Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Using an old 2G or 3G smartphone as a secondary device for travel

In part 1 of this 2-part series, I answered some of the Frequently Asked Questions about the 2G and 3G cellphone “sunset”.

In part 2, below, I look at what travellers can do with some of the “obsolete” older cellphones and smartphones that will no longer be usable, after the 2G and 3G sunset, for voice calls using VoLTE over 4G and 5G networks.

  1. What can I do with my old smartphone, or with a second-hand 2G or 3G smartphone?
  2. Why would I want to carry a second smartphone when I travel, especially one that can’t be used for phone calls or cellular data?
  3. What can a traveller use a ‘phone’ for if it doesn’t have a SIM card, cellular service, or any personal information?
  4. Which ‘obsolete’ phones are the best value as secondary devices for world travellers?
  5. Which operating system is best for an ‘obsolete’ smartphone?
  6. How can I install apps? Which apps should I install or uninstall?

1. What can I do with my old smartphone, or with a second-hand 2G or 3G smartphone?

As I discussed in part 1 of this series, cellphones and smartphones that don’t support the right 4G LTE frequency bands won’t work for voice calls or cellular data after the (already ongoing) worldwide shutdown of older 2G and 3G wireless networks. This planned obsolescence affects almost all mobile device models introduced before around 2014, some devices introduced in 2015-2017, and a few more recent devices depending on where you want to use them.

Flip phones and “candy bar” phones that can’t be used for cellular phone calls will become e-waste. But while a smartphone that can’t make calls or connect to the Internet except over wi-fi will be much less valuable and cheaper to buy second-hand than it was when it was new and could connect to 2G and/or 3G cellular networks around the world, it won’t be useless.

There are more or less elaborate do-it-yourself hacks to turn a smartphone into a special-purpose gadget such as a wi-fi remote control for “smart devices” such as Internet-enabled lightbulbs or sex toys, if you have such things. But you can use an old smartphone for a lot of other purposes with little or no modification or additional software: As a baby monitor. As a doorbell camera. As a video intercom. As an e-reader, music and video player, and wi-fi Web browsing device to keep in the kitchen, on your workbench, by the pool, or anywhere else you might not want to have a larger, more fragile, more valuable device. As a bedside e-reader, alarm clock, and emergency flashlight — next to your bed, or as a courtesy amenity next to a guest bed. As a camera, music and video player, and e-reader to give to a child who isn’t old enough for you to want to give them a smartphone that is valuable, can make or receive calls, or can access the Internet.

As discussed in the rest of this article, there’s a particularly good value proposition for repurposing one of these older devices as a “disposable” low-value secondary device that you can use in crowded and public places while travelling — for offline navigation, as a music player, as an e-reader, for Web browsing where there’s wi-fi, and with sightseeing, museum, and audio tour apps downloaded over wi-fi — without risking the loss or theft of a valuable device or even more valuable personal information.

2. Why would I want to carry a second smartphone when I travel, especially one that can’t be used for phone calls or cellular data?

Because of the way they are used, smartphones are highly vulnerable to loss, breakage, and theft. Drop your phone in the street, and there’s a good chance it will be run over and crushed before you can retrieve it. Smartphones and tablets are the number-one targets of thieves around the world. They are valuable, easy to fence, and easy to snatch and grab because their owners are often holding them in their hands while (a) in public and (b) focusing their attention on the device, or on the subject of the photo they are composing, and not on their surroundings. A mugger will demand both your wallet and your phone, or maybe just your phone, and won’t believe that you don’t have a phone.

If you have stored passwords or other sensitive information on your smartphone, using it in public can be as risky as getting out your wallet in an equally crowded and public place. If your phone is snatched out of your hands while you are using it, a thief may be able to access sensitive data before the device locks itself or you can lock or disable it remotely.

There are thus many of the same reasons to carry a second cheap, expendable wi-fi only smartphone, without a SIM card and on which you store no personal data, for use in public and/or crowded places, as there are for carrying a second wallet with only enough local cash to get you through the day, and maybe something that looks like a credit card (an expired prepaid debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo serves the purpose well) to satisfy a mugger that they’ve gotten your “real” wallet.

Leave your good smartphone packed away, like your passport and bank cards, in a more secure pocket or in your purse. Don’t use your good smartphone or get out your passport or credit cards any place you don’t feel safe.

