Turn your Android phone into a personal file/media server
Old Android phones don’t die, they get repurposed. Darren Yates shows how to turn your leftover Android device into a personal web-based file server with free software.
Pre-paid Android phones now are just super cheap — walk into a Coles supermarket and you can often walk out with a quad-core Android phone for as little as $29. The cheapest phone I’ve ever purchased was a Boost Indy, a pre-paid rebadged ZTE B816 4.0-inch dual-core Android 4.4 phone for just $19. Sure, it’s not an earthshattering device and I don’t make phone calls with it, but a batterypowered dual-core computer with screen, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for $19? That’s better value than a Raspberry Pi 3! Think of your phone as a computer and the instant change of mindset opens up the possibilities for pressing even cheap budget phones into many other applications. One example we’re looking at this month is turning your phone into a personal file server.
There’s a number of apps on the Google Play store that allow you to remotely access your phone via a separate device, whether it’s another phone or a PC. We’ve featured the Samba Filesharing app in the past, but it has always required your device to provide root access. The fact it also uses SMB/ CIFS may be enough to give security enthusiasts the jitters as well.
However, there’s an alternative that doesn’t require root or SMB/CIFS — and that’s AirDroid ( tinyurl.com/ y8tx75zw). It allows you to access your phone — even your SMS and call logs if you wish — via any computer anywhere in the world by signing up for an AirDroid online account. However, as we’ll show you, you can also just use it in ‘local connection’ mode, which makes it accessible to devices on your local network only via a web browser, avoiding any online sign-ups or giving AirDroid access to your call and SMS logs. We’ve tested it successfully on the old dual-core ZTE B816 phone we mentinoed earlier, so it should work on anything newer.
Grab AirDroid from the Google Play store. During install, your Android device should indicate that AirDroid is seeking access to your SMS and call logs. Choose to ‘reject’ this request. Once installed, it’ll take AirDroid a few seconds to launch, but then run you through a multi-screen intro. On the last screen, you’ll be encouraged to ‘Sign in or Sign up’. Do neither of these options — instead, click on the ‘Sign in later’ hotlink underneath. This switches AirDroid into ‘local connection mode’ — you’ll only be able to access the phone using a web
browser on devices connected to your local network.
Once the main AirDroid app screen appears on your Android device, you’ll have three options — AirDroid Web, My computer and Add device. Tapping on ‘AirDroid Web’ launches the web server in the background and you’ll be given two connection options for other devices. The first is via your online account (which you don’t have), so ignore that one. What you do is ‘Option 2’ — launch a web browser on another device and type in the IP address shown in green on the AirDroid app screen. In our test case, it was the local address ‘192.168.0.6:8888’.
At first, your web browser will tell you to go and accept the new device connection on your AirDroid device — if you don’t do it within 30 seconds, it’ll be rejected automatically. There’s no password protection — AirDroid seemingly figures if you’re using local connection mode, you should have a fair idea of who’s trying to access it, and if you don’t recognise the IP address, the auto-connection-reject will fix that anyway.
However, as soon as you accept the connection on your AirDroid device, the web browser on your secondary computer is delivered a desktop interface bearing a resemblance to a macOS desktop. In fact, it’s the cleanest, most well-developed web desktop environment we’ve seen with an app of this kind.
The ZTE B816 phone we grabbed for less than $20 has a microSD slot, able to handle cards up to 32GB and AirDroid can give you access to that storage as well. The remote AirDroid desktop displays ads, but they enable AirDroid to ‘keep the lights on’ and they’re not too intrusive.
The built-in file manager (tap the ‘Files’ icon on the remote desktop) is nicely done with a standard look and feel Windows users will be familiar with. There’s no having to drag-and-drop files — just double-click on them and they’ll open in your web browser automatically. To download a file, click on it to highlight, then press the ‘Download’ button on the top-right of the Files window and the file downloads like a standard web download. Uploading files to your phone storage is similar, except you select the ‘Upload File’ button next door, which opens an ‘Open’ dialog window to select a file to upload.
Go beyond files and AirDroid has a few extra tricks up its sleeve. For starters, it can remotely fire up your device’s cameras for a live feed. Depending on the age of your AirDroid-ed phone, the video frame rate might not be anything to write home about, but for snapping off stills remotely (say, in a security situation), it’s clever. You can switch from rear to front ‘selfie’ camera, even turn on the rear LED light if your Android device has one — all from your remote browser. You can also remotely send and receive SMSes via your Android device if needed, or even find your lost device.
AirDroid supports stream-playing MPEG-4 video files over your local network — you don’t have to download first either, (although you can if you prefer), just double-click on the file and a video player window launches in your browser, with playback beginning almost immediately.
The maximum resolution of video AirDroid will successfully stream-play depends more on your Android device’s CPU, your local network and the data transfer rate the two can maintain. Our test dual-core ZTE B186 phone had no trouble stream-playing a 720p (1,280 x 720-pixel) movie stored on the phone over an 802.11n network to a quad-core desktop, so that should give you at least a rough idea of what to expect.
We’re calling this a ‘personal’ web server because the one drawback with AirDroid is that it only supports one device connection at a time in freemium mode — connect with a second device to AirDroid and the connection to the first device is closed.
Still, overall, AirDroid is a clean and capable app. If you need to access files on your phone, don’t have a USB cable handy or you’re ready to repurpose your old Android device and give it a new lease of life, AirDroid is a decent way to go.
AirDroid gives your PC a macOS-style remote look at your Android device.
AirDroid offers anywhere connectivity but supports local network mode.
Activate AirDroid Web on your phone, launch the IP address on your browser.
You don’t have to sign up to use AirDroid — tap ‘ Sign in later’ and that’s it.
Make sure you accept the local remote connection on your Android device.
Tap ‘AirDroid Web’ to launch the web server and access via PC browser.