How to Turn Your Old Smartphone into a Portable Media Player

A closeup of an iPhone playing music with the earbud-wearing user in photo bokeh
Iain Masterton/Getty Images

The life cycle of modern smartphones can feel fairly short, given that the latest versions seem to come out again and again each year. While some of us eagerly await a brand new upgrade, others prefer to get the most out of something before having to replace it. But when you do eventually resort to buying a new device, don't just throw the old one away! Put it to good use (electronic waste is also an environmental concern).

So if you can’t sell an old device, trade it in, or give it to someone, why not repurpose a smartphone (or tablet) into a portable media player?

If you've been accustomed to listening to music and/or watching videos through your smartphone, you might be wondering the point in having a dedicated portable media player. The answer is that it's all about convenience and streamlining your personal technology. By letting a portable media player be the primary device to handle much of your digital audio/video entertainment, you can keep your smartphone (and battery power) for important things, like phone calls, photos, messaging, social media posting, gaming, web browsing, and all else.

The power of owning a portable media player becomes more apparent when used in conjunction with a whole home or multi-room audio/entertainment system. You can send content from the portable media player to your speakers and/or television sets, either through wired or wireless connections.

 

So, for example, let's say you're hosting a party for guests and want music to play on all of your speakers. You could leave your smartphone plugged in to do the job. But since it would have to stay near your audio equipment, you're likely to miss calls, notifications, or messages unless you're constantly going back to check.

A portable media player can serve the exact same purpose, but better since it's dedicated to audio and video entertainment. And unlike a CD/DVD player or turntable, you can put a portable media player in your pocket to take with you anywhere. Best of all, it's entirely possible to turn an old smartphone into a portable media player without spending much (if any) money. Here are the steps to follow:

First, Perform a Factory Reset

Computing devices (which also includes smartphones and tablets) tend to work better after a fresh wipe, so it’s worth starting over from the beginning by setting everything back to factory defaults. Doing so clears out everything, including any lingering user data, configuration files, and all the extra apps that you won’t end up needing anyway. Think of it as spring cleaning. You can restore factory settings on iOS just as effectively as you can on Android devices. The process isn't always so obvious (in order to prevent accidents) and can vary slightly, based on make and model. You'll want to consult the manual (also typically available online) for instructions on how to perform a factory reset on your old smartphone. Once complete, it’s time to streamline the interface.

Next, Delete/Disable or Hide Stock Apps

Mobile devices are extremely useful with the array of apps at hand. But since you’re turning an old smartphone into a portable media player instead, anything extra is just clutter. Camera, calculator, documents, messaging, photo gallery, voice recorder? None of these are crucial tools for something that will be dedicated to playing audio and video media, right? If you feel comfortable doing so, you can delete or disable unnecessary stock apps (the ones that are present after a factory reset)—this is more of a feature for Android devices. Otherwise hiding/removing apps from the home screen (it only gets rid of the icon and doesn't actually delete) can be just as effective.

All you should really want on the home screen of your portable media player are apps for music and/or video. Keep it tidy for the best experience!

Now Download, Update, and Personalize

Now that your portable media player is primed and ready, it will need internet access to download and update all the apps that you will want. Remember, the factory reset erased and set everything back to the basics, so you'll have to add apps. Enable the WiFi on the device and have it connect to your wireless home network. Just remember that access to online app stores, such as Google Play, Apple's App Store, and Amazon, will require that you first log in with your passwords—these will be the same ones you have on your regular smartphone. If you don’t already know what to download, you can check out the most popular free music streaming apps/services as well as the most popular TV & movie streaming services.

Continue to download all that apps that you want onto your portable media player. The app icons should populate on your home screen for you to organize as desired. If not, then just open your list of apps, flip through the pages of icons (they're in alphabetical order), and drag-drop the ones onto your home screen. Once all your media apps have been downloaded, sign into each service one by one. If you don't already have an account, you'll be prompted to create a new one. 

Lastly, don’t forget to personalize your portable media player with wallpapers, effects, different fonts, or color schemes. Many of these are available on your device without having to do any downloads (although you can find more through the app stores). Have some fun with it!

