Seven unusual reasons to revive your old Android device
Don’t toss that old Android phone. Darren Yates lines up seven cool and unusual applications to breathe life back into your favourite old mobile device. “Most phones are capable of picking up FM radio stations in the 88-108MHz band using your earphones as
If Google’s own stats are anything to go by, plenty of users around the world are hanging on to their older Android devices. Android’s distribution dashboard ( developer. android.com/about/dashboards) showed half of all Android devices accessing the Google Play store during the week of 26 October 2018 were running Android 6.0/ Marshmallow or older. Most of us have discarded mobile devices lining draws and holding up cupboards, but you might be surprised at what these portable battery-powered multi-core marvels can still do. Here are seven of my favourite (and somewhat unusual) reasons for keeping older devices productively employed – what’s more, none of them require root-access or hacked firmware.
MAKE A SOFTWARE-DEFINED RADIO (SDR)
Most phones are capable of picking up FM radio stations in the 88-108MHz band using your earphones as an antenna, but with the addition of a Digital Video Broadcasting – Terrestrial (DVB-T) USB tuner, it’s possible to turn many phones into ultra-wideband radio receivers. They then cover a spectrum range from around 50MHz to as high as 2200MHz (2.2GHz), picking up standard free-toair FM stations, but also aircraft, emergency services and so on. Most local retailers warn you should check the legality of listening to some frequencies in your area before you start, but these devices are sold by many electronics retailers in Australia. The key components are the chips – Realtek’s RTL2832U DVB-T signal demodulator and Rafael Micro’s R820T2 radio tuner. Earlier this year, Rafael Micro discontinued the R820T2, however, there are still plenty around, particularly on eBay for about $10. You’ll need two apps from Google Play – the RTL2832U driver app by Martin Marinov ( tinyurl.com/qf3zz9l), along with an SDR app, of which there are a few. Start with SDR Touch ( tinyurl. com/k8oo58n), written by the same developer. Your Android device needs at least Android 4.0 and USB-OTG support.
WATCH FREE-TO-AIR TV
Yes, we know you can watch free-to-air TV networks via the web, but I’ve personally found the results can be sometimes inconsistent, with weird time-jumps and poor video quality, particularly when your connection is bandwidth-limited. The other issue is that free-to-air TV isn’t free when you’re paying for data. PCs may have had USB DVB-T tuners for years, but it’s a relatively recent thing on Android devices. Again, if you have at least Android 4.0 plus a USB-OTG port and USB-OTG cable, you can use the same RTL2832U/R820T2 dongle above to also pick up the free-to-air DVB-T digital TV stations. The bonus here is it’s all data-free because you’re receiving the same radio signals your TV picks up, except you’re watching on your phone or tablet instead. You’ll need the RTL2832U driver app above, plus Aerial-TV ( tinyurl.com/ yd5e5gv7), an app that turns the
digital data picked up by the USB dongle back into images on your device screen. It’ll cost you around $10, but it does the hard work of automatic channel scanning and displaying the video feed. Sure, it might be a bit cumbersome, but it’s the only technique that doesn’t rely on your home Wi-Fi network or even having phone network connectivity to pick up a TV signal.
MAKE YOUR OWN CHROMECAST AUDIO
Old-school Bluetooth audio relying on basic Sub-Band Compression (SBC) isn’t known for its scintillating quality, which is why Sony, Qualcomm and Google have all put in hard yards recently to improve the range of wireless audio codecs available. Qualcomm’s AptX-HD and Sony’s LDAC arrived in Oreo/8.x to boost the sparkle in your favourite music when using compatible Bluetooth headphones and speakers. Google’s Chromecast Audio provides a Wi-Fi-powered alternative that overcomes Bluetooth’s bandwidth limitations and delivers HD audio. However, you can make your own Chromecast Audio with an Android phone. Install BubbleUPnP ( tinyurl. com/ybdmdk39) onto your old device and plug the headphone socket into your audio system. Launch BubbleUPnP and connect your phone to your home Wi-Fi network. Next, install HiFi Cast ( tinyurl.com/y7mgqz2w) onto your current phone. Launch the app, allow it to access your music files, then when the main app window appear, tap the hamburger side-menu button on the top-left and choose ‘Playback devices’. Tap the new ‘BubbleUPnP’ entry it picks up, go back to the main screen, select a song to play and it should play on your old device and out through your sound system. We recommend an old quad-core device with at least Android 4.4/KitKat for playback (and just quietly, you might be surprised how good it sounds).
