Back in March 2008, when Apple announced the iPhone SDK and the then-forthcoming App Store, many people immediately though: GAMES. I know we did -- that's why we started TouchArcade that very month. Another person who felt that gaming would be huge on the iPhone is Craig Rothwell of OpenPandora. Seeing an opportunity there in the button-lacking iPhone, Craig and company began designing the iControlPad, a gaming accessory originally designed to mate with the iPhone and provide a D-pad plus four buttons. We first caught wind of this effort quite a while ago -- over three years ago, in fact. In that time, the iControlPad has changed shape more than once, changed interfaces, and, finally, become a real product that can be ordered online.

Yesterday, we received a test unit and I've been putting it through its paces and learning its ins and outs all day. Let me share my impressions.

The first thing that strikes you about the iControlPad when you unpack it is its myriad inputs. There's a D-pad, a four-button diamond, a Select and Start button, two back buttons, and two analog sticks. Best of all, the glorious analog sticks! And...the first disappointment comes when you, iOS gamers, discover that they're rendered unusable due to Apple's restrictions on the type of Bluetooth devices that can interface with iOS.

The iControlPad is a complex device that features many different modes of Bluetooth operation: keyboard emulation, Serial Port Protocol (SPP), a slew of Human Interface Device (HID) modes, as well as custom combinations of several. What's more, it features firmware that can be flash-updated from Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. While, due to the aforementioned restrictions, the iControlPad can only interface with un-jailbroken iOS devices by way of keyboard emulation, it can interface with other platforms, including Android and WebOS, via the more robust protocols and, thus, deliver its full range of capabilities. Keyboard emulation does allow all other controls on the device to work under iOS -- but no analog sticks, which need to send a constant stream of positional data to the host device.

Jailbroken iOS devices can take full advantage of the analog sticks, as demonstrated in this iPhone demo video.

The iControlPad's keyboard emulation mode interfaces with iOS devices in a similar manner as the iCade, with one "keypress" being sent to the iPhone when an action begins, and another when that action ends. The following diagram, kindly provided by Stuart Carnie of Manomio, illustrates the basic event flow in this mode of operation.

Under the keyboard emulation mode, the native iControlPad key protocol is a bit more complex than that of the iCade, and as a result it should exhibit slightly more latency than ThinkGeek's control device, though happily, it's not easy to see. No big worries though, as an imminent firmware update will allow the iControlPad to go into an iCade emulation mode, of sorts, using its same key protocol, which will allow it to work with any game coded to take advantage of the iCade controller.

A little more concerning is a situation I noticed when playing games that require a great deal of button mashing (like R-Type). At times in such games, the onscreen ship would continue going in the last direction I triggered, ultimately flying off the screen or into a wall. I'm not certain, but it seems more a key signal issue than a physical issue of the D-pad sticking. If that's indeed the case, I hope a firmware update will resolve the matter.

The iControlPad itself feels pretty substantial. It consists of a core rectangular control unit with rubber end-caps that can function as a free-standing Bluetooth control unit for many types of devices. The standard end-caps can be removed and replaced with a locking plastic frame that allows various phone-sized devices to be physically connected to the unit. For iPad use, you'd want the generic end-caps, while you'd want the iPhone end-cap-frames to attach an iPhone. Other phones can use other end-caps.

The unit features a non-removable, rechargeable 1350 mAh battery that can be used to charge your iPhone's battery by way of plugging a USB OTG adapter into its USB port. Given that the iPhone 4's battery is 1420 mAh, the unit can deliver a notable boost in usage time for the host device. A very nice feature.

As mentioned previously, I tested a number of games on the iControlPad-equipped iPhone, including R-Type. That's Amiga R-Type running under a build of Manomio's iAmiga emulator with iControlPad (and iCade) support built-in, kindly provided by Stuart Carnie. Any joystick-based game running under the developer iAmiga build in question can be played using the iControlPad. And played well -- the experience feels great, aside from the occasional "sticking" issue that I spoke of earlier. If and when that gets ironed out, the iControlPad unquestionably delivers a far superior game experience than any manner of on-screen D-pad.

