iOS Devices and Gaming: A Buyer's Guide

A brief rundown of the iOS gaming ecosystem

Despite selling millions of units, there are still plenty of people out there who aren't gaming on iOS devices—be it on an iPhone or iPad. Maybe you're one of them, and that's ok!

Whether you're in the market for your first iOS device or you're just looking to add another one to the collection, here are the key differences you'll need to know before settling on which Apple device is right for you as a gamer.

iPod Touch: No Cellular Data Required

ipod touch gaming

The lowest entry on our totem is arguably the best choice for gamers who aren't on the hunt for cellular service. The iPhone touch is, for all intents and purposes, an iPhone that can't make calls or use the internet without access to Wi-Fi. If you're buying this for a child, or already own a phone that you don't want to replace, the iPod touch is ideal. 

There are, however, a few caveats to consider. The iPod touch's dependence on Wi-Fi means that many games won't work when you leave the house. Most free-to-play games, for example, require an internet connection to play, even if they lack social components. This is because the publishers are dependent on in-app purchases to generate revenue, which you won't be able to make if you're offline. If you travel a lot and want to enjoy free games, the iPod touch might not be the device for you.

Another thing to consider is the current chipset in the iPod touch. Every year, Apple releases a new model on the iPhone with a chip that is faster than the previous year's model. They don't, however, release annual iterations of the iPod Touch. The chipset in the current model (A10) is the same as in the iPhone 7.

Games are typically designed to work best on the latest Apple chipsets. Before you buy an iPod touch, do a little googling to see how long it has been since the most recent iPod Touch was released, and see if the chipset matches current (or even recent) iPhone chips. If you want to play the latest games, this matters more than anything else.

iPad: Gaming, Productivity, and More With a Tablet

ipad pro gaming

Available in a variety of configurations, the iPad provides two things that the iPod touch does not, while still catering to the non-cellular crowd: a larger screen size and a much higher frequency of new models.

From a gaming point-of-view, the larger screen has its advantages and disadvantages. Some games are significantly improved with more surface area. Digital board games and strategy games feel richer and less cramped than on smartphones. Even games that make a great transition to the iPhone (Hearthstone is a good example) still feel more at home on a tablet than a phone.

Other games, though, suffer from the reverse. If you're playing something twitchy, like a platformer, virtual controls seem designed for players that can comfortably hold the device in their hands with thumbs on the screen. On the iPhone and iPod touch, this is a no-brainer. On the iPad, it's not always as comfortable as you'd hope.

Of course, there are varying sizes out there for those considering an iPad. The iPad Mini is a very popular option, which removes a lot of the frustration from twitchy games while also having the bonus of being the most affordable choice of iPads. The iPad 6th generation is the closest to the "classic" iPad size, making things easier to see, and providing a great option for strategy gamers.

And, if money is no object, you can always opt for the iPad Pro, providing a massive 12.9" screen. Alternatively, you could grab the 11" iPad Pro, offering a smaller size but with no less horsepower.

If you're thinking of adding an iPad to your existing Apple ecosystem, you'll be pleased to know that most of the games you already own on your iPhone or iPod touch will be available on your iPad too. When the device first launched, publishers would frequently design separate apps for iPhone and iPad, but nowadays almost everything is universal. Buy once, play wherever.

Our words of caution, once again, revolve around the chipset. Apple often has up to five different models of iPad available, and four different chipsets between them. If you want to play the latest games, be sure to lean towards a stronger chipset. You might save a little money by ignoring our advice, but the lifespan you'll get out of your iPad as a gaming device shrinks by roughly 12 months with every older chipset you embrace.

iPhone: One of the Smartest Phones on the Market

iphone 6s gaming

There's a reason that iOS gaming is colloquially referred to as "iPhone gaming." This is the flagship device in Apple's line-up, and a damned fine smartphone for playing games on.

With annual iterations, you can almost always count on the iPhone to have the fastest chipset out there, and with a cellular data connection, you'll never be without a chance to play every game the App Store has to offer. (There are literally hundreds of thousands to pick from.)

The question then becomes, which iPhone is right for you?

The iPhone 12 is the latest contender on the block, offering improvements for gamers over the previous model, including the aforementioned faster chipset.

Ultimately, though, this isn't as big a jump for gaming as the iPhone 6S was, which introduced a feature you couldn't find on earlier iPhones: 3D Touch. This allows players to press on the touchscreen, and the pressure they exude can trigger different responses in a game. In AG Drive, for example, you can control your vehicle's acceleration by pressing harder or lighter. In Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade, you can use pressure to switch between weapons.

If money is no object, the current model of the iPhone will always be your best choice for iOS gaming.

There are a few other things worth noting before deciding if an iPhone is the right iOS device for you. To take advantage of the "always online" functionality, you'll need to sign up for a monthly mobile plan. The devices themselves aren't cheap. And if, as a gamer, you're doing this for the latest chipset? You may find yourself repeating this cycle year after year.

Still, if you're already in the market for a new smartphone and you like the Apple ecosystem, it's hard to see a downside here.

Apple TV: Entertainment on the Big Screen

apple tv gaming

The latest version of Apple TV introduced gaming for the first time, and while the selection of games is still building, there's great fun to be had with what's on offer.

The device offers support for third-party controllers, but all games must be playable on the touch-sensitive Siri Remote, meaning you won't need to buy anything additional out of the box to enjoy.

If you're already well plugged into Apple's world, the Apple TV is a "nice to have" device that complements the rest of your digital lifestyle. Ultimately, however, it lacks the diversity of games that makes the rest of Apple's ecosystem so great. Because of this, it's not a must-have by any means—especially for first-timers.

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