How accurate is the digital compass and level on your iPhone 5s? [Poll]

How accurate is the digital compass and level on your iPhone 5s?

For a while now we've been seeing ourselves, and hearing from a lot of you about the magnometer (digital compass) in the iPhone 5s and how it's consistently presenting abnormal results, even by digital compass standards. Now I lack science powers enough to understand exactly how it's supposed to work, but ever since it launched in Android devices and the iPhone 3GS, I've never had great results with it. Frustrating, figure-8-circling, direction spinning results, yes. Great, no. But with the iPhone 5s, not great seems to have been taken to all new levels. Pun somewhat intended...

We've now done a bunch of comparisons since the the iPhone 5s launched, on iOS 7, 7.0.1, and 7.0.2, next to both the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5c, and it does indeed look like the iPhone 5s is off-level by a few degrees. As to compass direction, we're hard pressed to ever get multiple devices to agree which way, exactly, north lies. Our iPhone 5s forums are filled with members reporting exactly the same problem.

The compass inaccuracies aren't new to the iPhone 5-series, of course. Like I mentioned above, the technology itself, separated out from the rest of the motion sensors on the device, seems far, far better suited for gross measures than anything that needs pin-point accuracy. So, turn-by-turn navigation while a car is moving and everything else in CoreLocation can support it, perfectly fine. Trying to figure out how to take three steps due east, almost impossible. The level, however, just seems incorrectly set and en masse.

If it's a problem with software calibration, a future update, like the forthcoming iOS 7.1 should be able to fix it. While it will never be perfect, it should at the very least be as good as other models. So here's the take away:

  • Digital compasses aren't accurate enough to serve as scientific measures, period. They're convenient as far as converged devices go, and useful when combined with other sensors, but by themselves, never expect them to get you through basic training. Never.
  • The iPhone 5s deviates beyond the usual inaccuracies and inconsistencies found in digital compasses, perhaps indicating it needs better calibration, or some other fix from Apple.

That said, poll time. Vote up top and give me the details in the comments below.

iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s
Apple's current flagship iPhone with a 4-inch in-cell display, LTE 4G, and BT 4.0 LE. New features include:

Complete review >

Released
September, 2013

Alternatives
iPhone 5c, iPhone 4s

Replacements
iPhone 6 (rumored)
Fall, 2014

Resources
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Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 28 comments. Add yours.

jefftam68 says:

iPhones 'just work' don't they? Maybe rebooting it will help.
;-)

stephen007 says:

What on earth is your point? I'm just not following.

Carioca32 says:

His point is that Apple marketing and Apple fans are always telling everybody how Apple products are better and perfect because they "just work", and this is yet another example of how that is not exactly true.

Etios says:

This is a hardware issue and there is no chance of Apple issuing a recall for millions of handsets, it will be handled the iphone 4 way, there will be changes made at production lines and the present customers will be given a better calibration which won't make it accurate but atleast better than present situation.

akdj says:

Hi Etios,
Any reason you 'know' this is hardware (not software) related?

FreddyPancakes says:

Every time I open the compass app, I'm forced to recalibrate it. Am I the only one?

Gsarfin says:

Nope. Me too

Sent from the iMore App

iSRS says:

It might make sense.

I can't say for sure my compass is 100% accurate, but it seems it to me. Level, too. That, or it perfectly matches the un-levelness of my house...

;)

gravage says:

I don't expect a digital compass to be 100% accurate. The big problem here is the level data. It affects the accelerometer and gaming. Mine is off by 4 degrees compared to a friend's iPhone 4s. From what I have read, swapping for a replacement wont' solve this issue, so there's no sense in going through that.

I'd like to know who all of these people are claiming that their phones are fine. They are either A) lying, or B) not sure what's being asked in the poll. This issue is very widespread, confirmed by Apple technicians and many many users. There's a pretty active thread on Macrumors about it.

joshrocker says:

I don't think everyone's phone was affected. I'm thinking it was a large batch of them though. People are reporting their phones are fine. I'm guessing a specific large batch of devices were calibrated incorrectly.

