January 17, 2014, 10:59 AM — Got extra smartphones sitting around your house? How about tablets? As we move multiple generations into mobile technology, more and more of us are building up collections of old, dated devices. And more often than not, those devices do little more than take up space and gather dust.
Here's a little secret, though: Your abandoned Android gadgets are actually virtual gold mines. You just have to find the right way to tap into their potential and give them new life.
So grab the nearest DustBuster and get ready: Here are 18 ways to make your old phone or tablet useful again.
(Note that some apps mentioned here may require your device to have a minimum Android version in order to run. In some cases that might be 2011's Android 4.0 or later, but we also include many apps that work with Android 2.2 and above. See each app's Play Store listing for details.)
1. Turn it into a home media controller
Even the junkiest old Android device has ample power to serve as a high-tech home entertainment controller. There are several ways you can make it work:
- Pair the phone or tablet with one of Google's $35 Chromecast streaming sticks. You can then keep the Android device on your coffee table and use it to wirelessly cast content from apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Google Play Movies to your TV over your Wi-Fi network. You can also use it to wirelessly cast audio from such services as Pandora, Songza and Google Play Music.
- Set up a full-fledged home media server using Plex, then use your old device as a dedicated remote to stream your own local content to your TV. (The Plex media server software is free; premium subscriptions with added features start at $4 per month.)
- Connect the device directly to a TV or audio system -- using the appropriate cable and/or adapter -- and then use it to control playback.
- This Comcast app is one of many options for controlling entertainment devices from an Android phone or tablet.
- Install an app to make your device a dedicated remote for your various home entertainment components. If your device has an IR blaster, odds are it already has programmable software in place to do the job -- or try the universal Smart IR Remote app.If the device doesn't have an IR blaster, try searching the Google Play Store for specific apps to control your components. A variety of apps are available to remotely control products developed by LG, Panasonic, Sony, Comcast, DirecTV, Roku, Google TV and other manufacturers.
2. Turn it into a kitchen command center
Hard to believe, but my ancient Motorola Xoom tablet is now one of the most used devices in my house. That's because I converted it into a multipurpose command center for our kitchen.
Using a third-party launcher -- Nova Launcher, to be specific -- I simplified the tablet's home screen down to a single panel with shortcuts to a handful of relevant apps. I also added in some easy-to-perform gestures, like double-tapping anywhere on the screen to launch Android's Voice Search function for on-the-fly Web searches and other voice-activated commands.
An old Motorola Xoom tablet provides info and entertainment right in my kitchen.
In terms of the apps, Netflix is what gets used the most; between that service and a basic docking stand, the tablet has effectively become our cooking-time television. Pandora and Google Play Music are also favorites for stove-side streaming.
Android-based recipe apps can be useful in this sort of setup, too, as can cloud-connected note-taking services -- like Google Drive, Tasks or Evernote -- for easy viewing of personal recipes or always-synced shopping lists that your family maintains from multiple devices. A Google Calendar shortcut or widget can also be convenient, especially if you have a calendar that's shared among multiple family members.
3. Use it as a digital photo frame
Snag an inexpensive stand, plug your device in, and turn it into a snazzy cloud-connected photo frame for your home.
The Dayframe app pulls in an ever-changing stream of images from your social media accounts.
The only program you need is a free app called Dayframe: It connects to your accounts on multiple services, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Flickr and Twitter, and cycles through an always-fresh stream of personal photos. You can also have it include public pictures related to your interests, if you prefer.
Want to make your photo frame even more impressive? With an optional $3 Prime upgrade, Dayframe allows you to set up custom image playlists that can automatically turn on and off at specific times during the day.
4. Make it your live window into the world
Don't have the greatest view from your desk? Let your old Android phone or tablet be your window to wild and exciting locales. To get started, grab the free EarthCam Webcams app from the Google Play Store.
It'll give you one-touch access to live streaming cameras around the world, ranging from the famous Abbey Road crossing in London to New Orleans' Bourbon Street and New York City's Times Square. Load up the view you like, tap the icon to go full-screen, and gaze the day away.
