Repurposing Old Smartphones: When Reusing Makes More Sense Than Recycling

When looking at the specifications of smartphones that have been released over the past years, it’s remarkable to see how aspects like CPU cores, clockspeeds and GPU performance have improved during this time, with even new budget smartphones offering a lot of computing power, as well as a smattering of sensors. Perhaps even more remarkable is that of the approximately 1.5 billion smartphones sold each year, many will be discarded again after a mere two years of use. This seems rather wasteful, and a recent paper by Jennifer Switzer and colleagues proposes that a so-called Computational Carbon Intensity (CCI) metric should be used to determine when it makes more sense to recycle a device than to keep using it.

What complicates the decision of when it makes more sense to reuse than recycle is that there are many ways to define when a device is no longer ‘fit for purpose’. It could be argued that the average smartphone is still more than good enough after two years to be continued as a smartphone for another few years at least, or at least until the manufacturer stops supplying updates. Beyond the use as a smartphone, they’re still devices with a screen, WiFi connection and a capable processor, which should make it suitable for a myriad of roles.

Unfortunately, as we have seen with the disaster that was Samsung’s ‘upcycling’ concept a few years ago, or Google’s defunct Project Ara, as promising as the whole idea of ‘reuse, upcycle, recycle’ sounds, establishing an industry standard here is frustratingly complicated. Worse, over the years smartphones have become ever more sealed-up, glued-together devices that complicate the ‘reuse’ narrative.

Recycling Imperfect

2011 photo of Ghanaians working in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana. (Credit: Marlenapoli)
2011 photo of Ghanaians working in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana. (Credit: Marlenapoli)

One question that may come to mind when the idea of ‘recycling electronics’ is raised, is why this is such a terrible idea. After all, when you send a device in for recycling, it gets carefully stripped down and all materials from it are sorted before the metals molten down, plastics recycled and all the other bits and bobs handled in that industrial fashion that makes ‘How It’s Made’ episodes and kin such a delight to watch.

The reality is, unfortunately, less sunny and perfect. According to the UN, only 20% of an estimated 50 million tons of annual electronic waste (e-waste) is formally recycled, which is to say that those are recycled in properly equipped recycling centers. The remaining 80% of e-waste is dumped in landfills, or is ‘informally recycled’, generally by local people who burn the circuit boards and wiring to extract the metals, often without any kind of protective gear. These findings strongly highlight the need to reduce the amount of e-waste so long as we do not have the capacity to even recycle it.

Yet even within formal recycling facilities, only part of an old smartphone is truly recycled. For example, a massive problem is and remains plastics, many of which are highly resistant to recycling, especially when the economics of recycling plastics is taken into account. Worse, the economics of phone recycling are worsening over time, as fewer precious metals and other valuable elements are used in circuit boards and chips, as well as in smaller quantities. As a result, after shredding of the printed circuit boards and their components, recovery of these metals takes more effort for less material. Even with copper prices going up constantly, the economics of recycling are such that the concept of not recycling a working device, but rather reusing it can make sense from multiple perspectives.

Carbon And Economics

The aforementioned CCI metric proposed by Jennifer Switzer et al. is defined as: ‘the measurement of the lifetime carbon impact of a device versus the lifetime useful compute it performs’. In more basic terms, it tries to capture whether it makes more sense to use a computer (like a smartphone) for computing tasks rather than to send it off for recycling and buy a new device to replace it. Interestingly, it is also noted by their paper that between 60-70% of old smartphones are never thrown away, but rather kept lying around.

