Hands-On: iOS 13 + Xbox Wireless Controller

Posted on October 10, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Games, iOS, iPadOS, Mobile with 8 Comments

I figured it was time to use my Xbox Wireless Controller with Apple Arcade and other games on iOS 13/iPadOS 13.

To be fair, I had started testing Apple Arcade when it first launched. But I’m not a huge fan of touch-based mobile gaming, and most of Apple’s initial offerings were of the cartoonish/family-friendly variety. That hasn’t really changed in the past few weeks. But with news that macOS Catalina was available and also offered Apple Arcade support, I was reminded that you can now connect an Xbox controller to any iOS 13-based device too.

So what the heck.

In case it’s not obvious, you need a newer generation, Bluetooth-enabled Xbox Wireless Controller ($40 to $65 on Amazon, depending on model, or a PlayStation Dual Shock 4 or another compatible controller). The original-generation Xbox One Wireless Controller doesn’t include Bluetooth support and will not work.

I’ve also ordered a Dainslef Smartphone Clamp for the Xbox Wireless Controller ($10) from Amazon so I can try Apple Arcade and other games on my iPhone 11 Pro Max. That’s not arrived yet, so my initial controller-based tests were on an iPad.

First, you need to pair the controller with the iOS device. This couldn’t be easier: Just turn on the controller and press and hold the pairing button until the white Xbox button begins blinking. Then, on the iOS device, navigate to Settings > Bluetooth. You’ll see Xbox Wireless Controller (or similar) appear under Other Devices. Select it, and they’re paired.

I assume all Apple Arcade games support hardware controllers since these games need to be played on an Apple TV, and that device’s remote acts like a controller. But in the handful of games I did test—like Flip Out and Sneaky Sasquatch—not only did the controller just work, but the in-game help at the beginning of each displayed a graphical overlay of an Xbox Wireless Controller—and not just a generic controller—displaying what buttons to press or whatever to perform specific actions. That is incredibly helpful.

Beyond the basics, each game also used the Xbox Wireless Controller’s ancillary buttons, like Menu and More, where needed. In both games, the controller’s Menu button brought up an in-game menu, which is what someone familiar with the controller would expect.

Looking through the Arcade selection in the Apple App Store, I still don’t see the type of games I’m really looking for, though the variety is notable and most would likely find at least a few titles of interest. Of course, what I really want to play is Call of Duty Mobile. It’s available on iOS (and Android) and looks pretty fantastic. But it doesn’t natively support controllers, at least not yet. (I’ve seen ways to make this work, but I’m probably going to wait for official support.)

Given the quality of the game and the familiarity of the levels, I could actually see moving from console to mobile, or at least using both. And that the transition would be much easier than my earlier move from PC gaming to console. That’s rather incredible. But all it will take, apparently—besides getting Call of Duty on mobile, of course—is full controller support. Someday.

In the meantime, there are, of course, iOS games that do support controllers natively. So I downloaded Fortnite, signed in with my Epic account, and then installed the full game (it’s an additional 2.7 GB install, plus some time to “optimize” the game before you can start). I figured this would provide a good first-person shooter experience, and I wasn’t disappointed: It runs terrifically on my iPad and works well with the controller, and with no real need to configure anything, which was nice.

Gameplay worked as expected—meaning I was quickly killed in my first game, but the controls all worked normally. As with COD, this plus a controller and a phone mount could be an interesting solution for gaming on flights or otherwise.

We live in interesting times.

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