- The best way to play games on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV is with a controller.
- The SteelSeries Nimbus+ is our top pick because of its versatility, familiar layout, and iOS features.
There’s no denying the popularity of iOS games. Apple gave them their own section of the App Store in 2017 and introduced the Apple Arcade subscription service in 2019 because its customers play so many games.
Many mobile games can be played with nothing but a touchscreen. Some titles can benefit from more precise controls, however, and the lack of an official Apple controller means eager iOS gamers have to use a third-party gamepad. (A situation that Apple’s been rumored to resolve for years but has never delivered on.)
With so many controller options out there, it can be hard to figure out which iOS gamepad is best for your needs. The best controller for someone who owns an Xbox One and mostly plays on their Apple TV, for example, won’t be the same as the best controller for someone who doesn’t own a console and only plays games on their iPhone while they commute.
After testing several models across different iOS devices, we’ve selected the best controllers for playing games on the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. Our picks are divided into categories geared towards specific buyers based on Apple’s expanded support for console gamepads, compatibility with different kinds of devices, and potential use cases.
Here are our top picks for the best iOS Controller:
- Best iOS controller overall: SteelSeries Nimbus+
- Best iOS controller for PlayStation owners: DualShock 4
- Best iOS controller for Xbox gamers: Xbox Wireless Controller
- Best iOS controller for Nintendo Switch fans: Backbone One
- Best iOS controller for travel: Razer Kishi
The SteelSeries Nimbus+ is the most versatile yet familiar controller you can find for gaming across the entire Apple ecosystem.
Pros: Built-in stand that fits most iPhones; supports all modern iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac models; familiar layout complemented by iOS navigation buttons
Cons: Attaching the stand can seem a bit sketchy, prominent battery indicator detracts from the design
The SteelSeries Nimbus+ is the best iOS controller thanks to its incredible versatility. It can easily pair with iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac devices via Bluetooth. It can be used standalone, like a traditional controller, or it can be used with an iPhone mount that makes it seem more like a handheld console than a gamepad. And, it can even be customized using the SteelSeries Engine software.
All of those features help the Nimbus+ slot easily into the Apple ecosystem. So does the Lightning port that makes it easy for most iPhone and iPad owners to keep the battery charged. With that said, iPad Pro owners who rely on a USB-C cable for charging will have to dig up one of their old Lightning cables. The battery lasts up to 50 hours on a single charge, which should be more than enough for mobile use or gaming sessions around the house on the couch.
The Nimbus+ was clearly inspired by other controllers — it features the same layout as Sony’s DualShock 4 with a shape that best resembles Microsoft’s Xbox Wireless Controller. There are four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, a directional pad, two clickable analog sticks, and a trio of navigation buttons meant specifically for iOS devices. The controller should feel familiar to any experienced gamer.
This isn’t to say the Nimbus+ is perfect. Attaching the phone mount feels perilous, the prominent battery indicator is an eyesore, and the face buttons feel oddly slick compared to those found on other controllers. Yet, none of its competition manages to best the Nimbus+ when it comes to offering a great experience on every Apple device you own. That versatility more than makes up for a few design quibbles.
The best iOS controller for PlayStation owners
The DualShock 4 is included with the PlayStation 4, it features a reliable design for gaming, and it’s easy to swap between Apple devices and your console.
Pros: Familiar layout; PS4 owners won’t have to purchase another controller; easy to switch between devices
Cons: Not everyone will find it comfortable to use; battery life can be lacking, especially late into the controller’s life
Sony introduced the first DualShock controller as an optional PlayStation accessory in 1997. Until the release of the PlayStation 5, which comes with the new DualSense controller, every other PlayStation console debuted with a next-generation DualShock controller that built upon the original design. The gamepad is familiar to millions of gamers — and PS4 owners can easily use the DualShock 4 with all of their Apple devices.
Apple officially added support for the DualShock 4 to iOS and tvOS in 2019 to coincide with the launch of Apple Arcade. Pairing the controller is as easy as simultaneously pressing and holding the Share and PlayStation buttons until the light bar flashes. The controller can then be selected in the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV’s Bluetooth settings; the light bar will glow a solid color when it’s successfully paired.
