Touch screen gaming is hit or miss. Some games thrive with such controls, while others…not so much. That's why improving that experience has been a passion of mine for a year now, starting with stick-on buttons for the iPad and culminating in an Android tablet capable of using controllers from both Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo and also emulate touch input to ensure compatibility with pretty much every game out there.
Somewhere in between those two solutions is the Phonejoy, a game controller that is designed to work on Android, iOS, and Windows. iOS support is however still in development, and Windows/UMPC support is a whole other ballgame, so I'll be focusing on Android for this review.
The Phonejoy essentially mimicks a Playstation controller, which sort of makes it look cheaper than it should because it gives you that "it looks like one, but isn't"-feeling. It's a time tested design though and most people are already familiar with its ergonomics. For some reason though the miniUSB port on the Phonejoy is upside down compared to PS3 controllers, which makes it incompatible with charging stands designed for the latter. That seems like a wasted opportunity, and it also gave me some issues with my DIY phone holder – but more on that later.
As for build quality, some reviewers have commented on that not being the best. I think that has to do with the design choice, as the design means that you'll automatically be comparing it to a PS3 controller, which is a $50-110 (latter being price here in Norway) mass produced controller. With the Phonejoy clocking in at only $35, and being as non-mainstream as it is, I don't really have anything negative to say about it. Yes the buttons are slightly stiffer and feel a bit cheaper than on a PS3 controller, but it's still a high quality product.
As for controls, well, you have the Playstation Dual Shock+ layout. two analog sticks, four main buttons, a d-pad, four shoulder buttons, and start/select. You also have a button to trigger the analog stick on and off. On the spine you have a toggle switch for turning the controller on and off, an LED for indicating what the controller is doing (looking for device or connected to device) and an LED to indicate charging, which happens through that upside-down miniUSB port.
How it works
The most common way of connecting game controllers to Android is by having them emulate input devices, basically pretend they're keyboards. This requires installing software that adds an input method option to your device (which you select the way you select touch keyboards), and for Phonejoy, that app is Bluez IME, which also does the job for many of the Phonejoy's competitors. To first set up the Phonejoy, you turn it on, scan for Bluetooth devices, pair it with pin 1234, install Bluez IME, enable Bluez IME under keyboard settings, switch to that "keyboard", connect to the Phonejoy, and select Phonejoy as device driver. That's the intial setup though, and later reconnects are much more straight forward. This brings you into "I'm a keyboard"-mode, which makes the Phonejoy work with a whole bunch of games that let you customize the controls.
What's essentially happenening then is that you press a button, Bluez IME tells the device that you just pressed a key on a keyboard, and the device tells that to the game. You can also set which buttons the Phonejoy controls emulate in Bluez IME, in case there's a game that allows keyboard control but without the ability to customize which buttons do what. GTA 3 is one example, and by configuring Bluez IME to GTA 3 specs instead of the other way around, you can make it work. It's also worth noting that you can configure buttons to act as media controls, so you can use the Phonejoy to remote control audio and video. That's a bit more natural on a Wii mote since it's more remote control shaped, but who said you couldn't use a Playstation controller look-alike as a media remote?
One thing that's very important to be aware of here though is that with this keyboard emulation mode, there's no support for full analog stick functionality. Analog sticks, as their name suggests, have the ability to give you full directional control by knowing exactly which way you're pushing it, and how far. Aside from just directional control, this also affects the ability to switch between crawling/walking/running in some games, fast and slow aiming in others, and so on. With the Phonejoy pretending to be a keyboard however, these concepts don't exist, because that sort of control is normally the mouse or touch screen's job. As a result, the analog sticks will then only work as directional pads – meaning they have four states: left, right, up, down. No "30 degrees that way at this speed" or anything like that. Don't blame Phonejoy – this is simply a limitation that is present whenever a game controller is connected like this.
However, the Phonejoy doesn't have to emulate a keyboard all the time. While keyboard emulation is the standard way to go, some apps have Bluez IME support built right in. One example is N64oid, a Nintendo 64 emulator that is available through SlideME. If you connect to the Phonejoy via N64oid, with Bluez IME installed, you can actually get full analog stick support. That's quite impressive, since that normally requires root. By having a controller that is actually designed for this use rather than a commercial console controller that's being forced to work on Android, you actually get more functionality than a console controller on non-rooted devices. Just make sure the Analog button is turned on before you do this, or you might find yourself troubleshooting the wrong things for a while like I did.
