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Ask MAKE: Repurposing electronic detritus

Ask MAKE: Repurposing electronic detritus

Ask MAKE is a weekly column where we answer reader questions, like yours. Write them in to mattm@makezine.comor drop us a line on Twitter. We can’t wait to tackle your conundrums!


Jon writes in:

I saw the tweet about sending questions to MAKE and I’ve got kind of a big one.

I have all this electronic detritus that I would like to re-purpose (i.e. a couple old Compaq iPaqs, a bunch of cell phones, several laptops, several old desktop computers and monitors).

I don’t code but I can run a soldering iron. Short of sending this heap off to the landfill what are my options? I would like to make something cool that used all of the little screens (cell phone and iPaq) and I have seen (I don’t remember where) somebody had morphed a cellphone screen (I think) into a laptop on the outside.

Sure, there are lots of options for them. If the hardware still works and you don’t want it around, you can donate it to a charity. Otherwise, here are some ideas.

Mobile devices

The LCD displays on mobile electronic devices can difficult to interface directly. Your best bet may be to put new software on it. Here are some possibilities:

  • Identifying Nokia LCDs: If you have a Nokia phone, you might be able to control the LCD from a microcontroller.
  • PalmOrb: Turn an old palm pilot into a serial LCD.
  • Linux on an iPAQ: Smartphone magazine has a nice article about getting extra life out of old Pocket PCs by installing Linux.
  • PdPod: Convert an old iPod into a portable synthesizer.
  • Reware: Tips and tricks for unlocking old phones and installing new firmware


The canonical use for an old laptop is to make it into a picture frame. You can convert an older laptop into a second monitor for your desktop using some simple software. If the laptop still works but is just slow, try turning it into an internet device by installing a lightweight Linux distro such as Xubuntu. If the laptop is broken but the screen still works, you might be able to program an FPGA to control it, but note that it is not easy or cheap to do.


The advice for usable but slower laptops holds for desktops as well- they can make a nice internet kiosk, if given a software update. If the computer is really old or broken, though, you can try to salvage components from it. The power supply can be converted into a bench supply. 5.25″ floppy drives (from really old computers) usually have excellent stepper motors in them. Many PCs have a nice speaker mounted to the case, and sometimes have neat power switches. Old CRT monitors can used for art projects, such as displaying glitchy video. Personally, I’ve been considering using a bank of them as (very inefficient) color-controlled mood lighting.

This is a pretty open-ended question, and I’m sure that I have barely scratched the surface of what can be done with old electronic junk. Do you have a favorite use for a cast-off bit of electronics? Sound off in the comments!

Photo by Flickr user Victoria Reay

6 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: Repurposing electronic detritus

  1. says:

    I suggest checking out the work of Garnet Hertz and the Dead Media Research Lab. It’s full of viable ideas:

  2. Benjamin Gaulon says:

    Check out E-waste Workshops, Art making from ewaste:

  3. Queer1 says:

    i have old cellphones, smartphones, laptops, and desktops galore. i wanna repurpose everything, but i don’t know what i can make out of anything, i wanna stick to electronics because these things are mostly all usable for a while still. I wish there was a database you could enter what you have and it tells you how to make something

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