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Move over, Apple Maps: iPhone 5S motion sensor malfunction may be widespread

Users reporting off-the-mark readings from the iPhone 5S' compass and wonky gaming experiences with the new device's accelerometer may be facing a hardware hurdle.

An iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S side by side showcasing the differing compass readouts. It's unclear whether the issue is on the hardware or software side.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Apple Maps may sometimes send clueless drivers off the beaten path and even onto active airstrips, but the company may be facing a far deeper problem with its new flagship iPhone 5S' directional capabilities. Widespread reports are claiming that the new device's motion sensors are highly error-prone, and the problem could be on the software side or a calibration error built into the handset itself.

The staff over at Gizmodo took the iPhone 5S to task in multiple tests, finding the iPhone 5S' motion sensors giving readouts that are wildly different than those of the iPhone 5.

The app most affected is Apple's native compass. In displaying direction, it shows discrepancies on average of 8 to 10 degrees compared with the iPhone 5 with both running iOS 7.

Gaming is also affected as the accelerometer is used to maneuver in many driving and physics-based games that rely on the tilting of the screen to achieve in-game motion. Gizmodo found that by starting a match in EA's Real Racing 3 on a level plane and without any exterior movements, the iPhone 5S' accelerometer immediately registered a leftward tilt and veered the car in that direction.


Testing the two devices' accelerometer data on a level surface did indeed display a massive change in readouts.

The iPhone 5S' directional faults aren't the only issues with the the compass app. The new inclinometer and gyroscope, available in iOS 7, are opened by swiping left on the compass' first screen and are, again, showing faulty information when compared with the iPhone 5.

On a flat surface, the gyroscope on the iPhone 5S typically reads -3 degrees, something both Gizmodo's and my own 5S displayed. The inclinometer -- a feature you activate by holding your device sideways in the air -- is off by roughly 2 to 3 degrees as well.

Over at MacRumors, an incredibly robust 20-page thread started on September 24 is home to hundreds of users dissecting the issue, with many claiming that the problem could in fact be a hardware issue given the iPhone 5 and 5S running the same software display different readouts. Apple has not confirmed the issue nor has it publicly acknowledged it in any way.

In the case that it is hardware, there's little users could do to remedy the issue save for turning in their iPhone for a new one. However, some users have reported the same issues cropping up with replacement units, suggesting the motion sensor malfunctioning could be a widespread problem.

It is unlikely that Apple would ever employ a trade-in protocol given its infamous "free bumper" response to the antennagate fiasco with the iPhone 4. In an ideal world, Apple could identify the issue as a software problem and push out an update to potentially fix whatever calibration issue might be the culprit.

Whatever the issue, it's not looking good for Apple's M7 motion processor. The chip was touted as Apple's answer to activity-tracking apps that want a more powerful data-collector without forcing users to go out and buy a Nike FuelBand or Fitbit. It measures data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass, meaning it won't exactly work as advertised given those different parts' massive readout errors.

We've reached out to Apple for comment and will update this story when we hear back.