18 great uses for an old Android device

That outdated Android device in your closet still has a lot to offer -- if you know what to do with it. Here are 18 excellent ways to give new life to an old phone or tablet.

Got extra smartphones sitting around your house? How about tablets? As we move multiple generations into mobile technology, more and more of us are building up collections of old, dated devices. And more often than not, those devices do little more than take up space and gather dust.

Here's a little secret, though: Your abandoned Android gadgets are actually virtual gold mines. You just have to find the right way to tap into their potential and give them new life.

So grab the nearest DustBuster and get ready: Here are 18 ways to make your old phone or tablet useful again.

(Note that some apps mentioned here may require your device to have a minimum Android version in order to run. In some cases that might be 2011's Android 4.0 or later, but we also include many apps that work with Android 2.2 and above. See each app's Play Store listing for details.)

1. Turn it into a home media controller

Even the junkiest old Android device has ample power to serve as a high-tech home entertainment controller. There are several ways you can make it work:

a. Pair the phone or tablet with one of Google's $35 Chromecast streaming sticks. You can then keep the Android device on your coffee table and use it to wirelessly cast content from apps like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Google Play Movies to your TV over your Wi-Fi network. You can also use it to wirelessly cast audio from such services as Pandora, Songza and Google Play Music.

b. Set up a full-fledged home media server using Plex, then use your old device as a dedicated remote to stream your own local content to your TV. (The Plex media server software is free; premium subscriptions with added features start at $4 per month.)

c. Connect the device directly to a TV or audio system -- using the appropriate cable and/or adapter -- and then use it to control playback.

Comcast remote control Android app
This Comcast app is one of many options for controlling entertainment devices from an Android phone or tablet.

d. Install an app to make your device a dedicated remote for your various home entertainment components. If your device has an IR blaster, odds are it already has programmable software in place to do the job -- or try the universal Smart IR Remote app.

If the device doesn't have an IR blaster, try searching the Google Play Store for specific apps to control your components. A variety of apps are available to remotely control products developed by LG, Panasonic, Sony, Comcast, DirecTV, Roku, Google TV and other manufacturers.

2. Turn it into a kitchen command center

Hard to believe, but my ancient Motorola Xoom tablet is now one of the most used devices in my house. That's because I converted it into a multipurpose command center for our kitchen.

Using a third-party launcher -- Nova Launcher, to be specific -- I simplified the tablet's home screen down to a single panel with shortcuts to a handful of relevant apps. I also added in some easy-to-perform gestures, like double-tapping anywhere on the screen to launch Android's Voice Search function for on-the-fly Web searches and other voice-activated commands.

Android tablet as kitchen command center
An old Motorola Xoom tablet provides info and entertainment right in my kitchen.

In terms of the apps, Netflix is what gets used the most; between that service and a basic docking stand, the tablet has effectively become our cooking-time television. Pandora and Google Play Music are also favorites for stove-side streaming.

Android-based recipe apps can be useful in this sort of setup, too, as can cloud-connected note-taking services -- like Google Drive, Tasks or Evernote -- for easy viewing of personal recipes or always-synced shopping lists that your family maintains from multiple devices. A Google Calendar shortcut or widget can also be convenient, especially if you have a calendar that's shared among multiple family members.

3. Use it as a digital photo frame

Snag an inexpensive stand, plug your device in, and turn it into a snazzy cloud-connected photo frame for your home.

Dayframe Android app
The Dayframe app pulls in an ever-changing stream of images from your social media accounts.

The only program you need is a free app called Dayframe: It connects to your accounts on multiple services, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Flickr and Twitter, and cycles through an always-fresh stream of personal photos. You can also have it include public pictures related to your interests, if you prefer.

Want to make your photo frame even more impressive? With an optional $3 Prime upgrade, Dayframe allows you to set up custom image playlists that can automatically turn on and off at specific times during the day.

4. Make it your live window into the world

Don't have the greatest view from your desk? Let your old Android phone or tablet be your window to wild and exciting locales. To get started, grab the free EarthCam Webcams app from the Google Play Store.

It'll give you one-touch access to live streaming cameras around the world, ranging from the famous Abbey Road crossing in London to New Orleans' Bourbon Street and New York City's Times Square. Load up the view you like, tap the icon to go full-screen, and gaze the day away.

EarthCam Android app
EarthCam lets you load up a view of Niagara Falls -- or a slew of other Webcams around the world -- for a break from the mundane.

If you want more views, EarthCam offers package-based upgrades within its app for 99 cents a pop. You can find quite a few mobile-friendly live cameras on the Web, too: Pull up your device's browser and try out the San Diego Zoo Panda Cam, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's underwater cams, or SeaWorld's Penguin Cam for some "aww"-inducing variety.

Last but not least, try searching for traffic cameras in your own area if you want an eye in the sky to help you prepare for your commute. Quality and availability will obviously vary from place to place, but a site called TrafficLand makes it easy to see what's out there near you (and it works fine from a mobile browser -- you'll just need to pinch to zoom into the video box to make it go full-screen).

5. Make it kid-friendly

Your old tablet may seem tired to you, but it's still top-notch technology by toddler standards -- so why not turn it into a fun and educational gadget for your kid?

On tablets with Android 4.3 or higher, you can find a native Restricted Profile feature right in the operating system: Just head into the system settings, tap "Users," then tap "Add user or profile." Select the option to add a restricted profile. You'll then be prompted to enable or disable access to all apps installed on the tablet, allowing you to control exactly what programs your little one will and won't be able to use.

Zoodles Android app
Zoodles creates a locked kid-friendly environment on your Android phone or tablet.

For an even more restricted environment -- one that'll work on any phone or tablet running Android 2.2 or higher -- check out the Zoodles Kid Mode app. It gives you a custom kid-friendly interface with a selection of age-appropriate games and activities, and its Child Lock feature keeps kids safely within the app.

The app itself is free, though you do need a premium membership in order to use some of its features, such as a timer mode that automatically limits kids to a set amount of time with the device each day.

6. Turn it into a security camera

Keep an eye on your home, office or kiddos by transforming your device into a Web-connected security camera. Just download the free IP Webcam app and follow its instructions -- and, within seconds, you'll be able to peek through your device's lens from any compatible computer browser.

7. Turn it into your own personal testing ground

Android is a tinkerer's dream. It's generally pretty easy to root, or gain system-level access to, an Android device -- and once you've done that, you open up a whole new world of possibilities. You can install powerful root-only applications and even replace your device's entire operating system with a custom ROM full of fresh features and advanced customization potential.

Anytime you start hacking, though, you risk screwing something up. And when the device in question is your primary phone or tablet, that can be a daunting gamble to take.

That's where an old phone or tablet can come in handy. Put on your hacker's hat and do a Google search for "root + [your device name]" and then "[your device name] + ROM." There's a huge community of Android enthusiasts out there, and you'll almost certainly find some helpful user-generated guides to get yourself started.

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