That said, I only have this iAmiga build thanks to a developer connection. I am not aware of a single game sitting in the App Store at this moment that natively supports the iControlPad. Several currently support the iCade, and when emulation for that device arrives, iControlPad users will have more to play with. I am sure that, in time, the device will gain app support, but it's something of a bleak playing field right now.

After spending a long day with the unit, I cannot recommend that the typical gamer run out right now and grab one. It's true that I recently praised the iCade in my review, but as a physical arcade machine replica, it delivers more of an overall retro "experience" than simply a new method of control. And, there's value there, to me and the other retro goons, I feel. I think the iControlPad needs to see some issues ironed out and a bit more adoption before it becomes a desirable accessory for the typical iOS gamer. For the hobbyist developer or the hacker sort with jailbreak in their blood, however, it's a pretty great device to tinker with. I am definitely intrigued and think it's got potential as something that might find itself on an iOS gamer's wish list.

Here's hoping Apple loosens up its Bluetooth restrictions so that the iControlPad and devices of its sort can deliver their full functionality to iOS gamers.

We'll keep readers updated as the iControlPad evolves. Stay tuned.

TouchArcade Rating

  • http://twitter.com/inzyster Tommy

    This looks 

  • Dug From The Earth

    So due to apples bluetooth restrictions, this is an iphone controller, that wont actually work with iphone games? They really should make that more clear, and market it as a controller for game system emulators only when it comes to idevices. I was really looking forward to never having to use a touch D-pad on the screen again with a device such as this. 

    • http://toucharcade.com blakespot

      It, like the iCade, can be supported under standard iOS when the device is set to look like a keyboard to iOS.

    • http://morereasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.tumblr.com Chungyen Chang

      According to their website, It does, however, have support for many of the emulators on iOS if you're jailbroken.

    • Nicholas Jabbour

      you also can use it with android devices, which don't require hacking to be used. I'm using one on my Samsung Epic, and I love it!

  • Adams Immersive

    An interesting start. A color to contrast with the black controls would be nice.

    What are the “back” buttons? Shoulder-button alternatives that are on the back face?

    • Anonymous

      I'm only guessing but i'm sure it's blank canvas like any controller until a game developer decides what action to "call". Not just for the back buttons but for any button

    • Anonymous

      I'm only guessing but i'm sure it's blank canvas like any controller until a game developer decides what action to "call". Not just for the back buttons but for any button

      • Adams Immersive

        Right, but I’m wondering what they are—they’re not seen in the pics as far as I can tell. I’m guessing they’re not labelled “back” at all, but rather located ON the back, like shoulder buttons. I’m wondering where they are positioned.

    • Anonymous

      I'm only guessing but i'm sure it's blank canvas like any controller until a game developer decides what action to "call". Not just for the back buttons but for any button

    • Anonymous

      I'm only guessing but i'm sure it's blank canvas like any controller until a game developer decides what action to "call". Not just for the back buttons but for any button

    • Guest

      This review has a clear pic of the backside, index-finger buttons.

      http://www.ifans.com/forums/showthread.php?t=336636

  • Okok

    It looks cheap and plasticky.

    • Ibisum

      I have two .. they're not cheap feeling at all, in fact they're quite solidly built.  I've dropped one a couple times, not a single dent or ding.  

  • Anonymous

    The classic problem with 3rd party and Apple - Developers aren't too likely to support something IF a lot of people don't have it. People aren't likely to buy it unless developers support it.

    Unlike a DS or even an xbox. If the developer doesn't support the controller it ain't gonna work. It would be nice to see a project like this officially team up with apple so support would be almost a must (like game center)

    • Injuwarrior

      Well apple did start supporting the fling, but this is much different. Seems to go against their no button embargo, and it worries me that they might never even loosen up the bluetooth restrictions. It seems portable, and the fact that it boosts the iphone battery is an excellent touch. Seems like the article is suggesting just what I'd do, wait and be all over it if joysticks work without jailbreak, and enough games start to support it. 

