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While it’s relatively rare to see smartphones more than a couple of years old in normal life, it’s a different story on the road.
Many travellers are using much older phones. That’s either due to not wanting to spend money on the latest and greatest, or because it’s easier to get phones unlocked by the cell company once they’re off-contract.
With old phones comes a bunch of problems and annoyances, however, especially if the phone wasn’t all that great when it was new. Battery life drops, everything gets slower, storage space gets used up, apps start crashing. Eventually it’s more useful as a paperweight than a piece of electronics.
Fortunately, there are several ways to eke another few months out of old smartphones, usually without spending much or any money. Here’s what you need to know.
Delete Stuff You Don’t Need
One of the biggest problems with older phones is a lack of storage space. Up until recently, many smartphones only came with 8GB onboard. By the time you include a few useful travel apps, some music or podcasts, trip photos and video, and iOS or Android itself, you’ve often burned through that.
Once you get under about 500MB free, lack of space becomes a real problem. Your phone can run more slowly, and apps start crashing and refuse to update. Photos stop saving, and you can forget those offline maps and guidebooks you’re relying on.
There are a few tricks you can use to free up a bunch of room and make your phone more useful. On iOS, go to Settings — General — Usage, where you’ll see a list of space-hogging apps. On Android, it’s Settings — Storage.
Video, photos and music are usually the worst offenders, so delete any of these you don’t need. You’ll be surprised by what else shows up on the list.
Remove apps you don’t use, and keep an eye out for any that seem suspiciously large. Many apps become bloated over time (Facebook is a prime example), and reinstalling them can give you back hundreds of megabytes. At least for a while.
Add More Storage
Of course, there’s a limit to how much you can remove from your phone before it stops being useful. Especially if you’re using it as a camera, you’ll eventually find yourself out of space and with nothing left to delete.
Fortunately there are ways to add extra storage to both iPhones and Android devices. It’s not as convenient as having it built in, but is useful for offloading photos, video and music you don’t need to access all the time.
If you’ve got an Android phone, check whether it came with a microSD slot. This can be in the side of the phone, or more likely behind the back cover. Most older Samsung Galaxy S models have them, for instance, as do various versions of the Moto G, Sony Experia and others.
If you’re in luck, you can buy 16-128GB microSD cards cheaply and install them in under a minute. If you’re planning to buy a larger size (64GB or more), just check your phone supports it before you buy.
If your Android phone doesn’t have a microSD slot, see if it supports On-The-Go (OTG) instead. If it does, you can buy a cable like this for a few dollars, then plug any USB stick you like into it for extra storage — or use an all-in-one version instead.
iPhone owners can use accessories like the Sandisk iXpand(storage), Mazzo Powerdrive (battery plus storage) or Mophie Space Pack (case plus battery plus storage) to add extra space. These aren’t as cheap as the Android options, but are a whole lot less expensive than a new phone!
Finally, owners of any smartphone can use wireless gadgets like the SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick, or in the rare case Internet is fast enough, cloud-based options like Dropbox, iCloud or Google Drive.
Get Faster Charging
If you’ve been thinking your smartphone’s charging more slowly than it used to, you may not be imagining it. Given how hard it can be to find power sockets while on the move or in shared accommodation, anything you can do to speed things up is welcome.
Start with the basics by cleaning the charging port and both ends of the cable. Over time, dirt, dust and oxidation build up on the charging pins, which makes for a worse connection and slower charging.
Use a toothpick or needle to pick lint and other dirt out of the phone charging port. A cotton bud and rubbing alcohol will then clean up the pins on both port and cable.
If you’ve picked up a cheap charging cable somewhere along the way, it can also be part of the problem. Cheap micro-USB and iPhone cables use lower gauge wire and get damaged more easily. This, in turn, results in slow and intermittent charging.
If this sounds like it could be your problem, try to borrow an original cable from someone and see if it speeds things up. If it does, investing a few dollars could easily halve your charging time. Now that’s a worthwhile investment.
Improve the Life of Your Battery
Poor battery life is one of most common complaints from the owners of old phones. After a couple of years, it’s common to get barely half the charge of a new device.
Updated operating systems, bloated and extra apps, and physical degradation all play their part. Especially for travellers who often aren’t anywhere near a power socket, it’s a major frustration.
There’s no “magic answer” for getting large battery improvements, but there are several ways to get smaller ones. The three biggest battery drains on most phones are the screen, GPS and mobile data. Turn down the screen brightness as far as you can while still being able to view it comfortably. The dimmer the screen, the longer each charge will last.
As with storage, start by uninstalling apps that are rarely or never used. Even apps that just sit in the background can use a surprising amount of battery life.
Pay particular attention to apps that use location services. It’s not just maps, but many photography, social and other apps want to know where you are. You can block GPS use completely if you want to (Settings — Privacy — Location Services on iOS, Settings — Location on Android), and can turn it off for individual apps on iOS from the same place.
Turn off mobile data when you’re not using it, or when in areas with poor reception. Your phone will turn up the power of the cellular radio to try to get a connection in spotty areas, which drains your battery even faster than usual.
Finally, you can install various apps designed to improve battery life in all kinds of ways. I’ve had mixed success with any of them, but found Juice Defender for Android did help, at least a little.
Or Replace It Entirely
If your phone is more than around 18 months old and nothing you try improves battery life, consider replacing the battery entirely. Some Android devices let you do this just by removing the back cover.
If you’re not one of the lucky few, you’ll need to either take it into a cell phone store or try to do it yourself with the right combination of parts, YouTube videos and hope.
As long as you avoid official stores, it can be surprisingly cheap to get batteries replaced in many parts of the world. Fifty bucks or less isn’t unusual, and can improve the life of your phone dramatically.
With these tips, it’s easy to give that slow, old smartphone a new lease of life, and save your money for travel experiences instead!
Do you have any other suggestions for good ways to keep old smartphones running? Share them in the comments!
Main image via Joseph Morris, storage image via Mazzo