Logitech’s Netplay Keyboard Controller – the Gamevice’s design works better at large widths.

The angled grip might look strange, but it feels natural

If you’re still worried about the weight or size of the Gamevice, all I can do is speak from personal experience. In the few weeks I’ve been heavily using my Gamevice, I haven’t experienced a single issue with the ergonomics. Not one. Your mileage may vary, but all I can say is that the Gamevice is one of the most comfortable controllers I’ve ever used. To me, at least, there are no concessions with this design.

One aspect of the Gamevice deserves special mention, and that is the d-pad. If you’ve been following the MFi controller space or reading my reviews for a while now, you’ll probably be familiar with the fact that every available MFi controller uses a circular d-pad, and with one exception, these circular d-pads are also pretty terrible. Not so with the Gamevice. The Gamevice features a wonderful, perfectly sized, retro friendly, Plus style d-pad.

Many of us were under the assumption that Apple disallows this style of d-pad in the MFi spec. Personally, I was absolutely positive that the Gamevice would ship with a different d-pad after Apple got wind of this design, and repeatedly brought it up when talking with the people from Gamevice ever since it’s reveal. Well here we are, over 6 months later, and I’m happy to be wrong! Turns out that the design Gamevice is going with is absolutely allowed by Apple. It always was allowed; our assumptions were simply wrong. If I gave out number grades2 in my reviews, I’d be tempted to go back and subtract points from every other controller I’ve ever reviewed right now; the terrible d-pads they shipped with are even more inexcusable in light of the fact that Apple’s guidelines did NOT require them to be circular.

Look, it’s a d-pad that isn’t terrible!

Still, circular or plus shaped does not, in of itself, determine whether a d-pad is any good. The Horipad, for example, has a legitimately excellent circular d-pad. Meanwhile, Mad Catz’ Android CTRLr actually has a worse d-pad than the MFi-certified CTRLi’s round design, if you can believe it.

So how does the Gamevice’s d-pad fare? Good. So, so, so good. As good as I was hoping. It raises the bar high. It throws the curve – THIS is the d-pad I’ll be comparing all future MFi controllers with. It’s better than the d-pad on the WiiU. It’s better than the d-pad on the Xbox 360. It’s almost as good as the d-pad on the Xbox One – the only reason it isn’t as good is that Apple disallows mechanical springs underneath the d-pad, which provide the tactile feedback Microsoft’s controller has.

But the Gamevice has one more trick up it’s sleeve that makes its d-pad even better. Unlike any other MFi controller, the Gamevice’s layout follows the one pioneered by Nintendo for their latest console generation: both analog sticks are placed above the d-pad and face buttons. Generally, the inputs in the lower positions are harder to reach – Sony’s controllers are based on a design from the ’90s, where d-pads were the primary input and analog sticks are an afterthought, while Microsoft’s controllers are based on a world where analogs are the primary input method and the d-pad is rarely used. But Nintendo and Gamevice realized something important: when your controller doesn’t have a steep outward curve, suddenly the lower inputs aren’t nearly as difficult to reach. In fact, I’d argue that there is no difficulty in hitting the lower inputs – the d-pad and face buttons – at all. This is the only MFi controller I can say this about; the more traditional design of the other controllers makes whichever inputs they opted to place lower more difficult to reach. Yet another big win for the Gamevice.

The Gamevice’s design might seem strange, but feels much like an Xbox One controller in practice

How it Plays

That’s enough about the hardware. More important than how it feels and how it was designed is how it actually plays – does strapping an iPad into a large controller actually make for a pleasant play experience?

Well personally, my thoughts can be summed up as “oh hell yes this is amazing I never want to take my iPad out of this controller!!!” – I’ll try to polish that up a bit before I write the final review, but hey, this is just a preview article.

Combine a Gamevice with an Apple TV to build your own WiiU-style console

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about using this controller. Every single game I threw at it, it excelled at. I got higher scores in the Tony Hawk games than I did with the other controllers – and I compared closely. Twitch-based platformers like Sonic work better with this d-pad than with any others. The analog sticks are perfect for shooters like Bioshock – the ridges provide a perfect level of grip, and the stick resistance is perfectly balanced. Fighting games works perfectly – the buttons are just the right size and are spaced just the right distance from one another, it was easy to hit everything without fumbling. I’m going to continue playing the heck out of the Gamevice in the lead-up to my review, but I seriously can’t stress enough how well this controller handles every single game I’ve tried with it.