A cheap secondary smartphone like this can also be more convenient to use on the run: If it doesn’t have any personal data stored on it, you can set it up to go directly to the home screen or your current app (most likely a map) without your having to enter a password or PIN.

3. What can a traveller use a ‘phone’ for if it doesn’t have a SIM card, cellular service, or any personal information?

Many of the reasons for a traveller to to get out a smartphone in a public place don’t depend on a cellular connection. You can use all of the following apps and functions of a smart “phone” offline, or in a few cases over public wi-fi:

  • Map reading and GPS navigation
  • Still and video camera and audio recorder
  • Music and podcast player
  • E-reader
  • Museum, sightseeing, and audio tour apps (downloaded over wi-fi)
  • Web browser (over public wi-fi)

4. Which “obsolete” smartphones are the best value as secondary devices for world travellers?

The 2G and 3G sunset will make billions of smartphones useless for cellular phone calling. As of this writing in early 2022, that isn’t yet fully reflected in the prices of second-hand smartphones. Many smartphone owners haven’t yet realized that their current cellular carries are about to shut off service on the frequencies and using the protocols on which their devices depend.

The best secondary device for travel may be one you already own, but have replaced with a newer one, perhaps because of the 2G and 3G sunset even though its still working except for cellular wireless connectivity.

For example, I’m setting up my old Motorola “Moto G 3rd Generation” (Android device codename “osprey”) to use when I’m travelling. It was a basic low-end device — but solidly built and with pretty good battery life — when it was introduced in 2015. It does work for 4G cellular data, but only on a few LTE bands, and it doesn’t support VoLTE, so the 2G and 3G sunset is making it obsolete for cellular voice calls. It was originally released with Android 5, and later officially upgraded by Motorola to Android 6, but I’m running a variant of LineageOS based on Android 10.

As of early 2022, you can buy a used device of this or any of a variety of other comparable models, in good condition, for less than US$50.

It’s the best handheld travel GPS and map reader you can buy for $50. With a 5” color touchscreen and enough space on a micro-SD memory card to store a whole world of street-level offline maps, it beats out more expensive dedicated GPS devices in almost all respects except battery life, ruggedness, and water resistance. While the camera on this particular model isn’t great, even for its time, it’s at least as good as any standalone digital snapshot camera you are likely to find for $50. But wait, there’s more: You can also use this device to view and listen to museum and sightseeing audio tours and interpretive and tourist information apps (downloaded over public wi-fi), which have become increasingly ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic as a touch-free way to distribute information to visitors. (Tip: Audio tours and museum and sightseeing apps can also be an enjoyable form of armchair travel to museums and sites you may never visit.)

I don’t expect that the bottom end of prices for used smartphones in good condition with working wi-fi will get much lower. But several billion more working smartphones from around this time, just before all new smartphones began to be built to support 4G and VoLTE, will be rendered “obsolete” by the 2G and 3G sunset. As these billions of devices, including some that were considered “flagship” smartphones as recently as 2013-2016, are dumped into secondary used-phone markets, what you can get for US$50-100 is likely to improve greatly.

The biggest differences between non-VoLTE smartphones are likely to be in their cameras. I invite readers to suggest, in the comments, which smartphones that won’t work for voice calls after the 2G and 3G sunset have the best cameras. These will be the best models for budget travellers to seek out, once their second-hand prices have crashed, to use as secondary devices.

5. Which operating system is best for an ‘obsolete’ smartphone?

The best operating system for an older smartphone, if you are able and willing to take the risk of installing an alternative to the “stock” OS supplied with the phone, is some flavor of LineageOS.

LineageOS is the most popular alternative to the Android versions installed on smartphones by their manufacturers. Installing LineageOS instead of stock Android is sort of like installing Linux on a desktop or laptop computer instead of Windows, although LineageOS is much more like stock Android than Linux is like Windows.

What about an iPhone? With an iPhone, you generally have no alternative to the version of iOS provided by Apple. No iOS updates are available once Apple ends its support for a particular model of iPhone. This planned software obsolescence serves Apple’s interests by motivating iPhone customers to buy new rather than used iPhones, and to trade-in their iPhones for newer ones. But it makes older iPhones less suitable for continued use and repurposing than Android devices of similar vintage.

