When it comes to hardware – “software is king”; after all – who wants a great piece of hardware with poor (or no) software available for it? Nintendo has proven that they can take low spec machines and pump out great software for it – and make a killing. Microsoft is combating the “end of cycle blues” by releasing updates to their Xbox software to extend the life of the aging console. The greatest games of all time … are the greatest games of all time BECAUSE software is king.
If “software” is king – then it stands to reason that controls are queen in the royal marriage of entertainment technology.
Typically, consoles and handhelds push forward hardware controls; because they are dedicated gaming machines. Joysticks, analog controls, triggers, bumpers, d-pads, touch screens, motion control, body scanners, augmented reality, tactile feedback … all used in a perfect synergy to produce the largest choice of gaming in the history of the gaming. Recently, Nintendo and Microsoft shook up what “game controllers” meant – but they continued to take a very traditional approach to gaming controls – using this radical change in control methodology as a secondary means of input.
Enter the mobile devices; cell phones, “smart” devices, tablets … and enter the concept of “convergence”.
The Cost of Convergence
Convergence embellishes the concept of “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”. Everything in the convergence world comes with a trade off – and mobile devices are no different. You want a cell phone that can surf the web and get email? You’re going to give up battery life. You want to watch movies on your tablet? Be ready to have wi-fi nearby. Finally – if you want to game on your mobile device? Prepare for horrid touch screen controls.
Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day – and there ARE games and entertainment outlets that work VERY WELL with just a touch screen. But game developers (and consumers) get sick of “Cut The Angry Bird Ninja While Landing Planes In Smurf Village” games. With the hardware prowess of these mobile devices rising (and their subsequent battery life diminishing) people expect more and developers are willing to give it to them.
But the cost? Terrible onscreen virtual controls … and they ARE terrible. I don’t care how hard the developers try. I don’t care HOW great the layout is. Touch controls for traditional gaming … SUCK. It just can’t be successfully painted any other way.
For the last couple of years, mobile device owners have been chasing “the perfect controller” for their devices to compensate for the lack of “real” controls on their “to go” toys. Of course, this requires carrying something “extra” around with you (something that the anti-handheld game systems people decry as too much work; nobody wants to bring an extra device with you – yet hauling a controller around would be okay, apparently). But I digress …
Nyko has always been about “fixing” console control problems that arise; be it by offering a lower cost solution, providing a wireless solution where one might not otherwise exist or just by offering some sort of personalization to your gaming controls. Gaming on mobile devices – especially Android – definitely has a problem, and Nyko hopes to solve this problem with the PlayPad wireless Bluetooth controller line.
Android Controller Woes
There are four main problems with gaming on Android devices.
First, no physical controls. They Sony Xperia line has tried to solve this by creating a “standardized” controller methodology with their own built in hardware “Playstation” style; and while this has met with a remarkable amount of success overall – not everyone wants to buy a Sony phone. Let’s face it; it doesn’t matter HOW good the on-screen D-Pad is; you’re not going to want to play GTA with it.
Second, a multitude of devices. Some call this “fragmentation”, some call this “selection and choice” – regardless, it offers some issue for creating a third-party controller. The two main problems deal with older devices failing to have a full Bluetooth profile and the nature of built in support of gamepads (starting only with Android 3.0)
Third, cost. Specialized controllers have existed for some time. People have cannibalized their Wii and used it’s Bluetooth compatible controllers. But in the end, cost is a huge factor for what is essentially a luxury add-on device. I mean, we’re USED to spending $50 on a console controller – but are you willing to pay that much for a cell phone or tablet joystick?
Finally, gaming compatibility. Some games support ONLY on-screen controls. Some support Xperia, but not generic game pads. Some support generic game pads, but not keyboard mapping. Some support keyboard mapping – but no physical controller support. Some have built-in support for a few devices (Wii controllers, iCade, etc.)
As you can see, there is work do be done in the world of controllers for Android.
