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When I use apps like Google Maps on my Nexus 7, I find that the compass drifts, with the indicated direction rotating counterclockwise over time (from north to west to south to east). As a result, I am unable to rely on the direction information.

Is this a hardware issue? Is there something I can do to correct this?

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It turns out the compass needed to be calibrated. I rotated the tablet a full 360 degrees in all three axes, and the problem cleared up.

I used this app to monitor the orientation sensor, and while I still see the X axis orientation value drifting, it is being corrected automatically so that accuracy is maintained.

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