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Turn your old smartphone into a great media player

There are plenty of options for recycling your old smartphone when you upgrade, but it's easy to hang onto it and turn it into a terrific portable media player.

How to turn an old smartphone into a digital music player.
James Martin/CNET

When it's time for a new phone, don't be so quick to recycle your old one. Most can be easily turned into dedicated media players that can make great additions to your home, workplace, or car. Here are some tips to make the most of them:

  • Clear off extraneous apps. This is especially true of apps that require a data connection, as you are most likely taking your phone off your data network. Of course, you'll probably still have a Wi-Fi connection at least occasionally, so you may want to keep a few handy (or fun) apps around on the off chance that you'll want them in the future. In any case, stripping apps off the old phone should improve performance and leave more room for music, videos, and other fun stuff.
  • Streaming media. Since this phone will almost certainly be restricted to Wi-Fi access, you should consider whetherto bother with streaming media. If you're using it as an adjunct to your home media center, or to keep the tunes alive at work, streaming is a good bet; if you're using it in the car or on the go, streaming isn't a good option. Spotify is great for streaming, but requires a subscription to use on mobile devices. Last.fm, Pandora, and Songza are all good choices, or you could try Audiogalaxy to stream from your home network. There's no special reason to stick with just one, of course!
  • Nonstreaming media. This is essential for a mobile media player. You'll likely need extra storage (see below) or some way to connect to portable media, though your best bet is to stick with one device, if only to keep your setup manageable. For old iPhones, iTunes should be all you need. If you've already got a favorite media app for your old Android or Windows Phone, stick with it. If not, Winamp is a solid choice, and there's not much wrong with any phone's built-in media player. When you want to refresh your media, just reconnect to your computer and transfer files. Consult your user's manual if you've never done this before; it's usually pretty simple.
  • Storage. Even if you're using this phone as a dedicated streaming machine, you may still want to consider your storage options in case your network goes down temporarily. Many phones can use microSD cards, but you should make sure by checking your manual or specs before making the investment. You should also check to see if your phone has a size cap on the cards. You can get anything up to 32GB pretty cheaply online, so see if your device can handle one and whether you've already got one installed. The odds are good that you can pack a lot more media onto your phone.
  • Compression. This is marginally more advanced, but if you're interested in packing even more onto that media player, you can check the compression on your music and video files. If you're an extreme audiophile, you probably have your media set up the way you want it (and odds are you won't want to use an old phone to deliver it), but if you're OK with a slight, possibly unnoticeable drop in quality, you should consider compressing your media files.
  • Connect to your stereo or media center. If you're just using your old phone as a portable player using headphones, you're good to go. If not, you'll need to get a cable to hook it up to your car stereo or home media center. This is generally pretty straightforward; most home media centers have the same kind of connectors, so if you don't have the cable at home you can easily order one online or head into an electronics store to pick one up. Your car stereo may need a workaround, like a tape deck interface or a low-power radio signal connector.
  • Power. Again, this is chiefly important for use in your car. At home, you can just use the same charger you always have, and if you use it for walking around town or hitting the gym, you can just leave it charging overnight. Car chargers are worth getting for media players that live in your car, if only to avoid the frustration that comes from forgetting to bring it inside to charge. That will certainly happen! Chargers are inexpensive enough to make it worthwhile.

That's it! Your old phone is still plenty powerful, and it's better to put it back to work than to send it off to be recycled.