Using the DualShock 4 is otherwise similar to using it with a PS4. The controller features the same basic layout as the original DualShock released in 1997: two clickable analog sticks, a directional pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and three navigation buttons are all here. Anyone who’s played on a PlayStation console in the last 23 years will have a familiar experience with the DualShock 4.
Unfortunately, support for all of the DualShock 4’s features varies by game. Some developers choose not to support “extra” features, such as the touch bar, light bar, and rumble-based feedback. Apple has made it easy for devs to customize on-screen control prompts based on the connected controller, which is nice, but they aren’t always perfect. And, the DualShock 4’s battery life often leaves a lot to be desired.
The best iOS controller for Xbox gamers
The Xbox Wireless Controller is a great all-around gamepad for iOS devices, and it features a shape many people with larger hands will find comfortable.
Pros: Easy to switch between devices, Xbox One owners won’t have to buy a new controller, comfortable shape lends itself well to longer gaming sessions
Cons: Might be too large for some hands, requires batteries
Apple didn’t just throw PlayStation owners a bone in 2019; it also officially added support for the Xbox One controller. It’s the same basic concept — make it easy for iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV owners to use a gaming controller they might already own, but this time, applied to the gamepad Microsoft has shipped with every console since 2013.
Most people probably won’t have to choose between an Xbox controller or a DualShock 4 for iOS, as it’s more likely you’ll own one or the other, and both are great performers. For those who do have an option, however, there are a few differences to note.
The most obvious is the shape: Microsoft opted for an asymmetric layout, slightly larger body, and more trigger-like shoulder buttons with its controller. It also chose to use AA batteries rather than a rechargeable battery, which can give the Xbox One controller a longer battery life at the expense of convenience.
I’ve been a PlayStation owner for most of my life, and I’m used to the DualShock lineup, but I’ll admit the Xbox One controller is a lot more comfortable when playing for extended periods. People with larger hands will probably prefer Microsoft’s offering; those with hands on the smaller side might be better off with Sony’s. But, again, the point is to use the controller you already own with as many devices as possible.
Pairing an Xbox One controller with an iOS or tvOS device is as easy as pressing the Xbox button, holding down the Pair button for a few seconds if it’s already connected to a console, and then selecting the controller from the Bluetooth menu of the device you want to play on. I haven’t encountered any issues switching between my iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV while I was evaluating the Xbox One controller for this guide.
It should be noted, however, that the brand-new version of the Xbox One controller released in conjunction with the Xbox Series S and X does not yet have official iOS support. It’s expected to be added, but only the older model linked to in this guide currently works with iOS.
The best iOS controller for Nintendo Switch fans
The Backbone One turns a connected iPhone into a makeshift Nintendo Switch with a bevy of software features that aren’t available with other gamepads.
Pros: Comfortable design, extensive software support, easy setup
Cons: Not as portable as some other controllers
There’s no denying the Backbone One makes the iPhone look like a Nintendo Switch. The designs are practically identical: a gamepad on the left, a screen in the middle, and another gamepad on the right. Anyone who’s used a Switch will feel right at home with the Backbone One — and might even find themselves wishing Nintendo would copy a few ideas itself.
Setting up the Backbone One is as easy as pulling the gamepads apart, lining up the Lightning connector with an iPhone’s equivalent port, and letting the controller snap into place. This can be a bit nerve wracking the first few times, but I haven’t encountered any problems despite using the controller for dozens of hours over the course of several weeks.
Once the hardware’s in place it’s time to set up the Backbone app for iOS. At its most basic level the app can be used to find and launch games that support the Backbone One. The app also lets you share experiences via screenshots, gameplay recordings, and social features such as the ability to join a friend’s game.
It’s clear the Backbone One was built with this platform in mind. It has a dedicated Backbone button for launching the app, an ellipsis button that can be pressed twice to mute the system’s microphone, and a capture button for recording gameplay or taking screenshots. (Plus the same menu button that can be found on many other gamepads.)
The result is a controller that offers a full console experience thanks to its dual analog sticks, bevy of face buttons, typical shoulder buttons, and its comprehensive social platform. It also includes ideal mobile features like a headphone jack, a Lightning port for passthrough charging, and the ability to operate without a battery.
