The Fructel Gametel Bluetooth controller is a bolt-on that adds the traditional gaming setup of D-pad with action and shoulder buttons to Android and iOS devices
The Gametel is the latest in a trend of mobile peripherals such as the iControlPad for smartphones and the Nintendo Circle Pad Pro for Nintendo 3DS that bolster gaming control with new and improved inputs ungracefully welded to the side of the original device.
The Gametel promises the full D-pad gaming gamut boasted by emulation hero the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – if not those awkward analogue discs – but without the need for the many handset compromises that Sony Ericsson's baby enforces.
Through the wonders of an easy-to-pair Bluetooth connection, and a handy clamp if you're using a smartphone, the lo-fi add-on turns any Android or iOS mobile device into a fully fledged gaming portable (we tested it using an Apple iPhone 4S and a Samsung Galaxy S2).
The Gametel has a clever, utilitarian design that is undermined by cheap materials and aesthetic carelessness. Sturdy and robust, it would take a bang or two, yet also boasts sleek lines on the reverse and the effective smartphone join, with flush shoulder buttons that outthink the Xperia Play's gaudy baubles.
However, its Poundshop packaging gives way to a light plastic unit that feels cheap to the touch, like a low-end, third-party Mega Drive controller. Elsewhere, the spring-loaded clamp used to hold the phone in place is fairly primitive and reasonably intrusive, instantly reducing the sexiness of any phone attached to it.
Be still your retro, touchscreen-hating heart: there's a four-way control pad masquerading as an eight-way one on the left (made to look, somewhat bizarrely, like a naval compass), select and start buttons in the middle, four action buttons on the right, and two shoulder buttons that sit behind the screen.
It's a setup that's functional if not ergonomically familiar. The design thought that's gone into the cleverly cut-out and well positioned shoulder buttons perhaps belongs on a more high-end product, as unfortunately the other controls feel very basic and thrown on in comparison, the pad rudimentary and the buttons clicky.
In contrast, the iControlPad's D-pad and dual-analogue nub setup is more versatile, while its action buttons are more tactile and classic.
The Gametel is primarily focused on the hardcore emulation culture that burns bright on Android and jailbroken iOS devices, with dozens already supporting it. Officially, Android fairs better on the quality front, with more than 50 titles of varying quality compatible with its driver app, while iOS works with the older-than-witch's-teeth Atari iCade titles (although if that's your thing there's more than 100 of them) and just 23 new and not particularly good games selectable through the free Gametel app.
It's an unpredictable minefield of non-compatibility for the casual enthusiast, but then guaranteed support is an issue for all – not just for budget bolt-ons, but even the Xperia Play.
Until a major smartphone player releases its own peripheral and pledges significant support, just as Nintendo has with the 3DS's excellent if awkward Circle Pad Pro, only emulation will really thrive, and even then, we prefer the iControlPad.
Bravely, or perhaps fearing legal issues, the Gametel hasn't tried to compete with the iControlPad's bold analogue and D-Pad set-up, but the alternative is lacklustre and limiting.
The basic configuration works best on more archaic fare such as Frogger and Space Invaders, physical controls always preferable for the unforgiving split-second timings of old.
However, more recent offerings aren't coded for, or responsive to, such old-school controls and more often than not, from No Gravity's space-shooting histrionics to Inc's action-platforming cartoonery, we found the touchscreen to be preferable. As we've written before more than once, not all controls are created equal, and just because they're physical doesn't mean they're necessarily better.
Likewise, the boasted big-screen joypad mode,connecting your device by HDMI to your TV and controlling via Bluetooth from the sofa, works fine and is a nice multi-tasking touch, but the unrefined controls' leaning towards old-school offerings make this an unlikely avenue of re-use. If that's your bag, we suggest investing in a the full 60beat control shebang.
Charged through the same microUSB cable used to power almost all non-iOS phones nowadays, it's a low-maintenance gaming partner. With the Start button activating and deactivating the Gametel - not to mention an auto-off setting that deactivates after six seconds of inactivity - to preserve the reported nine hours' battery life (which we also found to be accurate), it's also a long-term one. If only our phones lasted as long.
However, unlike the iControlPad, you can't use this plentiful battery source to charge your ailing handset, which is a shame.
The Gametel is a cheerful solution to getting basic gaming buttons on a touchscreen device, but it isn't a particularly cheap or comprehensive one. At £10 more than the superior and more substantially built iControlPad, and with the age-old 'not every game will work with it' issues, it feels a pricey halfway house to fix an overstated problem.
That said, the iControlPad is out of stock at the moment, gaming support should grow (substantially if you're of the emulation persuasion) and it's as easy to use as they come.
So if you're an emulator junkie and absolutely, positively have to have physical gaming controls on your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet right this minute and can't/won't upgrade to an Xperia Play, this isn't a bad option..
Gametel availability: Available now at gametel.se
Gametel price: £49.99