The Nyko Playpad comes in two flavors, each costing $39.99. One is a more “portable” type unit (reviewed here today) and the “Pro” version which is very obviously geared to a more serious player that is probably outputting his tablet or device to a big screen TV. The Pro version is much larger and laid out more like a “modern console” controller which the one we’re looking out in this review is smaller with “on the go” features for the traveler.
Nyko takes a three-pronged approach at dealing with all the issues we mentioned above; two prongs deal with hardware and settings and the third deals with handling compatibility issues with hardware/OS versions.
Hardware: The Controller Itself
The controller is small, easily fitting into the palm of my hand. Overall construction is very solid. It feels like it could easily survive a healthy drop and still be good to go.
Across the face of the controller are two analog controllers, a d-pad, standard diamond layout of four buttons labeled A B X and Y, a Start button, a Select button, and a big HOME button in the middle. There are a couple of indicator lights to show you what mode you might be in as well as a battery light.
Across the top, two bumper buttons and two analog trigger buttons along with a small selector switch to change mode (more on this in a minute) as well as a dedicated mode and pairing indicator. You will also find a standard microUSB charging connector here as well.
The size and layout of the unit is definitely for short bursts of casual gaming; it is far from comfortable unless you have little tiny elf hands. The bumpers are more or less accessible during play, but the triggers seem almost impossible to engage properly. The dpad is a bit stiff but servicable but it’s lower middlish position makes it less comfortable than the left-most analog stick.
Unfortunately, the analog sticks feel terrible on the thumbs; stiff and uncomfortable. The left-most stick is mapped the same as the d-pad. On a bigger controller, these might not be so bad – but as they are now? You’re essentially using the crook or tip of your thumb to move them – and it just isn’t comfortable.
The face buttons are a bit small, but do the job. The button quality is superb and responsive, but again – the size of the unit bites it in the butt; making it difficult to utilize a multi-button scenario (like holding a button down to fire and tapping the button above it for a smart bomb or equivalent).
The top bumpers are comfy and responsive but as I mentioned, the triggers behind them are all but pointless based on the size of the unit. You’ll be using the points of your index fingers to manipulate them (again, I don’t have freakishly big hands – so I’m assuming most people will be fairly uncomfortable).
The mode slider on the top features four settings; Gamepad/HID, iCade, Mouse and APP. More on this in a bit. There is a small indicator on the upper left of the unit that tells you what mode you’re in. The slider is tiny; for those of us that bite our fingernails (a sure sign of neurosis) it can be a bit tricky to move. Fortunately, the slider is high quality and will certainly survive the duration of ownership of the controller.
The controller itself is very rectangular with a large opening on the backside bottom to presumably place the unused digits of your hands. A little better ergonomics might have made this a bit more comfortable – the squared off underside doesn’t lend to the unit’s long-term usage.
Hardware: The Pack In Stuff
Included with the controller is a custom carrying case, a usb dongle and a mobile device stand.
The case is a bit cheap, but it isn’t just a ‘throw in’. It was very obviously designed for the unit and its pack-ins – with dedicated locations for both the USB adapter and the stand. The clasp that holds it shut is cheap and probably won’t survive extended use.
The dongle still puzzles me. Essentially it is a tiny adapter with MALE USB on one side and MALE microUSB on the other side. There is no cable or length – meaning you would plug this dongle into your PC then try to balance the controller on the dongle with IT plugged in. Without a cable or extension, this dongle makes no sense.
Now the the golden chalice of the hardware; the stand. There are a dozen or more “stands” for cell phones and tablets – ranging from simple suction cups to complex folding plastic abominations that work on very few devices.