The capabilities of recent smartphones meet or exceed that provided for modern microservices. The three plots showthe performance (according to the GeekBench score[21]), number of cores, and memory for the five most popular Android phones released each year since 2013. A GeekBench score of 1 is equivalent to an Intel Core i3 processor. Solid lines indicate the mean. The shading shows the minimum and maximum ranges. The memory plot has two lines corresponding to the minimum- and maximum-memory configurations available. The horizontal dotted lines show the capabilities of different Amazon EC2 T4g instance sizes as of August 2021, plotted for context. (Credit: Jennifer Switzer et al., 2023)
The capabilities of recent smartphones meet or exceed that provided for modern microservices. The three plots show the performance (according to the GeekBench score[21]), number of cores, and memory for the five most popular Android phones released each year since 2013. A GeekBench score of 1 is equivalent to an Intel Core i3 processor. Solid lines indicate the mean. The shading shows the minimum and maximum ranges. The memory plot has two lines corresponding to the minimum- and maximum-memory configurations available. The horizontal dotted lines show the capabilities of different Amazon EC2 T4g instance sizes as of August 2021, plotted for context. (Credit: Jennifer Switzer et al., 2023)
Would it make sense to use even a fraction of these devices as something like compute nodes instead? An interesting notion is that such smartphones are more than capable of running microservices and when powered using electricity from low-carbon sources (hydro, nuclear, solar, etc.), are essentially carbon neutral in their operation. The power efficiency of these smartphone SoCs are a great benefit here, as they are already optimized for performance per Watt, and they come with their own UPS in the form of the built-in battery.

In its simplest form, such a ‘compute farm’ using smartphones can be set up using nothing but a simple webpage, as demonstrated succinctly by the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre of the University of Edinburgh back in 2016. In this demonstration, volunteers would load the webpage that contained some JavaScript so that their device can then contribute to the impromptu parallel compute cluster. For a more custom solution, devices could be flashed with a custom ROM that optimizes it for a specific task.

Cycling Upwards

Promotional photo of Project Ara. (Credit: Google)
Promotional photo of Project Ara. (Credit: Motorola)

One aspect that really cemented the IBM PC as a computing concept that has endured to this day is the ability to upgrade, add and replace entire components through the use of storage, memory and processing unit modules. Attempts to accomplish something similar with smartphones have been attempted for more than a decade with so-called modular smartphones. Unfortunately, after 2015’s PuzzlePhone (died: 2017) and Google’s Project Ara (killed in 2016), there have been no significant attempts to make smartphones in general into a modular, easily repairable system. This – along with the traditional locked bootloader – significantly limits any reuse attempts.

In this regard, reusing smartphones in a compute cluster is probably the most straightforward option, which could e.g. for an Android smartphone involve using the native development kit (NDK) to run the same C-based code as would run on regular compute nodes. Less straightforward would be reusing especially an older smartphone as a dedicated media player, as eventually the device’s OS would be considered ‘too old’ for such media player applications. Here the lack of updated (binary blob) drivers for older mobile SoCs is a major reusability obstacle, as this locks these systems essentially into an older Linux kernel.

When we look at what Samsung was suggesting with its upcycling program before it got nerfed, concepts for reuse included everything from a smart home controller to a weather station and nanny camera. More importantly, it would unlock the bootloaders and remove the need to purchase a lot of new devices whose functionality could be easily covered by an older smartphone. Anything involving a display, WiFi, Bluetooth and a battery, essentially. Considering that for example a smart home controller is just an SoC-based device with WiFi, a display, etc. using an old smartphone here instead would seem sensible.

In light of this, the skeptic’s view could thus be that the problem lies with the phone manufacturers, who will just not let us have nice things.

Throw-away Society

That it is more efficient to keep using devices such as smartphones that otherwise end up collecting dust in drawers – or shredded to recover a fraction of the materials that went into their production – is something that should be clear at this point. The lack of such reuse being implemented is something that can generally be attributed to the general ‘throw-away society‘ attitude that has become more and more prevalent since the rise of industrial-scale production of goods in the 20th century.

Considering the related concept of planned obsolescence, which was coined as early as the 1930s, it seems now almost quaint to look at the IBM PC and the extreme extensibility and upgradability that it enabled. Not only did it offer a flexible upgrade bus that enabled whole new industries of expansion cards and more to spring up, the PC clone wars of the 1990s also essentially annihilated the fixed-design, limited upgrades of the home computers up till then, even if this was not what IBM had intended to happen. It’s possible that IBM’s experience with easy upgrades, maintenance and repairs with mainframes played a role in this design choice, but the effect was that the PC became the de facto standard, with all of these modularity benefits.

