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July 8, 2017

Game on with the best Android game controllers for smartphones and tablets

by John_A

Long gone are the days when Tetris clones, Farmville knock-offs, and Pac-Man lookalikes populated much of Android’s burgeoning Google Play Store. Now, Google’s operating system boasts a diverse games library that rivals that of some home consoles. Geometry Wars 3, Minecraft, Hearthstone, and remastered titles from the Grand Theft Auto collections are the cream of the current mix’s crop — a list that seems to grow longer every day. But if you game on your phone, you may need one of the best Android game controllers.

Not all titles work equally well with touchscreens. Few AAA Android games actually require third-party peripherals, but remastered titles like Tomb Raider and Geometry Wars 3 — which were designed with a controller in mind — respond much better to physical buttons. As anyone who’s roamed the streets of Vice City or the hallways of Croft Manor can tell you, analog joysticks, D-pads, buttons, and triggers deliver infinitely more precision than big, meaty fingers on greasy smartphone glass.

Luckily, there’s no shortage of third-party Android gaming peripherals to choose from. Depending on your price range and preferences, you can pick up a model that will serve you well for years to come, or one that you’ll feel perfectly fine stuffing into a backpack or shoulder bag. Here’s our list of the best Android game controllers for tablets and smartphones.

A note about controller compatibility

Before you choose a controller to use with your Android smartphone or tablet, it’s important to know about the compatibility issues you might encounter.

Android devices running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (or Android 3.2 Honeycomb) or newer support game controllers natively. You aren’t necessarily out of luck if you’re stuck on older software — most controllers will pair to older Android devices — but you can expect them to work unpredictably, unreliably, and sometimes not at all.

Even if your device runs a newer version of Android, it’s not always smooth sailing — some games don’t take advantage of Android’s controller API, and so don’t respond properly to gamepads. But luckily, there’s a workaround in the form of Tincore Keymapper, a third-party app that lets you remap the functions of keys, buttons, and more. Note that you’ll need a rooted device to take full advantage.

Moga Hero Power Controller ($25)

The Moga Hero Power might not be the cheapest of Android game controllers, but it cuts few corners. The full-sized controller boasts a curved, ergonomic design that’s dimpled and textured — giving you a solid grip that doesn’t feel as flimsy as some of the competition.

The button layout is a typical dual analog configuration: On the front is a start button, a select button, and two sticks, one of which is positioned higher than the other to make room for a four-way directional pad. On the right are four action buttons in a diamond layout, and on the back are two shoulder buttons and two triggers.

Perhaps the Moga Hero Power’s greatest asset is an integrated 2,200mAh battery, which connects to your phone via Micro USB cable and charges it while you play. It’s not unique in this regard, but it has the largest battery of any Android game controller we’ve seen — and that’s good news for your phone’s battery life.

Other value adds include the Moga Hero Power’s fold-out hinge stand, which secures your phone in place while you’re gaming, and a convenient four-light LED light that indicates when the controller’s battery is getting low.

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Pyrus Telescopic Controller ($27)

The Pyrus Telescopic controller isn’t your average Android game controller. Unlike the all-in-one, console-style solutions that try desperately to stuff every button, trigger, and joystick onto a single peripheral, the Pyrus Telescopic ships in two pieces: One that affixes to the left-hand side of your phone, and one that attaches to the right-hand side — both in landscape orientation. The result looks something like an oversized Nintendo Switch.

The Pyrus Telescopic might have a comparatively small surface area, but doesn’t skimp when it comes to inputs. The two-piece controller packs a start and select button, two joysticks (one on either side), a four-direction D-Pad, and four action buttons. Flat bumper and trigger buttons sit around back adjacent to a Micro USB charging port.

The Pyrus Telescopic’s slider mechanism fits snugly around phones up to 6.1 inches in size, and its 350mAh battery lasts up to eight hours on a charge when paired to a device via Bluetooth. But one of the Pyrus Telescopic’s nicest features is its built-in mode switching: With a single button toggle, you can swap button configurations between a gamepad mode, a keyboard mode, and an arcade mode.

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8Bitdo Zero ($17)

If the 8Bitdo Zero looks familiar, that’s because it’s a not-so-subtle homage to controllers of the Super Nintendo era. But that’s not a knock against it. The 8Bitdo Zero absolutely nails the retro aesthetic with a matte grey finish and stylish protective case, and packs all the programmable buttons you could possibly want in retro arcade Android titles.

