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What Is a Digital Compass?

By Alex Newth
Updated May 16, 2024
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In some ways, a digital compass is like its analog counterpart. Both compasses use the Earth’s magnetic field to determine which way is North, and both help bikers, hikers, mapmakers and trail makers know which direction they are heading. The difference is that an analog compass can wobble because of movement and may encounter interference from strong magnetic sources, so inaccuracy is a problem. A digital compass is much more accurate and sturdy, because it will only use the North Pole as a guiding mechanism. Aside from serious hikers and trail makers, the military also uses these compasses for the best accuracy.

The compass, whether traditional or digital, is made to help users know which direction they are heading. Both are supposed to use the Earth’s magnetic field to determine which way is North, and all other directions are based off that. With a traditional compass, while it can be accurate, there are many problems with its operation. If there are magnetic metal deposits nearby, or just a powerful magnetic field, the compass will consider the deposit to be North or will spin aimlessly. The needle on a compass also can wobble, which may cause it to show the wrong direction.

A digital compass overcomes these problems. Instead of a shaky needle, this type of compass has a digital screen that presents the four primary directions and plainly tells the user which way he or she is facing. The screen is easier to see than an analog compass needle, and the compass itself is far more accurate.

Instead of determining direction based on magnetic pulses, which can be inaccurate or random, a digital compass determines direction by using the North Pole as a guide. For this end, the compass usually has some global positioning system (GPS) features, which may or may not be available to the user. Along with this feature, most digital compasses come with extra features, such as a thermometer, and can be used to tell directions on foot, on water or in the air.

Digital compasses are used by many different people and industries, mostly because of the accuracy a digital compass has over a traditional model. Airlines use these compasses to ensure that their planes are flying in the right direction, and cars that have compasses usually contain digital ones. The military also use digital compasses to ensure there is never any inaccuracy during combat or other situations.

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Discussion Comments

By anon943142 — On Mar 31, 2014

Digital uses north pole? Some people don't have a clue.

By julies — On Nov 12, 2011

When we bought our motorcycle, it came with a digital motorcycle compass already built in. I never knew how handy something like that could be. There have been many times when I wondered which direction I was going, and all I had to do was look at the compass direction.

I enjoyed using this so much that I had a digital automobile compass and thermometer installed in my car. I was surprised at how much this cost, but this is something I use every time I am in the car.

Between the compass and the thermometer, I always know which direction I am going and how cold it is outside.

By John57 — On Nov 11, 2011

@andee - I bought a computer watch compass that also has an altimeter and a barometer built in. This is also waterproof and has several other features that I haven't even used yet.

I wanted something like this to take the place of several other things, that was compact and user friendly. The last thing I wanted was to buy something that was too complicated to figure out.

Some of them have a lot of extras on them, but I just wanted to be able to have a few basic functions. I used the compass and watch features more than anything.

On one trip high up in the mountains, the barometer came in handy. We also got caught in a snow storm, so I was also glad it was waterproof.

You can spend anywhere from $50 up to $500 depending on the features you are looking for. I went with one that was in the middle range and had good reviews.

I don't usually have a problem with which direction I am going, but it is easy to get turned around in unfamiliar places, and a digital compass can sometimes be a real life saver.

By andee — On Nov 10, 2011

Since I am known for not being able to find my own car in a parking lot, my husband bought me a personal pocket locator that works much like a GPS does.

This handheld digital compass is perfect if you are away from home and need to find your way back to your car or another location.

Once you get it charged and calibrated, you are ready to go. I don't use it very often when I am close to home, but when I travel I always have it with me.

It is small enough to fit in my pocket or purse and when I am trying to get back to my car, I don't have to worry about how to find it.

This will even work in big shopping malls when you forget which side of the mall you parked your car in. I don't have to remember to write down the section I am parked in anymore as long as I have my personal compass with me.

Since this has worked so well for me, I am wondering how a digital compass for a watch would work. Has anybody ever used one of these?

I am planning a backpacking trip and would like to find a watch that doubles as a compass.

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