If you update your gadgets as much as I do, you probably have a small collection of older devices with low resale value lying around. Don’t toss them or sell them! If you don’t already have an integrated multi-feature entertainment center in your car (or if you hate what you have), you might find that your old smartphone is the key to your new dedicated media player and GPS system.
I update my phone every two to three years, and I think I’m fairly average in that regard. And compared to a lot of people, I’m actually way behind the curve. Some of you crazy people update every year! I try not to update unless my phone is so frikkin’ slow that watching paint dry is more entertaining than flicking through its menus.
But still, it has been eight years, and now I have three iDevices. Using my iPhone 4 as a dedicated music player was a no-brainer, since my car’s head unit is “iPod-ready,” but it was still running the original firmware, iOS 5.0.1. And iOS 5 in 2015 sucks ass. Once I had the iPhone 6S for comparison, it was about as slow as the little Japanese old ladies I see pushing tiny grocery carts across the street.
With that in mind, I asked myself a question: was it finally time to ditch my iPhone “Mini” already?
1. Choose Your Device
Turns out the answer to “should I ditch my iPhone 4?” was “Screw that.” The venerable little iPhone 4, nicknamed Artemis after the white cat in Sailor Moon, unlocked and slimmed down, provides me with the perfect combination platform of mostly-permanent media player/GPS navigation and occasional use as a world phone for international trips. I knew it still had life left in it.
And the iPhone 4 has one more very, very important advantage over any of its younger siblings: stuck at iOS 7.1.2, it’s forever and ever jailbreakable (check out the linked guide to jailbreaking from our sister site LifeHacker).
Okay, cut me some slack here, because this next part is pretty technical (read: boring), but it’s really, really crucial if you want to be able to really make your old device be at its most nimble. You like nimble, right? Yeah, yah do.
I’m using the 4, but you can certainly use a 4s, 5, 5s, or 5c for this, but they’re more powerful, have access to higher versions of iOS, and depending on what you have running on them now, they might not be able to be jailbroken. This is especially problematic since Apple will no longer “sign” (that is, allow you to install) lower versions of iOS unless it is the device’s “terminal” iOS update—which 7.1.2 is for the iPhone 4. Because while I love Apple and like our friends at Gizmodo, will sing Apple’s praises, Apple also hates when you are happy doing your own thing (kinda like the Puritans).
Another solution, of course, is one of the many “rooted” Android phones out there, but having never owned any smartphone other than an iPhone, you’ll have to use my process more for inspiration than an actual how-to-guide. You’ll also want to talk to LifeHacker about that. Your eventual choice will depend heavily on your individual circumstances, including, of course, what smartphone you have buried in that desk drawer keeping that old picture of your ex-girlfriend, a year old packet of Nerds, and those magnum condoms you bought (but really, really don’t need) company.
2. Determine The Best Firmware For Your Device
And on with the boring but necessary. SORRY.
This step is likely to be easier for Android peeps than my fellow Steve Jobs worshipers. There are many flavors of Android with many manufacturer and even carrier specific tweaks, and Android users are likely to have many options. For us iPhonians, however, we need to pay attention to two major iOS version considerations: what can be “signed” (and therefore installed) and what can be jailbroken. The sweet spot for modification for specific purposes (such as a dedicated in car system) is where “signed” meets “jailbreakable.” IPSW.me is very useful in this regard.
The iPhone 4’s highest “signed” iOS, 7.1.2, is also “jailbreakable.” Awesome! So the first thing I did was backup my data and pay attention to what apps and tweaks (especially purchases) I already had from being jailbroken. Then I installed 7.1.2 via iTunes and jailbroke the phone again before restoring from my backup and then going through and adding back the tweaks that were still compatible and that I still wanted to keep.
Which gave me a combination of the stock iOS7 settings, the Soft Remix 3 theme, and the Five Icon Dock. Not good enough. Not anywhere near good enough. I had more shit to do, and you probably do too, so...
3. Add Car Specific Software and Tweaks
This is really where you make your device fit your needs. It’s so much better than buying something off a shelf. You can make this all about you, your desires, your comfort. This is just as much about modifying what you love, your car, as is any other modification you make to your vehicle.
