Review: Nyko Playpad Pro Controller

This is a reprint from an earlier review on Green Robot Gamer.

Last year I reviewed the little brother of this controller, the Nyko Playpad Controller.  Since then, I floated the cash to upgrade to the Pro edition of this controller.

This is an “incremental” review; that is – I will reference and sometimes reuse pieces of the previous review in discussing this device.  I recommend you check out the previous review before consuming this one.

Over the course of the last year, we’ve seen a lot of Android compatible controllers show up on the scene; some have been improvements over previous versions (like the Moga controller) while others have been cheap cash ins or worse.

With gaming maturing on mobile type devices, proper physical controls are more important now than ever.  Can the Nyko Playpad Pro do the job?

Available at Gamestop and Amazon

Available at Gamestop and Amazon

Typically, consoles and handhelds push forward hardware controls; because they are dedicated gaming machines. Joysticks, analog controls, triggers, bumpers, d-pads, touch screens, motion control, body scanners, augmented reality, tactile feedback … all used in a perfect synergy to produce the largest choice of gaming in the history of the gaming. Recently, Nintendo and Microsoft shook up what “game controllers” meant – but they continued to take a very traditional approach to gaming controls – using this radical change in control methodology as a secondary means of input.

Enter the mobile devices; cell phones, “smart” devices, tablets … and enter the concept of “convergence”.  If you haven’t read the previous review, please check out the Cost of Convergence section before continuing.

The Trouble with Android Gaming

There are four main problems with gaming on Android devices.  This is expanded upon in the previous review.

First, no physical controls. Sure, you have a couple of dedicated “gaming tablets” now, including the NVidia Shield device and the venerable Ouya.  But overall, you’re on your own.

Second, a multitude of disparate Android devices.

Third, cost.  While these devices are getting cheaper as penetration increases, paying $20-$60 for a controller for your tablet can still impact the pocketbook

Finally, gaming compatibility. USB HID type devices like Nyko, Moga and others are starting to gain a foothold in gaming.  Top notch console-style gaming like Dead Trigger 2 supports USB gaming controllers right out of the box.  Unfortunately, not all games do.

As you can see even a year later, there is work do be done in the world of controllers for Android.

The Nyko Playpad comes in two flavors, each costing ~$25 (Amazon, at the time of writing). One is a more “portable” type unit (reviewed previously) which caters to the casual, short term gamer and the “Pro” version (much more console-like) reviewed here. 

Nyko takes a three-pronged approach at dealing with all the issues we mentioned above; two prongs deal with hardware and settings and the third deals with handling compatibility issues with hardware/OS versions.

Hardware: The Controller Itself

The Nyko Playpad Pro

The Nyko Playpad Pro

The controller is medium sized; falling somewhere between an Xbox 360 controller and a PS3 controller. Overall construction is very solid. It feels like it could easily survive a healthy drop and still be good to go (confirmed; it has survived several falls and general abuse).

Across the face of the controller are two analog controllers, a d-pad, standard diamond layout of four buttons labeled A B X and Y, a Start button, a Select button, and a big HOME button in the middle. There are a couple of indicator lights to show you what mode you might be in as well as a battery light.

Across the top, two bumper buttons and two analog trigger buttons along with a dedicated mode and pairing indicator. You will also find a standard microUSB charging connector here as well.On the back, a small selector switch to change mode (more on this in a minute).

Unlike the non-Pro brethren, the Pro pad is comfortable in hand – not being TOO big for smaller hands, but not cramping an average sized adult male’s hands either.  The grips overall make the unit easy to hold, even during high-action gaming.  The grips could have been angled a bit outward for even more comfort but for some reason are straight down which cause more angle on the wrists than it should.  You get accustomed to it, but it is a puzzling ergonomic decision.

Unlike the non-Pro version, the bumpers are slightly less accessible during play, but the triggers (all important for the FPS gamers) are easy to reach and engage.  The dpad positioning is much better than the non-Pro version – and while it is slightly better quality this time around, the dpad still feels like an afterthought.  You won’t be breaking any of Todd Rogers’ records with it.

