Mobile electronics have to have compromises. You can't shove a 55-inch screen onto a phone no matter how hard you try, end eventually even the biggest battery will run out. It's all about balancing the desirable with the practical. A similar principle extends to the more niche world of mobile-focused gaming controllers: while we'd all like a console experience in a portable package, even the most generous pockets will be strained if you try to shove a Dual Shock into them.
So we have a sliding scale, portability versus utility. You can go big, with console-style controllers that have full button complements like the MOGA Pro or the Thrustmaster Score-A. Or you can go small, with more concentrated efforts like the NES30 or the iMpulse. But that means smaller buttons and fewer of them, which by extension means that you'll have to compromise with some console-style games. The DRONE Bluetooth controller from Evolution tries to have it all: a small footprint that's easy to slip into a pocket and a full console layout, complete with shoulder buttons and triggers and dual analog sticks with recessed buttons. If nothing else, it's a marvel of compact, gaming-focused design.
Top to bottom: SHIELD Controller, MOGA Hero Power, Evolution Drone
But the proof is in the playing. And while the DRONE is impressive on a lot of points, there are a few aspects that bring it down, namely button responsiveness and Bluetooth range. These might be easier to look over, were it not for the DRONE's premium price of $59.99.
The DRONE is the smallest controller I've ever seen with a full console layout. That means twin analog sticks (complete with depressible buttons), a D-pad, ABXY action buttons, start and select, and both shoulder and trigger buttons. The last is probably the most unique part of the controller's design: the triggers are hidden on the bottom of the plastic case, so that your left and right middle fingers rest on them while your index fingers sit on the shoulders. It's a novel approach, and one that allows the DRONE to squeeze down to just 119x66x25 millimeters.
Despite its diminutive size and unconventional layout, the controller is surprisingly comfortable. The modest handles (such as they are) fit into my palms snugly, helped along by the soft-touch plastic on the rounded bottom. The top is glossy and slick, but thanks to the bumpy pattern on the analog sticks and the decent grip from the shoulder buttons, I never felt in danger of dropping the DRONE like the bar of soap it resembles.
The sticks deserve some specific attention. They're not the flat, sliding variety you've probably seen on portable consoles like the Nintendo 3DS, but they're not the full springy design on a console controller, either. In fact, calling them "sticks" is a bit of a misnomer: they're more like flattened balls that sit in their recessed bays. This design means that they don't have the travel of conventional analog sticks - you more or less have to "point" your thumbs in the desired direction.
The trigger buttons are also notable. Though they do have several millimeters of travel, they aren't analog like the various incarnations of Xbox triggers. That means it's easy to rest your middle fingers on them without activating them accidentally. They also sit in an arched portion of the controller back, so the handles keep them from being depressed when you lay the controller down on a flat surface.
The only other features of note are the blue status LED and the MicroUSB charging port on the top lip of the DRONE. The controller is Bluetooth only; while you can plug it into a PC for charging or upgrading the firmware, you'll need a Bluetooth radio to use it with PC games. The swanky, foam-lined packaging includes a charging cable and a branded microfiber pouch. The DRONE is available in matte or glossy black, white, blue, yellow, or the rather fetching red you see in these photos.
Using The Controller
Make no mistake, adapting to the smaller size and unique layout of the DRONE takes some time. But after twenty minutes or so I found I was playing through my favorite Android and emulator titles with ease. Once you get the hang of the tilting motion of the analog sticks and using your middle fingers for the triggers, everything tends to fall into place.
The analog sticks are tricky. Because of their small size, there's very little difference between a slight adjustment and a full tilt. It takes time to get used to the subtle range, and quick adjustments require you to more or less hold your thumb on the edge of the flattened section, as if balancing a coin. This can be particularly difficult for games that use the console-style 2D camera mapped to the right stick - you'll have to ease in and out until you get the feel of it.
The D-pad and ABXY buttons also seemed to be a little picky, at least for me. Reliably using them means having to press down hard - unless I was purposefully giving them a hard shove, my game characters wouldn't react about 20% of the time. This was particularly jarring in fighting games, where quick, accurate presses are necessary for fast reactions and combos. That might improve as the membranes below the buttons get a little less stiff with use, but I can't deny that it was an issue.
The rechargeable battery is a nice addition. The DRONE recharges from any MicroUSB port, and with only a single LED and no vibration motors, it lasted for well over a week of testing. It should be more than enough for any vacation, and if it's not, a compatible charger will never be hard to find.
The DRONE is recognized as a standard HID controller in Android, so any game with the default control options should be able to use it immediately. Thankfully, more and more game developers and publishers are including this by default, possibly thanks to the increasing availability of Android TV and Amazon's Fire TV, which offer no touch-based input. Pair the controller and you'll be ready to go with hundreds of controller-compatible games, including Soul Calibur, Asphalt 8, all of Rockstar's GTA games, Wayward Souls, and many, many more. Just about any decent emulator should have mappable external controls - some of them even work "out of the box," so to speak.
Thanks to that default mapping, the DRONE should also work as a standard controller for Android TV and the Console Mode on NVIDIA SHIELD hardware. I tried it out with my original SHIELD, currently hooked up to my TV as a console, and while the controls and the mappings themselves were fine, the DRONE tended to stutter and lose connection for several seconds at a time. I sit only about eight feet away from my TV in my small apartment - that shouldn't be far enough to cause connection problems, even in the RF-crowded atmosphere of an apartment complex.
A couple of usability problems cropped up as well. The DRONE only seemed to want to automatically reconnect with phones and tablets about half of the time. The other half I'd have to manually "forget" the DRONE in Android's Bluetooth settings and pair it again. While Android recognizes it as a controller, it also seems to think it's a keyboard, so it's impossible to use the on-screen keyboard when the controller is paired. This seems to happen with some, but not all, HID controllers. There is no mapping app included.
Value And Conclusion
The DRONE costs $59.99, and at the moment it seems that the only place to get one is Evolution's online store. That's a lot of money to ask when the official ASUS Android TV controller (which works just fine with phones and tablets) goes for $40, and similar travel-friendly designs from MOGA and 8BitDo are going for even less. It doesn't help that the DRONE includes no stand or clip.
The DRONE makes sense if you constantly play full console games like Grand Theft Auto via ports or emulators, and you do it on the go with very little storage space to spare. It's clear that a lot of design work went into making the smallest possible controller with full button support. But for just a little more space and a lot less money you can get the MOGA Hero Power, with the same full set of buttons, plus a phone clip and a booster battery - and none of the DRONE's stiffness or range issues.
For most mobile gamers, the MOGA still gets my recommendation - while it has the same $60 retail price as the DRONE, Amazon sells it for about half that much. The DRONE is a better bet if, and only if, you need to save every single cubic millimeter that you can in pocket or bag space.