The idea of turning your smartphone into a dedicated gaming console has inched closer to realty–especially with this past E3. The two culprits, PowerA and Nyko, have revealed the Moga and Playpad, respectively. They look to finally bring the much needed tactile controls that onscreen buttons have failed to replicate. But unbeknownst to many, another third party peripheral, Zeemote SJ1, has already beaten them to the punch.
(Side note: See our Moga and Playpad coverage here: E3 list.)
In this review, we’ll go behind the controls of the Zeemote, it’s games, and how it stands against competitors.
In comparison to other third party peripherals, Zeemote has been around the block for quite awhile. Owners of any Nokia or Sony Ericson phone of yesteryears may have come across this brand as far back as 2008. Sure, a number of bluetooth enabled controllers have been released since then, but what makes this compact controllers unique is its ergonomic design. Priced against other competitors, Zeemote is a bit more budget friendly. At $30, the device may be a bit steep, but controllers like the iControlPad or Gamegripper are exclusive to certain phones and carry a hefty price tag, usually between $60-$70.
HARDWARE – Zeemote SJ1
At first glance it’s easy for passerby’s to compare the Zeemote’s single analog design to that of Nintendo’s Wii Nunchuck set. Aside from the varying color scheme, the controls do indeed bear a striking resemblance to the the Big N’s Wiimote. In front of the joystick lies two buttons while a third rest on the other side of the controller. Lastly, a dedicated power button is placed on the face of the device along with a LED light for connection status. The Zeemote is powered by two AAA batteries and they slide in the bottom of the device.
How gamers deal with its small frame is in direct relation to their portability needs.
The Zeemote is made out of a soft plastic and while it is light, it doesn’t feel cheap at all. The trigger is specially resistant and provides a tight grip. For those careless types, rest assure that the device itself feels durable but, though, the handle is prone to scratches. I’ve played with the device for about 3 days now and while it’s not noticeable, a few small marks are visible.
The device is tiny. Very tiny. While the Zeemote is portable, its small profile may turn off some users. If you’ve got large hands you’ll find that your palm can easily embrace the controller whole. Even for my abnormally thin fingers, I found the device somewhat petite. In comparison to many third party controllers, the Zeemote is easily the smallest in the line up. While many will scoff at it’s size, the overall feeling of the controller is great in the hand — if it fits.
How gamers deal with its small frame is in direct relation to their portability needs. If you’re willing to sacrifice size for pocket space, the controller fits snuggly in most pants. Hipsters rejoice; Zeemote fits perfectly in most hip hugging jeans as well.
The lack of true analog controls for mobile games makes First Person Shooters and 3D gaming a part time time job. Unfortunately, Zeemote won’t be your controller of choice in Gameloft’s next Modern Combat title. Software (which we’ll cover a bit later) is lacking and action heavy games will need at least TWO controllers, one for movement and another for camera controls.
Though both the A and B shoulder triggers are placed too close for comfort, the designers have created a crafty way for player to differentiate between buttons. The A buttons contains a wedge that separates the two pieces so you’ll never have to look down and guess which button you’re pressing.
The wedge between the two buttons aids in differentiating the device by touch. Note the location of the C button.
The single analog stick provides a true 360 degrees movement. While it’s not as smooth as say, the Xbox controllers, it just works. Console purist will find the movement a bit resistive but not enough to hinder most games.
While both the analog stick and shoulder buttons are passeable, the placement of C button was a terrible design choice. Tightly placed within the nook of the controller’s arch rests the the C button. Instead of placing it where it could have been a trigger, à la Xbox, the button is depressed deeply at the bottom arch of the device. Instead of tapping the the button, you’ll need to press down with the tips of your finger. It’s an uncomfortable experience.
The placement of the C button makes it difficult to press
As the Zeemote’s connectivity is powered by bluetooth, pairing is as easy as your everyday headset. For the technological impaired among us, the Zeemote team has included a free companion app in the Google Play store.
Not content on just dropping the SDK and letting developers have a ball, the Zeemote team shows off the potential of their controller through a number of apps. A couple of these games serve as an introductory course for your device. Like most tech demos, these games aren’t meant to be fully fleshed out but instead, they’re meant to showcase the controller’s capabilities.
Just a taste of Zeemote Tech Demos
How many mileages you get out of the Zeemote is entirely dependent on how much you enjoy the catalog of compatible games.
Of course hardware is only as strong as its software. While there are dozens of games that can run on the SJ1, unfortunately, most of these aren’t quite as fun. Notables games like Running Fred, Another World and Speed X 3D are great, but the range of tittles are on the low side. Though to it’s credit, the addition of Zeemote’s full blown analog stick makes these game, which were already fun, much more enjoyable. I found myself avoiding touch control related deaths in Another World, and while the tilt controls of Speed x 3D are perfectly capable, Zeemote makes a great alternative.
How many mileage you get out of the Zeemote is entirely dependent on how much you enjoy the catalog of compatible games. There’s a healthy list of support for the device ranging from R-Type to a Playstation Emulator. However there’s also a number of them that you’d definitely scroll past. Bounce 4-Sides anyone? The lack of custom mapping makes it a bummer and basically renders it 95% incompatible with most of the harcore games.
Hey at least it’s compatible
Fortunately, apps like Bluez IME fully unlocks the potential of your $30 investment by allowing you to use Zeemote as an input for additional games. Though, the ability to do so should have shipped with the device in the first place.
As portable as the Zeemote is, without a way to properly balance the controller and smartphone/tablet makes its portability moot.
So we’ve covered both hardware and software, but how does it hold up in real world usage? In short, its a mixed bag. Playing games with the Zeemote is incredibly responsive with no lag or loss of connection. Sounds great, right? But without any way to latch the device on your Android tablet smartphone or tablet, playing looks like this:
Gaming on the Zeemote
Sure, it’s not overly fatiguing but it feels unnatural. Holding the screen in one hand and the controller in another isn’t exactly difficult but it not comfortable either. As the screen gets larger, the whole setup gets more unwieldy. Also expect a few stares during commute.
Placing your Android device on a flat surface means craning your neck to play so you’d be force to find some way to hold your smartphone. As the portable as the Zeemote is, without a way to properly balance the controller and smartphone/tablet makes it portability moot.
Conclusion: Should I buy it?
Zeemote is a great device. While the supported games are a hit or miss, its hardware design makes it a great for portable gaming on the go. Sadly its lack of “latching” on to your smartphone makes that same portability a drawback. Though looking at third party controllers on the market, you’d get more bang for your buck with Zeemote.
Zeemote isn’t the device that will mark the future of mobile gaming, but it’s a step towards it. Overall this device may appeal to a mixed crowd. While it’s hard to recommend the controllers due to its short comings, it performs just as well. Bottom line: If you’re looking for an inexpensive yet great controller, the Zeemote may be the one for you.