Due to the modular nature of PCs, a system can be configured and reconfigured to fit a particular role, all of which helps to extend its useful life. Even if as a modern-day version of the Ship of Theseus every single component in a system will have been replaced over the span of a few decades, it seems fair to argue that although it’s not the exact same device that it was at the beginning, from an e-waste perspective, each individual component will have served its maximum useful life.

Additionally, as a modular system, components from different PCs can be assembled into another system, which might go on to be useful for another few years. This is also unfortunately a property that laptops have lost over the years, and which smartphones and tablets have never embraced in any meaningful way. Maybe that with the Right to Repair movement making inroads at long last, some level of modularity will also make it into smartphones and other devices, which would make not just repair but also reuse significantly easier and attractive.

Who knows, maybe one day smartphones will feature the same DIY, white box and OEM systems as we see with PCs today, and people will use old smartphones for clusters and hobby projects that today require a Raspberry Pi board or kin.

89 thoughts on “Repurposing Old Smartphones: When Reusing Makes More Sense Than Recycling

  1. One of the reasons we added an Ethernet port to Smoothieboard and developped web-based control interfaces for lasers, CNC and 3D printers, is so that users can re-use old smartphones and tablets as the control interface for their machine, which a lot of users have done.

    I’m sure there are a lot of other possible uses for this hardware. Though giving it away to a non-profit is also a good idea, these sorts of donations are part of why 80% of the world now has access to a smartphone, and therefore education etc.

    1. This.
      Also a smartphone can be repurposed as Octoprint Server: with a touchscreen + integrated camera + WLAN, an old phone really just needs octo4a – a version of Octoprint for Android OS – and a USB-OTG adapter to connect the printer, voila!

      Bonus: Even if the printer blew the fuses, the camera is still streamed, courtesy of the phones battery.

      1. Agreed.

        To be fair, I learned a lot more about computer architecture and communications while in college by dumpster diving for old UNIX workstations and network gear than I did in my computer engineering coursework.

        There’s not much esoteric computer gear trickling down from universities or datacenters now. But a bootloader unlocked phone would make a great hands on platform to learn about embedded systems, especially when combined with a USB-OTG connected micro.

    2. All appliances should be built this way; The UI is provided by your phone, or maybe a new category of smart remotes, and the appliance provides a standard API of some kind.

      The UI and associated electronics are always a weak point in appliances, and are always proprietary and expensive to replace.

      Using a manufacturer-provided app as a controller, the route most ‘smart’ appliances have chosen, is even worse. You’re now locked into the vendors app, which will probably not be upgraded much, so will become unusable within a coupl eof years of OS upgrades, not to mention privacy concerns.

      1. Yeah, this!
        Today especially, when there is so much smart appliances, there are already several protocols and apis to choose from. Just pick one and implement and you’ll get all the benefits for the least effort.

        But sadly it’s mostly done like you say, and even worse often it’s ‘bought’ from another company and repacked into their “own” app, with all the downsides of the parent one plus a couple of extras.

        Similar to chips and drivers, are you selling smart plugs or an app?

        Imagine the frenzy if a major manufacturer would start selling an open source smart plug.

  2. Agreed, the forced obsolescence is the primary issue here. I have a few perfectly serviceable Google handsets (Nexus and Pixel series) that they’ve stopped supporting.
    – Replacing the batteries was a PITA but at least voiding the warranty is no longer an issue
    – LineageOS has allowed me to keep them running but I both gain/loose some security there. (I can no longer “pay by phone”).

    But it just shouldn’t be that difficult. i.e. It’s not something your average congressperson could handle.

    1. Our hands can contain one device, so they should find some off-hand usage, maybe in the IoT. The processing power can be outsourced for a lot of off-hand usages. One major component in that direction being an old-devices web. I can’t see why multi core processors with several sensors around and gb of storage should go for material claim. The power is not an issue, they can be externally powered.

  3. “there have been no significant attempts to make smartphones in general into a modular, easily repairable system”
    In general, I agree, with the exception of Fairphone as a shining beacon of what could be – modular, repairable, long lasting.