Rough Edges

There are really only two negatives to say about the controller in its current state. First, the triggers aren’t up to par. They’re sticky, they don’t register input until you’ve already pushed them almost all the way in, and they have a general plasticky, wobbly feeling to them as they’re pressed down. They stick out like a sore thumb compared with the extreme quality of every other button on the Gamevice.

If you like the triggers on the Xbox One controller, you’ll like them on the Gamevice – assuming the flaws are corrected

The second is the lack of power passthrough. This one is a little bit technical, so let me explain. When you connect your iPad to the Gamevice using the Lightning port, you are obviously prevented from using that Lightning port to charge your iPad. The workaround would be that you charge the iPad by plugging the Gamevice into a charger via it’s Micro USB port, and the Gamevice would be smart enough to route power to the iPad through the Lightning adapter. This is how the Logitech PowerShell works.

To make a long story short, the prototype Gamevice I have does not allow that – there is no way to play and charge your iPad at the same time, which means when you run out of power, playtime stops. The good news is, this is 100% confirmed to be fixed in the final version. The lack of power passthrough was apparently due to the rush to get pre-production samples ready for CES, and the final production version of the controller will support it.

As for the triggers, I’ve been told they’re being tweaked, but I’ll reserve judgement until I get my hands on a final version of the controller. Luckily, we shouldn’t have too long to wait for that; the Gamevice is scheduled to go on sale this March.

The Gamevice Ecosystem

Multiple versions of the Gamevice are scheduled to go on sale in near future. The current design requires separate versions for the iPad Air and iPad Mini, though it’s possible that these will be consolidated into one design before the product goes on sale. Either way, in addition to the iPad Mini compatible preview unit I was given, I was able to spend a little time with the iPad Air version, and I’m happy to say it still plays great with the larger tablet – no weight issues or bulk, as you might fear.

The Gamevice is more than just a great controller, though. There are a couple of additional features that take the Gamevice to places none of the other MFi controller makers have gone. There is a second model of the Gamevice scheduled to go on sale, and it was this version that really caught my interested. While the details haven’t been made public yet, there is a special edition of the Gamevice that will include an integrated wireless LTE hotspot. This version will go on sale as an exclusive to one of the major carriers, and will allow up to 7 devices to connect wirelessly. As for the cost, it won’t be significantly more expensive than the normal Gamevice. The wireless service will be priced… lets just say aggressively. Aggressively to the point where if this product ships with the service it’s planned to, it would be worth recommending to anyone with an iPad solely for the wireless hotspot feature.

Further rounding out the ecosystem, the people behind Gamevice recently released an iOS gaming website, called Hands-On, that will contain information and reviews about Gamevice-compatible iPad games. Not a bad idea; it shows a commitment to the iOS ecosystem that is sorely lacking from the more general-focused controller makers.

The two-piece design is clever, compact, and rock solid

The folks behind Gamevice have one more thing coming, and it’s a big one. This plan isn’t quite ready to be made public yet, but let me just say this: a major development is coming soon for iOS gaming, and it’s going to dramatically increase interest in products like the Gamevice. We’re in for some good times ahead.

Versions of the Gamevice have also been announced for Android, Windows, and most importantly, the iPhone 6. But those are stories for another article.


After spending the past few weeks playing with the Gamevice, my opinion of it keeps going up. The creators have seemingly been able to avoid every pitfall suffered by the rest of the controller makers. The d-pad is absolutely killer, and puts the efforts of the other MFi controller makers to shame. The rest of the controller is just as good; everything here, save the questionable triggers, is as good as or better than what you’d find on any other MFi controller.

The analog sticks and buttons are top-class

Many iOS gamers spent the MFi controller program’s first year waiting for a really good Bluetooth MFi controller. For those gamers, there are finally a wealth of choices, all with different designs. The thing is, I was never one of those gamers. Locking an iPhone into a bluetooth controller’s grip at an odd angle or standing your iPad up on a desk and hunching over to the screen… those never seemed like a great way to play to me. The controller-case design was always what I wanted. Finally, after a year and a half, the Gamevice is the high-end controller case I’ve always wanted.

If everything goes as planned, all iPad versions of the Gamevice should go on sale this March for a price of $99.