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

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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.

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