      • Adams Immersive

        I thought Apple did allow buttons (and all kinds of things) on dock-connector devices. So is it a fascist “ban” on the needed Bluetooth support, or simply a technical failing—a missing feature? I know iOS today supports more with BT than it did at first, so it seems likely to support even more in future.

      • http://twitter.com/stuartcarnie Stuart Carnie

        Short: 
        It is easy for Apple to do, and iOS hardware already supports pairing to these devices, but it is prohibited by Apple today.

        Long:
        From a business perspective, Apple wants licensing revenue for 3rd party hardware that connects to iOS devices and therefore they must go through the MFi program.  It's a shame as it stifles so much potential innovation.

        I (and many others) have logged bug reports in the hope Apple will at least allow HID game controllers and an appropriate API.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MR4IKQCBWIP6JHMN2FT562MGLI Web

    So close yet so far. I had a feeling that those analog sticks were too good to be true. I really wish that apple would devote some resources to developing an API for game controllers a la Game Sprockets from back in the day. Perhaps if Android comes out with something like this it might force Apple to follow suit.

    Also, is it possible for an input device to emulate swipes and taps? Probably not, I guess, but it would be a more effective way to implement a controller.

    • Ibisum

      It turns out that its just too soon to discuss this, because there are developers who have worked out how to get access to the analog sticks without forcing that the user jailbreaks their phone .. its just a matter of being patient and waiting for the software to move through from 'developer hack' to 'implemented and available' .. patience.

      In the meantime, please don't forget that the iCP can be used on any other computer, easily enough.  I'm using my two iCP's for MAME on my Linux workstation and in that capacity (with no limits) they are absolutely wonderful devices.  When the iCP and iPhone start happily playing with each other (like they do with my Android phone already), it will be a win-win .. but please people, try to remember that these are early days yet.  The only limitation is currently with iDevices, and this is being fixed as I type ..

  • Art Vandelay

    After all that...............it's a brick.

    • Anonymous

      What do you expect?  It's manufactured at Vandelay Industries.

  • Craigix

    I'm Craig the developer of this product and I'd just like to point out we have fantastic support from the Cydia community - Emulators for: NES, SNES, Megadrive/Genesis, MAME, PC-Engine, MSX, Gameboy, Amiga, C64 & more.

    In iCade mode the iCP works well with iTunes apps, we have several developers who have now submitted apps with iCP support, I'm reasonably confident that between the iCade and iCP we can gather some good support overall.

    • Anonymous

      So... can we steal the iControlPad to use with all of the ROMs we downloaded illegally?

      • Realist

        Of course, because everybody who pirates games, steals controllers and other hardware too isnt it?

      • Anonymous

        You missed the point.

      • Ibisum

        Yes, you can do that.  Also, you can use the iCP with perfectly legal software currently making its way into the App store.

      • http://www.gadgetoid.com Gadgetoid

        Or you can buy a Retrode and copy&paste the roms right off the original cartridges that you own.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003349077578 John Holmes

        You're dumb.

  • lolek

    Think what would happen if Apple released an official d-pad, and the appearance modeled on the Mac.

  • Mark

    Thanks for your comments Craig. Tempted to get one. Saw that it was on special offer a few weeks ago. Should have grabbed it then.

  • http://twitter.com/stuartcarnie Stuart Carnie

    I'm going to go out on a limb and say Apple is going to produce some sort of game controller that will work with the Apple TV.

    • Anonymous

      As an owner of all 3 consoles, I sure hope so.  I'm itching for something different and so often I think about how fun the aTV could be with games.

  • Anonymous

    it's worth it just for the support from jailbroken apps. anything extra is an added bonus for me

  • Anonymous

    it's worth it just for the support from jailbroken apps. anything extra is an added bonus for me

  • Anonymous

    it's worth it just for the support from jailbroken apps. anything extra is an added bonus for me

  • Anonymous

    it's worth it just for the support from jailbroken apps. anything extra is an added bonus for me

  • Anonymous

    it's worth it just for the support from jailbroken apps. anything extra is an added bonus for me

  • Local

    What happened to the GameBone Pro?