Setting up and using the Phonejoy is a bit more complicated than I'd like for something that's inherently the more straight forward solution than a rooted setup with a console controller, but that's just how it has to be with something as far outside normal Android operation as this.
Once set up though, it works great. N64oid is what I always use, which does of course require that you own the games you emulate to be able to do it legally, but being able to play these games on a mobile device is in itself awesome. I've played Super Mario 64 on Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, PC, my tablet using an Xbox 360 controller, and now my Galaxy S II using the Phonejoy. I never grow tired of that game, and Gameloft's latest copycat game doesn't really interest me when I can play Super Mario 64 with a game controller on my phone.
It's also worth noting that multiplayer is possible on N64oid, up to 4 players at once. Pair that with an HDMI cable and the opporunity for 4 player split screen Mario kart 64 is right there. I don't have multiple Phonejoy controllers myself, but check out the video below from NZtechfreak on YouTube for a demo of 2 player multiplayer using a pair of Phonejoys.
Root vs non-root
At the beginning I said that this is in between simple stick-on buttons and what I'm currently using on my rooted Galaxy Tav 7.0 Plus, and I should expand on that. When rooted, some brilliant apps like Sixaxis Controller and my own personal favorite, USB/BT Joystick Center, can actually emulate touch. That means that you click a button, and the app translates that to the device thinking the screen was touched, not a keyboard. That's powerful beyond what people realize, as it lets you do two important things: get analog stick support where there's a virtual analog stick, and get compatibility in games with on-screen buttons only. You do this by simply overlaying either buttons or the analog stick to the parts of the screen where the on-screen buttons are. It's also possible to connect all sorts of controllers using USB/BT Joystick Center, where I tend to use a wireless Xbox 360 controller by means of the USB PC adapter for it.
The reason I'm mentioning this is that USB/BT Joystick center will get updated to version 6 any time now, and that will include Phonejoy support. That means that if rooted, you can expand the Phonejoy's analog stick and general capabilities to so many more games. That being said, I see the Phonejoy as more of an accessory for non-root users. I intentionally keep my Galaxy S II non-rooted to get both sides of the story: one "stick to the Google way" device to go with my rooted Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. While it's possible to connect console controllers to non-rooted Android devices, the analog stick is that magical feature that made me interested in the Phonejoy.
DIY phone holder
One of the first things I did with the Phonejoy was to loko at it and think "how can I attach my phone to this". I actually have a DIY system for connecting my Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus to a Wii Classic Pro controller, which results in a rather top-heavy setup, so the ability to use my Galaxy S II instead intrigued me. I pulled apart the PS3 controller charging stand I had stashed away somewhere, managed to modify it so it would clip onto the controller securely despite the miniUSB port being upside-down, and went to work with popsicle sticks, gluegun, tape, and an old broken iPhone 3GS case.
The resulting setup clips onto the Phonejoy and holds my Galaxy S II with case securely on top of the controller, making for a Frankenstein version of a handheld console. I know the Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS are fairly popular, but games like Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Zelda OOT and others with custom high-res textures on an AMOLED screen with full console sized controls has a lot going for it, I have to say. Doesn't hurt PS1/SNES/GBA/etc emualtors or actual made-for-mobile games either.
The Phonejoy is far from alone in the market, which I've hinted at earlier by mentioning console controllers and the universal nature of Bluez IME. Even as far as made-for-mobile controllers go, there's plenty of competition. To mention some, the iControlpad, iCade 8-bitty, and Zeemote are just the tip of the iceberg. I personally very much like the design of the DRONE controller that's on Kickstarter right now, but I think the $65 price tag is to blame for why the project has only 5 days left to more than double its existing pledges.
As for what makes the Phonejoy unique, well, I can think of two things that make it a great choice: price, and form factor. It's a full sized controllers, no "2D" analog sticks or anything like that. $35 is also quite cheap compared to many of these specialized controllers, and actually makes it cheaper alternative than hooking up a console controller if you don't alreadyhave one of those.
The Phonejoy is in a product category that too many are blissfully unaware of, which is ironic considering that the Phonejoy itself is only half way to what you can actually get working on Android. It's a great accessory, and while it's not as portable as many of the devices it can connect to, it enables your phone to be a modular game system that can switch from on-screen buttons to standalone controller to maybe even large screen-connected gaming console. In my book, that's $35 well spent.
The Phonejoy can be purchased from the company's website for $35.