On the non-Pro version the analog sticks feel terrible on the thumbs; stiff and uncomfortable (think 3DS analog nubs, but done wrong).  You’re essentially using the crook or tip of your thumb to move them – and it just isn’t comfortable.  As I figured, the Pro version fixes this problem, adding proper analog sticks each one featuring their own button within (aka L3 and R3).  Incredibly comfortable and fit with the perfect resistance – the FPS and dual-stick gamers are going to be right at home with this controller.

The face buttons are a tad small, but do the job. The button quality is superb and responsive and the controller’s size and layout fixed the previous version’s uncomfortable button placement for multi-button usage.

The top bumpers are adequate, but honestly feel a bit tacked on.  They work, mind you – but they don’t have the same quality feel as the controller’s other inputs.  Could be because I don’t use them very often, so they never really got ‘broken in’.  Still, journalistic responsibility requires I mention it.

The mode slider on the back features four settings; Gamepad/HID, iCade, Mouse and APP. More on this in a bit. There is a small indicator on the upper left of the unit that tells you what mode you’re in. The slider is tiny; for those of us that bite our fingernails (a sure sign of neurosis) it can be a bit tricky to move. Fortunately, the slider is high quality and will certainly survive the duration of ownership of the controller.  Plus, you’re unlikely to change it off HID (Human Interface Device) mode very often.

Hardware: The Pack In Stuff

The Pro version comes with very little in the way of extras.  You get a charging cable (standard microUSB; hurrah) and the controller.

Hardware: Getting Connected

Just stay in USB mode ...

Just stay in USB mode …

The Playpad is a pure Bluetooth device. How it connects via Bluetooth varies depending on how you have the mode selector switch set up. In some modes, you can use the Playpad software (more in a minute) to sync up, but most of the modes requires a trip to the Bluetooth configuration of your Android device.

In Game/HID mode, the Playpad is recognized as a Bluetooth game controller. This, of course, requires an Android OS that supports it – which is 3.0 (Honeycomb) and above. Once connected, it is automatically seen as a “game pad” and some games will immediately be able to use it.

In iCade mode, the Playpad emulates the iCade controller – which is essentially a pre-laid out keyboard device; making it usable across MORE Android platforms (after all – it’s just a keyboard as far as the phone is concerned). You will get pre-configuration of keys as an iCade – meaning you can use it immediately with certain iCade compatible games and emulators (such as the wonderful Broglia .EMU emulators). Unfortunately, the button layout on the unit as an iCade doesn’t always work well, because of the oddball button mappings on the controller. One of the PRIMARY buttons in the .EMU emulators is mapped to the left bumper button. This means that despite being ‘iCade Ready’. you are going to feel some configuration pains depending on the software. Expect to do some remapping in the game despite the iCade setup. 🙁

Mouse mode tells Android that a mouse is attached to the system. You can then use the controller as a mouse – giving you SOME sort of access to games that are directly touch controlled (like Angry Birds). It’s a bit clunky – but it works remarkably well as a mouse if that’s what you need.

The final mode is APP mode – where all the magic is supposed to happen. They promise FULL configuration – including remapping of mouse and touch controls – which is pretty much REQUIRED in Android-land if you’re a serious gamer; namely because so many games offer a virtual d-pad but NO game pad or keyboard mappable controls.  Unfortunately, this sort of thing – while possible currently with other tools like the amazing Game Controller 2 Touch – requires ROOT access on the device to do the mapping.

That might go a long way in explaining why mouse and touch mapping are NOT included – at this time – but are promised as “coming soon”.  My guess is that they are trying to get it working on non-rooted devices.

Bluetooth syncing went without a hitch.  Pairing was straight forward and easy.  Simply holding the HOME button for a few seconds puts the unit in pairing mode.  No code to type in, no weird stuff – instant pairing.  This pairing information sticks, too – so all you have to do next time is turn on Bluetooth on your device (if it isn’t already) and activate the controller.  Poof.  You’re connected.

The microUSB charging port is fantastic.  High quality and STANDARD; no bait and switch extended tip crap (I’m looking at you, Nook Tablet) – I was able to use my existing microUSB chargers to charge it.  The battery light illuminates while while charging – then blinks when it is done (what?  shouldn’t it be the other way around?) – but it’s a small complaint.

