What to do with old smartphones?
December 22, 2021 5:45 AM   Subscribe

I have an OG Pixel that works except it doesn't get software updates anymore and the battery lasts less than an hour. I also have a Pixel 5 that works except for a broken screen that doesn't respond well to touch and has a 1/2"-wide bar of pixels that are bright white whenever the screen is on. What's the best use of these phones? Is there anything better than just recycling them?

I can drive them to the local electronics recycling drop off, but since they both kind of work (the Pixel 5 would probably work great if you put on a new screen, and the local repair place quoted me $200 for that) I'm wondering if there's a better use for them then just recycling them. Maybe I should put them up for sale in Swappa or similar with a clear description of their condition? Maybe I should post them for free on our local craigslist? I don't care about selling them for money, I just want to make the best use of them if there's a better option than recycling.
posted by Tehhund to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A few folks have written articles on uses of old Android phones, which includes setting them up as IP webcams/security cams, turning them into universal remotes, or donate to charities like Medic Mobile.

I wish that phone manufacturers / Google would team up to release a base OS that you could install on old Androids to use them like a Raspberry Pi or something. (A lot of Android models are probably as powerful or more powerful than many of the Pi models...) It seems such a waste that the devices only have a ~3ish year lifespan before they stop getting updates.

Recycling is good too, though. Better than the landfill at any rate. Just make sure you've erased them & removed from any accounts.
posted by jzb at 6:17 AM on December 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

This is probably going to seem ridiculously old-school, but I took an older Android with poor battery life and use it as a dedicated music playing device, which was, uh, very useful in my many socially-distanced walks around the neighborhood in 2020 . . .

Ditched the SIM card & pretty much all the apps, loaded VLC Player and then copied a bunch of my music MP3s to the phone via Android File Transfer & a cable.

Works for me because I've got a bunch of relatively obscure stuff I like to listen to that isn't on Spotify & while streaming music doesn't really use much data I do have a monthly cap and wanted to make sure I didn't go over the limit while unemployed.

Or, depending on your approach to kids' screen time, maybe load some age-appropriate games & learning apps & let the kids use them as mini-tablets? I mean, you're already thinking of ditching them, so if one gets dunked in a glass of orange juice or whatever it's not like you're out an expensive new iPad.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:42 AM on December 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

I've used one with low battery life as a music receiver -- actually "nature sounds" -- hooked up via audio cable to a small radio to amplify the sound. I can leave it playing for hours / perpetually to soothe, say, pets, or just to make a space less empty.

I have also used the clock/alarm function in a phone -- constantly tied to wall power -- to condition a cat to look to the phone as a food source rather than to me. She would sit and watch the phone, waiting for the iPhone harp sound every day at the appointed time, because that meant food time. That was probably one of my favorite cat training methods! Dieting cats is hard :)
posted by amtho at 6:52 AM on December 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

Obligatory note on the idea of giving them to kids: even without wifi or a SIM card, they can still call 911 just fine and in fact it's rather easy to do so if one is just happily mashing pretty buttons.
posted by teremala at 7:35 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Maybe I should put them up for sale in Swappa or similar with a clear description of their condition?

Swappa has fairly stringent minimum conditions for phones; they have eliminated the section where you used to be able to sell broken/parts phones, unfortunately. Anything with a broken screen is probably not going to fly there.

Unless you're interested in using them yourself as a security camera or music/video player (or as a backup phone for when you're doing activities that could be hazardous to your "real" phone), I would probably just recycle them. Phones old enough that they're no longer receiving security updates are, IMO, basically a liability rather than an asset for non-technical people.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:03 AM on December 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

posted by hollisimo at 9:46 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

These are probably not good candidates, but in general it's worth checking whether your no-longer-supported Android can for example run Ubuntu Touch. If you're into that kind of thing, of course.

I have a Oneplus One and an Xperia X. Both long out of Android support. Both are perfectly usable on Ubuntu Touch, as long as one can do without googly stuff. Which happens to be my strong preference... because I'm into that kind of thing.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:28 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Original quality photos and videos uploaded to Google Photos through the OG Pixel still don't count towards your storage quota. Use that information as you will...

If you're inclined to repairs, replacing the battery on the OG Pixel is a little tricksy but inexpensive. ($200 for the Pixel 5 screen actually sounds like a good price though.)
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:31 AM on December 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

I set up an Android phone that's stuck at Android 6 as a receiver for Chromecast and AirPlay using an app. (There's a Lite version that doesn't cost anything too.) It's wired into my office stereo, and also has a fancy background picture app and NovaLauncher so it's more of a clock with AirPlay than a phone, but it's handy for sending audio from my computer/actual phone to my fairly decent stereo setup. It's neat because now I can make actual cassette mix tapes from stuff in iTunes! (The phone worked OK but it's too space limited to install anything but the smallest apps on, and too out of date to feel comfortable giving to anyone - Android 6 stopped getting updates 4 years ago.) The receiver app doesn't need a display at all (unless you stream video to it).
posted by mrg at 11:44 AM on December 22, 2021

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