Review

Razer Kishi review: Cloud gaming just got better

It's becoming increasingly clear that mobile devices play a big part in the future of gaming, with Google having launched Stadia, Microsoft currently testing Project xCloud, and Nvidia bringing GeForce Now out of beta. Playing your console and PC games wherever you are is certainly an appealing concept, but using touchscreen controls is less than ideal, so you'll almost always want to have a controller with you. Google offers the Stadia controller, and Microsoft's Xbox Wireless Controller with Bluetooth can be used with any of these services, but there are options with split designs, like Razer's Junglecat, which make your phone look something like a Nintendo Switch.

Razer's new take on this is called Kishi, and it stands out for two major reasons. First, it uses a USB Type-C connector rather than Bluetooth, promising less input latency for games that require more precise timing. It also offers a more universal fit than the Junglecat, with a pretty good range of sizes supported by its design.

The Android version of the Razer Kishi costs $79.99, so it's definitely an investment, but if you're really looking to improve your experience, it's worth considering. This review is based on the Android version, which was loaned to us by Razer.

Day one

Design

When it's closed, the Razer Kishi almost looks like a regular controller, and if it had Bluetooth, I think it would be comfortable enough to use like that. It's a little small, but it would definitely be usable. The body itself is fairly thick and it gives you something to hold onto without making your hands feel cramped, though it's not at the comfort level of a traditional controller.

Of course, you have to slot a phone into it. You need to release the locks on the back, which seems a little complicated at first, but you'll get used to it. Once you do that, the controller splits in half, letting you place a phone in the middle, with the button layout being split similarly to a Nintendo Switch.

The controller layout itself is most similar to that of Microsoft's Xbox controllers. The analog sticks have concave thumb grips, and they're not aligned horizontally, just like on Microsoft's controllers. The ABXY button array uses the same layout, too, but with some colors switched around, likely to avoid legal trouble with Microsoft, and the D-pad, shoulder buttons, and triggers are exactly where you'd expect.

The biggest difference is in the function buttons - equivalent to Menu and View buttons, plus what would be the Xbox button - which have to split between the halves. The View and Home (Xbox) buttons are on the left side, and the Menu button is on the right. Also on the right, you'll find a couple of cutouts, a thoughtful feature that lets bottom-firing speakers direct sound towards you while slotted into the controller.

On the bottom side, there's a USB Type-C port that supports passthrough charging for your phone. Unfortunately it doesn't support data, and there's no headphone jack, either, so you'll be stuck with Bluetooth headsets if you don't want to use the speakers, which feels like a big missed opportunity.

Compatibility

Razer touts the Kishi as a universal controller, and that's not completely true, but it's compatible with plenty of devices. The restrictions have to do with either the USB Type-C port placement or the size of the phone. For the former, most phones have a centered USB Type-C port, so it shouldn't be much of a problem either way.

As for the size, there are specific dimensions that Razer recommends. Here are the officially supported sizes, according to Razer:

  • Height: 145.3mm - 163.7mm (5.65in - 6.44in)
  • Width: 68.2mm - 78.1mm (2.69in - 3.07in)
  • Thickness / Depth: 7.0mm - 8.8mm (0.28in - 0.35in)

As phones tend to get bigger, this does mean some high-end devices won't be supported, specifically the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, and it's also impossible to use with the massive RedMagic 5G. While there's not much you can do about the width and thickness without sacrificing smaller phones, I do think it should have been possible for taller phones to be supported. Some sort of roll-up system for the band that connects the two halves could have allowed the Kishi to open up a lot more and support more devices.

Still, this range covers a lot of smartphones. I used the Razer Kishi with the TCL 10 Pro, TCL 10L, and Honor 30 Pro+ and they fit perfectly. I also could use it with the OPPO Find X2 Pro, but it should be noted that this phone is actually taller and thicker than the officially supported sizes, so it wasn't quite as easy to make it happen. I wouldn't recommend doing this as it might stretch the controller's back connector a bit thin.

You will also need to pay attention to screen protectors that might add thickness to the phone, though. Like I said, the OPPO Find X2 Pro is already significantly thicker than what's officially supported, and because it has a screen protector on it, the Kishi's grip actually caused it to peel off over time. I also tried to insert the OPPO Reno Z into the Kishi, but because it has a thicker glass screen protector, it just didn't fit at all.

In terms of software, the Kishi will be compatible with just about anything you can use a regular Bluetooth controller with. The focus is on cloud gaming services, with official support for GeForce Now, Stadia, and Project xCloud. If you want to stream from your own PC, Steam Link and Rainway are also supported. Of the cloud services, only GeForce Now is available in Portugal, but I can confirm that everything worked very well. Likewise, Steam Link had absolutely no issues with it, and any game that supports Xbox controllers on PC worked with it just fine. Across both services I've tried a multitude of titles, including Rocket League, Apex Legends, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Destiny 2, Magicka, and more, all without any issues.

