Real Compass Vs. Digital Compass: Which is Better?

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Advancements in technology have, in many ways, brought greater efficiency, accuracy, and overall enjoyment into people’s lives from all over the world. Navigation, in particular, has come a long way over the years, thanks to modern technology. However, does digital hold up to its analog counterpart? Which will be more reliable, a real compass or a digital compass?

Analog compasses use the Earth’s magnetic field to indicate which direction is North. They naturally point to magnetic North instead of true North and are prone to interference from other magnetic materials. Digital compasses use screens instead of needles and often have built-in GPS for greater accuracy.

Having a more thorough understanding of how an analog compass works, as opposed to a digital compass, will go a long way in helping you decide which is better for you to use – the answer might surprise you! Let’s dive into the analog and digital world for a showdown between a “real” compass Vs. a digital compass and discover which is the best for you.

Real Compass Vs. Digital Compass

Whether you are an outdoor enthusiast, a pilot, or perhaps someone in the military, you will know how integral a compass is even in our modern world. Interestingly enough, the compass was first invented as far back as the Han Dynasty in China. However, the device was first used for fortune-telling and geomancy rather than as a means for direction and navigation.

It wasn’t until roughly between the ninth and the eleventh century that the compass was finally used for navigational purposes. This, of course, shaped history as we know it. From there, it did not take long for the invention to spread to most parts of the world, becoming a vital piece of technology that is still widely used today.

However, as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This might make you wonder why there was a need for a digital compass in the first place. Well, because of how an analog compass works – which we’ll get to next – they are often riddled with inaccuracies and, in some cases, would fail to operate entirely. 

But has the digital compass truly saved the day? Let’s dive into a breakdown of a real (analog) compass versus a digital compass to understand better how each one works and ultimately discover which will be the best for you to use.

Analog Compass

An analog compass uses the Earth’s magnetic field to indicate which direction is North. The needle on an analog compass functions as a small magnet, and since the Earth is essentially a giant magnet, the compass’s needle can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

The needle will always align to the top of the Earth’s magnetic field, which we refer to as “North.” However, it is essential to note that an analog compass points to magnetic North and not true North, but we’ll explain the difference later.

Since an analog compass works as a magnet, they require no external power like batteries, for example. They’re also very lightweight yet robust, so the chances of an analog compass breaking while out on an adventure are very slim.

At face value, the analog compass seems like the perfect analog gadget to assist you with navigation. However, there are, unfortunately, a few downsides of an analog compass worth mentioning.

Firstly, analog compasses are known to be somewhat unreliable. Because analog compasses work with magnetic energy and not the Earth’s magnetic field alone, they are highly prone to give you false readings. Geological formations like rocks or even electricity power cables are often magnetized, and being near these will undoubtedly cause an analog compass to provide you with a false reading.

In severe cases, the needle on the compass will start to wobble or spin aimlessly, giving you no reading whatsoever.

Additionally, unless you are only concerned about finding North, an analog compass needs to be used with a map to give you a broader geographical context for your area. This undoubtedly requires a much higher navigational skill.

A final thought about analog compasses is that they point to magnetic north instead of true North. We’ll dive into more detail later about what this means for you.

Digital Compass

In many ways, the digital compass has been designed to combat a few of the common issues experienced when using an analog compass. One of the most significant issues with an analog compass is its needle. A digital compass took care of that by replacing it with a screen.

Many digital compasses are similar to analog compasses in how they operate. Most digital compasses still work with the Earth’s magnetic field. However, what gives a digital compass the advantage is its screen. A digital compass doesn’t have a needle that will wobble or spin aimlessly from interference.

Instead, the screen continuously displays the four primary directions and exactly which way you are facing. This is primarily why digital compasses are used in aircrafts and in the military – they are favored for their improvement in accuracy and reliability.

Some digital compasses work using GPS instead of the Earth’s magnetic field. These are even more accurate since they are set to show you true North.

The downside to a digital compass is that they require power, usually through batteries. This makes a long-distance hike or exploration risky if you are dependent on a compass because the batteries aren’t going to last forever.

Additionally, digital compasses are more prone to damage or breaking. Thanks to the screen and other electronic components, dropping a digital compass will likely damage it, potentially leaving you stuck without navigation.

Digital compasses that use GPS still require a strong signal. This means that there are still risks of inaccuracies on very overcast days.

Real Compass Or Digital Compass? Which Is Best?

So, which compass is best for you? A disadvantage shared between analog compasses, and most digital compasses is that they point to magnetic North and not true North. In simple terms, the Earth’s magnetic North Pole is not the same as the geographic North Pole – the distance is, in fact, a staggering 1,000 miles!

Thankfully, compasses can be calibrated or adjusted to compensate for the magnetic declination. However, this adjustment will differ based on where you are.

Taking the pros and cons of both compasses into account, we would say that a digital compass is superior from an accuracy and reliability perspective. However, we suggest taking an analog compass as a backup if the digital compass gets damaged or the batteries die.


While both an analog and digital compass serve a good purpose, it would be hard not to argue that the digital version is better overall to use. However, that doesn’t mean that an analog compass is obsolete. Both compasses undoubtedly have their place in the world of navigation, so you can’t go wrong either way.