A typical “Android” phone is running multiple layers of system software including open-source Android, proprietary Google apps, a proprietary user-interface “skin” from the device manufacturer, and proprietary apps from your cellular network operator. All that phoning home to Google (or Apple, if you have an iPhone) wastes some of your cellular data allotment. Even if you don’t have a cellular data connection, all of that bloatware running all the time in the background uses storage space you could use for more offline maps, photos, videos, etc.; occupies RAM and slows down your device; and, perhaps most significantly, drains your battery more quickly.

LineageOS consists of the open-source components of Android, plus some additional open-source software to make the system usable without most or all of the Google-ware.

The battery of a device running any of the variants of LineageOS below typically lasts substantially longer than the battery of the same device running “stock” Android with the usual array of factory and carrier-installed bloatware.

Installing LineageOS or another alternative OS on a smartphone is a bit like installing Linux on a Windows computer, but it’s more intimidating. You are very unlikely to “brick” your desktop or laptop (render it irrevocably unbootable) by trying to install Linux. There’s more of a possibility, although small, that if you make a mistake you could brick your smartphone by trying to install LineageOS. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! This is a reason to try it first on a cheap old smartphone, as an experiment and for practice. If all goes well, you might then decide to install an alternate Android version on your (more valuable) primary smartphone.

Some device manufacturers make it relatively easy to replace the stock version of Android with LineageOS or the OS of your choice. Others go to greater or lesser lengths to make it more difficult, in some cases all but impossible. Different versions of LineageOS and various forks and derivatives of it are available for different devices. Check what’s available before you buy a used device:

Any of these these LineageOS versions and forks are much better — especially in improved battery life — than bloated “stock” Android. Use whichever one is available for your device.

If more than one variant is available for your device, use the one that still is, or that most recently was, maintained, so that you get the most recent possible Android bug fixes, security patches, and feature updates.

Many of the differences between these variants are beyond the scope of this article. The choice is partly just a matter of taste.

6. How can I install apps? Which apps should I install or uninstall?

There are differences in how apps are installed, and what apps are installed by default.

One major division between LineageOS versions and forks is in how they handle apps available from the Google Play Store.

By default, the “basic” version of LineageOS (the first version listed above) includes neither any of Google’s apps nor any way to obtain apps from other sources that are distributed through the Google Play Store. The problems is that many other Android apps that have no other connection to Google, including almost all Android museum, sightseeing, and audio tour apps, are distributed only through the Google Play Store. Museums and tourist information centers could make these apps available for direct download, but they don’t.

Even if you don’t want Google’s own apps wasting your device memory and running down your battery, you probably will want to use at least some apps distributed only through the Google Play Store.

How is that possible?

Developers of different LineageOS versions have taken different approaches.

If you install the “basic” version of LineageOS, you can choose to also flash “Open Gapps” with it. Despite the “open” name, this is actually just a stripped-down version of the proprietary Google Play Services client. It will slow your device down less than the full suite of Google apps, but it’s more Google — and more drain on your battery — than most people need or want for a device like this.

With “Open Gapps”, you still have to create or sign in with a Google account to download any apps from the Google Play Store. Once you have linked your device to a Google account, you risk unintentionally syncing data to the device from other Google services or linked devices. So you could discover, after your device has been lost or stolen, that it had sensitive personal information on it — defeating the purpose of having a device you don’t have to worry about losing or having stolen.

I think the better approach is the one used by LineageOS for microG, /e/OS, CalyxOS, and GrapheneOS (apologies for their weird orthography). Each of these four Android distributions bundles LineageOS with something called microG.

microG allows you to download apps that are normally available only from the Google Play Store without setting up a Google account at all. That makes it simpler to set up and use, and reduces the risk of accidentally your personal data to a Google account or any of these apps. All of these four variations on a theme use the Aurora Store as, in effect, an anonymizing proxy repository from which you can download any app that you could have found in the Google Play Store. It’s easier than it sounds!

Of these four, I would pick /e/OS if you want the simplest possible setup, CalyxOS or GrapheneOS if you want more configuration options and one of these variants is available for a device that meets your needs, and LineageOS for microG if you want more configuration options and neither CalyxOS nor GrapheneOS is available for your device.

