Repurpose those older devices

2021-07-29 @Technology

Ever since I purchased a new Tablet, I can’t help but feel remarkably soiled. When it comes to consumer goods in the form of electronics and computers, I can seldom rationalize the purchase of a newly manufactured apparatus (or in this case, a last-year’s model). Unless driven by artificial needs to upgrade, or compelled by closed hardware and software (often hand-in-hand), you can almost always repurpose an older product to your needs.

Part of the stance for reusability is driven by my undeniable ecological snobbism, which I expect to only amplify with time. Let’s face it: new purchases stimulate continued manufacturing, exploited resources, and waste.

Having mentioned ‘snobbism’, the opposite extreme demands mention. This pertains to the subgroup inclined to decommission and upgrade as soon as the object begins to appear even slightly tattered or unfashionable.

Case point, my Bluetooth keyboard is now (sloppily) wrapped all around the edges in clear packing tape like a decrepit library paperback, to prevent continued rubber-surface tearing. Though someone else might cringe to thus appear in public, not only do I not mind, but derive certain satisfaction from such a ragged accessory.

That leads to the idea of aesthetic pleasure in the operability of the visibly aged, yet functional equipment. I can see not everyone derives it, having been subject to numerous direct and indirect remarks through the years concerning my obstinance to sport the ‘outdated’.

Yet I view this sort of aesthetic as not terribly different from what many of us extract in older cars, vinyl players, guitars, photo cameras, samovars or books.

A huge problem with a new computerized product such as this Tablet - or rather the continued manufacturing of such increasingly powerul products - is the consequent perpetuation of lavishing software that cares little for economy of resources, presupposing latest hardware and the ever continued upgrades.

Running applications on new hardware desensitizes the heed for resource constraints. Whether poorly or well written, you’ll struggle to ascertain the difference. And this is bad for development, for the community support of open software, and for sustainability. Ultimately, bloated and inefficient code stimulates the continued upgrade and manufacturing cycle.

A developer of such an application might reason: what difference makes the choice of language, be it Python or low-level C, or whether the program spawns memory leaks, or uses inefficient data structures and poor search strategies? What difference makes any of this when the latest gadgets can mask any such blemishes by way of increased clock speed, number of cores and numerous processor caches, as well as abundant memory and secondary storage?

Concerning electronics, the purchasing cost in itself actually makes the least of my preoccupations in contrast to the rest. Though still a significant factor, even new, entry-level products can be acquired inexpensively, due to high manufacturing and low labor cost of third-world nations.

Yet I’d sooner opt for the older, second-hand product of a comparable price range, yet assert the ethical benefit: not only avoid tapping into limited natural resources, but foster mindful hardware interaction: tighter parameters, smaller choice of better-written software, finding creative means to use the little I have.

Why the new tablet then? Poor decision making on my part, simple as that. And what ailed the older, 2013 model? Several factors I deemed compelling at the time:

  1. The main instigator: vendor support limited to Android version 6, which the Termux emulator no longer supports since 2019; thus unable to upgrade Termux or the Termux packages. Yet I could’ve flashed a custom ROM with an Android version as high as 8, as I had with an even older tablet just recently.
  2. Though I operate primarily out of the terminal, even I felt slight inhibition in the 7' screen, upgrading to 8'.
  3. As I perceived increased delays in disk IO, a sixth sense told me the flash storage was wearing down (reaching the cycle limit). In hindsight, without further examination, I could’ve been entirely misled.
  4. Absence of a storage-card slot. Likewise, the OTG micro-USB port didn’t recognize external storage on this model. When travelling, this imposed certain limitations, though none I couldn’t mitigate.
  5. Dismal frontal camera, which mildly frustrated my occasional video calls on this device.

None of this now sounds convincing. Meanwhile, I type text and engage terminal applications on some octa-core 2.3 Gz processor of 3Gb Ram and 32Gb disk space, likely targeted for video game junkies, or whatever ultra CPU-intensive demands users supposedly place on these devices.

Only time-cost-benefit considerations restrain me from selling the glorified (yet supposedly ‘entry level’) culprit in the after-market and adapting something more aged … which I might yet.

The mere act of documenting these musings actually fills me with slight relief around the purchase predicament, though I can’t imagine an hour passing before the self-contempt should resurge. Alas.

Were I a stationary being (over a sufficiently long period) I’d probably repurpose some older 486/Pentium 1 or 2 for an entirely terminal oriented workflow. Space considerations, however, steer me to attain the same with a (still headless) Raspberry PI-Zero I’d again re-flashed, yet not designated for any particular use.

Computers (stationary or mobile) can easily outlive a decade or two, should they not suffer notable physical abuse. Older, bulkier computers featured an increase of moving, mechanical components, but many, if not most, facilitated serviceability and individual part replacement. (Not all, such as the Apples or other vendors among which I don’t care to explore the retro-history).

In modern hardware, on the other hand, though tight and monolithic the components, though much hardware-unserviceable, the absence of moving parts lessens natural wear (directly or indirectly through lower power demands and less overheating).

Short of artificially manufactured barriers, it’s usually environmental damage that leads to decay; or sloppy engineering. But that’s why consumer reviews exist.

Now I can’t speak of Apple components from much experience. I’d never owned or even operated one besides the 1989/90 Macintosh models in Middle School, and briefly an early 2000’s MP3 player that I soon gifted. But years worth of observation has suggested extreme lack of user-serviceability.

Android-hardware manufacturers unlikely pursue drastically different priorities with their product lines, prioritizing new purchase revenues. However, though initially locked and barricaded in the thralls of Google components, these devices, beyond far more price accommodating, at least enable ‘power users’ to unlock the firmware, flash custom ROMs, extend functionality, and bestow years of extra life.

I’m a bit unsettled by my own diplomatic form of expression. Personally, I deplore the notion of using any mobile devices, serviceable or not, at least for their intended purpose, and definitely not to be carried in the pocket or used as a phone!

I recently repurposed the Asus Nexus 7 2012 model tablet into a workable Android 8.1 device with zero Google apps: strictly the Fdroid (open-source) package ecosystem. In similar efforts, I also bricked an older Android smartphone (Samsung Galaxy J1 Mini) attempting to repurpose it with the highly alluring Postmarketos. I can probably unbrick the subject with access to a Windows PC (for reasons still unclear) and some patience.

To wrap up this rhapsody … Older tools deliver. And for many of us, be your reasons intrinsic or otherwise, they feel more satisfying on numerous levels, especially given the (often) marginal effort necessary to keep them operational. With the older equipment, I sense some deeper state of harmony with the planetary system. Such a fanciful abstraction might seem slightly unfounded … but only slightly.

Questions, comments? Connect.