Sent from the iMore App

iSRS says:

Right. I am saying based on an iPhone 5 / Verizon / Pre-ordered day I could

iEd says:

A+B the iphone level with a real world level. If it's off ok.Then try a game like Real Racing 3 that uses the accelerometer, it's free and see if it affects the game but there are accelerometer sensitivity settings in the game.

Miles_and_Myles says:

I visited the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco about this problem on Friday and the staff said they knew about it. They demonstrated the same issue with their floor models and with phones from two staff members. The staff was extremely helpful and said it would be fixed with a software update, but said they were more than happy to swap out my phone for a new one. Based on what they told me, I elected to keep my existing phone and wait for the update.

ame says:

I wouldn't have a clue if my compass was off, but my level is about 5 degrees off. I tested it in a second app and it's definitely significantly off.

I have no idea how exactly they'll fix this though.

NATE072107 says:

I think the real question is..how level is your table?

JTBurn says:

Apparently every table or counter top in my house is off level by 1.7 degrees.

ISG135s says:

I agree with gravage earlier.. the compass or the level being off by a few degrees is not a big deal.. but try playing a racing game or take a panoramic photo if the sensors in your 5s are off and then you'll realise what the problem really is.. I'm expecting my 5s replacement from my carrier later today, but I'm almost certain it'll have the same problems.. When I went to a UK apple store in London, they didn't seem to know about it and I had to show them that all of the demo 5s we tested were showing wrong readings.. you should have seen their faces when they compared them with their 4s or 4s's..

gravage says:

Your new one may be fine initially. The sensor data seems to "drift" over time. So keep a close eye on it after the initial setup. You may notice that the readings get less accurate over time.

ISG135s says:

mm, interesting.. I will report back with details..

healeydave says:

My compass is shockingly bad on the 5S, 6 degrees out!!
Its a shame you cant attach photo's because I just took one with my old iPhone5 and my new 5S side by side. The iPhone 5 is registering perfect level, the 5S is showing -6 Degree's on the same surface!!!
Perhaps in didn't pay to get one of the first Gold iPhone 5S after-all :-(

quinn_drummer says:

My level is off by 2 degrees. Oddly though, in portrait it seems to be accurate. Anyone else tried this?

Sent from the iMore App

Jeffrey Bacot says:

I have not pulled out my level to check on this issue. I just don't trust it even if I did a check each time. What if you drop the phone or bang it hard? I bet that could cause a recalibration. If I need to make sure something is level I go get my level.

As far as the compass goes... it is slow to be accurate until you get outside or keep moving long enough. It has been a long time I since I have needed an actual compass (back to my Boy Scout days). My only complaint is when I am out of town the GPS/compass are slow to agree when I come out of a hotel or building. This is not an iPhone issue it is a phone issue. Plus given a GPS signal is degraded by being inside I am not sure what can be done about it. I just slow down and don't worry about he people behind me complaining about the slow out-of-towner.

JJR512 says:

Your phone does not receive a true GPS signal. Most, if not all, phones do not. They use a method called aGPS, or A-GPS, aka "assisted GPS" to determine your location. Your location is determined by triangulating your position relative to nearby cell towers, and since each tower's exact position is known and unchanging, your position on Earth can be determined. This method is considerably faster than true GPS tracking, especially when you start tracking your location after having moved a considerable distance without tracking. (With a true GPS device, like a Garmin or TomTom, if you drive for awhile with it turned off, notice that next time you turn it on, it takes longer to determine your position.) The disadvantages of aGPS are that it's slightly less accurate, and requires signals from more than one cell tower to work.

kiddori says:

My level is off 2 degrees, which is more than it sounds. Not even someone with bad judgment or eyesight would be that much off. Fortunately, I have good eyes and a real level in my house.

GlennRuss says:

It has improved much, but there is still room for tweaking. The phone by itself, and calibrated works great. With a case, there is the problem. Some cases are good at being flat enough to work, but other cases are not.

douglaswilson says:

The compass is fine but where is the level? That I can't find!!

Sent from the iMore App

ISG135s says:

swipe left when you're at the compass