Turn an old smartphone into an in-car entertainment system

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Turn an old smartphone into an in-car entertainment system

We’ve all got an old smartphone that’s keeping a box of matches and the instruction manual for the washing machine company in a kitchen drawer. Why not put the thing to good use and turn it into an in-car satnav and entertainment system?

You can use pretty much any last-generation smartphone for this project, either Android or iPhone, although there are a couple of specialist pieces of equipment you’ll need for the perfect set-up.

First, you’ll need a dual, high-powered USB car charger, such as this Belkin model:

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Most of the cheaper cigarette lighter USB chargers only kick out 5W, which is barely enough to keep a modern smartphone topped up, especially when it’s running intensive satnav apps. This £20 model delivers 10W to both ports, allowing you to keep both your old smartphone and your new one fully charged on the journey.

To attach the smartphone to my dashboard, I’ve also used the Goo.ey skin on the back of my iPhone 4S:

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These semi-miraculous skins suck on to any smooth surface, without leaving any sticky residue behind, allowing me to attach my iPhone 4S to the car stereo’s glass fascia, and simply peel it off when I get out of the car. It doesn’t look like it should work, but it does. I’ve been down pot-holed country lanes and crashed over speed bumps, and the iPhone hasn’t once fallen off. The downside is the skin has to be permanently adhered to the back of the phone, which does add a few millimetres to its thickness, but it’s still thin enough to get into my regular iPhone case. Goo.ey produces skins for all manner of Apple and Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and they cost around £15. You can, of course, use a regular car dock if you’ve got a different model of smartphone.

Finally, if your car stereo doesn’t offer Bluetooth (mine doesn’t, despite the deceptive phone buttons on the stereo fascia), you’ll need a 3.5mm stereo cable to connect the phone’s headphone socket to the audio-in socket on your stereo.

Smartphone apps

To turn your old smartphone into a satnav-cum-entertainment system, you’ll need a couple of apps. PC Pro has long championed the TomTom app, especially when married with its peerless HD Traffic, which you can buy as an in-app purchase. I can’t count the number of times it has diverted me around a massive motorway jam, and its estimated journey times are unbelievably accurate.

TomTom for Android isn’t so hot, but the free Google Maps Navigation is fast improving. I’ve tested it a few times alongside TomTom, and the plotted routes are generally very similar. Google’s free traffic data is now much more reliable, too, and the app recently introduced live rerouting when it spots a jam up ahead. PC Pro’s motoring guru, Jonathan Bray, is also a big fan of CoPilot’s Android app.

For music, my weapon of choice is Spotify. You can download offline playlists before you start your journey, so that you’re not relying on a strong 3G signal for music. The only problem with Spotify for iOS is that it doesn’t have a landscape mode, which can make it rather awkward to control:

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Most of the time, however, it’s simply running in the background, and the TomTom app elegantly fades out the music when it needs to issue directions.

Alternatives include Google Play Music (for both iOS and Android), which allows you to download offline copies of your own albums, or simply the built-in music apps in both iOS and Android. The Music app in iOS is particularly prod-friendly in landscape mode:

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For radio, I’d look no further than the excellent TuneIn Radio (for both iOS and Android), which offers a comprehensive catalogue of local, national and international radio stations. It’s a far cleaner way to listen to football commentary on Radio 5 Live than relying on crackly AM radio, provided you’ve got a semi-reliable data connection.

It’s also worth noting that many Android handsets offer a Car mode, which uses over-sized icons to make it easier to open and shut apps with the phone mounted at arm’s length. You shouldn’t, of course, attempt to operate smartphone apps whilst you’re moving.

Connecting smartphones

To get satnav traffic updates or radio streams on your old smartphone, you will need a data connection. There’s no need to go to the expense of installing a second SIM in your old handset. A cheaper solution (provided you’ve got a relatively generous data cap on your mobile plan) is to turn your new handset into a Wi-Fi hotspot whilst you’re driving, and connect the old phone to it.

To turn an iPhone into a Wi-Fi hotspot you need to enter Settings > Personal Hotspot and toggle the switch. Instructions vary on Android handsets, but Wi-Fi hotspot mode can normally be activated by dragging down the notifications panel from the top of the screen, and clicking on the Settings icon in the top right corner. There’s one caveat: your mobile contract may need to support tethering before Personal/Wi-Fi Hotspot mode can be activated.

It might sound like a precarious set-up, but even in the 3G backwaters of Sussex, I’ve normally managed to maintain a reliable data connection. The other advantage of running a Wi-Fi hotspot in your car is that the kids can use their iPods or tablets in the back seats, keeping them quiet whilst you listen to the Test Match commentary on Radio 4, interrupted only by the satnav diverting you around a ten-mile tailback on the M23. Perfect.

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