Upcycling – A New Use for an Old Smartphone

Hoard Mode

I confess, I’m a hoarder. It’s a habit that baffles family and friends; why do I retain items that other (saner) people would have thrown out as junk long ago?

In most cases, there is a misguided belief that an item will become useful again at some point in the future. In some cases, there is a sentimental attachment that prevents me disposing of said item. A few favourite exhibits from my extensive collection / pile are shown below.

L-R: Megadrive circa 1990; assorted F1 memorabilia from races attended last decade;  the mighty Scorpionok; one of many old phones

L-R: Sega Megadrive circa 1990; assorted F1 memorabilia from races attended last decade; the mighty Scorpionok; one of many old phones

The last item in the above picture is a Samsung Galaxy Ace, my first smartphone. I have really fond memories of this phone – it could do so much without costing a fortune, and it started my interest in Android, but it’s light years behind my Nexus 4. How could it be put to use? A backup / emergency phone? I have plenty of those already…

Things to do with an old Droid

Consider this: a smartphone is a mini computer, with built in WiFi, camera, Bluetooth, GPS, sensors, solid state storage – it’s a digital Swiss army knife.

The protocol droid is fluent in over six million forms of communication, despite having its mind wiped

The protocol droid is fluent in over six million forms of communication, despite having its mind wiped

There are several articles detailing tonnes of uses for an old Android, such as:

  • Media server
  • Internet connected security camera
  • In car GPS and navigation system
  • Pedometer
  • Torrentbox
  • VPN Server
  • Bitcoin miner
  • Internet radio

In time, I think I’ll attempt all of the above, but for today I’m writing about a torrentbox / media server. The instructions below show how to create either, or indeed both (which is what I did).

Torrenting for Beginners through the media of Tetris and Food

For those not in the know, torrenting is a very popular way of downloading larges files on the internet. Instead of downloading a large file from a single server, a user downloads file fragments from multiple servers asynchronously, which are then assembled in the correct order on the client machine. A separate, smaller file (the torrent file) tells the users computer which fragments to fetch, and the order in which they are to be assembled.

Notice that there is only one straight line piece in this diagram. Entirely intentional.

Notice that there is only one straight line piece in this diagram. Entirely intentional.

In essence, a torrent file is like a recipe – it details the ingredients (fragments) required to make a meal (large file) and the ordered steps to recreate it.

The advantage of the multi-server download approach presented by torrenting is that if one server goes down, the user just gets the fragments from somewhere else (a bit like buying some ingredients from Sainsbury’s if Tesco are out of stock, rather than waiting for Tesco to restock).

Disclaimer – you should not download copyrighted material. Please see this helpful video explaining why.

Creating a Torrentbox

Torrent users will search for torrent files on the internet. Those files are then opened with a torrent client program, and downloading begins. The download is left to progress in the background while the user does something else on their computer, or maybe just walks off and does something else entirely.

A torrentbox is a computer used only for the purpose of downloading files in this manner. Lots of old computers find new life as a torrentbox, why not old smartphones? They have disk storage, internet access, and require a minimal amount of power. By nature, they are highly portable as well.

And so I installed tTorrent on my Galaxy Ace.

I chose tTorrent because it’s one of the few torrent clients that has a “watch directory” function – that is, any torrent files dropped into a specified watch folder will automatically be opened and downloading will begin.

And so I installed Dropsync on my Galaxy Ace.

Dropsync allows me to synchronise a folder within my Dropbox account with a local folder on the phone. The idea being that I search for torrent files on my Nexus 4, my Chromebook, my Nexus 7 – any device with a browser – and drop them into my Dropbox folder. The Galaxy Ace syncs the folder, picks up the torrent file and begins downloading.

And all ready by the time I get home

And all ready by the time I get home

Unfortunately, the Galaxy Ace does not support USB On-The-Go, although most old phones running Android 4+ should (try it out if you have an old Galaxy S2 lying around). With USB OTG, I could attach an external hard drive to the phone for much more storage than an SD card could provide. That said, I’d recommend plugging both the smartphone and the external hard drive into an externally powered USB hub – that way the phone can access the hard disk without having to sacrifice an external power source and resort to the battery.

Creating a Media Server

The purpose of a media server will be to share out content stored on the phone with other devices on the same network. This may be content downloaded via torrenting, or any other media accessible to the device (via SD card or connected hard disk, say).

Just one app to install here – BubbleUPnP has a free version with limitations on how much video content may be streamed per day, but the licence is a little over £3 at present. This will make the phone and its content accessible to any other device on the network with a DLNA client:

  • If you have an Android phone or tablet, install BubbleUPnP on it (disable local content share in settings)
  • If you have an iPhone / iPad, install GoodPlayer
  • Windows phone / tablet, install MediaMonkey
  • Windows computers, Macs, XBox 360, XBox One, PS3 and PS4 already have built in clients
From has-been to centre of attention

From has-been to centre of attention

A New Life for an Old Friend

Okay, this setup will never rival a NAS box for performance, but it does give pretty good functionality for essentially nothing given that I had the parts lying around anyway, and power requirements are very low (it uses less energy in a day than it takes to boil an average kettle).

If I did want to spend money, these old phones will only get cheaper as new ones are released. In fact, I’ll probably end up inheriting a lot of them when family members upgrade to new phones.

But I’ll probably use those phones to try out some of the other ideas above.

It’s good to hoard after all.

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