In gaming terms, much of the success of the iPhone – and other smartphones of its ilk – is arguably due to the intuitive nature of the touchscreen interface.
Taking away the need to remember which button does what is a gloriously liberating experience, and it’s not uncommon to see children as young as two or three happily interacting with titles such as Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja – proof positive that this kind of setup is brilliantly intuitive.
Some people have taken this to mean the end of ‘traditional’ games consoles such as the PSP and DS. But rather than take over from button-based gaming, touchscreens are here to offer an alternative.
There’s no denying that more demanding games require the precision and responsiveness of a physical setup, and that’s why the world needs the iControlPad.
Produced by the same team that brought us the excellent open-source Pandora handheld, the iControlPad has been in development practically since the days of the original iPhone. Its objective is simple: to offer a physical interface on a platform which lacks the buttons and inputs required for 'traditional' gaming experiences.
At first glance, the lineage of the iControlPad is obvious – it boasts an almost identical button arrangement to the aforementioned Pandora. The same gloriously precise D-pad is in evidence, and the dual analogue sliders are just as pleasing to use.
The four fascia buttons possess just the right combination of responsiveness and springiness, and their layout mimics that seen on consoles such as the Nintendo SNES, Sony PlayStation, and Microsoft Xbox 360.
The only unusual element to the controls is the location of the L and R buttons. Traditionally speaking, these are usually found on the top corners of a joypad, but because of the way the iControlPad is built such placement is impossible.
Instead, these buttons are placed on the rear of the device, so that your fingertips rest on top of them. It feels rather awkward to begin with, and until your get your grip right you'll probably end up pressing them accidentally. However, after prolonged use you become accustomed to the arrangement.
While the controls are a complete success, docking your phone into the iControlPad is very much of matter of luck. As the name suggests, it's been built around Apple’s famous handset, with the plastic clamps providing offering a perfect grip around the iPhone 4.
Other devices are supported, but predictably the fit isn't anywhere near as snug. Some phones rattle around, and even the iPod touch isn't held as tightly as we'd like.
Furthermore, devices with screens larger than 3.5 inches are hit and miss – the Nexus One fits okay, but its successor the Nexus S is too tall and too chunky. Needless to say, if you have a HTC Desire HD then you've got about as much chance of fitting it inside the iControlPad as you have of getting an entire rugby team into a Mini.
It's not a complete deal-breaker, though – the guys behind the iControlPad have already confirmed that more clamps will be produced in the future, and this effectively means that the device has an element of future-proofing – new phones can be made compatible using fresh sets of clamps.
It's not known how much these will retail for, but a price of around £10-£15 would be a small sum to pay to ensure your iControlPad continues to be of use when you upgrade your phone.
As for power, the iControlPad runs off a 1350mAh rechargeable battery which is topped-up using the bundled USB cable.
Using the iControlPad
Despite the fact that it's built around the iPhone 4, the iControlPad actually works best with Android-based handsets. Unless you're prepared to jailbreak your iPhone, you'll miss out on playing the various emulators that are available.
No such issues hold back Android, which has a raft of retro-focused apps available on its marketplace. At the time of writing only SNES 9x EX supports a direct connection with the device, but prolific developer Yongzh has already stated that he's introducing iControlPad support in his range of retro emulators.
Pairing the iControlPad with your jailbroken iPhone or Android handset is blissfully straightforward – as long as the app in question supports it, you just have to tap 'scan for iControlPad' and within a couple of seconds you're good to go.
The link is made using Bluetooth, and we noticed no discernable delay between button presses and on-screen response when we tested it using our Nexus S.
Even if you have apps and games that don't currently have the capability to communicate with the iControlPad directly, there are workarounds. The device comes with a handful of pre-set configurations which can be toggled during the power-up sequence.
These allow the iControlPad to assume the role of a Bluetooth keyboard, allowing you to map certain keys to buttons on the pad. It's hardly an elegant solution, but it does at least allow you to start playing without having to wait for devs to support the device.
Speaking of which, you can expect support for the iControlPad on both the iPhone and Android to build as more units make their way into the hands of developers and the general public.
When you consider how easy it is to introduce Bluetooth pad support to applications – especially on Android – we can imagine that many coders will get behind this product, should it perform well at retail.
Clearly, it's very early days for the iControlPad. The future of the device is anything but clear - support from developers is thin on the ground at the moment, and given Apple's overly-protective nature when it comes to defending potential revenue streams, one would imagine that it will have a dim view of developers supporting what is essentially an unofficial and unsanctioned peripheral.
Indeed, Apple's move to prevent unofficial devices from using the iPhone's dock connector was one of the reasons that the iControlPad team moved to an entirely wireless, Bluetooth-based connection.
However, if you're one of the enterprising souls brave enough to jailbreak your iDevice then we’d recommend you give the iControlPad some serious consideration. Emulators for the SNES and NES are already available with support for the device, and more are on the way.
Similarly, Android users are going to benefit from a flood of iControlPad-compatible emulators in the near future, and there's the added bonus that these apps can be downloaded without having to modify your phone beforehand.
When we recently reviewed the Xperia Play we were really taken with the phone’s physical interface, and what the iControlPad essentially represents is a way of bringing that interface to other phones.
If Sony Ericsson’s much-hyped ‘PlayStation Phone’ has tempted you with its lush controls but you can’t afford to lay out the £400+ required for a purchase, then this could very well be the next best thing.
The iControlPad is available to order now.