A lot of materials go into making cell phones, but these devices are too often treated as disposable. Rather than tossing an old phone, iFixit has long advocated for repairing or repurposing the phones of yesteryear, sometimes called upcycling. Samsung just dipped its toe in the waters of upcycling, but iFixit says Samsung lost its nerve and that the original version of Galaxy Upcycling was going to be much more ambitious and useful.
The tale starts about four years ago when Samsung sent partners to the Bay Area Maker Fair with some repurposed Galaxy phones. There was a retro gaming handheld, an Alexa-like smart speaker, a pet monitoring camera, and more. Vitally, all of it was powered by old Samsung phones with the company’s Galaxy Upcycle software. The folks at iFixit were floored by this. They agreed to work with Samsung to launch the platform, even adding iFixit branding to the early promotional materials. Samsung sells a ton of phones, and it’s one of the few consumer electronic companies with the scale to make upcycling software like this.
However, Galaxy Upcycle has gone through some changes in the past four years. iFixit was told on the down-low there was a lot of resistance toward Upcycle at the company because there was no product tie-in or revenue plan. The version of Galaxy Upcycle that just launched has almost none of the features that first attracted iFixit. The beta for Galaxy Upcycling lets you turn a smartphone that cost hundreds of dollars a few years ago into a light and sound sensor. That’s really all it can do.
This anemic attempt to make old phones useful comes at a time when Samsung’s devices are becoming harder to repair. Back when Galaxy Upcycle caught iFixit’s attention, Samsung’s phones were scoring a 5/10 for repairability, but they’ve slid down to 3/10 for the most recent flagship devices. And still, Samsung decided to go with this restrictive and woefully underpowered Upcycle program. Why not just allow people to unlock the bootloaders on old phones and install software that actually fits the use case? Running a full smartphone OS on a light sensor is unnecessary and inefficient.
If you do have an old Samsung phone sitting around, you can try the Upcycling beta via the Smartthings app. Unfortunately, your old phone is much more valuable as a trade-in to lower the cost of getting a new phone, which is probably what Samsung would prefer.