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A closer look at the iPhone 5S and Apple's faulty sensors

The iPhone 4 had Antennagate, the iPhone 5 had Scuffgate – and now, if a huge number of reports on the Apple Support site and elsewhere are to be believed, the iPhone 5S is suffering from Sensorgate.

It’s hard to believe that Apple would mess up so momentously, but it seems that the gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer are all faulty on the iPhone 5S. It isn’t clear if the sensors themselves are broken or poorly calibrated, but the result is the same: You should not use your iPhone 5S for anything that relies on these sensors, such as playing games, checking the level of your latest DIY efforts, or navigating dense woodland.

Ever since the iPhone 5S was released, there have been reports that the flagship phone’s sensors were a bit wonky. These faults mostly seem to rear their ugly head when carrying out tasks that rely heavily on the sensors – such as steering a car in EA’s Real Racing 3 by tilting the phone. Gizmodo found that even when placed on a flat surface, the gyro reports that the phone is at an angle, resulting in the car drifting off the road. In a similar test, the built-in “spirit level” on the iPhone 5S reported that an angle of a few degrees was actually flat (pictured above).

Gizmodo also analysed the iPhone 5S’ compass and accelerometer, concluding that both of them were surprisingly inaccurate – and out by enough that a large number of apps will behave in unexpected ways. If you used your iPhone 5S as a survival aid during a zombie apocalypse or, say, while hiking in the wilderness, you would end up way off course. (Kind of like when Apple Maps debuted in iOS 6, I guess). Gizmodo also tested the iPhone 5, incidentally, and its sensors all reported a clean and accurate bill of health.

Why are the iPhone 5S sensors faulty?

This issue of faulty 5S sensors isn’t just affecting a small handful of users, either: Gizmodo tested out two different handsets and found them both to be faulty (though to differing levels), and the number of people reporting issues on the Apple Support site, and elsewhere on the Internet, would suggest that this is a widespread problem.

It’s impossible to say if every iPhone 5S is affected, but it’s a large batch at the very least. Some users have reportedly managed to get Apple to swap their faulty phone for a new one, but in many cases the new phone is also faulty.

If every iPhone 5S gyro, accelerometer, and compass was faulty to the same degree, then we could say with some certainty that iOS 7 is to blame. The problem is, some phones are only reporting slightly erroneous sensor data, while some are wildly inaccurate. This would indicate that the issue is probably due to faulty hardware, or perhaps some poor calibration during the QA process. If it’s a software/firmware/calibration issue, Apple might be able to push out an update that fixes the faulty sensors – but if the chips themselves are faulty, then there probably isn’t an easy fix.

Apple, of course, will be desperately trying to avoid a product recall. It hasn’t yet issued an official response, but following the high-profile coverage from Gizmodo and other tech blogs, it’s probably only a matter of time. Ultimately, it will probably come down to whether sensors being off by a few percent is actually a serious issue. For gaming, it might be irksome, but it probably isn’t a deal breaker. If someone gets lost in the wilderness and dies/breaks a leg/suffers from PTSD due to a faulty iPhone 5S compass, though, then Sensorgate could blow up in a big way.

For more on Apple’s woes of late, see: What causes iOS 7’s nausea issue, and how to help prevent it.

Image Credit: Gizmodo