The stand included here is simply amazing. It borders on being worth the $39 just for the insanely well thought out design. It easily folds up into a nice small flat unit and pops right into the storage case. The best part is – it would be very comfortable in your pocket by itself. Their engineers really went the full mile; making it attractive for multiple devices, but still offering configuration options. There is an extra support arm (brilliant) that folds out perfectly to hold heavier devices (like my Nexus 7) – but stays folded up if you don’t need it (like with my Galaxy Nexus phone). Three angles allow you to view the device in pretty much every environment from eye level to table top. I would easily pay up to $10-$15 right now if I could get this stand without the controller.
Hardware: Getting Connected
The Playpad is a pure Bluetooth device. How it connects via Bluetooth varies depending on how you have the mode selector switch set up. In some modes, you can use the Playpad software (more in a minute) to sync up, but most of the modes requires a trip to the Bluetooth configuration of your Android device.
In Game/HID mode, the Playpad is recognized as a Bluetooth game controller. This, of course, requires an Android OS that supports it – which is 3.0 (Honeycomb) and above. Once connected, it is automatically seen as a “game pad” and some games will immediately be able to use it.
In iCade mode, the Playpad emulates the iCade controller – which is essentially a pre-laid out keyboard device; making it usable across MORE Android platforms (after all – it’s just a keyboard as far as the phone is concerned). You will get pre-configuration of keys as an iCade – meaning you can use it immediately with certain iCade compatible games and emulators (such as the wonderful Broglia .EMU emulators). Unfortunately, the button layout on the unit as an iCade doesn’t always work well, because of the oddball button mappings on the controller. One of the PRIMARY buttons in the .EMU emulators is mapped to the left bumper button. This means that despite being ‘iCade Ready’. you are going to feel some configuration pains depending on the software. Expect to do some remapping in the game despite the iCade setup.
Mouse mode tells Android that a mouse is attached to the system. You can then use the controller as a mouse – giving you SOME sort of access to games that are directly touch controlled (like Angry Birds). It’s a bit clunky – but it works remarkably well as a mouse if that’s what you need.
The final mode is APP mode – where all the magic is supposed to happen. They promise FULL configuration – including remapping of mouse and touch controls – which is pretty much REQUIRED in Android-land if you’re a serious gamer; namely because so many games offer a virtual d-pad but NO game pad or keyboard mappable controls. Unfortunately, this sort of thing – while possible currently with other tools like the amazing USB/BT Joystick Center – requires ROOT access on the device to do the mapping.
That might go a long way in explaining why mouse and touch mapping are NOT included – at this time – but are promised as “coming soon”. My guess is that they are trying to get it working on non-rooted devices.
For my needs, the inability to touch map a controller is a death sentence. For others? Perhaps you can live without it. Certainly the longer we wait, the less of an issue it will be.
Bluetooth syncing went without a hitch. Pairing was straight forward and easy. Simply holding the HOME button for a few seconds puts the unit in pairing mode. No code to type in, no weird stuff – instant pairing. This pairing information sticks, too – so all you have to do next time is turn on Bluetooth on your device (if it isn’t already) and activate the controller. Poof. You’re connected.
The microUSB charging port is fantastic. High quality and STANDARD; no bait and switch extended tip crap (I’m looking at you, Nook Tablet) – I was able to use my existing microUSB chargers to charge it. The battery light illuminates while while charging – then blinks when it is done (what? shouldn’t it be the other way around?) – but it’s a small complaint.
Software: The Playpad App
While you could CERTAINLY use the Playpad without software at all (depending on your situation), the software is really the heart of the “full configurability” and is crucial to using the controller for anything but ideal situations. Dubbed “Nyko Playground“, this is a free download from Google Play. Sharp consumers will immediately notice the BETA tag on the app – and it definitely lives up to its name.
The purpose of this app is to allow you to use and create custom game PROFILES – which will automatically remap the buttons based on the game you want. It doubles as a launcher – so you can add the game to the list – create a button layout – then save (and presumably share at some point).
Sounds great, right? EXACTLY what the Android world needs? Yes, it is what the Android world needs – but this isn’t the best implementation of it.