(As of now, CalyxOS and GrapheneOS are available mostly just for Google Pixel devices, none of which have memory card slots. That may limit your ability to fit offline maps of as large regions as you might like on a Google Pixel device. Google wants users to store their data on Google’s servers “in the cloud”, not on their own devices, so Google devices tend not to have a lot of on-device data storage capacity.)

I assume you will be using this device more for maps and navigation than anything else. /e/OS makes this easiest by including Magic Earth as part of its bundle of basic pre-installed apps.

Magic Earth is a mapping and navigation program that relies on Open Street Maps data. OSMand uses the same map data and has many more features, but is harder to configure and learn to use than Magic Earth, and makes downloading offline maps more complicated and confusing.

You can flash /e/OS on your device, skip all the first-time start-up options to create any kind of account, pick the states or countries you want to download for offline map reading and navigation in Magic Earth, and start using your device as a GPS and map reader. Other than installing Aurora Store (from the default /e/OS app store) for access to any other apps you want, you may never need to look at or change any of the other configuration options.

If want to install mapping and navigation apps yourself for offline use, either OSMand or HERE WeGo (originally developed by Nokia as “Nokia Maps”) still offer, as when I reviewed them ten years ago, better info than Google Maps in many places. OSMand in particular is optimized for offline use, while Google Maps is optimized for online use. I usually use OSMand when I’m offline, and HERE maps for online searches for businesses by name.

To minimize the likelihood of forgetting which device you are using and inadvertently storing sensitive information on a secondary device that you want to be able to use freely in public, I strongly recommend that you uninstall or disable the apps you don’t want to use on this device:

  • Phone dialer
  • SMS messenger
  • Contacts
  • E-mail

Do you carry a secondary smartphone or similar device when you travel? Please share your experiences in the comments.

[This article has been edited to add GrapheneOS to the list of LineageOS variants.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 23 March 2022, 07:05 ( 7:05 AM)

I suggest also considering GrapheneOS as an Android alternative. It's closer to CalyxOS than to LineageOS, but it goes further than CalyxOS to preserve privacy.

The project is doing and saying all the right things from my perspective. It appears to me, after reviewing published docs but not source code, to be *very* well done. The documentation is superb. I'm excited about where it may lead.

For published reasons that seem quite logical to me (in short, unique hardware features that significantly improve security), GrapheneOS targets only a small number of phones, and that is currently limited to Google's Pixel series. They announced recently that they are in the process of partnering with a hardware manufacturer to provide an alternative.

I run it on a spare Pixel 3a (lowest-end phone they currently support; figure $80-120 used) and am anxious to work out a few things so that I can feel comfortable using it on my primary phone, also a 3a:

- I much prefer a swipey virtual keyboard, and the only alternative I found to the one in stock Android is not as good.
- I use my mobile phone as my primary camera, I have a young child who will not be young for long so I want not to compromise in this area, and while the GrapheneOS camera app is improving by leaps and bounds, I still want to install and use the stock app for now.
- I've yet to get my head around the sandboxing options or to come up with a good pattern for using separate user accounts on the phone in order to selectively enable the various Google-specific libraries and frameworks
- I want to figure out how to reliably back it up (I'm currently engaging in some cognitive dissonance and using Android's standard Google-supplied service)

related info:

Posted by: Phil Mocek, 23 March 2022, 14:01 ( 2:01 PM)

Thanks to Phil Mocek for the helpful pointers to GrapheneOS. I've edited my original article to add GrapheneOS to my list of flavors and forks of LineageOS.

I think that GrapheneOS would be a good choice of operating system for a *primary* mobile device on which you want to store personal information securely and privately, if it is available for a device that otherwise meets your needs.

As of now, however, GrapheneOS, like CalyxOS, is available primarily for Google Pixel devices. All of these Google mobile devices, as of now, lack memory card slots and therefore may not have enough memory for world travellers who want to keep offline maps of large regions on their device, perhaps in both OSMand and HERE Maps formats since each has some information that the other lacks.

As for backups: If you don't store any data on a device, there is little need to back it up.

For a primary mobile device that you do want to back up, if you use /e/os the "e foundation" offers its own free "ecloud" backup service. It's worth considering as as an alternative to Google Cloud or Apple iCloud:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 23 March 2022, 14:35 ( 2:35 PM)
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