Repurpose your old devices to create the ultimate DIY smart home

How to breathe new life into an outdated device.
A dim room with a lot of old computers, TVs, and other technology piled up on shelves.

Repurposing your old devices can prevent your closet (and landfills) from looking like this. Júlia Borges / Unsplash

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This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 1, 2017.

In your excitement over your new smartphone, spare a thought for your old device. Tossing it into the trash is not only a waste of money, it’s also bad for the environment. Instead, give a fresh lease on life to your now-outdated hardware.

Most of us have at least one phone, tablet, or laptop gathering dust in a closet. Here are a few ideas for what you can do with that old piece of tech, any of which are possible regardless of your level of technical know-how.

Turn your old phone or tablet into an alarm clock

Your old phone or tablet may struggle running the latest games or apps, but it can almost certainly still function as a clock and alarm, whether you use the native app or a separate one you’ve installed for the explicit purpose of getting you out of bed. Keep the device plugged in by your bed, and you won’t have to worry about battery life either. Mobile alarms might seem like a pretty simple affair, but there are actually a bunch of great apps in this category. Take a look at the colorful AlarmMon, for example (it’s free for Android, iOS, and iPadOS), or Sleep Cycle (also free for Android, iOS, and iPadOS), which will try to wake you up at the optimum time in your sleep cycle.

Build a DIY security camera

A phone set up as a home security camera on a tripod, watching a child in a red shirt playing with a white dog.
No need to buy into an existing security service if you can rig up an old phone. Manything

With an active WiFi connection and the camera built into your phone, tablet, or laptop, you can turn one of these devices into a security camera to keep watch on your home. It’s easier than you’d think. Apps like Presence or Manything will take care of the job for you, with minimal setup required. You could also set up a separate Skype account on an old laptop, then set the program to automatically accept incoming video calls. This will allow you to call home from the office or your commute and check in on your pets whenever you like—with no complicated software to set up and no price to pay.

Turn your old device into a dedicated e-reader

No matter how slow your phone or laptop has become, you should be able to get a simple e-reader app up and running on it—unless the hardware really is dated beyond help. You can then use it as a portable e-reader, whether you’re opening up e-books stored locally or finding them on the web. An app like Calibre for computers or the Kindle apps for pretty much any device can help you find content to read, as well as the native e-reading apps provided by Google and Apple. If you own an actual, physical Kindle e-reader, and switch between that and your repurposed device, the mobile Kindle app for iOS, Android, and the web will let you pick up where you left off.

Let it live on as a radio

The screens of a phone, showing how it can be used as a radio.
TuneIn Radio is one app that can help your device work as a standalone radio. TuneIn Radio

Even if your aging device can’t do anything except sit on a desk and look sorry for itself, you can still use it as a radio thanks to the wonders of the web. Pretty much every radio station out there has an online stream you can tap into, and it won’t use up much of your internet bandwidth. Of the mobile apps available, TuneIn Radio (free for iOS, iPadOS, and Android) is one of the best we’ve come across, and it’ll work across pretty much any device. No matter what your taste in music (or talk shows), you should be able to find something of interest. And if you pay for the Premium version, you can remove the ads and get some other goodies.

Use it as a standalone jukebox

A white phone being used as a music controller while resting on a gray wooden desk.
Is it as nostalgic as an actual jukebox? No. Is it still worth keeping around? Yes. Sonos

Another function that just about any old device can handle is playing music, whether streaming it from the web or playing it from local storage. You could set up a laptop with an iTunes library or a tablet with Spotify, connect them to a set of Bluetooth speakers, and have your own dedicated jukebox. Alternatively, fix an old tablet or phone in place, get hold of some Sonos hardware, and install the accompanying app on the device (free for iOS, iPadOS, Android, Windows, and macOS. You can then blast tunes from Apple Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, and more through the wireless speakers, with your repurposed hardware acting as the hub.

Keep your laptop alive as a media library

One of the most common uses for an old laptop is as a media library or server. If you store your movies, TV shows, and music on the computer, the networking tools built into Windows and macOS will let you beam the content to other computers and devices around the home. The idea of setting up a media server might sound dauntingly technical, but there are applications around that can help. Plex is one of the best, and you can set it up in minutes. This will let you access all the files stored on your old laptop from other devices, whether they’re in your house or somewhere else.

Turn it into a distraction-free word processor

Using a phone and a tablet as word processor.

There are a number of lightweight word processing programs out there that let you repurpose an old and sluggish laptop into a dedicated writing machine: Google Docs, Ulysses, and iA Writer are among the best. If your computer’s too slow to run anything else, at least you know you won’t be distracted from your task. The same idea can work for a tablet too, as long as it has a decent-sized screen and you can find a keyboard accessory to plug into it (Bluetooth keyboards will work with most tablets). As before, you’ll need an app, but there are plenty to choose from, from Google Docs (again) to Pages, plus some of those mentioned above.

If all else fails, consider recycling

If none of the above appeal, don’t just throw out your old device or leave it to gather dust—recycle it instead. Unfortunately, e-recycling isn’t part of your usual curbside pickup. The best place to start is with whoever made your gadget: Dell, Apple, Samsung, and other major companies have recycling programs that are simple to use, and may get you some cash back too. Otherwise, there are local recycling options, which will vary depending on where you live. For more information, we have a guide to recycling options that you should be able to access no matter where you call home. These programs should make sure the electronics and materials used in your old gadgets are disposed of in a way that’s kind to the environment. Just make sure to wipe any personal information before handing over your devices. After that, it’s time to think about buying some replacements.