EarthCam lets you load up a view of Niagara Falls -- or a slew of other Webcams around the world -- for a break from the mundane.
If you want more views, EarthCam offers package-based upgrades within its app for 99 cents a pop. You can find quite a few mobile-friendly live cameras on the Web, too: Pull up your device's browser and try out the San Diego Zoo Panda Cam, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's underwater cams, or SeaWorld's Penguin Cam for some "aww"-inducing variety.
Last but not least, try searching for traffic cameras in your own area if you want an eye in the sky to help you prepare for your commute. Quality and availability will obviously vary from place to place, but a site called TrafficLand makes it easy to see what's out there near you (and it works fine from a mobile browser -- you'll just need to pinch to zoom into the video box to make it go full-screen).
5. Make it kid-friendly
Your old tablet may seem tired to you, but it's still top-notch technology by toddler standards -- so why not turn it into a fun and educational gadget for your kid?
On tablets with Android 4.3 or higher, you can find a native Restricted Profile feature right in the operating system: Just head into the system settings, tap "Users," then tap "Add user or profile." Select the option to add a restricted profile. You'll then be prompted to enable or disable access to all apps installed on the tablet, allowing you to control exactly what programs your little one will and won't be able to use.
Zoodles creates a locked kid-friendly environment on your Android phone or tablet.
For an even more restricted environment -- one that'll work on any phone or tablet running Android 2.2 or higher -- check out the Zoodles Kid Mode app. It gives you a custom kid-friendly interface with a selection of age-appropriate games and activities, and its Child Lock feature keeps kids safely within the app.
The app itself is free, though you do need a premium membership in order to use some of its features, such as a timer mode that automatically limits kids to a set amount of time with the device each day.
6. Turn it into a security camera
Keep an eye on your home, office or kiddos by transforming your device into a Web-connected security camera. Just download the free IP Webcam app and follow its instructions -- and, within seconds, you'll be able to peek through your device's lens from any compatible computer browser.
7. Turn it into your own personal testing ground
Android is a tinkerer's dream. It's generally pretty easy to root, or gain system-level access to, an Android device -- and once you've done that, you open up a whole new world of possibilities. You can install powerful root-only applications and even replace your device's entire operating system with a custom ROM full of fresh features and advanced customization potential.
Anytime you start hacking, though, you risk screwing something up. And when the device in question is your primary phone or tablet, that can be a daunting gamble to take.
That's where an old phone or tablet can come in handy. Put on your hacker's hat and do a Google search for "root + [your device name]" and then "[your device name] + ROM." There's a huge community of Android enthusiasts out there, and you'll almost certainly find some helpful user-generated guides to get yourself started.
8. Let it power scientific research
Believe it or not, your clunky old Android device could actually help scientists search for stars and research new treatments for AIDS. It's all part of a program from UC Berkeley called BOINC, or the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing.
Turn your tablet or phone into a scientific research machine with BOINC.
All you do is download the free BOINC app, choose which research projects you want to support, and select how and when your device's computing power can be used. As long as your device is turned on, plugged in and connected to a Wi-Fi network, scientists from various institutes will be able to tap into its processing power to help conduct their data analyses.
You can read more about how the whole thing works at Berkeley's BOINC FAQ page. (Whew -- try saying that five times fast!)
Looking for more ways to contribute to scientific research? See " Citizen science: Go ahead, try this at home."
9. Use it as a video chat terminal
Who needs a phone when you have Wi-Fi? Set up your old Android device with apps like Google Hangouts and Skype and use it as a futuristic terminal for face-to-face communications. Think of it as an extra extension for your office or living room.
10. Turn it into an awesome gaming device
Even old Android devices can make pretty sweet mini-arcades. Surf the Play Store for some games -- you can even find emulators for console-level systems, if you know where to look -- and then grab one of Moga's universal Android game controllers ($30 to $80) to take things up a notch.
Emulators let you play console-level games on your old Android phone.
