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iPhone: Compass (and Level!)

A great built-in utility you've probably overlooked.

#6 • July 11, 2016

Welcome to Value Berry number six! I’m your host, Justin Michael, and today I’m going to talk about a built-in iPhone app that doesn’t get the love and attention it deserves: the Compass app.

The Compass app comes preinstalled on every iPhone, and adds a lot of utility to an already very capable device. It’s not glamorous, exciting, or trendy, but having such a useful app with you all the time can come in handy more than you might think!

First of all the Compass app is, of course, a compass. It tells you which way you’re pointed using a graphical representation of a compass, as well as cardinal and intermediate directions like “N” or “SE” along with your bearing in degrees. Maybe you’re pointed at 277°, or 38°, or my personal favorite: 42°. With the Compass app, you can find out for sure! You can also tap in the middle of the compass to lock in a bearing, which is handy if you want to see how far you’re deviating from a given heading.

The Compass app also uses GPS and the Internet to tell you about your current position on the globe, including city, state, precise map coordinates, and your elevation. Tapping on the map coordinates will open the Maps app centered on your current location. This is handy if you find you’ve been dumped in the middle of nowhere by the mob and, for some reason, they didn’t take your phone away from you.


Oh, hey, maybe you escaped. Yeah, that makes a lot more sense. That’s why they didn’t take your phone; they just didn’t take it yet. You’re captured by the mob, they blindfold you, they shove you in a car, and take you for a ride somewhere (you know what kind of ride I’m talking about; the bad kind, the kind without ice cream at the end). You’re not interested in finding out where they’re taking you or why, so you decide to take a chance. You lunge toward the door, yank on the handle, push as hard as you can, and bail out just as the car enters a turn. You hear them yell behind you, and even feel the brush of a hand attempting to find purchase on the back of your shirt, but it’s too late. You’re free. You’re falling. You hit the asphalt. You hit hard. Harder than you thought you would, and you thought you would hit pretty hard, but you don’t hear or feel the crunch of bone. Despite your situation you muster an ounce of gratitude for that. You roll and roll and roll, from the pavement to the dirt to the grass to what feels like underbrush. You’re still blindfolded. You try to protect your head, but your hands are bound. Then, suddenly, the ground falls away beneath you. You thought you were as scared as you could possibly be, but the loss of the earth below you manages to heighten your terror to a level you never fathomed. Thankfully this sensation is short lived; you collide once again with the reassuring firmness of the planet we all call home, but it’s a mixed blessing. You realize you’re tumbling down a steep hill. You’re careening, out of control, blind, bound, to who knows what below. Gravity is in the driver’s seat, fate is giving directions, and you’re just along for the ride. For a moment you think that this isn’t much different from being in the mobster’s car and, despite everything, you feel yourself grin a little at the thought. Then, slowly, you feel the ground leveling out, and your speed decreases. Before you know it you’ve come to a stop. Well, you think you’ve stopped. Your head is the one that must be doing all that spinning because, surely, the world didn’t pick this moment to start doing summersaults in space. You lay there for a few moments waiting for the vertigo to pass, catch your breath, and take inventory. Your left arm aches from the impact. You’re sore all over from the tumble. You sting from rolling through brush and bushes, big and small. But, miraculously, nothing seems to be broken. You’re cold. You’re wet. But you’re not seriously injured. You can move. You reach up, remove the blindfold, and take a look around. It’s dark. Very dark, and foggy. You’re in a thickly wooded area. There’s no moonlight, either because it hasn’t risen yet, or because the canopy above is blocking it. Doesn’t matter either way. You can’t see very far in the gloom, but you can see a lot of trees. You marvel at the fact that you didn’t hit one of them on the way down. You gawk at how steep the embankment is. There’s no way they’re going to double back and climb down that, but you also realize you’ll never get back up to the road that way. You look down at your hands, bound with duct tape. After some awkward but effective gnawing and chewing, you manage to free yourself. You check your pockets for anything that might help. Your left hand makes contact with cold, smooth glass and metal. Your iPhone! It’s still there! You whip it out of your pocket, hit the home button, and feel a wave of relief wash over you as the screen lights up with the current time: 9:41 PM. But the rich, deep sensation of comfort melts away in an instant as your eyes are drawn to the top left corner of the display. There, in clear, bright letters are two words that you’ve never been more crestfallen to read: NO SERVICE. You stumble around the immediate area in a half-panic, your phone thrust into the air, searching for just one bar, one tiny drop of signal. You strain your arm in a vain attempt to will the radio waves to curve in your direction, as if they were metal and your iPhone a magnet. You nearly trip over a fallen branch, which startles you out of your crazed search and sobers you a bit. You pause to collect yourself and take a deep breath. You realize that you just need to start walking. You’re far from the city, but you’re not in the middle of nowhere. You’re bound to find someone who can help, or some place where you can get a signal. But which direction to go? You stop breathing and strain your ears listening for a sound that might provide a hint as to the best direction to head. Unfortunately, you hear nothing but the distant sound of occasional traffic up the hill, on the road you tumbled down from. It’s much too far away to hope someone might hear you if you started yelling. And yelling is the last thing you want to do. You just risked everything to get out of that car; best not to attract any undue attention and wind up back with the mobsters. You’re pretty sure home is south, but which way is south? Even if the sky wasn’t blocked by the thick forest surrounding you it was an overcast night, so you can’t use the stars to guide you. Wait! Your iPhone may not have service, but the Compass app doesn’t need data to work!

