12 new uses for old smartphones and tablets

From a home security system or fire alarm to a picture frame or dual monitor, there are many clever jobs your retired devices would love to have.

On average we upgrade our phones every 29 months; and with the seduction of new and improved tablets always on the horizon, iPads and their kin are often left in the dust when new shiny models appear. Old phones may have lost their battery lives or other functions that make them obsolete for daily work; and a new phone may have improved capabilities that you require. At best these retired devices are passed on to kids or others who might find them useful, at worst they are sent packing to the landfill. The rest? Well I’m guessing more than a few of you have a drawer filled with old phones.

As we all know, a smartphone is more than a device for making calls. (It might surprise some people that they can actually be used to talk to one another using one's very own voice.) They are more like little pocket computers; tablets are their glorified cousins. So instead of putting them to pasture, you can give them a retirement job instead. Geoffrey A. Fowler at The Wall Street Journal got this ball rolling for me with his suggestions, and I’ve added many more from my own experience. (If you know of others, leave them in the comments.)

Many uses don’t require breaking them open, just operation system updates and app downloads, as Fowler notes, "the hardest part may be finding the old charging cable.”

1. Recipe book

iPad, kitchen, recipes. Capisce? I have an old iPad on an old book rest that holds recipes that I have collected from all over the web and ones that I’ve entered myself. Of course one doesn’t need a dedicated tablet for the kitchen, but if you’ve got it laying around anyway, it’s nice to have one that may be a little less precious in the face of flour and eggs.

2. Security system

As more people invest in security systems to spy on the nanny or catch the antics of pets when left alone, an old Wi-Fi capable phone can stand in for some high-tech voyeurism.

Fowler suggests a free app called Manything, which can transform an old Apple or Android phone into a security camera. You can use a mini-tripod to house the phone (like in the photo above) and a power source to keep it plugged in. The app is really pretty nifty and has many a trick up its sleeve, see below:

3. Fire alarm

With the free app called CleverLoop Smokey, your old phone becomes a fire alarm, of sorts. As soon as it hears your smoke detector go off, it sends you a text.

4. Remote control

Another free app, this one called Peel, can employ an old Wi-Fi able phone or tablet as a universal remote control that also knows what's on TV and thinks it knows what you'll want to watch. Some phone models may need an extra piece of equipment, the Peel or Peel Pronto which both cost $50, and which kind of defeats the purpose – but you can still put iPhone apps to work for Apple TV, Roku, or TiVo using just Wi-Fi.

5. Picture frame

An old iPad may not have the bells and whistles of a more recent model, but it still has a nice display that can be put to use as a digital picture frame. Hang it on a wall or prop it on your desk, rotate a slideshow or just show off your favorite photo.

6. Portfolio or photo album

ipad portfolioPublic Domain/CC BY 2.0 In a similar vein, if you have an old iPad and have photos to bring with you somewhere, load them onto the tablet and you have a slick display – this is great whenever you have digital images you would like to share without bringing a whole laptop (or desktop, that might prove tricky) or paper album, prints or portfolio.

7. International travel phone

Roaming charges, one of the banes of travel. Am I right? But as Fowler points out, you can use an old phone and purchase a new SIM card at your destination for local service. As he explains, in the UK for instance, you can buy local service with 100 minutes plus 1 GB of data for $13 with a new SIM card. However, he writes, there’s a small (but workable) caveat:

Sometimes U.S. phones have software locks to prevent that. ( Verizon is the big exception—it’s 4G phones are unlocked.) However, you usually can unlock old phones that are no longer under contract, if you ask.

A few days before you travel, call your carrier or put in an unlock request on its website. You should also check whether your model will work in the country where you’re traveling—phones and network standards do vary.

8. Back-up phone

Speaking of phones, you know what happens if you lose your phone or it bites the dust before your contract is up – you’re stuck paying full price for its replacement. (That is if you live on the edge and don’t purchase a protection plan. Like me.) If you can stand reverting to a former model until your contract is up, it can be a great bridge to save you the money until you are eligible for a new device.

9. Alarm clock

If you don’t like your phone in your bedroom or you like to have it off and silent at night, using an old phone for an alarm clock makes perfect sense. And not only can you use the phone’s clock function, but you can add a fancy app to suit all of your waking-up needs, like apps that provide a gentle rousing, or ones that require more effort to make sure you get out of bed.

10. Jukebox

I know many people have advanced ways of storing and playing their music, but some of us are more simple. (Again, me.) I loaded up most of my music on an old phone and have it plugged in to a compact Bose system that belts out my favorites. I concocted this system when my iPod died; I had an old phone, it saved me from buying another iPod. This would be a nice solution for someone wanting music in another room apart from where their main sound system lives, like the bedroom or kitchen.

11. Shower radio

Like the jukebox use above, but this is even simpler – hang an old music-filled iPhone in the bathroom to set the mood for the morning shower or evening bath. The acoustics of the bathroom will make up for the music-straight-from-the-phone quality.

12. Second monitor

second-monitor© Lloyd AlterIf you like to work with two screens, you may very well already have one lying around – in the form of an old tablet. Several apps make this easy, Fowler recommends Duet Display ($20) which plays nicely with both Macs and Windows PCs. Once installed (with an iPad 2 or later), you just plug it in and voila, double the fun. TreeHugger’s very own Lloyd Alter attests to this usage, as you can see from his lakeside summer writing spot pictured above.

Tags: Electronics | iPhone | Recycling

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