    • http://toucharcade.com blakespot

      Not the same device, but the Belkin JoyPod was not to be, just to add into related news: http://toucharcade.com/2008/09/02/belkin-says-no-joypod-in-the-works/

    • Rusty Shackleford

      Became flaccid...

  • lolek

    probably died. This project is amazing - http://www.coroflot.com/alanli/Iphone-Gaming-Pod/1

    • Guest

      Well, the part where it fits the iPhone 4 so specifically isn't what I'd call a win. I can't imagine you'll be disturbed by any calls while your aluminum antenna is wrapped about by aluminum rails, either. Has gone to the "gotta find an EE for a last few shmetails" phase yet, or is it still entirely in Illustrator?

      • Guest

        Has it gone to the "gotta find an EE for the last few detail-shmetails" phase yet, or is it still entirely in Illustrator?

        /Forgive me, English is my second language. First was baby-talk.

  • Anonymous

    Mmm...I don't care for this. Although the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad's touch-exclusive controls aren't as precise as physical buttons but I appreciate the gaming experiences on the platform as-is. Word, my 2 but as a viable option for those interested, enjoy.

  • Grand Lapin

    Why don't they use Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth? Wi-Fi would disconnect you from Internet but at least any single user game could use the interface without Apple's blessing.

  • Shane

    I can't believe no one has commented on the price yet.  $70 for this is insane.  $20, maaaaybe $30.  Why would I pay $70 to play time-waster-type games?

  • Shane

    I can't believe no one has commented on the price yet.  $70 for this is insane.  $20, maaaaybe $30.  Why would I pay $70 to play time-waster-type games?

    • Ibisum

      Coz it has two analog joysticks along with the other controls, a built-in battery that can recharge your iDevice, is a very well designed, solid product with expansion capabilities (new clips are being designed for use with other devices), its being developed openly and without artifice, and .. well .. it just plain rocks.  Get a couple for your main PC!

  • Shar

    maybe im missing something here but what use or improvement can if offer if the flipping anolog sticks dont work! its useless.

    like buying a car but.. oh wait the gas pedal doesnt work. apart from that its ok.

    dont say it works if you jailbreak it andplay pirate games, not interested in jailbreaking a new ipad.:)

    • alex

      Well the nubs DO work... just not on the iphone YET. I guess on a jailbreaken iphone they are already supported in theory. It's just a matter of time for developer to actually implement it in some games.

      The nice thing about the Icontrolpad is that you're not limited to any platform. You can use it on an iphone, android, computer... you can even use it to emulate a mouse using the nub (special mouse mode).

      It's true that the product is more geared towards early adopter at this point but with more software coming it will probably change. Recently there were discounted at $50 for a week and they told hundreds during that period.

      It's true that 70$ + shipping is a bit on the steep side. It's not glossy or very sexy but it's practical, solid and works well IMO. The team that produce them (Openpandora) had a bad experience with chinese manufacturing in the past. The Icontrolpad is build in Europe - board in germany, plastic injection in the UK, and assembled in the UK - which is quite uncommon nowadays. Don't know if it matters to everybody but it might for some.

  • Anonymous

    now they need to collab with game devs and publishers to make this baby mainstream without the need to jailbreak an ios device. and d-pad dependent gaming is no problem anymore on ios.

  • http://twitter.com/izzynobre izzynobre

    Every single one of these controller add-ons will flop for a simple reason everyone here seems oblivious to: if iOS gaming were SO broken that it needed these type of solutions, there wouldn't be iOS gaming. TA itself probably wouldn't exist, actually.

    Stop trying to fix what isn't broken and accept the platform for what it is. If you need physical controls THAT badly you'd be better off buying a PSP/Nintendo DS.

    • http://twitter.com/stuartcarnie Stuart Carnie

      No one is suggesting that iOS gaming is broken; quite the contrary.  iOS offers the best way to access games at any time, and having the /option/ for more control mechanisms is simply a choice many of us want.

  • http://twitter.com/rustym Rusty Moyher

    After waiting 3 years, I bought one as soon as they were available.
    Now I'm waiting for App Store games to support it.