  4. If you’re of the 3D printing inclination, another great way to reuse an old smartphone is as an Octoprint host! There exists an amazing program called Octo4A that lets you run octoprint on an old android phone that I use with all my printers. It’s particularly awesome thanks to the built in touch screen and camera that every smartphone has, giving you a ready to go interface in a clean package. Plus, it sure beats buying a raspberry pi for $130 these days. Here’s a link to the hackaday article:

  5. Every Samsung I’ve owned has a bulging battery after 2 years. I figured when they started sealing the battery in the case (non-removable) they had “fixed” the popcorning problem. Sadly my new Samsung 10+ bulged at 2 years and with a one year warranty (so no return) and thin glass on both the front and back (no repair) it is dangerous to leave around so into the “may be explosive” ewaste bin it goes.

    1. Interesting. That’s a sharp contrast to my experience.
      None of the S2, S3’s, or S8’s in my life ever had a battery issue.
      I still own the S2 and one of the two S3’s and the batteries are still good. (One S3 just made funny noises and went totally dead when I was using it for tinkering after it was retired.) Both S8’s are still going on the original battery with no significant/noticeable issues.

      Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket.

      1. I have replaced the batteries of my s2 and n2 a few times, but after 2-3 years of use that is expected. I think my wife and I both are on the 3rd battery now, cheap eBay ones to boot.

        But yes, the note2 is still my daily driver ;) 12 years now, ouch. Lineage is on android 12l with am alpha version for 13. The 2gigs of ram it shipped with certainly helps a lot
        And yes, some things are a tad sluggish. Mostly navigation or very heavy sites. Some make Firefox struggle, but with privacy browser not doing all that is also helps a huge deal.

        Soon though, I’ll have to upgrade, as 3g is getting shut down very where :( Ut I sense this phone might will find some use somewhere …

      2. You should buy a lottery ticket lol. Samsung just had to recently admit that the battery failure problem associated with the s7 is actually subject to every single model of the s series, j series and some others.

  6. 100% agree. I have a couple iPhone 6 phones which are in perfect working order but don’t have security patches. It’s infuriating being required to buy a new phone when the old one works fine.

    1. I’m curious: what’s the actual data on the risk of using an old unhatched phone? I would guess that after some point, the attacks decrease because fewer people use the device.

      1. The security issue, is another way to force the obsolescence of a product.
        The operating system is no longer updated, so future security problems will not be solved.
        Also, the cpu is not able to support new OS.
        If you are not using this device for shopping, they should be ok to work.
        This situation exists for both worlds: Android and Apple.

        1. I find this a bit strange, in other platforms (computers), it’s the os getting updates, not the hardware. And the os had a longer lifecycle, and when no longer supported, such as winXP, you just need to update to the next version – still the hardware is the same.

          Again just the manufacturers being bleeping idiots.

          1. Well that just does not make sense, security needs to be better, so therefore we make your device obsolete?

            As far as I understand, the only security related to not getting updates is online, aka when you still have your device.

        2. @Ostracus, getting physical access to any device is rarely that difficult. And something with obsolete insecure software you don’t even need prolonged contact, just to have done the research to have the right payloads ready…

          The security requirements between a mobile or a laptop inherently isn’t any different, and the only thing that stops a phone’s software being updated the way a laptop can be is the company that made it loves deliberately spouting that most odourous product from the arse end of a cow, making it really difficult to do so, as they pull support for the old model… As they want to sell more devices. (with a little hint of perhaps your network won’t push the OTA update and other update methods are not user friendly)

          The hardware isn’t changing and the fixed software would run on the hardware – its not like every year some new higher quality onboard encryption key system is build into every phone, or that the fixes in the software bump the hardware requirements so much the old device couldn’t hack it… The only thing that should really force a mobile communications device into retirement is that the network it relies on has be discontinued or after the 5th battery swap you can’t source another good replacement…

      2. That will depend on what unpatched flaws are found. When the security issues that are found but not fixed are low effort to scan for vulnerable devices the attack won’t decrease meaningfully, as it is such low effort and most attacks for the really serious security flaws are quite trivial – that is part of what makes them serious.

        With Apple not doesn’t even allow side loading of new applications at all (as far as I know) so you will be running that massively out of date web browser, telephony/sms app with the known flaws means if your device is connected to the wider world at all its pretty vulnerable, and frankly likely already part of some botnet or leaking all your data etc…

        1. Could be. But I’d like to see some actual numbers, especially regarding actual infections that don’t involve user interaction (clicking dubious links, installing dubious apps).

