Samsung Releases Minimum Viable Galaxy Upcycling

It’s a tragedy every time a modern smartphone is tossed into e-waste. We prefer to find another life for these bundles of useful hardware. But given all the on-board barriers erected by manufacturers, it’s impractical to repurpose smartphones without their support. A bit of good news on this front is Samsung testing the waters with a public beta of their “Galaxy Upcycling at Home” program, turning a few select devices into SmartThings sensor nodes.

More devices and functionality are promised, but this initial release is barely a shadow of what Samsung promised in 2017. Missed the announcement back then? Head over to a “How it started/How it’s going” comparison from iFixit, who minced no words starting with their title Galaxy Upcycling: How Samsung Ruined Their Best Idea in Years. They saw a bunch of Samsung engineers at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, showing off a bunch of fun projects reusing old phones as open hardware. The placeholder GitHub repository left from that announcement still has a vision of a community of makers dreaming up novel uses. This is our jam! But sadly it has remained a placeholder for four years and, given what we see today, it is more likely to be taken down than to become reality.

The stark difference between original promise and actual results feel like an amateur Kickstarter, not something from a giant international conglomerate. Possibly for the same reason: lack of resources and expertise for execution. It’s hard to find support in a large corporate bureaucracy when there is no obvious contribution to the bottom line. Even today’s limited form has only a tenuous link of possibly helping to sell other SmartThings-enabled smart home devices.

Ars Technica was similarly unimpressed with launch functionality, but was more diplomatic describing the beta as “a very modest starting point”. XDA-Developers likewise pinned their hopes on the “more devices will be supported in the future” part of Samsung’s announcement. Until Samsung delivers on more of the original promise, we’ll continue to be hampered by all the existing reasons hacking our old cell phones are harder than they should be. Sometimes an idea can be fulfilled by helpful apps but other times will require hacking into our devices the old-fashioned way.

30 thoughts on “Samsung Releases Minimum Viable Galaxy Upcycling

    1. I don’t have any old Galaxies so my applications are more for low-end phones.
      DISCLAIMER: Most of these are closed-source and I’m aware open source alternatives exist. I am not affiliated with any of these apps or their companies.

      If you run Kodi it is nice having a dedicated TV remote phone with just Kore (the Kodi remote app) running.

      There’s also Unified Remote which can be used to control virtually anything with a bit of configuration.

      And of course there’s a handful of apps that provide homescreen widgets that run an SSH command on a remote host when tapped or pushes an MQTT message.

      If you’re running Home Assistant the associated app is pretty lightweight and runs smoothly on older phones.

      I haven’t found it very practical, but there’s a couple apps that let your phone work as a standard IP camera. Probably would be tough to use outdoors but for indoor monitoring it works well enough.

      Servers Ultimate is really convenient for spinning up various servers on a phone, ranging from IRC to git to everything in between. All said, it’s quicker to spin up a LAMP stack on a phone than to start a Docker container, so why not?

    2. Suggestions for old phones:
      I have an old HTC with a non-functional “down” button. I use the FM radio feature to listen to music at work through an old pair of computer speakers.

      It’s undoubtedly a pretty narrow niche: listening to broadcast radio + having a phone with FM radio hardware + having a still-working phone old enough to have come with the FM tuning software installed by OEM.
      (Though, I do have an FM tuner app working on my daily driver Galaxy S8+, too.)

    3. By installing an app like “Fully Kiosk Browser” you can convert your old android phones/tablets into a decent display screen. You could build your own web page but if not then use Home Automation or Node-RED which have their own “dashboard” functions.
      Grafana also looks fantastic on tablet screens.
      Have a look:

  1. Aside from the shockingly (in the sense of being egregious, not in the sense of being surprising) limited and recent list of supported devices (support goes back to the Galaxy S9/Note 9, which first released early-mid 2018; and in a sane context shouldn’t even be out of mainstream support); and the massive functionality downgrade (hey, let’s use a device with 8 cores, 4GB of RAM, a high resolution display, multiple cameras, etc. to do the job of an ESP32 or similar with a suitable sensor attached…) I’m unclear on what, if anything Samsung is doing to address a fairly fundamental issue:

    If an Android phone is out of support, odds are excellent that it is [i]not[/i] in good shape in security terms. Some of the userspace/app stuff is probably OK because Google Play Services typically continues to update the stuff that it covers even on older devices; but if there’s a kernel or BSP/driver issue that’s a no-go(and those aren’t terribly uncommon).

