Review: MOGA Ace Power Game Controller + Power
Model: Ace Power Controller
Compatible: iPhone 5/5c/5s, iPod touch 5G
Apple's well-known talent for simplifying complex devices has been offset by its penchant for overcomplicating simple accessories: A/V cables, USB cables, and even cases tend to become needlessly pricey once Apple gets involved. Sometimes, the premiums aren't terrible, but there are plenty of examples where even staunch Apple supporters have found them hard to justify. As the first Lightning game controller based on Apple-developed gamepad reference designs, MOGA's Ace Power ($100) is unfortunately in the latter camp. While gamers — including us — have waited years for officially-sanctioned iOS gamepads and software, Ace Power's high price, problematic device compatibility, and limited software support all make this new accessory very hard to recommend.
Like several other upcoming gamepads, Ace Power is designed to move in-game controls off the iOS device’s screen and onto plastic buttons grafted onto the screen’s left and right sides. Following Apple design guidelines, MOGA added one analog joypad and one digital joypad to the left of the screen, with a second analog joypad and four colored buttons on the right, plus four top shoulder buttons, and extra buttons for pause, battery life checking, and Sleep/Wake triggering. All of the buttons feel appropriately springy, notably including pressure sensitivity for the D-pad, face buttons, and shoulder triggers, but the analog “sticks” are actually just discs with flat 360-degree ranges of motion. Apple describes Ace Power’s joypad and button combination as “extended,” versus a “standard” controller that omits the analog discs and trigger-style top buttons. Now that Apple’s providing the controller specifications and the underlying software to support them, games designed to work with one third-party controller should supposedly work with all of them, just like controllers for Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony game consoles.
Compared with $40-$60 wireless Xbox, Wii, and PlayStation controllers, however, Ace Power is actually a pretty simple accessory. Since it relies upon Apple’s Lightning connector, there’s nothing wireless inside, and the all-plastic shell has a somewhat hollow, lightweight feel with a tendency to rattle when held on its own. Roughly 3.4” tall by 1.4” deep at its thickest points, it arrives compacted down to a 6.25” width, expanding to around 9.1” when an iPhone 5/5c/5s or fifth-generation iPod touch is placed in the center. That’s less than an inch narrower than the gigantic Nintendo Wii U gamepad, and equally impossible to pocket. A ratcheting spring system lets Ace Power stretch temporarily to around 9.75” for device insertion, while a rear lock enables you to hold the frame in place once your Apple device is nestled in the middle.
To that end, MOGA ships Ace Power with two sets of inserts: a black pair pre-installed to accommodate the iPhone 5 or 5s, and a thicker orange pair designed for the fifth-generation iPod touch. If you remove all of the inserts, you can use Ace Power with the iPhone 5c, which is a little thicker than the other devices. That’s where the iOS device list ends, though. Unlike a wireless controller, which could conceivably be used with iPads, this one is restricted to Apple’s current pocket-sized devices, except for the Lightning-less iPhone 4S. And as Apple is known to be working on an iPhone with a nearly 5” screen, there’s no guarantee that Ace Power will work with future larger “pocket” devices, either.
Despite the limited number of devices it’s supposed to support, Ace Power exhibited some major problems making an electronic connection with the integrated Lightning connector. Using the included inserts as specified, we couldn’t get an iPhone 5s to reliably connect to Ace Power for gaming; we had to remove the bottom insert just to get games to acknowledge the controller was present, and even that didn’t work reliably. From title to title — including Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders, Asphalt 8: Airborne, LEGO: Lord of the Rings, and Oceanhorn — games varied wildly in signaling the fact that a connection existed, then doing anything if one did. Over several days of testing, we could never get Asphalt 8 to work properly, but were able to get basic controls working on the other titles under different conditions: Sky Gamblers worked on the iPod touch but not on the iPhone 5s, Oceanhorn worked if the iPhone 5s was connected without the insert but not with it, and so did Lord of the Rings. There’s clearly something wrong in the way Ace Power’s Lightning port-surrounding area has been molded, at least in the unit we tested; given reports we’ve seen elsewhere online, we suspect we’re not the only ones with the problems.
Perhaps the most remarkable letdown with Ace Power isn’t MOGA’s fault, but rather Apple’s: six years after iOS debuted and years after software development kits were developed for keyboards and Bluetooth styluses, Apple still hasn’t created a user-facing software interface to acknowledge the controller’s connection or manage control schemes; this is instead left for developers to implement on their own. Ace Power’s face is so completely loaded up with buttons and divots that you could easily miss the presence or meaning of its four small red LED lights; if the fourth is illuminated, the controller is apparently accepted by the iOS device as connected.
Beyond that, a simple on-screen check mark or status bar indicator during gameplay could let the player know that all’s well, but instead games that work sometimes just start working and ones that don’t fail. As such, Asphalt 8 sometimes appeared to acknowledge the connection, but the controls never actually worked to let us steer, accelerate, or brake the car; Gameloft’s in-game control schemes oddly listed all of the joystick and button functions as “TEXT.” When Sky Gamblers didn’t work — even when Ace Power’s one red light was on — we couldn’t move at all and had to watch as the plane was blown apart, but when it did, we could access everything from flight sticks to camera perspective switches to weapons. There wasn’t just a sense that the software was unfinished: it’s a deeper set of issues, as if the games were released and marketed as compatible without a concrete sense of how well they’d actually perform. This isn’t the way to launch $50 controllers, say nothing of $100 versions.
MOGA also includes a micro-USB charging cable so that you can recharge Ace Power’s built-in 1800mAh battery, a feature that wasn’t mandated by Apple’s game controller reference design, but makes sense when you consider the profound impact gaming can have on an iOS device’s run time. A fully charged and unassisted iPhone 5c, for instance, can only run Infinity Blade III for around four hours before the battery expires, and the run times are even lower on the other supported devices. Ace Power’s battery will nearly double that time on an iPhone — more on the iPod touch — or enable you to offset the power loss so you can do other things with your device. While the battery worked mostly as expected, we found that it kept flipping on and off at the end of its charge cycle, a reason to flip the battery switch off once iOS’s charging indicator disappears for the first time. After a full discharge test, we found that the battery doesn’t need to be charged for Ace Power to be recognized by iOS as a controller. Ace Power’s integrated headphone port—fed by the Lightning connector, with volume handled on the iOS device—continues to work, as well.
Overall, while MOGA’s Ace Power is a noble first attempt to bring off-screen controls to the iOS platform, the overall experience it delivers falls well short of being acceptable. The price tag alone is a significant deterrent, which when combined with the unpredictable per-device user experience and spotty software support make Ace Power a pretty marginal offering right now. Three of our editors are gamers, and none would consider buying a $100 accessory with Ace Power’s issues; that said, the rating would have been higher—not necessarily generally recommendable—had the software and compatibility issues not been so pronounced. Unless something major changes in the near future, we would skip Ace Power. There’s nothing here that would justify spending nearly as much as a standalone handheld game console just for an iOS controller, a problem that’s up to both Apple and developers such as MOGA to solve. We hope that the software, pricing, and electronic compatibility issues get worked out, as the iOS platform has considerable potential to continue disrupting the standalone console and handheld game markets with better games and accessories.