  7. Until quite recently, it was possible to get a phone/tablet/laptop from a second hand shop or recycling center, and simply make a “factory reset” to reuse it. But now most manufacturers have added new “security” protections: once a device is registered to a user account, the user MUST unregister the device/wipe its content BEFORE giving it to any shop/recycling center. Otherwise, if someone gets this phone and tries to do a factory reset, the device remains locked to the previous user’s account, and you simply can’t use it at all! The same is true for companies: they can supervise and lock their employees’ devices (MDM = Mobile Device Management for Apple). They are supposed to “release” them when they stop using them, but most of them don’t do it.
    So now a huge amount of locked devices, despite being in perfect condition, simply can’t be use unless the former user decide to take time to release it. But you have no way to contact/ask him !
    In theory, you can place a claim to manufacturer, but most of the time the only proof of ownership they accept is the proof of FIRST (brand new) purchase. Proof from second hand/website/recycling center are simply declined.
    These protections are supposed to avoid any stolen device to be reusable, so it looses its value. But the manufacturer doesn’t do anything to check if a device is really stolen or legitimately acquired. So a lot of devices are now destroyed because of this. A new kind of planed obsolescence!
    Something must be done to enforce manufacturers to offer a way to unlock non stolen devices. They should for example contact the previous user and request them to confirm if device is not used anymore or stolen. If not explicitely declared as stolen, or if no answer after a reasonable amount of time, device should be automatically unlocked (with of course an automatic factory reset/data wipe).

    1. I was wondering if that was a regular thing or a fluke. A tablet I got wouldn’t unlock even after everyone I know who used it tried to use their password to unlock it. I was trying to do a sim swap that should have worked but the tablet even connects to the wifi and reports its lock status to my provider’s registry. I was confused.

    2. Re-use of electronic devices is problematical for many reasons but one big one is lack of documentation. I think that some scheme where documentation for devices (enough to allow easy re-use, like schematics and processor information, ASIC information and maybe source code) is kept in escrow until either enough time for the device to become obsolete, the company that made it no longer exists or decides to release the data. Then you get information to re-use stuff without the pain and maybe impossibility of reverse engineering it. i even lodged a request with the EU Parliament for them to look at this, but it was ignored ‘as the moves to a circular economy handle this’. Well, I don’t think it does.

      1. Wow, well done! I agree, it might “handle” it in the long term, but until then? I don’t want to wait that long.

        Like many things, i think “everyone” actually knows what needs to be done but for some reason no actual decisions are taken

    3. security is just being used as an excuse to do more anti-consumer things. the way to deal with security is to encrypt the user partition and keep the keys on the sim card. take the card out and the partition is useless. consumers should be wiping their devices to protect their own data, i don’t see why the manufacturer needs to be in the loop at all. they are just looking to remove those devices from circulation. then when they inevitably go to court they can go “not my problem”.

  8. there’s so many practical concerns to reusing an old locked-down is it? etc but the hardest problems for me is just finding something it’s actually good at. there are a few uses where you’d like to just leave a phone permanently connected to USB power for years at a time, and in my experience they tend to eat themselves in that configuration, puffing up the battery (eventually obliterating the buttons or so on!). there will be a little uphill battle just getting some of them to turn on without a battery. and they don’t have a ton of i/o, except for all their built-in (gps, camera, sound, display, wifi etc). and of course each one has some flaw that took it out of service. and they aren’t really very resillient or redundant so often a trivial failure will render the whole device unusable even if you could imagine getting by without the broken component.

    so i have a pile of phones in the basement but i haven’t much use for even the ones that still work. i would like to use them for camera-based traffic studies, but that will require some effort, and other than that basically everything i’ve tried them for has been a failure.

    1. If you are going though the effort to repurpose the device for a permanently tethered situation you should be able to limit the max battery charge % down to something sufficiently low that staying at ‘full charge’ won’t bother it. Which should at least help that problem. (I’m far from expert enough to know if this is actually possible on all phones though, it really should be but the mess that phone hardware documentation and the software support for it is… Feels like you always need to be looking at the very specific device)

      For external I/O the more recent crop of USB-C handsets might just be able to meet your needs well – though as what is actually available on the USB-C port is so wildly varied it is still going to be a massive pain making sure any you have/source can actually do the bits you needed.