First up – adding titles to the game’s list is clumsy at best. Sometimes it works -but doesn’t look like it does – and you repeatedly tap the title to get it to register. When it finally reacts, you find you have a dozen copies of the game in the launcher (which is silly, since you can have MULTIPLE profiles per game – you should never have more than one copy of the same game on the game list).
You would expect a generous list of games to be pre-filled in – with ready to go profiles to make your life easy. Unfortunately, the list is sparse – featuring only a couple of titles. A quick visit to the website didn’t show any other titles available either. Sure, it’s a new product but c’mon – this is a big price tag with a lot of promises on the back of the box. Having like 6 configs available (only one or two titles you would have ever heard of) is simply unacceptable. The reason is, of course – because there is no touch or mouse mapping available yet – so the amount of games this thing can support is small.
Creating a profile is easy – as long as you only want to map the keyboard to controls. That’s right – you can’t actually map GAME CONTROLS to the Playpad. So if you want to say, reverse the controls and make the ABXY buttons as DPAD controls, it isn’t going to happen – since there is no way to map game pad input in the configuration editor. This reduces the game support even further.
Finally the software allows you to sync the controller (in some modes) without a trip to Bluetooth settings. This proved to be horribly inconsistent. Sometimes it would work. Sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes it says it’s already connected via Bluetooth and you need to disconnect (even though it isn’t). It became such a chore, you just want to relent and set it up as a full time Bluetooth connected device.
As with any good Bluetooth controller – there was no lag during play. It was quick and responsive – never once leaving me the impression that I wouldn’t have died had the controller behaved.
Extended play left my hands crunched for space and caused fatigue – reminding me quickly that this was a CASUAL play device and not something you would want to spend long hours “killin‘ da 5.0 wi’t yo homies“. The Hobbit-handed may have a different outlook on this. I’d say anything beyond 15 minutes is going to take a toll on your hands.
The Pro version may easily solve the issue of “cramped gaming” – and since it is the same price, it is worth considering if you’re a long-session player. Of course you lose that portability; the Playpad can easily slip into a pocket if you want gaming on the go (sans case, of course) – but the Pro isn’t going to fit in even deep cargo pant pockets.
For my rooted bros out there, you might be thinking, “Can I use this WITH USB/BT Joystick Center to regain touch mapping and controller remapping?”
Unfortunately, the answer is no. I tried a good hour to get this controller (in various modes) to detect and work properly in USB/BT Joystick Center. If I could have, this review might have gone a bit more favorably. This doesn’t mean the developer won’t add support (he is a good guy) but do you want to pay $40 to .. wait?
While the Nyko Playpad isn’t ready for prime time – even for those with elvish hands – thanks to a very incomplete Playground app and the inability to remap controllers or map to touch areas. The app needs a lot more spit and polish – and a TON more configurations available out of the box.
The documentation is horrid – a fold out poster with 900 languages on it – and it took me a LONG time to find English. Once you do find the 10 paragraphs in English – don’t expect much. A trip to the website produced VERY LITTLE extra information; it took me forever to figure out that there was no touch mapping yet – that probably should have been in the FAQs, Nyko.
I’m giving them a bye on the tiny controller issues; after all – it is a tiny controller; and with that comes hand cramping, button placement issues, etc. This is also a subjective area (as seen by my scathing review of playing Kid Icarus on a standard 3DS) that may not roll over to everyone.
This is a huge step in the right direction and the Pro version is probably even closer. The app needs a lot more time to mature (more configs, touch mapping) and we could probably use a slight price drop to make this enough of an “impulse” item for people to try for themselves. Remember, while you may hate Gamestop – they sell these things and you can return for a full refund if you don’t like it (even new).
If this unit still interests you, I encourage you to take it for a drive yourself. For the small-handed very casual – this might be just what you need. If you are at all worried about your hands, go Pro first. The unfinished app works the same on both units – so you’ll get a realistic expectation regardless of which one you buy. Just remember to check the return policy; you may find it inadequate for your needs.