Software: The Playpad App

While you could CERTAINLY use the Playpad without software at all (depending on your situation), the software is really the heart of the “full configurability” and is crucial to using the controller for anything but ideal situations.  Dubbed “Nyko Playground“, this is a free download from Google Play.  Sharp consumers will immediately notice the BETA tag on the app – and it definitely lives up to its name; even a year since the last review, the Playground app has seen very little improvement.

The purpose of this app is to allow you to use and create custom game PROFILES – which will automatically remap the buttons based on the game you want.  It doubles as a launcher – so you can add the game to the list – create a button layout – then save (and presumably share at some point).

Sounds great, right?  EXACTLY what the Android world needs?  Yes, it is what the Android world needs – but this isn’t the best implementation of it.

A year ago, the list of compatible games was small.  Since then, they have added a significant number of games to the lineup (of course, this is because the games themselves added controller support – not as a favor by the Nyko team).  It is easier to find “app compatible” games now than it was a year ago.

Creating a profile is easy – as long as you only want to map the keyboard to controls.  That’s right – you can’t actually map GAME CONTROLS to the Playpad.  So if you want to say, reverse the controls and make the ABXY buttons as DPAD controls, it isn’t going to happen – since there is no way to map  game pad input in the configuration editor.  This reduces the game support further.

Finally the software allows you to sync the controller (in some modes) without a trip to Bluetooth settings. This proved to be horribly inconsistent.  Sometimes it would work.  Sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes it says it’s already connected via Bluetooth and you need to disconnect (even though it isn’t).  It became such a chore, you just want to relent and set it up as a full time Bluetooth connected device.  I found the app’s ability to see and firmware update the device to be sketchy at best.

Bottom line; don’t get this controller to use the Nyko Playground.

Play Time

As with any good Bluetooth controller – there was no lag during play.  It was quick and responsive – never once leaving me the impression that I wouldn’t have died had the controller behaved.

Where the non-Pro version extended play left my hands crunched for space and caused fatigue I can go hours playing games like Dead Trigger 2 without significant issue.  The triggers have a bit long of a draw on them, requiring more movement to register a pull than I would have suspected.  This causes a bit of “trigger finger” after several hours of play, but nothing like the insane pain caused by the non-Pro version.  Of course you lose that portability; the non-Pro can easily slip into a pocket if you want gaming on the go but the Pro isn’t going to fit in even deep cargo pant pockets.

Advanced Users

For my rooted bros out there, you might be thinking, “Can I use this WITH Game Controller 2 Touch to regain touch mapping and controller remapping?”

Fortunately, the answer is YES! Using both my Nexus 10 and my Note 10.1 2014 Edition, I was able to quickly and easily create touch profiles for my pinball games and even virtual-dpad only games like Contra Evolution.

End Game

While the Nyko Playpad wasn’t ready for prime time – even for those with elvish hands – the app has evolved enough for the general public to gain some value out of it even without the promised touch mapping capability.  Firmware updates within the app make it fairly easy to use (when it works).  Many more games work “out of the box” with the controller in USB HID mode – making this controller offer even more value.

The portability lost with this bigger Pro version is completely worth it thanks to infinitely better analog sticks and the bigger footprint takes less of a toll on your hands.

Despite the app shortcomings and missing touch mapping (at least now it’s fixable with Game Controller 2 Touch), the product’s lower price and availability make it well worth your time to check out.

I recommend this Pro game controller to all my friends and family – even gave some away as gifts this year for Christmas.  I’ve beat the thing into the ground with dozens of hours of “hard core” gaming with Dead Trigger 2 as well as boatloads of classic gaming (Wheel of MAME anyone?) and emulators like the excellent new reicast Dreamcast emulator – and it is still going strong.

I encourage you to take it for a drive yourself.    Remember, while you may hate Gamestop – they sell these things and you can return for a full refund if you don’t like it (even if it is new).  While the portability of the non-Pro version may look tempting, having used both – I can only truly recommend the Pro version for the serious gamer.

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