    1. Adafruit’s Blinka lets you use all their IOT sensor/display/device CircuitPython libraries on SBCs, Windows PCs, Mac and Linux machines when you connect to either their MCP2221 or FT232H breakout boards. This shows how you can use Raspberry Pi peripherals like an LED hat on your PC.

      Not sure how either of these are related to using phones :-)

      1. “Not sure how either of these are related to using phones :-)”

        Well if you need GPIOs, the only option on those phones is to use a USB dongle. Otherwise, you might hunt on the PCB for exposed pads that might be GPIOs, but that’s another sport in itself.

  9. You have to look at the other side of this too.
    In order for a manufacturer to have “replaceable” batteries, they would need something a bit more robust than the bare batteries that are used inside the phones, in order to prevent lawsuits.

    Forcing them to supply security updates for 10 years means LOTS of extra support and cost. This would mean they either have to charge a lot more for the phone to make them remain profitable, or slow down the pace at which they design them (which is not a bad thing in my opinion).

    I would rather that they just be required to unlock the bootloader and release the source code for the OS and drivers. This would free them up for other uses. This too has problems, in that many of the manufacturers have NDAs with chipset manufacturers which would prevent them from releasing the driver source code.

    The problem is much more difficult and nuanced than it appears on the surface.

      1. This. Always my question, do they want to sell chips or a driver?

        Some vendors got the message and happily play along with the kernel folks but most attach their binary blob to the kernel and call it a day which gives you such constellations as having a 4.something kernel on some SBC running a hacked together Debian 11.

      2. Oooh I’d love that. And it would save so much hassle I’ve been going through over the last week looking for if the sources even exist and then trying to verify whatever you find.

    1. The agriculture industry has been going through a “similar” fight with John Deere, etc. Opening up the code so others can repair their expensive tractors etc. It’s not too dissimilar here…..

  10. I’m not sure if it helps, but I’ve found [DivestOS]( to be an excellent alternative OS for depricated android phones; I believe it’s based upon LineageOS.

    I came to it when looking for a de-googled form or android that still put out security updates for many otherwise-depricated devices (my OnePlus Nord would no longer be a candidate for getting updates, were I to have chosen LineageOS).

    I’ve since always gone for phones DivestOS supports, in fact I was so impressed/grateful I subscribed to support them on liberapay!

  11. As already mentioned, donating phones (even old ones) may be beneficial. For example, phones are often given to battered women and men as well as to other at-risk individuals because in the USA, I believe, all phones are still required to be able to dial 911 even without a carrier plan.

  12. I thought of this last year. The problem with using many dissimilar devices in a clump for effectively-free computing power is sharing it. If one person is using this cluster, no problem. 2 or more? Security is now impossible. Already-found hardware vulnerabilities, both those disclosed and not, could be used to take control of such a cluster with malformed input. Worse still, in order to create a system to protect from malicious inputs, just scanning for crafted input isn’t enough. What is malformed for one task and processor is normal usage for another, each device has its own vulnerabilities, so to be secure your filter needs to be as complex as the sum of all processors’ hardware descriptions, potentially even requiring precomputing of results in real time. Any solution for this problem will come with a great reduction in available computing power. For example, using pairs of phones with different processors to run code in parallel as error detection, or trios of phones for error correction. Using pairs of phones would reduce total computing power by more than 50% including overhead of joining pairs of phones to work in parallel and check results.

  13. E recycling other than at the curb is strictly a hands and eyes off affair around here. Once donated it might as well be at the event horizon of a black hole. Liability insurance rules.
    I’ve encountered one BIOS locked laptop for sale, told him not interested.

  14. And unlock boot loaders. As soon as phone manufacturers allow users to install 3rd party operating systems on obsolete phones, businesses can be created to repurpose devices to other uses: control terminals for IoT or other devices, remotes, media players, etc.

    1. Waiting to be “allowed” is the wrong attitude here, we a need a manhattan-project-level effort to find a truly universal way of hacking bootloaders on every and any device.