11. Make it a dedicated e-reader
Want a distraction-free reading environment? Load up your old Android device with only the apps you need for reading -- Google Play Books, Amazon Kindle, Pocket or whatever tickles your fancy -- and keep it by your nightstand.
You can also borrow books from your local library. Check with your nearest branch for information on how to do it, or download the free OverDrive app, which is used by a variety of libraries, schools and other institutions.
Be sure to disable notifications from Gmail and any other native services -- heck, even switch it into airplane mode once you've downloaded the content you need -- and you've got the equivalent of a dedicated e-reader without all the usual phone or tablet temptations.
12. Make it a dedicated MP3 player for your car
You can save yourself the hassle of futzing around with your current phone every time you want to listen to music on the road by making your old device an always-available car-based MP3 player. Load it up with all the music you want, then plug it into your car's power port, connect it to the stereo via either Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headphone jack, and send that old in-car CD player (or, dare I say, cassette deck) into permanent retirement.
13. Turn it into a high-tech e-clock
An old phone with a dock makes a cool-looking customizable clock for your desk or nightstand. The free Timely Alarm Clock app is a great place to start, especially if you want to use the clock for alarms.
If your phone has Android 4.2 or higher, Beautiful Widgets Pro ($2.69) is another app worth checking out; its Daydream screensaver feature gives you slick-looking animated weather info along with the current time.
Beautiful Widgets Pro turns a docked phone into a bedside clock with weather info.
Both of those apps have options to use a "night mode" that makes the screen dim while the screensaver portion is running. The device returns to regular brightness anytime you touch it.
14. Use it as a dedicated desk calendar
Dock your old device on your desk and put it to work as your virtual personal calendar. Google's own native Android Calendar app isn't bad, but the free Cal app by Any.do will give you a more graphical interface that's perfect for this purpose.
15. Use it as a wireless trackpad for your computer
Keep an old phone or tablet around -- or keep it in your laptop bag -- and have an on-demand wireless trackpad and remote control for your computer. The free Gmote 2.0 app and a Wi-Fi connection is all you need to make the magic happen: Just download the app to your device, download the appropriate server-side software for your computer and set up a secure password. Then you can point, click and slide around on your device's screen to control everything from presentations to multimedia playback on your PC.
16. Keep it handy for emergencies
Any cell phone can make emergency calls, even if it's not connected to active service. Keep an old phone charged up and in your car or travel bag; if something bad happens and your active phone is either dead or unavailable, you'll still have a way to get through to 911.
17. Sell it
This one's easy, right? After all, what's old to you is new to someone else. You can go the regular route and list your device on Craigslist or eBay -- or you can check in with a more niche service like Gazelle or Glyde to get an instant estimated price for your device. Amazon and Best Buy also both offer buyback programs that are worth investigating.
Whatever you do, make sure you head into your phone's settings and perform a full factory reset on the device before passing it along. You may also want to remove any memory cards you've added into the gadget.
18. Donate it
Feeling philanthropic? Rest assured: There's no shortage of organizations ready to put your old device in the hands of someone who could really use it.
A few possibilities worth considering:
- Hopeline: Run by Verizon Wireless, this program refurbishes old unused phones and gives them to victims of domestic violence with a limited free calling and texting service. You can donate a device at any Verizon Wireless retail store or by requesting a prepaid mailing label.
- Cell Phones For Soldiers: This nonprofit organization sends old phones along with free international calling service to troops serving overseas from all branches of the U.S. military. You can donate a device by finding a local drop-off point or requesting a mailing label.
- Rainforest Connection: This nonprofit group utilizes old phones to protect threatened rainforests in Indonesia, Africa and the Amazon. How? The devices are fitted with solar panels for energy as well as specialized software that uses their microphones to monitor for the sound of illegal chainsawing and alert nearby rangers to the activity ( yes, really!). You can donate a device by mailing it into the organization's California headquarters.
So there you have it: 18 intriguing options for giving new life to your old device. Figure out which one best suits you -- and send those gadget-dwelling dust bunnies packing.
Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.