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How to Repurpose Your Old Gadgets

Step away from the trash bin! There are plenty of ways to give old phones, laptops, and cameras a new life.


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Two smartphones side by side

Photograph: Alexey Boldin/Getty Images

Electronic waste is a huge problem, one that’s getting worse: We’re now producing 21 percent more e-waste globally than we were eight years ago. When it comes to gadgets like phones, your brand new model will likely be superseded in a year, and sometimes not even that.

That’s why it’s worth thinking twice about what you do with your old gadgets whenever something new arrives. You might be surprised at how many ways you can repurpose an old piece of hardware, even if it’s several years old and has become too slow to fulfill its original function properly anymore.

These are some of our favorite ideas, but there are more out there—with a little bit of imagination, you might be able to come up with something new.

Turn an Old Phone or Tablet Into a Security Camera

When a smartphone has outlived its usefulness, don’t toss it. There’s a lot of working tech in there that can fulfill other roles. One of these roles is as a security camera, providing an always-on video feed that you can tap into using another phone from anywhere else in the world.

To get this set up you’ll probably need some kind of tripod or mount, unless you want to get creative with books and ornaments. You’ll also need some software: Manything and Alfred offer both Android and iOS apps for the job, and there are others out there. It’s simply a question of installing the relevant app and following the instructions.

This works for tablets as well, of course, though getting them set up and in position might be a bit tricker because of the extra size. Bear in mind that many phones and tablets are now waterproof, so this could even work outdoors—though your mobile device of choice is going to need to stay connected to a power supply at all times.

Turn an Old Phone or Tablet Into a Media Remote

Over the last few years we’ve seen a flurry of new wireless streaming protocols arrive and expand in scope. Think about how many ways you have to stream media wirelessly now, including Apple AirPlay, Google’s Chromecast system, the apps that Sonos provides with its speakers, and plenty more.

What this means for your old phone or tablet is that you can use it as a dedicated media remote or hub. Keep an old iPad next to your Apple TV for beaming over shows and movies, or keep an old Android tablet next to your Chromecast dongle for streaming Spotify or YouTube playlists to it.

This frees up your phone from the job, which means less of a strain on battery life, and it also means everyone in the family can pick up the device and start streaming, without worrying about logins or lock screens.

Control your Spotify devices using a dedicated device. David Nield via Spotify

Use an Old Laptop as a Media Center

On a related note, old laptops can be repurposed as media centers, storing your videos and music, ready to be streamed around your home. It’s an lightweight task, so it suits older hardware, and it means you can keep plenty of hard drive space free on your brand new laptop as well.

Software such as Plex or Kodi is perfect for the task (and can even serve up media to devices outside your home if needed), or you can use the Music and TV apps that Apple supplies with macOS to do the job. The wireless streaming protocols we mentioned earlier mean that you shouldn’t have to do too much in terms of setup.

Alternatively, you can just use your old laptop as a dumping ground for any type of file that needs to be accessed from other computers and devices in the place where you live. Both Windows and macOS make it easy to configure a home network, so the old laptop’s hard drive is visible to other computers.

Use an Old Digital Camera as a Webcam

If you’ve just upgraded your expensive DSLR to a new model, you’re probably going to want to sell the old one to absorb some of the cost ... but if you do need to keep the old one around for whatever reason, you can turn it into a great-looking webcam.

This might seem mundane, considering most laptops come with a webcam built in, but it means your Zoom calls are going to be of a much higher quality. It also means your webcam can be positioned at any angle—you’re freed from the folding of your laptop screen. Plus, if you want to do something like stream yourself on a service like Twitch, you’ll have unparalleled video quality.

Camera makers have been rushing to push out software to enable this functionality in recent months, and there are now official tools from Sony, Canon, Fujifilm, and more available. Even GoPro has put a program out into the world. And, of course, we have a guide here.

Upgrade your webcam setup with a digital camera. Photograph: Canon

Turn an Old Phone or Tablet Into an Ereader

If you have an old phone or tablet lying around, you don’t have to go out and buy an ereader—you can just use your existing device instead. The Kindle (Android, iOS), and Kobo (Android, iOS) apps can both be used to purchase and read ebooks, and are faster than the software onboard the equivalent ereaders.

Both apps support audiobooks as well, so you can easily jump between text and audio formats if you need to. If you do go on to buy a physical Kindle or Kobo ereader, then you can still sync your reading between it and the phone or tablet that you’ve repurposed.

The bright screens of phones and tablets are a harsher on the eyes than the e-ink of an ereader, but there are ways to fix this. Stock Android has a feature called Night Light (under Display in Settings) and iOS has a feature called Night Shift (under Display & Brightness in Settings) that can reduce the blue light put out by your device’s screen.

Turn an Old Tablet Into a Digital Photo Frame

How often do you take a look at the wealth of photos that you’ve collected on your phone over the years? For most of us, it’s probably not that often, which is why you might want to set up an unused tablet as a dedicated photo frame somewhere in your home or office.

You’ll need to keep it plugged in at all times, and you might need to get creative in terms of a mount or a stand to keep it propped up somewhere, but most of the popular tablet models come with a host of affordable, third-party accessories to choose from.

You’re also going to need some dedicated software for the task. Fotoo is one of the best options around for Android tablets, while if you’re using an old iPad you can check out LiveFrame instead. There are other options around for displaying your pictures and keeping your tablet on at all times.

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This post originally appeared on WIRED and was published October 18, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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