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5 steps to make your phone or tablet an in-flight entertainment center

You don’t need to rely on an airport’s entertainment offerings anymore.

Plane trips can be long, but it's now pretty easy to take entertainment with you to pass the time.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Traveling to a new place is exciting. But you know what's not exciting? Sitting in a cramped seat on a long flight to your vacation while staring out the window bored to death. And that movie that airline is showing? You've seen it and hated it.

But there is a better option. With just a phone, tablet or laptop that you already have, you could put together a robust in-flight entertainment system that will be the envy of other passengers scrambling to pass the time. (Keep in mind that depending on your destination, there is a chance that you might only be allowed to bring a phone onboard your flight).

See this story and others in the Summer 2017 issue of CNET Magazine.

James Martin/CNET

With this five-step process, you can make a binge-watching machine that will serve you on anything from a short hop to an international flight across the ocean.

Make some room

First I'd recommend freeing up storage, as movies and TV shows take a lot of room (usually several hundred megabytes a pop). This step isn't quite as necessary if you'll be taking a laptop with a healthy hard drive, but on a phone or tablet it could win you space for a downloaded movie and a sequel.

Start by taking an audit of your apps and deleting those you haven't used in a while or the apps you won't need for your vacation (you can download them again when you get home). If you aren't sure where to start, check the Storage section of your device's Settings to find a full list of your apps and how much space they take up.


If your phone runs Android, you may have a screen like this that shows you how much space is on your phone.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Next, back up your photos and videos to either your computer or your favorite online photo service (free ones include Google Photos, Yahoo's Flickr and Dropbox). These services are also handy while you're on your trip, as they'll let you back up your camera roll any time you can get a reliable Wi-Fi signal. Then you can purge old files off your phone and keep on snapping new photos of your trip.

Grab some movies and TV shows

Watching movies on an airplane isn't new, but your ability to pick exactly the content you want has expanded greatly over the past decade. Originally, you had to rely on your airline to choose films for you and watch them on a faraway screen, or on a tiny screen in the seat ahead of you. Later, iTunes and other digital stores brought more selection, but since you had to buy (or rent) each title individually, the price of a few films could add up quickly.

For a smaller bite out of your wallet, just use the same video subscription services you're using at home. There's no extra fee and all you need to do is download the service's app to your device.

Services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube Red give you two options for vacation binge-watching: Download the content from their extensive video libraries to your device or stream it. The big advantage of downloading is that once the content is on your device, you can keep watching even when you're offline.

Now playing: Watch this: Download Netflix shows to watch offline

But downloading isn't without its pitfalls. As I mentioned, videos take up a lot of space and I'd recommend downloading your videos only while you still have a reliable Wi-Fi connection at home. Hotel Wi-Fi generally isn't fast enough (a single film could take hours) and don't even think about using that precious cellular data you have to buy when going abroad. If you find you are running tight on space on your mobile device, you might be able to use an additional device like a laptop to share the load (Netflix's downloadable videos are also available using its Windows 10 app). Also, not every movie and TV episode that you can stream can be downloaded to a device.

Streaming content won't eat up storage on your device, but a reliable Wi-Fi connection isn't just nice to have, it's required. Even when in-flight Wi-Fi is available, it's usually not fast enough to allow streaming. Some airlines are beginning to introduce faster satellite Wi-Fi that permits streaming, so check with your carrier first.

And some music

Spotify is one of many music services that offer a giant library of songs that can be downloaded to a phone or tablet.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Whether you buy your music from digital stores like iTunes or pay a monthly fee to stream it from Spotify, you can take it with you wherever you're going.

My favorite music app, Google Play Music, combines both methods. You can upload up to 50,000 songs to the service for free. Then, you can use the Play Music app on iOS or Android to stream from your personal library or download those songs to a different device. For $10 a month in the US (£10 in the UK, AU$12 in Australia), the service lets you stream or download from its entire music catalog, including the YouTube Red video service.

Most similar music services, such as Spotify, Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal, also let you download songs to listen for offline listening. And if you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can stream or download from a smaller catalog of songs that still includes many popular tracks.

Don't forget books

If your public library is affiliated with the OverDrive service, you can download that app and borrow books and audiobooks for free. While the titles will expire off of your device when the lending period is over, you can often pick 14-day and 21-day periods that should last your trip. Most library ebooks can also be downloaded to Amazon's Kindle app, or you can try the Kindle Unlimited service, which has a library of 1 million books and thousands of audiobooks, for a 30-day trial or $10 per month (£8, AU$14).

Once you are set up, take your device onto your flight and watch away.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Live your vacation, and repeat

When you arrive at your destination, delete all of the media you downloaded and use the space for your new vacation photos. Then at the end of your trip, find a good Wi-Fi signal and start this whole process over again: Upload the pics, delete them from your device and download some entertainment for your flight back. Happy travels!

This story appears in the Summer 2017 edition of CNET Magazine.

Mike Sorrentino (@MikeJSorrentino) is an associate editor at CNET. He happened to be in an airport the morning Netflix announced its downloadable video collection, minutes before his cross-country flight home. The airport Wi-Fi got him a few episodes of "Chelsea" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" before he had to board.