The best iOS controller for travel
The Razer Kishi is an easy-to-transport controller with a small footprint and compatibility with a wide variety of iPhone models.
Pros: Great for travel, works with most iPhone models, doesn’t require a battery
Cons: Can be hard to set up the first time or reset between uses, can’t be used across the entire Apple ecosystem
Razer is mostly known for its PC gaming peripherals, but at CES 2020, the company announced a new Kishi controller for smartphones. (I’ve used the version made for iOS devices, but there’s also an Android version.) Unlike most of the controllers on this list, which emulate or simply are traditional gamepads, the Razer Kishi is at its best when it’s used as a travel companion that makes iPhone gaming more enjoyable.
Here’s how it works. iPhone owners can pull the Kishi apart, plug the right controller into their Lightning port, and then align their phone with the slot on the left controller. The peripheral then holds the connected iPhone securely in place while also offering the same inputs — two analog sticks, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, etc. — as more traditional gamepads. When it’s fully set up, the Kishi is very similar to the Backbone One, creating a makeshift Nintendo Switch out of your phone.
This setup lends itself particularly well to gaming on the go — especially for people who need their controller to take up as little space as possible in their bags. Unlike the Backbone One, which bridges the gap between its controllers with plastic, the Kishi relies on fabric bands. The resulting setup is less sturdy than the Backbone One but also smaller when the Kishi is collapsed. People who prefer a better gaming experience should appreciate Backbone’s offering; those who value space should opt for the Razer and its more transport-friendly design.
The Razer Kishi is an excellent option for iPhone gamers on the go. The controller is responsive, sturdy, and easier to carry around than most of its competitors. It also features passthrough charging that should make it easy to keep the connected iPhone charged during prolonged gaming sessions. Other controllers offer greater versatility, but when it comes to playing games on an iPhone while you’re out and about, the Kishi is an attractive option for all but the most hardcore gamers.
Our testing methodology
To determine the best iOS controller, I tested several models using a series of games and media applications. All of our controller picks were used to play a mix of iOS-native games, titles streamed from my PlayStation 4 Pro using the Remote Play app, and games streamed from my PC using the Steam Link app.
The goal was to evaluate each controller’s responsiveness in a variety of scenarios, to confirm that each gamepad could work with the iOS interface, and to gauge each controller’s performance across genres.
Controllers were evaluated based on how comfortable they felt while playing, how swiftly their batteries died, and how easy they were to set up. Some of these metrics, like comfort, are admittedly subjective. However, I’ve reviewed many peripherals and strive to make the line between objectivity and subjectivity clear where applicable. Still, your mileage may vary based on some factors.
Tested hardware includes a new iPhone SE, second-generation iPad Pro, Apple TV 4K, and the 2018 Mac mini. The SteelSeries Nimbus+, DualShock 4, and Xbox Wireless Controller work with all of the devices. The Razer Kishi and the Backbone One, however, depend on a physical Lightning connection that limits them to the iPhone.
What we’re looking forward to testing
Though our current picks represent the best controllers we’ve been able to test so far, there are always additional models we’d like to get our hands on. With the release of the PlayStation 5 as well as the Xbox Series X|S, there should be several new options soon.
I look forward to testing these new controllers when iOS support is officially added.
- Sony DualSense Controller ($70): Sony introduced the DualSense controller alongside the PlayStation 5 in November 2020, breaking the DualShock line’s 23-year-long reign. Apple included support for the new controller with the beta release of iOS 14.5, so official support should arrive sooner than later. It will be interesting to see if developers take advantage of its unique features, like haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.
- New Microsoft Xbox Wireless Controller ($60): Microsoft also released a new controller alongside the Xbox Series X|S consoles in November. The new Xbox Wireless Controller features a slightly modified design with a Share button in the middle of the gamepad. Support for this controller arrived with the beta release of iOS 14.5, and with both Apple and Microsoft saying they want the gamepad to work with Apple devices, it seems like Xbox enthusiasts won’t have to wait long to use the controller elsewhere.