HACK YOUR CAR
Every car sold in Australia for at least the last ten years has featured an On-Board Diagnostics-II (OBD-II) interface to your car’s engine-control unit or ECU (mechanics use this to test brake performance during the annual rego-check). Low-cost Bluetooth OBD-II dongles allow you to tap into this data using your PC or Android device. Most of the sub-$10 OBD-II dongles sold on eBay use unlocked firmware from ELM Electronics’ original ELM-327 chip. Still, the two dongles we purchased worked well. You’ll need the popular Torque Lite app from Google Play ( https://tinyurl.com/ b22mt8y), while the OBD-II dongle plugs into the OBD-II socket, usually located under the dashboard between the steering column and the driver’s side door. Torque Lite allows you to data-log your driving, monitor acceleration, speed, engine performance data and much more. Pair your Android device with the dongle over Bluetooth, then link to it with the Torque Lite app. Use it to monitor and hack your driving – for example, learn smoother acceleration to reduce component wear and fuel consumption.
NOTE: Cheap dongles come with no warranty and although we experienced no adverse effects during testing you use them at your own risk.
MAKE AN INSPECTION CAMERA
Most phones already feature two cameras, so why would you want another? How about one on the end of a long thin cable you can squeeze into wall cavities to see what’s going on. An inspection camera here – also called a ‘ borescope’ – is essentially a tiny VGA image sensor with half a dozen white LEDs on the end of a long cable and a Type-I USB connector on the other end. You connect it via a USB-OTG cable to compatible phones, turning them into a cheap inspection camera screen. These cameras sell on eBay for as little as $10 and come in one, three, five and ten metre lengths. The trick is getting the software and camera talking to each other. First, you need USB-OTG support and a USB-OTG cable. Next, your device needs UVC (USB Video Class) driver support – this is less common, but began appearing in Lollipop/5.x. After that, you need video apps – the ones we’ve tried with success are CameraFi ( tinyurl.com/y7fepo5y), UsbWebCamera ( tinyurl.com/ qg9xhgq) and EasyCap & UVC Player ( tinyurl.com/yblv4nbm). However, your mileage may vary. VGA-spec cameras will give you basic vision – just don’t expect 4K quality, no matter how good your screen is. Still, they beat squeezing your phone through the wall…
MAKE A MIDI SEQUENCER
If you love listening to music, chances are you probably love making it and anyone who’s ever dabbled into making music will have come across the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI for short). While it’s normally used with musical keyboards, sequencers and PCs, Google began including MIDI support into Android starting with Marshmallow/6.0. So again, provided your Android device has USB-OTG support, you can turn it into a MIDI sequencer by installing a USB MIDI interface and a suitable app. The two apps we suggest you try are Caustic 3 ( tinyurl.com/yb2affeo) and Audio Evolution Mobile Studio Trial ( tinyurl.com/pe2vmw8). The former is an excellent MIDI sequencer for creating your own music tracks; the latter, a digital audio workstation that can combine MIDI and audio tracks together, even add in your own real-time effects. One of the key issues with MIDI is ‘latency’, the time it takes for audio data to make the trip from keyboard controller to audio track. This is an area where Android is slowly improving, but you need a device with at least 6.0/Marshmallow to approach the best the OS can do, plus a quad-core CPU for the speed wouldn’t hurt, either.
LEARN TO CODE PYTHON
Personally, I’m all for everyone learning to code – whether you’re eight years old or 80. If you can update your Facebook page or send a million tweets, there’s no reason not to try coding on your Android device. The overwhelming majority of Android apps are developed using the Java programming language, but if even programming your Foxtel box is a stretch for you, Python is a great programming language to start with. It’s easy to learn and in most surveys, Python comes out on top as the world’s most popular programming language. You can install it on Windows, macOS and Linux, but you can also run it on almost any Android device. QPython ( tinyurl.com/n8eg864) is free on Google Play and it has some awesome capabilities. Not only does it handle all the Python basics, but you can tap into cool Android extras such as Bluetooth and speech recognition. There’s a ‘getting started’ guide at qpython.org/ en/guide_howtostart.html and from there, any Python 3 textbook will give the basics to begin coding. It might seem like overkill, but when you’re stuck on public transport looking for something to do, learning to code is a productive way to kill an hour or two each day.
Software-defined radio turns a DVB-T dongle into a broad-frequency radio.
HiFi Cast can transmits audio over Wi-Fi to a BubbleUPnPrunning phone.
DVB-T dongles with RTL2832/R820T2 chips pick up radio and TV signals.
Caustic 3 is one of the best MIDI sequencing apps you’ll find for Android.
Cheap OBD-II dongles with on-board Bluetooth sell on eBay for under $ 10.
A USB-OTG cable adapter and phone support is important for many projects.
Torque Lite lets your phone wirelessly link to an OBD-II dongle in your car.
Who says you need internet or phone network to watch TV on your phone?
Learn to code Python and tap into Android’s text-to- speech functions.
This tiny borescope camera has a 5-metre length cable and USB Type-A port.