Repurposing an old device for offline use

COVID-19 SupportStaying Connected
Last updated on May 20, 2020

Introduction

Our unprecedented global emergency has shone a harsh light on the embedded inequalities in a ‘digital first’ world, with many people not having the luxury of turning to their device of choice to order basic necessities or to maintain social connections.

As we are scrambling to bridge this digital divide, we will look at the simple repurposing of an old tablet and using devices as an offline option for reading, listening to music and using various other apps without an internet connection. This is far from a silver bullet for our current situation, but is an example of how we can rethink connectedness and potentially support some of those who are not online.

Apps and websites cannot replace the communities that have always connected and supported us, but they can help diverse and dispersed groups coordinate care in unprecedented ways.
Gina Neff, An Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute.

All the apps that we use are free to use, though there are several other music and TV subscripition services that allow you to consume content offline and so would also be suitable.

Getting started

What you will need to start with is an old device running the Android operating system. Ideally this will be a tablet – as they are more comfortable to use – but a phone would work as well.

We used a 2018 Lenovo Tab 4 10-inch tablet running Android version 9 as our starting point, but this set up is flexible enough to work with older devices. Most of what we do here can be achieved with an Amazon Fire tablet or an iPad, although you don’t have the same level of customisation.

We are also going to go through the (optional) process of changing the layout of the home screen as an exercise in thinking how we can make devices easier to use for those with little or no experience with this type of technology.

Side-by-side comparison of an Android tablet using a standard launcher and using the Launcher 10 app.

Figure 1: Side-by-side comparison of an Android tablet using a standard launcher and using the Launcher 10 app.

Changing your device's layout [OPTIONAL]

On Android smartphones and tablets it is possible to jump into the ‘Accessibility’ or ‘Display’ section of settings and quickly tweak things like text and display size in order to make the device a little easier to use. But for full control over the layout of your screen you can use a ‘launcher’ app which allows you to radically change how the screen appears.

Installing a 'launcher' app

In our repurposing we used Launcher 10, which has been downloaded more than a million times and is rated 4 out of 5 on the Google Play store. Although there is a paid version to enable more options, the free version of Launcher 10 is more than sufficient to create an uncluttered layout with large touch areas for opening apps, which is something that should be of benefit to some older users and those less familiar with this technology.

So, to begin with:

  1. Before installing Launcher 10, it is worth removing any apps from your device that you won't be needing and making sure your home screen just has the core apps on it that you will be using. You should find it easier to get the look your want if you do this.
  2. Install Launcher 10 from the Google Play Store.
  3. Open the app and get customising.
live_helpLinks to Android 'launcher' apps

The basics of using the Launcher 10 app

To start with you will see the apps from your home screen arranged as tiles using the default layout of Launcher 10. This layout can generally fit four tiles across the screen – in portrait – and approximately six tiles from top to bottom.

A tablet screen showing the Launcher 10 app in a basic layout and in edit mode

Figure 2: A tablet screen showing the Launcher 10 app in a basic layout and, on the right, in edit mode.

Although you can customise a huge number of things with the app by digging into the settings under ‘Launcher Preferences’ (see figure 2), probably the single most important setting  in Launcher 10 is in the ‘Start Screen’ section where you can change the number of tile columns to any number between 2 and 6. This is your base layout and so determines how big the tiles appear on the screen. When in the ‘Start Screen’ section  you can also adjust the text size and text alignment for tiles.

One setting I like to change from the default is the ‘Screen Rotation’ option which you find in the ‘General’ settings. This can be changed to portait only so that the tiles do not rotate on the home screen if the tablet is held in landscape, which I find to be a better experience. I also go in to the ‘Icons’ settings and disable the option to ‘Use white icons’ as the default app icons tend to be clearer.

Rearranging tiles on the home screen

The process of arranging your tiles on the home screen is then relatively straightforward and will seem familiar to anyone who has manoeuvred the icons on their device before.

  1. Firstly, long press down on the home screen until the you see the 'Wallpaper', 'Add Widget' and 'Launcher Preferences' at the bottom (see figure 2 above).
  2. The tiles on the home screen will also now be floating, which means you can move them by pressing down on a tile and dragging it to a new position.
  3. Once it is in the desired position, repeat this process with any other tiles you wish to rearrange.
  4. If you tap away from any of the tiles during this process, your current layout will be saved; to move other tiles you will then have to repeat these steps.

You are now ready to adjust the look of each tile and play around with Android’s built-in widgets for even more customisation.

Customising tiles

Each tile can be fully customised by applying a long press to it and then tapping the ‘Edit’ option (see figure 3). In the ‘Edit’ screen you can change the width and height of a tile – so it can span multiple columns and rows – as well as altering the text shown on the label, the tile colours and the icon used. By using colours you can group similar tiles and apps together, such as giving all film or TV apps a green background, to make them more easily identifiable.

A long press on any home screen tile will show the edit option for more customisation.

Figure 3: A long press on any home screen tile will show the edit option for more customisation.

Adding more apps to the home screen

To add any other apps  to the home screen, swipe to the left or tap on the ‘All Apps’ button at the bottom right to bring up a list of all your installed apps. A long press on any of the apps will show you the option to ‘Pin to Start’ – which means adding it to the home screen – or ‘Unpin from Start’, if the app is already on the home screen (see figure 4). You can also access the ‘Edit’ screen for each app to set options like colours, label name and icon.

From the list of apps you can long press to view options to add to the home screen and edit properties

Figure 4: From the list of apps you can long press to view options to add to the home screen and edit properties.

