How to put your old phone to new use

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon offers some of her favorite ways to breathe new life into an old smartphone.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

It's time to upgrade to a new phone. So what do you do with your old one?


If you're like me, you probably have a drawer full of old smartphones collecting dust. You could always trade them in for cash, but unless you have a newer Android phone or an iPhone, you probably won't get much for it.

What should you do? One thing is certain. Don't just throw it away. According to a United Nations Environment Program report titled "Waste Crimes," up to 50 million tons of electronic waste -- mainly computers and smartphones -- are expected to be dumped in 2017. Smartphones are full of metals, minerals and chemicals that when disposed of in landfills or incinerated can become toxic.

In this edition of Ask Maggie I share what I like to do with my old devices.

Dear Maggie,

Between my husband and me, we have a mountain of old unused smartphones.  What should we do with them all?


Trying to Stay Green

Dear Green,

If your old phones still turn on and work, there are lots of things you can do with them. Of course, you can always give them to a friend or family member who needs a phone or even keep them around as backups in case your new phone is lost, stolen or broken. But there are plenty of other uses for them, too. While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some of my favorites, most of which I use at home.

For more ideas of what to do with your old cell phone, check out this CNET video.

Watch this: 8 ways to repurpose your old phone

Camera/video recorder

I don't know about you, but I take a ton of photos and video on my phone. I don't even know where my DSLR is anymore. I have small kids and juggle all their gear, so my smartphone is super easy to carry and whip out for taking photos and videos. But one place I am reluctant to take my phone is to the beach. And yet I still want those adorable pics of the kids eating sand -- er, I mean building sand castles and frolicking in the waves.  

Why not use one of those old phones in my drawer? While my old Samsung Galaxy S3 may not be water-resistant or sand-proof, I'd rather risk getting my old phone wet, sandy or stolen than my brand new device. And because it has Wi-Fi, when I return to a hotspot, all my photos and video can be automatically synced to Google Photos, just like pics and video from the smartphone I'm currently using.

Bedside device/alarm clock/photo album/white noise machine

Phones are a great bedside gadget. Just set up a docking station charger and you're good to go. First they make fantastic alarm clocks. They're endlessly customizable. You can set multiple alarms and even get calendar alerts to remind you of an early meeting.

Second, they're perfect for displaying digital photos. There are tons of apps in iTunes and Google Play that turn your device into a digital photo frame.

Another great use for a phone on the nightstand is as a white noise machine. Again, there are too many apps to name, but there are several free apps in both the App Store and Google Play that will lull you to sleep with the sound of rolling waves, whirring fans, or falling rain.  


Whether you already have an e-reader or not, clear out all your other apps and storage on your old phone and load it with e-books and audiobooks. You can either leave it on your night stand or next to your favorite comfy chair. Apps like Amazon Kindle let you sync your reading position among multiple gadgets. You can also use apps like Pocket or Instapaper to queue up web articles you find throughout the day on your desktop or phone so you can read later.   


There are tons of ways to repurpose old phones, so long as they still turn on and off. 

James Martin/CNET

TV remote control

If your phone has an IR blaster, download a TV-remote app like AnyMote SmartRemote or Sure Universal TV Remote. These apps and the IR capability allow you to turn your old smartphone into a universal remote. It will also work to control other devices with an IR signal, such as DVD and Blu-ray players, cable set-top boxes, stereo equipment and even some air conditioners.

And if your phone doesn't have an integrated IR blaster, your phone will still be able to control your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV devices or connected TV via Wi-Fi.

GPS device for car

I moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia two years ago after 17 years of living in New York City. At first, I couldn't find my way out of the my neighborhood, let alone the best route to the grocery store. My phone and Google Maps were my savior. And even though I can now get to the store or my kids' school without GPS navigation, I still need it for any new destinations.

Even though I rarely leave home without my current smartphone, I keep an older Moto X set up in my car to use as a GPS navigation device. All that's needed are some maps of my local area downloaded onto my phone from Google Maps. And voila, my old phone is a GPS device. It doesn't eat up my data plan either, because all the maps and navigation are already loaded in. The only downside is that this also means that I don't get updated traffic information or get rerouted when there's an accident.

There are also lots of great biking trails near our home, so my husband and I have used our "Google Maps" phone on local trails and to clock our speeds while biking. And if I wanted to, I could link this device via Bluetooth to a fitness tracking device to monitor my heart rate.

Music player

Turn your old phone into a jukebox and entertainment hub. If you've got a Sonos speaker system or some other kind of wirelessly connected sound system, use an outdated smartphone as a dedicated controller. Clean out your apps and files and store all your downloaded music, or install whatever music streaming app you prefer from Spotify to iTunes to Google Play Music to create a central music hub to stream music to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi speakers. You could also add a few internet radio, audio-book, or podcast apps to listen to whatever your heart desires on your home stereo system. The beauty of this setup is you won't have to wrestle with the Bluetooth configuration on any of your other devices in your house.

Virtual reality headset

We all know that VR is the next big thing. There are several options for headsets that you attach to a smartphone to get the VR experience. But if you're not ready to drop several hundred bucks on a fancy VR headset, for $20 you can repurpose most older smartphones into a low-cost VR headset using Google Cardboard.

Baby monitor

Forget about spending $100 or more on a video baby monitor when you can use one of those old smartphones in your drawer as one. That's right, with apps like Dormi and Baby Monitor you can transform an old phone into a baby monitor, streaming video and audio to your current device.

Kid toy

If you don't want your toddler drooling all over your new iPhone, turn one of your old devices into a kid-proofed handset that can be whipped out while waiting at the pediatrician's office or anywhere else you need to occupy your kids. Set-up a restricted profile and other parental controls on the device to lock down your old phone and load it with kid-friendly apps and games and you've got entertainment and educational apps and games at your fingertips worry free. You could even download some videos to watch offline so you can use it even when you don't have access to Wi-Fi.

Emergency 911 service

Another much less sexy use of an old phone is to throw it in the glove compartment of your car in case of an emergency. Even if you aren't paying for wireless service for your old device, it can still be used to make 911 calls. So having another phone handy just in case your other smartphone goes missing while you're on the road could be a lifesaver. But here are a few things you should know before relying on an out-of-service cell phone for emergency calls. You still have to be able to get a cell signal for your phone to make the call. This means if you're in the boondocks and out of cell tower range, it won't work. Also, if you're disconnected from the 911 operator during your emergency call, there won't be anyway for the dispatcher to call you back.  

The bottom line

Just because you get a new faster, shinier phone, doesn't mean your old one should  just sit in a drawer. There are tons of ways to recycle your old smartphone and breathe new life into that "old" gadget. Put that asset to use. And for the love of Pete, don't toss it in the dumpster!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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