  15. Don’t need any of that, we just need to enforce unlocking the phone once it goes out of support; give people the ability to unlock the bootloader & disable protections against “non-genuine” replacement parts / missing parts.

    Being able to nuke an old phone & make it a universal Linux machine like the Raspberry Pi would open up soooo much re-use.

    1. Yeah it’s kind of funny, that even with the hardware being difficult, small, glued, funky connectors.. it’s still the software that’s the biggest issue.
      Even though so little would actually be required for this to be a non-issue

  16. I think, that half of the phones I ever hade were usually phased out because of cracked screen. Sometimes, it was the second cracked screen which actually send it to drawer. Some of them were handed down to less demanding users or sold.

    I think, that the only phone I stopped using because of the legacy software was BB Q5. Some other phones became so old and sluggish, that I also stopped using them. But, it’s much better now. My current phone mid-tier Galaxy A40, released in 2019 is still runing fine. (Albeit, it’s probably time to install something bit more lightweight insted of the stock software.)

    What is bugging me a bit, is that I have one or two older cracked screen smartphones, which should be quite cappable of runing Homeassistant just fine. There are is some development, but nothing working really great.

    1. Yup, a bootloader, decent drivers, and a way to control the battery charging would be great. Limit the charge to some 50-80% and the battery should fare much better.

    2. I think you would find most smartphone can’t really replace the home PC – they just don’t have the cooling to actually make use of their octa and more core CPU in a general computer use setting while driving a high pixel count monitor or two. Those CPU are good for a burst load or two – keeping that UI extra snappy but won’t actually be universally better than the cheaper 4 core phone on a more sustained load.

      They should be on paper pretty damn amazing, with a bit of work on auxiliary cooling and tweaking the power targets to make use of the readily available wall power and now better cooling they certainly could be.

  17. More and more, we are not allowed to own our devices.
    The market is using insidious ways to make us rent hardware.
    Imagine, if your device is dead after 2 years, and you need to buy a new one, it is a form of rent.
    There is no CPU crisis when industries are forcing us to throw away perfectly working CPU.

  18. Did anyone notice, that you cannot be alone on your private LAN without internet ?
    On your private LAN, you do not have security issue.
    On the internet provider device, you do not have the bridge option available.
    You cannot escape internet.
    IOT is a joke.
    If you live in a gray or white area (not internet), you cannot use IOT.
    You could have the use of smart plug, but they will not work on a private LAN.

  19. Perhaps like the regulation requiring them to unlock phones, or have a common charging port, a new regulation requiring them to open the bootloader when they drop support.

  20. I use an old android phone as a headless music player fed by my LMS connected to Bluetooth speakers in the bathroom It also functions as a clock.
    An old phone could also be concealed in a vehicle as as tracking device.
    There are many simply ways to reuse an old phone without too much effort

  21. Yeah I never understood that.
    “There’s so many hardware configurations to support” they might say.

    How come my Linux boxes can be ancient and still be getting security updates, but my phone decides to be a tissue-paper attack-vector after a few years?
    (Good luck if you got it second-hand and you’ve got like a year left.)

    Like c’mon I think a toaster running Debian can still get updates. What gives?
    Smartphone manufacturers basically use desperate forced-consumption as a business model, is my guess…

  22. I still use a Moto G5+, Pixel 2 XL, and a Moto Z3 Play for various purposes. I traded in my Pixel 4 XL for a Pixel 7 so who knows what happens with those trade-ins, even though it was like new with 89% battery life left.

    With a Displaylink dock an old phone makes for a nice game emulation machine, unless you’re fortunate enough to have a device which directly supports HDMI over Type C which needs no dock.

  23. The title of this article is what power users have been screaming about for over a decade. I still get people that have a ‘whatever dumbass is an old piece of junk’ smirk when I get them to give me their old unused devices. Then they go and spend hundreds of dollars on weather tablets, and smart switch controllers and sensors and all that crap for their home automation addiction not for a second realizing…..THE PHONE HAD ALL THAT AND MORE ALREADY BUILT IN IT!