Apps that can be used offline

If you are repurposing a tablet or smartphone for someone who has a broadband internet connection then you can install and use any app that will suit that individual’s needs. To simplify things, you should consider setting up any necessary accounts that will be needed to use services such as Spotify or BBC iPlayer before handing over the device. Also, if you will be unable to go through how to use it with the recipient, put together some brief notes on how to turn it on and off, what each app is for and a reminder to keep it charged up.

If the device is going to be used without an internet connection then we have to focus on apps that will provide functionality offline, which may also require a little more effort in setting up.

Music

Graphic of a bird wearing headphones and listening to music

Although digital music services are now focused on streamling songs whilst online, every tablet and smartphone can still store and play music without using a service like Spotify. For anyone with an extensive record collection, this is a robust and low-cost way of ensuring your music can be listened to on your device without worrying about being connected to the internet. However, there is one big obstacle to this and that is getting the music onto the device in the first place.

If the music is already digitised on a computer, copying it to another device is not over-complicated, particularly if you use something like Google Drive to move the files. But if you are working with CDs, some hours of work will have to be put in to copy these to a computer and then transfer them to the device you are repurposing.

The alternatives are to purchase digital copies of all the music you need from Google Play whilst you are on the device. These purchases can then be downloaded directly to the device and will be ready to play offline. Or you can take out a subscription with one of the main music streaming services, like Spotify, Amazon Music or YouTube Music to download the songs you want.

If using a streaming service for offline listening, you need:

  1. A subscription. These cost around £10 per month to access huge catalogues from all genres.
  2. To be initially connected to the internet to select any songs you want to access offline.
  3. To download the songs from your account so you can listen to these without being online.

Please note, with these streaming services, you need to continue your subscription for as long as you want offline access to the music.

Movies and TV

Graphic showing some popcorn and a drink
The major movie and TV streaming services – Netflix, Now TV and Amazon Prime Video – all follow a similar subscription approach to the music apps we looked at earlier. If you are in the UK you can also take advantage of your license fee by using the likes of the BBC iPlayer or Channel 4’s All 4. Both of these have a substantial amount of content available that can be downloaded to view offline and can be used for free by signing up for an account.

So, to use movie and TV streamling offline you will need:

  1. A subscription. These cost around £10 per month to access a range of film and TV content (a free account will work for the BBC iPlayer and All 4).
  2. To be initially connected to the internet to add any programmes you want to access offline.
  3. To download the programmes from your account for watching without being online.
  4. [OPTIONAL] An SD card to increase the storage on your device as a movie takes up a lot of storage space.

Due to the nature of licensing for movies and TV, sometimes the content on these services might only be available for a few weeks even after downloading them.

Reading

Graphic showing a woman reading a book

Reading is another area where we can leverage the offline potential of devices and provide access to books from both commercial and free services.We go into this in more details in our Reading Digital Publications resource, but suffice to say you can quickly add this functionality to your device.

At the most basic level you can use an app like Google Play Books to read free eBooks downloaded from resources like Project Gutenberg, as well as having the ability to add to your library with purchased titles and even upload PDF booklets or instruction leaflets. You could also utilise your library card to borrow eBooks or read digital editions of newspapers via your local library network. For greater choice – or if you already have an Amazon Kindle account – you might choose to use the Kindle app to both purchase and borrow reading material, depending on your type of subscription.

As with music and films, this requires a small amount of online planning to begin with. So to make your device an offline mini library you need:

  1. To visit your chosen online resource for books.
  2. Purchase (if necessary) or borrow titles to add to your library.
  3. Download these titles to the reading app you will be using.

Whereas some borrowed titles may have a time limit on how long you can access them, anything your purchase can be stored on your device for as long as you need it. Unlike movies and TV shows, digital books do not require a huge amount of storage.

Other options

Looking beyond entertainment, there are numerous other apps that can be enjoyed without having to worry about being connected to the internet. These include apps covering basic day-to-day tasks like Google Calendar, drawing and colouring, podcast services, relaxation, games and photography.

It is worth noting that some apps deal with being offline more gracefully than others, seemlessly switching to what they can do while not online. Whilst others will show notification boxes prompting you to try and connect to the internet, even though they are still able to function perfectly well.

We won’t delve into the details of these apps here, but on our repurposed device we have been running the following apps offline with few issues for more than a week now.

** We have included the Fotoo app as it’s an interesting way of using your device as digital photo frame. Although you can use it for free, this has a number of limitations which can be removed by purchasing a lifetime subscription for around £15. We have not tried out the paid version, but it is well reviewed.

Connection options for those without internet

The focus of this resource has been to repurpose a device and make it useable for people without an internet a connection. However, we do have options for providing a mobile internet connection that will serve as a drop-in substitute for standard broadband and allow devices to be used online and as intended. In an ideal world we would encourage people to sign-up for a broadband package, taking advantage of the fact most people still have a landline and that broadband prices in the UK are relatively affordable. However, it is not practicle during the COVID-19 epidemic to follow this approach.

For a mobile internet connection we have two options. Firstly, you can use a device that supports a SIM card. The following are factors to consider:

  1. Any smartphone fits this criteria and several iPad models can also accept a SIM card to enable mobile internet access. However, only a handful of Android tablets offer this functionality.
  2. There must be a decent mobile signal where you intend to use it.
  3. You need to pay a monthly fee to a SIM card for internet access. Depending on how much internet data allowance you need, this may be around £30.

Secondly, we can use a mobile WiFi router. This is a small device that allows any device with WiFi to connect to mobile networks for internet access. But be mindful that:

  1. There must be a decent mobile signal where you intend to use it.
  2. You need to pay a monthly fee to use these. Depending on how much internet data allowance you need, this may be around £30.

For more information on using mobile internet to connect and the mobile WiFi routers available you can contact any mobile phone provider. To check whether an address has good mobile signal coverage, use the mobile coverage link checker listed below.