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Which MFi iPhone Game Controller Should You Buy?

The world of MFi controllers is still a bit of a crazy one at the moment. The first few months were rough: limited support from games, a dreadful selection of controllers, and even iOS issues that practically ruined the first good controller, the SteelSeries Stratus. Now, time has led to a greater number of games that support MFi controllers to where I have a huge folder full of them, and while the controller selection is full of ones with flaws, there’s at least one controller I can wholeheartedly recommend as a great all-around package. Still, MFi controllers are still not a fantastic proposition on iOS.

I would have hoped that by now any game that should support controllers would, but sadly not. Part of this is that despite a standardized protocol, you still hear of developers having issues with individual controllers:

So, developers are wary to add controller support, because it’s pretty much a situation like on the PC, where there’s all sorts of weird devices to potentially support. But with Apple certification, this shouldn’t be happening. It scares off developers from implementing MFi controls, which leads to fewer games getting them, which leads to fewer people wanting to buy controllers, which leads to fewer games supporting them as the audience for controllers is ever smaller…

It doesn’t help that the iOS experience isn’t perfect – you can’t control the iOS system interface with controller like you can on Android. Some kind of controller-friendly mode would help. And an easy list of controller-compatible games, instead of companies having to curate their own, would be quite welcome. Third-party resources exist, but why isn’t Apple providing those?

As far as the controller experience goes, I really prefer playing games with the iPhone than the iPad, because you get that kind of handheld console experience when you’re playing on a controller with a clip versus with the iPad propped up on a table. HDMI output with an iOS device isn’t perfect, because of the way video through the Lightning port is handled, there’s some latency. Let’s hope iOS devices soon support USB-C, which does native video output. It’d be perfect for gaming. Plus, I’m annoyed at the fact that there’s still some form of non-configurable black bars around the screen for HDMI output.

The game selection is solid, but not fantastic, to the point that it still feels like a surprise when a game has controller support. Here’s my go-to folder for controller-compatible games on my iPhone, at least the first page:

Controllers Folder

I’ve got over 50 games with controller support installed, and not counting ones I’ve uninstalled, there’s a good selection of games in there. I can think of man games that would be improved by MFi support – Glorkian Warrior ($2.99) would be amazing with it, for example. At least the Sonic remakes all have them. KinoConsole (Free) works well for streaming PC games, and can emulate an Xbox 360 controller with an MFi gamepad, if that’s something you want.

For sure, the controller situation is a lot better now than it was a year ago. And perhaps it’ll be even better a year from now. But would I call an MFi controller a must-buy for the iOS gaming fan? It’s not an essential purchase, you’re not quite missing out yet. But you will enjoy your purchase more than ever. But I kind of regard controller support as the new iCloud save support – I’m really happy when it’s there, but given the difficulties and possible lack of demand for the feature, I don’t blame any developer for not implementing it.

So with that, I now rank the available MFi controllers, from best to worst, based on reputation, feature set, pricing, and my personal experiences:

 

Mad Catz C.T.R.L.i.

I’m apparently so far out of the loop on Mad Catz products that I didn’t realize that they started making actually good products at some point. Like, they have a Bluetooth keyboard with a trackpad which supports 4 different pairings that I’m shocked I haven’t bought already, because it’s basically my white whale of Bluetooth keyboards. And they make a Bluetooth headset I really want that supports low latency audio after my issues with Bluetooth latency on the Turtle Beach i30s, though I’ll also need a specific Bluetooth transmitter, I suppose. I have technology problems.

Mad Catz CTRLi

So, it turns out that with this sudden reputation of making feature-packed products, the Mad Catz CTRLi is the best all-around MFi controller you can get right now. It’s a jack-of-all-trades controller, but pretty much every other controller is deficient in some significant way. This one uses glossy plastic, but it still feels really good in the hand. The joystick and buttons have a good feel to them, with just enough stiffness to give you precision without feeling too rigid. It turns on and pairs without much hassle. It has an iPhone clip, which some controllers lack. The clip is a bit stiff, and has an interesting design that screws into the top of the controller with a thumb screw. If Apple releases anything bigger than an iPhone 6 Plus, Mad Catz will need to release a new clip. The MOGA Rebel has easily the best clip, but this at least works.

The CTRLi uses 2 AAA batteries for power, as opposed to a rechargeable battery. This might be disappointing if you prefer rechargeables, but if you like just being able to swap out batteries to get a fresh charge, then this is for you. You’ll need the CTRLi app (Free) in order to check the battery life remaining, there’s no indicator on the controller itself.

Still, above all else, this is probably the safest bet you have for an MFi controller, and at $59.99 (possibly cheaper on Amazon), it’s actually one of the more bargain-priced ones.

 

SteelSeries Stratus XL

HGXD2

A perfectly fine full-sized controller option as well, I’ve enjoyed it whenever I’ve used it. It too uses batteries, but has AA batteries, perhaps more common than AAAs used in the CTRLi. It also has the joysticks directly across from one another as opposed to being offset. However, the lack of an iPhone clip makes this one hard to recommend over the CTRLi. At least it’s something you can find in Apple Stores.