    What I’m not clear on is how that is being handled: if the device is sufficiently out of support to be ‘upcycled’ rather than just used as a perfectly credible phone(barring physical damage or a brutalized battery S9 or later is still pretty credible, arguably superior to some current non-flagship devices, if you don’t mind that the Android patch level reads “June 2019”) then is it safe or responsible to encourage people to keep it active, network connected, and monitoring some part of their home?

    If Samsung didn’t do anything about the likely security issues and just knocked out an Android app that hides most of the functionality and talks to ‘smartthings’ that seems grossly irresponsible. If they did do something about the security situation then the result ought to be totally qualified to still serve as a full-function phone.

    If this were a ‘here’s a bootloader unlock and enough to get you to a serial terminal, godspeed’ thing aimed at nerds and hackers who know what they are getting into that would be one thing; that’s an audience that is better equipped to weigh the risks(and potentially address them) and is definitely better off with that level of support than without.

    For something pitched at a more general audience, though, treating a device known to be vulnerable as OK for production use seems deeply scummy if they didn’t address the security situation; and treating a device that’s still a quite credible phone as a basic sensor node seems deeply scummy if they did address the security situation and it’s safe to use.

  2. I’ve rooted old phones and made them into music players using fake accounts for Pandora and the like. Great for the beach and such. Bonus is that when I’ve taken them on trips I can login to some services while on WiFi and post to facebook when I’m on a beach in Jamaica or anywhere I can get some bits.

    it would be nice if Micro USB had some sensors that would work with the phones for keeping them powered and reporting things from the sensors…Water in the basement…any number of things would be useful.

    Despite the fact that they aren’t state of the art, any smartphone is a useful device if it’s still intact. We need to STOP wasting our resources and repurpose or upcycle them for other uses for as long as possible. Keeping the sensor systems you’d add to these forward compatible so if the really old phone finally dies, you can put the next oldest phone in place and know the original investment for the sensors won’t be wasted.

  3. i don’t really know how much support the manufacturer can provide for it, other than making sure the stock os is decently unlocked.

    it all comes down to what the end user wants to do with their worn out phone. does the display still work? the battery? the camera? the headphone jack? do you want a media player? a security camera? an alarm clock? a logging barometer?

    it seems like the answers to those sorts of questions will decide the future of the device and there’s not much the manufacturer can do to help you with that.

    i will say, having used an old phone as an alarmclock for years…it’s not as good as you’d think. the battery does eventually object to being plugged in 24/7, and android is garbage. very basic operations become very slow on any old phone no matter how fast it was when it was new, and regardless of updates. i’m not even sure all the reasons for that, if i need to reboot my alarmclock or what…but i’m saying two android alarmclocks in a row developed performance problems after a couple years on the job.

    alarmclocks. performance problems. all hail google.

    1. Android’s tendency to slow down over time is due to the Google framework. Google rarely releases an update that takes less memory than before, so in order to stay on top of security updates you are also forced into regularly upgrading your hardware to have a usable experience. And much of Android apps are reliant on cloud service backends, which also have growing bandwidth requirements over time as the server side gets updated with more features and telemetry.

      It’s basically like having a bloated antivirus installed by default. You have to remove the Google framework from any device if you want to be able to continue to use it long term, which usually entails installing a custom ROM sans gapps.

      1. I also dislike the increasing boat. Take note, there is Android Go for low resource devices (basically for India) and it was updated for Android 11. But if your phone can’t run custom ROMs then you’re screwed and the manufacturer is a scrub for locking it down

  4. Roger, I agree with you. I have often thought that an old phone would make a great doorbell cam.
    I hate to say it but unfortunately, companies have no social responsibility and need to have governments intervene to “encourage” them to do something.
    I’ve worked with Samsung on large projects and your comments are very accurate.
    It is truly a shame that large companies like Samsung do not see a valuable upside to making old phones have an extended life as repurposed sensors. They’ve made the money and now they could care less.
    I quit using my Smartthings hub a couple years ago because they abandoned their “open source” policy with it.

  5. The best use I’ve found is using an old phone as an HDMI monitor for microcontroller projects. A simple USB host adapter and a USB to HDMI converter (all in under $20) and I have a high resolution monitor that doesn’t swallow my bench space, and of course, I learned of it from Hack A Day postings.

