At the office, the company provides everything you need to do your job: powerful computers, Internet access, a headset, and a webcam for videoconferencing. Not everything goes so smoothly when you are working remotely. Of course, some companies provide a laptop or pay for your Internet connection. But many people have to equip their home offices using their own resources.
That requires a lot of effort. Some families find themselves sharing just one home computer with no webcam whatsoever, for example, and find the Wi-Fi doesn’t even reach every room in the house.
One option is to buy a ton of new equipment. But you might be able to save a considerable amount of money by repurposing old gadgets, instead. If you still have a couple of outdated smartphones, an ancient laptop, or any other digital devices that are obsolete but still work, then it’s time to put them back to work. Here’s how you can do that.
Computers and laptops
Although almost everyone needs a computer during business hours, not everyone has a personal desktop PC or laptop they can press into service. Old devices may still work well enough for some tasks, however, such as schoolwork or word processing.
Of course, you might have to upgrade any older devices you want to repurpose, and it’s possible you’ll have to remove some unnecessary programs and files, maybe even replace nonworking components. But still, buying a USB keyboard so you don’t have to rely on your fussy laptop keyboard will cost you a lot less than a new laptop.
If your old computer continues to run slowly and glitch after you clean it up, try reinstalling the operating system. On a Mac, you’ll use the System Restore feature. On a Windows computer, you can use the installation disc (or, if you do not have one, download the OS installation image from Microsoft). And if you are curious and ready to experiment, you can try out an alternative operating system such as Google Chromium OS.
If you are handy and somewhat technically inclined, you might also upgrade the hardware in your old machine. For example, expand the RAM to at least 4GB (many laptops come with an empty slot for RAM to facilitate such upgrades) or replace the hard drive with an SSD drive. After you make those upgrades, your computer should run faster and be able to launch more resource-intensive programs. Just check everything thoroughly beforehand; any new components need to be compatible with your old computer.
Don’t forget about security. Install a reliable, modern security solution such as Kaspersky Internet Security, which supports Windows 7 or later or macOS 10.12 Sierra or later.
An old monitor can come in handy as well. You can use it as a replacement for your built-in laptop display or simply as an additional screen to expand your desktop.
You will need to connect the monitor to your computer with a cable. If the ports on the devices do not match, then you will need an adapter. You have plenty of options, there. The process of setting up a second screen is usually simple and detailed on the OS developer’s website. For example, here are instructions for Windows 10 and macOS.
Using a tablet as a monitor
An old tablet can also act as an additional screen. You’ll need to install an app such as iDisplay (iOS, Android) or Duet Display (iOS, Android) on your tablet and your computer. Quite a few such programs are available, but the free options are likely to show lots of ads, function for a trial period only, or require too many permissions — and older versions of Android, for example, do not provide an option for restricting what an application can do.
You can connect the tablet to your computer with a USB cable (for a more stable connection) or Wi-Fi (which makes it easier to reposition and transport your tablet if needed). When choosing an application, be sure to check if it supports the connection you need.
In some cases, you won’t need any additional applications. For example, if you have a MacBook and an iPad, then you can use the built-in Sidecar feature to turn your tablet into a second display. Note that for this feature to work, you have to have a comparatively recent iPad that supports iPadOS 13.
If lots of people in your household study or work remotely, then you will need plenty of space, and not just in the area with good Wi-Fi reception. You have options for improving your home network, and old devices can help you out here, too.
You can use a spare USB modem or mobile router to set up Internet access in rooms that your current Wi-Fi does not reach. You may need to refill the SIM card balance (or buy a new one) — a small price to pay for an additional access point.
An old modem can also serve as a backup Internet access point, which is particularly useful if your main Internet service provider carries out maintenance work at an inconvenient time or you have a power outage.
If you turn your old Wi-Fi router into a Wi-Fi signal repeater, it can act as a kind of intermediary between the main router and other devices. That’s another way to extend Internet access to rooms that are otherwise outside of your main router’s existing coverage area.