See? The Compass app is super handy.

After launching the Compass app you might need to calibrate it if it’s having trouble finding out which way is north. Calibration is simple: you’re presented with a white circle with a little red ball in it; you just need to rotate your iPhone around to roll the ball around the entire circle. It’s kind of like a brief window into the life a hamster. Once calibrated you’ll find that the compass is quite accurate, assuming you’re not near any large source of magnetic interference.

So yeah, the compass part of the Compass app is pretty handy, but that’s only half the story. The Compass app, you see, isn’t just a compass! It is also, believe it or not, a very capable, very useful… level! That’s right, a level. And not just any level! This level is both smart and helpful!

To access the level functionality of the Compass app, just swipe to the left.

This level works as both a vertical and horizontal level. If you lay your iPhone flat on something it will tell you how many degrees away from being level it is. You’ll get the same thing if you rest the edge of your phone on a horizontal surface, or press it against a vertical surface. The level’s display will adapt automatically based on the orientation of your iPhone.

One of the best parts about the level is that it gives you excellent and instant visual feedback. When whatever your phone is resting against is level and true, the level display will turn green to let you know that your quest for flatness, order, and right angles has been achieved!

You can also tap on the level to set an arbitrary angle which the tool will consider its zero point. This is great when you want to make sure something is at a particular angle, like 45° exactly. Just tap again to revert back to the normal behavior.

When you’re using the horizontal level you can also see the horizon line. This comes in very handy when you’re not only trying to make sure something is level, but also pointing straight up and down at the same time.

The level portion of the Compass app comes in handy when you want to build a bookshelf, save the day when there’s a picture hanging emergency, figure out exactly how many sugar packets to shove under the leg of a wobbly table at a diner (my recommendation: one packet for every two degrees of tilt), or simulate part of the heads-up-display in a jet’s cockpit as you imagine yourself soaring through the clouds on the way to another exciting adventure.

The other thing I want to mention about the Compass app is that it’s a wonderful example of great design. The app is almost pure, distilled functionality presented in an elegant package that anyone can figure out how to use just a few moments after opening it. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t. It does what you want without getting in the way. It’s a delightful example of what a great iOS app can be.

That’s the Compass app, a wonderful little utility you’ve had on your iPhone all this time, but probably never even opened until today. If you’re wondering which way to go, let it help point you in the right direction. And, if you’re wondering which direction to go online, there’s always more value to discover at!