    1. Oh that’s a nice idea! I’ve already got the USB HDMI capture thing, the $20 one that shows up like a webcam from Adafruit. Thanks for passing the idea along!

  6. It’s hard to find support in a large corporate bureaucracy when there is no obvious contribution to the bottom line.

    Why did you bury this simple but understated truth underneath bunch of made up “possible” reasons. The reason this didn’t happen is because it was never anything except propaganda.

    Samsung is a corporation.

    Corporations put profit ahead of everything else always.

    What part are you confused about?

    1. That’s the problem with phones, a 20 year old car is still perfectly useful, a 20 minute old phone is hopelessly out of date. Sometimes progress isn’t all forward.

  7. By the time I upgrade to a new phone, the old one is unusable in some way; USB port wore out on my Galaxy Nexus, screen broke on the S6 that replaced the Nexus. I think it is wasteful to get a new phone every year (Apple addicts) and therefore I use mine until they are well and truly dead.

    1. Ok I’d fit in the Apple addict space – with the exception I keep my devices till they really don’t work any more as well.

      My 6S I preordered when they were released way back when is still working just fine.

      My previous 4s has been happily doing duty as a desk clock – the home button failed and it’s painfully slow to do much else.

  8. I think electronic products schematics and software code and related tools, like other intellectual property, should be liberated and publicly available after some years, this way this information is not lost and can contribute to global progress.

  9. These modern phones are a study in planned obsolescence and design for non-reuse. Not to ,mention the colossal waste of natural resources and pollution generated to make what amounts to a throw-away device.

    And the software side is equally odious as others here have posted. Google purposely bloats every iteration of Android. so it’s like stuffing Fat B**tard into your phone.

    This is not progress. It’s a scam.

  10. On still quiet happy with android 9 or 10 iirc on. My galaxy note 2. Been my daily driver for 7 or so years now. Did have to replace the screen $25, couple of batteries $5 ea, bunch of battery covers $2 (due to aftermarket wireless charging that just fits, but stresses the cover) and 2 or 3 USB ports $3 a pop. All in all 50$ in parts over the duration on a phone I bought a year after release for $350 instead the launch price of $650 or so I reccon.

    Does it half shortcomings? Some, but I doubt a newer phone would overcome those. Most problems come from the crappy kernel Job Samsung devs did.

    My next phone? The new google SOC looks promising if they keep the bootlock out (eg possibility to replace the bootloader) and has an isolated modem … We’ll see …

  11. If only … What can we do as mere consumers? Boycott is stupid and won’t work. EU regulation is probably the only way to go. Right to repair!

    But how can we make this happen? How can we fight this.

    From a software point of view, we need a way to disable DRM boot (aka secure boot, aka you can only boot my signed bootloader). I want to be able to replace it, as part of right to repair!

    Modems we can ignore for now. Those are too tricky indeed …

  12. Old phones and tablets become auxiliary displays for the PC in my living/working area through applications like Spacedesk. Not huge displays, but for little things they are OK.

  13. It looks more like second hand market locking than anything environmentally good. Using 3 year old smartphone from top series as a light sensor is extremally wastful. I they would want to prevent e-waste they will just allow to use 3rd party software on older phones and make them with battery replacement in mind

  14. Amazing the waste of some great components and the new phones especially.

    I think a universal CSI adapter can be a great tool for using the webcams to they don’t go to waste. Trail, security or web cam potential IMO at the least. Plus there are more sensors that can be used and if the screen is good, the screen as well.

    Just requires a manuf. provided way to access the screen, camera and other sensors and is justifiable for society since seems like isn’t that complicated to implement with the right knowledgeable person since is already available and being performed with.

    Talk about f’d up stewards to society and you’d think the Koreans would be more honorable.

  15. It’s a joke.. Only S9 and up supported. That’s not ‘old’ – until 2 months ago my S8 was my main phone! In fact the S9 is still supported with updates. And the supported usecases don’t take advantage of the power of these smartphones. And SmartThings is too commercial a platform.

    This seems to me to be purely a “hello world look how ‘green’ we are!” minimal effort PR thingy.

    I remember the original announcement in 2017 and it was indeed quite promising. But the focus is wrong. iFixit’s quote says it all: “Friends inside the company told us that leadership wasn’t excited about a project that didn’t have a clear product tie-in or revenue plan.”

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