    Also, these are pocket computers, i get not allowing complete unregulated access to the baseband radio as it interacts with an emergency communications network, as in when you use your cell phone to call 911 that’s an emergency communication you cannot interfere with cell signals because of that, but that is easy enough to lock out with closed source drivers. Everything else as far as a Wi-Fi device the onboard sensors touch screen etc is a fully-fledged pocket computer. We already reached the star trek data tablet age! We are in the time of always accessable personal communicators! We have had video calling for years now people! I wish there were more and easier options to break these devices out of their manufacturer ‘we want you to buy a new one every 6 months because that doesn’t contribute to E-Waste at all’ jail that they are locked in so we can utilize this technology that is just building up in our junk drawers for something more than checking Facebook and chatting on WhatsApp. I’m still patiently waiting for a proper battery replacement circuit so I don’t have to leave a lithium trickle charging all the freaking time to use an old tablet as a HA interface in my wall. It doesn’t need a battery! But without one it won’t even boot! Leaving my only options either buy a purpose made tablet interface which is exactly the same technology but without the backend sensor(ie just as expensive in some cases, and no potential for extra security (cameras/mic) or data collection (I would love to have a set of accelerometers around the house constantly recording for when an earthquake comes by I think the data would be really cool, or environmental sensors for HVAC control, instead I would have to buy separate purpose made sensors and hope they interface with my HA setup) or I have to install a potential fire hazard in my wall because the damn thing won’t boot without a battery… Hell the device I’m using right now doesn’t even have a bootloader the user can access….. Also FUCK LG!!!

    Lets not even talk about the ‘random’ outmoded phone suddenly getting a corrupted bootloader for not damn reason…. QUALCOMM!!! THAT’S RIGHT I SEE YOU! I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!

  24. I seem to recall some university biology lab, a few years ago, 3D-printing a mounting frame to hold:

    * a particular model of smartphone
    * some off-the-shelf lenses (properly aligned with the smartphone imager)
    * prepared slides

    to function as a semi-autonomous microscope. The device was tethered to USB for power (didn’t matter if the battery was toast) and comms (no need to activate it on a carrier and no need to worry about security holes via cellular commas or WiFi). They wrote a custom app to trigger the imager, and use the LED “flash” to illuminate the slide, such that they could create a time-lapse of whatever was happening on the slide. Prep the slide, attach it to the frame, hit a button on the screen to trigger the sequence and walk away for multiple hours / days, with your sequence of images showing up on some network server.

    I can imagine some biohackers finding that application VERY interesting.

  25. Reusing my old phone has been mostly about trying to work around the android operating system. It has a lot of features baked in for use as a phone that do not work for an IoT device.

  26. Apple!!! Are you listening. For all your boasting you are no where in this. I have a drawer full of iphones. Which as the article says goes obsolete after two years. Samsung however, is the worst at this….. And the same goes for tablets. Trying doing ANYTHING with the original IPAD. Got a couple of those in the drawer as well. At least they make good paper weights.
    I totally agree these devices would make excellent home controllers. I currently have a couple Lenovo tablets doing just that.
    Great article. Let’s see if we can get the attention of the worst offenders…..

    1. Samsung are good at actually making the Kernel sources available though – so after they drop support it is easier to make something like LineageOS run on it. And as far as I know are no worse than any of the major phone makers in actually doing longer term updates – they all rather suck it seems to me.

  27. Nice article, learned a few new things! Kind of missed mention of BOINC, though ( It’s a distributed computing platform for scientific projects and runs on almost any platform including Android 4.1+ without the need for custom ROMs or any other modifications. No iOS sadly though.

  28. Loved the article. I’m presenting at an emergency preparedness workshop in a couple of weeks on how to maintain the functionality and maximize the utility of mobile electronics and other USB powered devices, and this gave me an awesome idea. I am now going to suggest that people prepare their old smartphones as emergency devices, by putting offline apps and documents on them that would be useful in emergencies. These include things like a good calculator app, a writing app that can be used for record keeping, and documents with survival information. Hmm, I should probably also suggest an offline local map too…

    Anyhow, this is awesome! I also hope to eventually leverage this for some highly distributed programming projects in the future, but the emergency thing is my immediate need, and it’s probably more broadly useful.

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