 

Horipad

Horipad

Another controller without an iPhone clip, you’ll find a lot of people swear by this one. Hori has a reputation for good controllers, and the d-pad on this one is allegedly incredibly well-made, to the point that I’m willing to put this high up on the recommendation list. The problem is that it isn’t cheap at $79.99, and you can pretty much only find it at Amazon. Plus, it comes with a generic tablet stand that will block the bezel on modern iPads. Not that you probably don’t have an iPad stand of some sort already, but it’s still suboptimal.

 

SteelSeries Stratus

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StratusHero

The original Stratus and the first Bluetooth MFi controller. iOS 8 wreaked havoc on this little thing, though firmware updates and iOS 8.1.1 solved a lot of the problems that existed with it disconnecting and whatnot. The pairing button on the back is a bit problematic, but I also own a pre-release version that doesn’t suport firmware updates like later models, so your mileage may vary.

Really, this is the ultimate portability option, as it’s a tiny controller, literally pocket-sized. It’s not meant for iPhone at all. It does work well to play games with, I have few qualms with it. It’s cramped, but that’s just the nature of it being a tiny controller. If you have an iPad, and want something that you can slip into a small pocket in your bag and just leave it there for whenever, this isn’t a bad option. If you can nab it cheap (it pops up on flash sale sites from time to time), then it’s not a bad choice.

 

MOGA Rebel

MOGA_Bioshock

I’d recommend this one very highly based on my usage with it, if only because it’s the perfect controller for iPhone owners. MOGA’s been making controllers with clips for a long time now, and their clip more than fits the iPhone 6 Plus. This is because the MOGA Rebel is basically the MOGA Pro Power Android controller without the integrated phone-charging battery, so the clip will fit pretty much anything that’s classified as a phone. My old Xperia Z Ultra actually fit in there, no joke.

The d-pad isn’t fantastic, but it’s good enough to play fighting games like Garou: Mark of the Wolves ($3.99) with it. The joysticks feel loose, but not overly so, you might like the feel of it. The reason I can’t really recommend this one all too well is that it was prone to disconnection issues with a large number of games before later iOS versions seemed to fix MFi controller issues. Some games still cause disconnects, though. I do like it, but considering that this one is hard to find new, and the possibility that it won’t work with everything, makes me hesitant to recommend it. You can probably nab it for $40-$45 used on eBay, though.

 

Mad Catz Micro C.T.R.L.i.

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MCB31268_CTRLI_micro_GB_005_lg

This is basically the CTRLi but slightly smaller. So what’s the problem that knocks it down the list so far? Well, it has an iPhone clip, but not the same thumb-screw design of the CTRLi. Instead, it squeezes into a little slot on top of the controller. There’s a couple of prongs, but they do not matter, as the leverage comes from the center of U-shape. The fit is so tight that you have to put your iPhone in and out with the clip not attached to the controller, lest one of the prongs break. This actually is an improvement on the design, because it makes it easier to remove, because the thing holding the clip to the controller isn’t on the prongs. It’s terrible, and that clip is as stiff as the full-size CTRLi. It really sinks this controller as an iPhone accessory. Also, the AAA battery slots are in hard-to-remove slots on opposide sides of the back of the controller, as opposed to an easy-to-access compartment.

Other than that, it functions exactly as well as the full-size CTRLi, just with a slightly smaller design. But that’s why I’d recommend the original Stratus above this. That is a tiny, out-of-the-way, hyper-portable controller. The Micro CTRLi isn’t so small that you’re making a significant difference in size over the full CTRLi. And it doesn’t even work well with the iPhone. It’s the cheapest option you can get, being $10 less than the full-size CTRLi. But seriously, I made that mistake, you won’t regret spending the extra $10.

 

MOGA Ace Power

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KOTOR+MOGAcontroller1

This controller was okay for being the first decent MFi controller. With an array of competent options and larger devices that are incompatible, this makes this controller irrelevant now. It only fits the iPhone 5 models and iPod touch 5th generation, and even then, the sliding joysticks are bad enough that they make playing games on them a miserable affair. The battery charging is slow and will kill the controller’s battery life. You could perhaps get a Lightning extender and use this on your iPad, but why do that when actually good controllers exist? This thing is only worth it for free.

 

Logitech PowerShell

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logitech

Frankly, I don’t know why anyone was making a non-extended MFi controller. I don’t know if a market for controllers for iOS devices, that also didn’t want joysticks, ever existed. It’s why everything but the first two MFi controllers has been an extended layout with the analog joysticks and 2 triggers. You can pick this one up cheap on clearance if you really want it, but it’s still an iPhone 5 only affair.

There’s a few controllers worth keeping an eye on in the future: the Gamevice from Wikipad will be an iPad-only controller, but will bring that sit-back experience to the bigger-screen device. The Wikipad Android tablet with controller attachment was actually really comfortable to play with, so that might actually be promising. We can only hope that future controllers are in the works – one with a rechargeable battery and integrated clip from Tt eSports was allegedly in the works at CES:

And we can only hope that the iOS version of the Mad Catz LYNX 9 is as gloriously ridiculous as the Android version is:

But even if you compare the E3 2015 controllers from this year to last year, it seems like there are fewer in the works. One can only hope that they don’t disappear over time. While I’d love for Apple to just release one official controller that developers can target, I suppose we’ll have to live with this chaotic world of controllers for just a while longer. But at least the selection is so much better than it once was.