Then Copy Media and Expand Storage

You probably have a collection of digital audio/media files, so go ahead and copy what you want over to the portable media player. This is as easy as connecting your portable media player to where all those files are stored (likely your home computer/laptop). If you don’t already have music or video to put on the portable media player, it’s easy to download and/or digitize almost whatever you like. If you’re an iOS user, songs downloaded from iTunes can be converted to MP3s. If you’ve purchased CDs and/or vinyl albums from Amazon, you may already own some digital MP3 copies from Amazon’s AutoRip feature. There are also sites that let you legally download music for free. All of these can be copied over to the portable media player.

If you own a physical collection (e.g. CDs, vinyl LPs) of music, you're allowed to make legal digital copies for your personal use. You can digitize CDs using iTunes, digitize vinyl records, or even digitize cassette tapes. Digital movies can be legally purchased online (like from Amazon), and you can copy DVDs to an iPad for free. Many Blu-ray discs that you purchase also come with a digital copy of the movie. So all of these files can be put on the portable media player to stream to speakers and TVs. But you'll have to make sure all of these digital files can fit. 

Smartphones typically have either 16 or 32 GB of storage space. To some—particularly those who favor streaming music from the internet instead of from stored files—this can be plenty. But many of us can have digital media collections spanning from hundreds of gigabytes to terabytes for music and/or video. Think about how much physical space hundreds of CDs and/or DVDs can take up in binders; the same concept applies to digital storage. This is especially true when it comes to video, since those movie files can range anywhere between 2 to 20 GB in size. Each. So the amount of free space you have can really matter! There are a few easy options to increase the amount of available storage space.

If your portable media player is an Android device, it might have the option of a micro SD card slot to expand storage. If so, then all you need to do is insert a high-capacity micro SD card and copy all of your digital content there. Otherwise, most Android devices support USB OTG. This means that (with a USB OTG cable, which are are inexpensive), you can plug things like USB flash drives or USB hard drives to your portable media player. iOS devices have Lightning-compatible flash drives that you can buy for easy plug-and-play.  In any of these situations, you'll want to copy your digital media over to the storage drive. And once plugged into the portable media player, the digital music/video becomes available to play.

Finally, Use a Cable and/or Go Wireless

It’s pretty easy to connect iOS or Android devices to stereo systems/receivers, headphones, or speakers. All you need to stream music from your portable media player is an audio cable. Most of the time, you can expect to use the cable that has 3.5 mm connections on both ends (like for headphones). But depending on the type of inputs available, you might need an audio cable with a 3.5 mm plug on one end and RCA connectors (the red and yellow plugs) on the other end. Since the portable media player is the audio source, it would connect to an "audio input" on the speaker or receiver.

Another great benefit of using an older smartphone as a portable media player is the option for wireless connectivity. If your speakers or receiver feature Bluetooth wireless, then you can connect a portable media player without any cables. Although Bluetooth is the most common, there are other wireless audio technologies available, each with pros and cons. If your system doesn't have Bluetooth wireless, you can purchase and install a simple Bluetooth receiver to provide that capability.

When it comes to using your portable media player to send video to a television (either directly or through a home theater receiver), the easiest way is by using an HDMI cable. However, a special adapter will be needed to so that the portable media player can be plugged in with a regular HDMI cable. For iOS devices, Apple has Digital AV Adapters (for either Lightning or 30-pin connections) that are reliable and easy to use. You can also find similar types of mobile HDMI adapters for Android devices (Amazon is your best bet). Be sure to carefully check compatibility first.

If you want wireless video streaming, the Google Chromecast Ultra can be your best friend. Think of it as a wireless HDMI adapter. It plugs into your TV or receiver and essentially replaces the need for a physical cable for sending video/audio. Google Chromecast is compatible with iOS, Android, MacOS, and Windows devices that support the display mirroring feature. Whether you plan for the portable media player to send video from stored files or through a streaming service (e.g. Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video), the Google Chromecast can handle it all. Not so bad for repurposing an old device!