It’s not for everyone, though. The 8Bitdo Zero is a little on the small (it fits on a keychain) and light (just 18 grams) side, and packs just a handful of buttons, including a four-way directional pad, a start and select button, four action buttons, and two trigger buttons.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The 8Bitdo ships with a snap-on bracket that attaches easily to most Android and iOS devices, and a 180mAh built-in battery that lasts a whopping 18 hours on a single charge.

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iPega PG-9017S ($17)

To say the iPega PG-9017S has an unconventional design is putting it mildly, but that works to its advantage. The wider-than-average base and narrow bezels let it accommodate Android tablets up to 10 inches in size, and its 380mAh battery charges plugged-in devices between gaming sessions. It pairs via Bluetooth up to 26 feet away. A special battery-saving mode, which flips on when the controller’s not in use, delivers up to 100 hours of standby time (or 2 hours of active playtime).

The iPega’s button layout isn’t for everyone. Its two parallel joysticks are short and nub-shaped. The four-way directional pad is flush with the controller’s casing. And the iPega also lacks shoulder buttons — short of the controller’s two trigger buttons, there’s nothing on the back.

But the iPega has another thing going for it: Price. If you can put up with its compromises, it’s hard to go wrong for $16.

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SteelSeries Stratus XL ($50)

The SteelSeries Stratus XL, the larger variant of the firm’s Stratus series, boasts a plethora of buttons and features. Here, you’ll find twin joysticks with textured surfaces, a four-way directional pad, four action buttons, a four-LED array, triggers and shoulder buttons, and three front-facing buttons that can be mapped to Android’s home and back buttons.

But it’s not perfect. The Stratus XL doesn’t have a built-in stand — you’ll have to find a wall to prop your phone against. And it lacks a rechargeable battery. But it does support Bluetooth pairing, and it makes up for the battery gaffe with power efficiency — two AA batteries deliver up to 40 hours of gaming, according to Stratus.

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Matricom G-Pad XYBA ($22)

The Matricom G-Pad XYBA may not be as stylish as its competitors, but it checks most other boxes. It’s highly configurable, widely compatible, and lasts hours on a single charge.

The Matricom’s buttons include two joysticks in parallel (a la Sony’s DualShock layout), and a four-way directional bad in the left-hand corner. Filling out the controller’s right and center are four action buttons, including a start button, select button, power button, and an LED power button. Two bumper buttons and two triggers round things out.

Somewhat uniquely, the Matricom features feedback motors that pulse in response to what’s happening on screen. If there’s a major downside, it’s the lack of smartphone stand — there’s no easy way to prop up your smartphone while you’re using the Matricom controller. But considering the price to performance ratio here, that’s a relatively minor setback.

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Razer Serval ($37)

It’s not too surprising that Razer, the pedigreed brand behind high-end RGB keyboards and gaming laptops, makes a pretty decent Android controller. It’s called the Serval, and it boasts a uniquely textured grip designed to keep it from flying out of your hands during intense gaming sessions.

The Serval’s button layout is conventional, in a word. Situated on the left is a joystick and a directional pad, and on the right-hand side is a secondary joystick and four action buttons. Two shoulder buttons and two trigger buttons occupy the back, along with two programmable front-facing buttons and physical back and home buttons that correspond to Android’s software navigation buttons.

The Serval doesn’t have a rechargeable battery — it takes double AAs. But it does have an adjustable smartphone clip and both a wireless (via Bluetooth) and wired (via Micro USB) mode. And unlike most other Android controllers on our list, it remembers up to four unique device configurations, making pairing it to multiple smartphones a breeze.

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Satechi Bluetooth Wireless Gamepad ($30)

Satechi’s Android game controller may not win points for its utilitarian, nondescript design. But it’s one of the cheaper Android controllers out there.

The Satechi’s button configuration consists of 14 buttons total, laid out like an Xbox controller. The joysticks are offset — the one on the left is positioned higher than the one on the right — and the controller’s four right-hand action buttons feature fonts and colors pretty much identical to the Xbox 360’s. But thoughtful touches like dedicated mode buttons and a spring-loaded phone grip elevate the Satechi above the level of mere copycat.

One shortcoming is the internal battery, which at 220mAh is a little on the small side. But Satechi claims that with the controller’s battery-saving mode enabled, it can last more than ten hours on standby.

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