Between confusing implementations and unappealing prices, the first wave of iOS game controllers had a very rough launch, nearly killing a new accessory category that had the potential to be huge for Apple. Some of the earliest iOS game controllers only fit smaller iPhones and iPod touches, others had limited buttons, and most were originally priced at $70 or more. With the exception of Mad Catz’ more affordable, device-agnostic C.T.R.L.i series of Bluetooth controllers, iOS gamepads quickly racked up mediocre reviews and wound up in discount bins. The message to Apple and controller makers: follow Mad Catz’ template, and price the controllers more reasonably, or no one’s going to buy them.
Currently an Apple Store exclusive, Hori’s new HoriPad Ultimate ($50) is the latest acknowledgement that the lesson’s been learned: it’s the second Made For Apple TV game controller, including full MFi/iOS 7+ compatibility for use with iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, plus Mac support. The pricing, design, and basic feature set are substantially similar to SteelSeries’ Nimbus, though Hori — a respected Japanese developer of game controllers — has outdone SteelSeries on the specifics. For the same price as Nimbus, you get a more PlayStation 4-like controller design with superior hand grips, twice the battery life, better-feeling buttons and a more substantial weight. HoriPad Ultimate uses a Lightning cable to recharge its battery, too…
While Sony and Microsoft collectively established the template for recent iOS game controllers, it’s clear that Sony’s PlayStation 3 controller DualShock 3 had the most influence on both SteelSeries’ Nimbus and HoriPad Ultimate. A D-pad’s on the front left, two rubber-topped DualShock-style analog joysticks are on the front bottom, and four convex action buttons are on the front right — just like a DualShock 3 with Xbox-style button labeling. The metallic blue side grips are smooth hard plastic rather than DualShock 4-style textured rubber, but they’re still very comfortable in the hand.
Rather than Select, Start, and PlayStation buttons, HoriPad Ultimate just has a gently concave Menu button on the front center, the only sign that the controller was specifically designed with Apple TV compatibility in mind — earlier iOS controllers had a pause button, instead. Like Nimbus, four red lights indicate HoriPad Ultimate’s pairing status; they’re invisible on Apple.com’s official pictures, but found directly above the Menu button within an otherwise glossy (and fingerprint-attracting) surface.
Where Nimbus and HoriPad Ultimate differ the most is up top. Hori’s L1, L2, R1, and R2 shoulder buttons are almost identical to the ones on Sony’s DualShock 3, clearly separated from one another with prominent, angular pressure-sensitive triggers on the L2 and R2 buttons. SteelSeries went with more organic button shapes that physically touched one another, indirectly increasing the potential for accidental presses of the wrong button; Hori keeps the buttons distinct, like Sony did. Both controllers have the same center array with a power switch, female Lightning recharging port, and Bluetooth pairing button, neither comes with a Lightning cable for recharging. The switch and button on HoriPad Ultimate are a little smaller than Nimbus’s, but not problematically so.
HoriPad Ultimate’s most obvious benefit over Nimbus is something you’ll only notice when you hold the controller: how it feels. Nimbus is somewhat lighter than you’d expect from a good controller, while HoriPad Ultimate has a greater density that’s most notable in the very center. Similarly, the buttons and D-pad all feel as precisely executed as you’d expect from a Sony DualShock. HoriPad Ultimate doesn’t feel cheap in any way, though it’s worth mentioning that Hori’s rubber-tipped analog sticks don’t have the delicate textures found on some controllers; they’re nearly smooth to the touch, rather than deliberately grippy.
The controller’s extra weight is partially attributable to a bigger battery. Just like Nimbus, HoriPad Ultimate includes a relatively power-efficient Bluetooth 4.1 chip, but promises 80 hours of play time compared with Nimbus’s 40. That’s a significant benefit, as Nimbus’s run time was on par with (if not better than) most console wireless controllers, while HoriPad Ultimate is at least twice as long-lasting as a DualShock 3 or Xbox One Wireless Controller. The iOS-to-console comparison’s not exactly apples-to-apples, as MFi controllers don’t have rumble vibrations, headphone ports, light bars, touchpads, or gyroscopes to worry about. But being able to actively play games for two weeks without recharging is great by controller standards.
Pairing HoriPad Ultimate to a device is nearly effortless: once the controller’s turned on, you just press the pairing button, go into the Bluetooth (iOS) or Remotes (Apple TV) settings menu on your device, and select HoriPad Ultimate. When connected to an iOS device for the first time, HoriPad Ultimate suggests that you should download an app from the App Store, but no Hori-specific app appears on the recommended downloads list. There’s only one reason a Hori app might be useful: SteelSeries offers its own Nimbus Companion App, primarily for firmware updates, and the automatic app download prompt suggests Hori is planning something similar. For now, it’s not needed, as the controller works perfectly with iOS and Apple TV devices straight out of the box.
Apart from the absence of a firmware app, software support for HoriPad Ultimate is virtually identical to Nimbus, which is to say that Hori’s controller is compatible with the same (slowly) growing library of iOS and tvOS games that began to add official Apple-sanctioned game controller support after the release of iOS 7. You can play cross-platform games such as Asphalt 8, Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, and Oceanhorn using any of these controllers, as well as presently tvOS-exclusive titles such as Beat Sports. Hori’s analog controllers and buttons are perfectly calibrated, so I felt perfectly natural — and far, far better than with on-screen controls or the Siri Remote — steering my ship and pointing my weapons in Geometry Wars 3, which is just one of a bunch of iOS/tvOS games that practically beg for the dual analog sticks included in good iOS game controllers.
As a lifelong gamer who has been waiting for great controllers to use with iOS games, I’m glad that HoriPad Ultimate even exists — particularly at a competitive $50 price point. Two years ago, it seemed obvious that the “right” iOS controller would be device-agnostic, include Bluetooth, and offer PlayStation- or Xbox-like features at a PlayStation or Xbox-like controller price. SteelSeries came close to “just right” with Nimbus, and thanks to improved ergonomics and battery life, Hori has come even closer with HoriPad Ultimate. With the exception of rumble vibrations, there’s little more I could want in a console-style game controller; otherwise, Hori has basically nailed the concept here. If you’re looking for an iOS or Apple TV game controller, HoriPad Ultimate is the best option currently available.
iPhones, iPads, iPod touches with iOS 7+, Apple TV 4
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Filed under: Apple TV, iOS, iOS Devices, Reviews