The steps for setting your device to repeater mode vary from model to model, but you’ll probably find the information in the user manual or on the Internet: Enter the name of the router into a search engine along with the keywords “repeater,” “wireless bridge,” or “WDS.”
Smartphone as access point
Don’t have a spare router lying around? You can still use an old smartphone as an additional Internet access point (unless, of course, it is so old that it does not support Wi-Fi sharing). For that, you’ll need to insert a SIM card with an unlimited data plan and the ability to tether other devices without restrictions. That done, enable “Wi-Fi hotspot” or “Tethering mode” in your phone’s settings.
On an Android phone:
- Swipe down from the top of the screen;
- Press and hold the Wi-Fi hotspot icon to open either the Wi-Fi hotspot or Tethering mode settings (they’re the same thing);
- Enter a network name and a strong password.
On your iPhone:
- Open Settings;
- Select Personal Hotspot;
- Turn on Allow Others to Join;
- Tap Wi-Fi Password and set a strong password.
Many smartphones can share their Internet connection not only over Wi-Fi, but also using a USB cable. To enable that, you don’t need to configure anything on the gadget, but you may have to install some software on your computer. For example, to connect to the Internet through your iPhone over USB, you’ll need to use iTunes. Of course, if you use Apple devices, then you probably already have iTunes installed on your computer.
During the pandemic, many companies have been using videoconferencing to conduct their meetings, interviews, and the like. Meanwhile, standard laptop cameras often provide poor image quality, and desktop computers often lack any built-in camera. Buying an external webcam can be surprisingly expensive, but again, repurposing old devices can save you some money.
Smartphone or tablet
The camera on a smartphone or tablet, even if it is not very new, is still quite capable of producing a decent image — almost certainly better than what your laptop’s built-in webcam can achieve. To turn a gadget into a webcam, you’ll need to use dedicated applications for your computer and mobile device.
A number of webcam applications, some paid and some free, are available for different combinations of operating systems. Simply install the same program on your smartphone and computer, connect the devices to the same network and, if necessary, configure them.
The exact steps will depend on the app. For example, for the popular virtual webcam DroidCam, you’ll enter the IP address in the program on your computer. Follow the instructions for your choice of app.
Though many people abandoned their digital cameras once the built-in cameras on smartphones reached a certain quality threshold, if you still have a digital camera, then you can repurpose it as a webcam. Again, you’ll need the right app. The most well-known are Sparkocam for Windows and Ecamm Live for macOS. Both cost money, but either is still less expensive than a webcam. Just make sure to choose an application that supports your particular camera.
Camera manufacturers have also tried to cater to the needs of their customers for high-quality video for the Internet: Nikon and Canon are developing their own utilities that allow their cameras to be connected to a computer in webcam mode. The applications were not yet available at the time of this writing, but the companies promised to release them soon. So, if you have a Nikon or Canon camera, stay tuned for updates.
Bonus: Tablet as digital photo frame
When you have to spend a lot of time at home, you want your workplace not only to be comfortable, but also to look nice. Although your workplace probably doesn’t require it, you can use an old tablet to spruce up your workspace by making it into an electronic photo frame. All you need to do is launch a photo viewer application with a slideshow function. For example, Google Photos for Android can cycle through the images in your cloud storage.
If you’re using a tablet for simple viewing, you might also change up the scenery by opening a window to anywhere in the world. With live webcam feeds available from lots of interesting places, all you have to do is point your tablet’s browser at an interesting feed and you’ll be taking periodic breaks from work to admire famous views, or watch pandas amble around the zoo.
Your Digital Comfort Zone
In this interesting time, online life has suddenly taken the front seat. We cannot say how long the epidemic and all of its accompanying restrictions will last, but we can help you get the most out of the current situation.
When we publish posts about building and improving home offices, we tag them Digital Comfort Zone. Follow this tag if you want to learn more. Many of the life hacks will come in handy even after the pandemic. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that digital technologies are the future.