And of course, mobile games that support controllers should also work with this. For some reason, Call of Duty: Mobile requires a Bluetooth controller, so with the Kishi using USB Type-C, it wasn't recognized, but that's the only situation I saw where it didn't behave like the Xbox One controller. Another potential use case for this is game emulators, since it's a much better option than the virtual on-screen controls. I've tried games like Fortnite, Dead Trigger 2, and Asphalt 9, plus emulators like RetroArch and Dolphin, some of which recognize the controller natively, some require you to map each button.

Controls and usability

Like I said before, the Kishi is a pretty meaty controller, and it rests very comfortably in my hands. Smartphones are usually pretty thin, and even the Nintendo Switch can get uncomfortable in portable mode after a while, but the Kishi is thick enough that your fingers have a place to rest on and you can play comfortably for longer. I also just love the idea of having a split controller wrapped around the screen, since it immediately gives you a way to both control the game and hold the phone in a comfortable viewing angle.

The controls on the Kishi also feel great. The analog sticks stand out to me as being particularly good. They look and feel very similar to the Xbox One controller, with those concave thumb grips offering a very comfortable experience. Moving the analog sticks around feels just as smooth as the Xbox controller, but there's a little bit more tension to them, and the range of movement is very wide, adding even more to the overall comfort.

The only problem I've had with the analog sticks has to do with one specific app, the Dolphin emulator for GameCube games. The emulator requires you to assign the virtual controls individually to each button on the controller, but you only register four directions for the analog stick. When you move the analog stick at a specific diagonal angle, the emulator won't recognize that the analog stick is tilted completely in either direction, and thus your character will move slowly. I also noticed this with the Xbox One controller, but it was a bit more common with the Kishi for some reason. This seems like something that might be fixed with an update to the emulator itself, but I think it's worth pointing out.

The ABXY buttons also feel great, and they're once again very close to the feel of the Xbox One controller. They have a good amount of clickiness and resistance to them, so they don't feel mushy and you won't press them accidentally. Likewise, the shoulder buttons and triggers feel pretty good, though the analog triggers feel quite different from the Xbox One controller, with more tension and a sort of roughness to the movement when you press them. On the other hand, the shoulder buttons offer slightly increased resistance before registering a press, and I think that's a positive as I've found myself accidentally pressing them a lot on the Xbox One controller lately.

The D-Pad is the least positive thing about this controller. It generally feels fine, it's not overly clicky and in terms of feel, moving my thumb around it to change directions feels pretty good. However, I found that it can be easy to accidentally move sideways while pressing up or down, and vice versa. There's not enough of a barrier between the clicks in each direction, so it's easy to make a wrong move. It's not terrible, but it's definitely something I wish was improved, and I'd personally love it if it felt more like the D-Pad on the Nintendo 3DS, for example.

Being that it's powered by the USB Type-C port instead of using Bluetooth, battery life isn't something you need to worry about with the Kishi, and it also doesn't seem to drain significantly more power from the phone itself. Now, one of the biggest advantages of having a USB connection instead of Bluetooth would be reducing input latency.As I mentioned in my initial hands-on video, I'm not the kind of person that usually notices input delays because of Bluetooth, so a lot of the time I spent with the Kishi was using it alongside the Xbox Wireless Controller with Bluetooth to spot a difference.

I tried a lot of games, but for the most part, I still can't feel like there's a major impact in terms of the delay. However, there was one time in Apex Legends where the game seemed to continue registering movement in the analog stick a while after I stopped touching it on the Xbox Wireless Controller. I never had any issues like that with the Kishi, so there's that. At times, I did feel like there may have been a slight difference in the response times between the Kishi and the Bluetooth controller, but it wasn't noticeable enough for me to objectively say that this is better. However, I wouldn't doubt that gamers that are more reliant on frame-precise timing will find an advantage in this.

Conclusion

It's impossible for me not to appreciate the things that the Kishi does right. It's a very comfortable controller to hold and use, with fantastic analog sticks and great-feeling buttons all around. In terms of the hardware quality, I can only really complain about the D-Pad making it easy to accidentally move in the wrong direction. The inclusion of cutouts for the speakers is also a very thoughtful choice that I appreciate. I'm also a big fan of the general idea of a split controller like this, and I think it makes perfect sense for it to connect via USB rather than Bluetooth.

There are a few things I would change about the Kishi if I could, though. For one thing, I believe support for taller phones would have been relatively easy to implement, and an important addition since phones have increasingly taller displays. I also would have liked to have Bluetooth as a fallback for phones that don't fit inside the Kishi or if you want to use it with a tablet or a PC in a pinch. The controller is comfortable enough that it wouldn't be a terrible experience, so I'm sad it's not an option. And of course, there should be a headphone jack here for those that prefer wired headsets.

For $79.99, the Kishi is definitely not the cheapest controller if you compare it to something like the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4 controllers, but it's also a completely different form factor that I find much more appealing. It's cheaper than Razer's other mobile controllers, and it matches the price of a pair of Joy-Con from Nintendo, for example, so it's not that unreasonable. It does cost €89.99 in Europe, and that starts to be a little harder to justify, plus the iOS variant costs $20/€20 more, so that becomes much harder to recommend. But for $79.99, if you really want the best gaming experience on your phone, it's definitely worth a shot. If you're interested, you can buy it here.

 

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