As an example, if I wasn’t planning to continue to use “Artemis” as a world phone, I probably wouldn’t care that there are still issues with iOS 7.1.2 around the Safari and Mail apps and had to install Chrome and Gmail as alternatives. I probably also wouldn’t keep Facebook and Twitter and some other stuff on there. I’d delete it to make room for more media.
And also, I know I desperately needed landscape mode, because I dislike using GPS in portrait mode, and outright hate using music or video controls in portrait mode. So I went ahead and spent the $3 on SBRotater 7. The docked icons would spread out if I pay for ScrollingBoard, but we’ll see if it really bothers me enough to do the installation in the future. In the meantime, this is what I ended up with for the home and lock screens.
The next step for me, and probably for most people, was to find a good landscape music player. This was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, and I ended up spending hours combing through iTunes, Cydia, various repositories, and lots and lots of listicles. In the end, I finally, finally, FINALLY discovered the simple and elegant beauty that is Denon’s Audio app. It is free and it is perfect, and I think that it’s going to be a great addition to all of my iDevices.
I really can’t recommend this app more highly. Ironically, even after I played to your self-absorbed and narcissistic personality by telling you this all about you, the truth is, I think the Denon Audio app will probably fit just about anyone’s situation.
The user interface textures are beautiful, the text is clear, the buttons are big enough to manipulate from a foot or so away, and the overall feeling is both professional and yet ruthlessly efficient. Even in locked landscape mode, the efficiency continues, allowing you to utilise the lock screen’s native audio controls and displaying the album cover. Suck it, Music app.
The screen on the iPhone 4 is probably too small for any kind of regular video use, in my opinion. If you’re working with a larger screen size, like a 5/5s/5c, then maybe you might consider it. That said, even on the iPhone 4, Apple’s own Videos app somewhat surprisingly isn’t too bad. It has a decent layout and the icons should be big enough to work with.
Unfortunately, with the Videos app, you’re definitely limited in the formats you can show (THANKS, APPLE), and you’ll need to play around with other video players and SBRotator to see if you can find something you like. VLC is a good option. The best option format-wise would be Kodi (formerly XBMC), but its skins are not really useful for tiny screens, especially tiny screens at a distance.
The final software needed for me to be happy was, of course, GPS navigation related. I am perfectly happy with Google Maps. However, I know that a lot of people actively prefer specific dedicated GPS applications from well known GPS navigation companies like Garmin or TomTom. I also once tried Waze, but I didn’t like it very much and gave up on it pretty quickly. There are many options out there, but I think Google Maps is a really good option already.
Honestly, for my purposes here, I have everything I need now: landscape, audio, potential video options, and GPS. Your mileage (or kilometerage) may, and very likely will, vary. But this will give you some ideas about what kind of abilities you want your old phone/new media unit to have. And this wouldn’t be an Apple pitch without me saying that I need just... One more thing...
4. Data Service
For Google Maps, internet radio, Spotify, etc, etc, you may need or just want internet access. In my case, for internet service, I have a few options. The first is in Japan, I can simply set up “Artemis” to tether to the new iPhone 6S whenever I am in the car. I have a car charger for that very purpose, while “Artemis” draws power from my head unit’s USB port. In the U.S., however, I have a T-Mobile account I keep active but essentially “dormant” on like $15 per 90 days until I need to turn it to unlimited for about $50 when I am actually in America. This means if I rent a car while I am visiting the U.S., I can take my own media and GPS system with me. I can do likewise when visiting another country entirely (say Thailand or the Philippines) by getting a local data SIM card.
Now, of course, you’ll want to mount your phone, but that’s a different article for a different day, because there are two options. The very temporary route is with many, many, many options for cradles, docks, and mounting applications, and the permanent or semi-permanent route of building your phone into a deck in your dash. I’m in an in-between stage, hoping to actually redo my dash’s console plate so the iPhone 4 can dock into it. Until then, here’s what the final product looks like.
However you choose to go about solving the mounting problem, you’ve just turned your old, neglected friend into a trusty co-pilot, always sitting shotgun on your motoring adventures.