New Uses For Old Tech: How To Turn an Old Cell Phone Into a Bluetooth HTPC Remote Control

Since upgrading to a new Windows Phone 7 smartphone last November, my aged AT&T 8525 Windows Mobile 6 device has done nothing but museum duties (filling space on a shelf). It's a shame to see decent tech serve no purpose. I won't argue with anyone that the old Windows Mobile OS isn't up to the same level of on-the-go user friendliness of modern phones like the iPhone, Android, and Windows Phones, but that doesn't mean it's now a useless hunk of plastic. In fact, I've recently pulled my once loved pocket companion out of the museum and put it back into service - as a bluetooth Home Theater PC (HTPC) remote control!

A Living Room PC?

Not long ago, I finally made the switch from high-priced cable subscriber to cord-cutter. Combining local channels, a Netflix subscription, and various Internet based video sources, we managed to shave nearly $80 a month from our expenses (and truthfully, we rarely miss having all those extra channels).

Anyone with a mobile device or Google TV box knows that many online video sources, like Hulu for example, block access to their free content on nearly every CE set-top device and mobile phone. Rather than try and play a cat and mouse game with content providers, I opted for the most simple solution to the problem - use a regular Windows PC as our primary DVR and entertainment box. It's not something I would recommend for everyone, but it definitely has some advantages you just don't get with a CE device.

What's the best control for a living room PC?

I've been connecting PCs to TVs for years, usually serving purposes like music and photo streaming, but never as a primary solution. Pulling out a wireless keyboard and mouse works for on-occasion use, but it's not a sit-on-the-couch solution for everyday use.

We use a combination of Windows Media Center for TV recording and most video playback, with XBMC for specific situations or video formats. Both of those apps are controllable with a Media Center IR remote control, so that makes for a good couch control experience (assuming you don't need to type in a lot of text for searches).

The control issues surface if you want to venture outside the remote control friendly apps and do things like access the web browser to stream video, manage the Netflix queue, etc.

A wireless keyboard and mouse does work if it has the range to reach your PC (an issue I struggle with), but it's big and bulky. I've tried air mice from gyration, and while those work well for pointer control, they don't help with text input. There are many hybrid products that integrate pointer control and a mini keyboard, but they're often $50 or more.

Then it dawned on me; My old cellphone has all the things I need - a touchscreen, a hard keyboard, and bluetooth. Why not use that as a remote?

There's an app for that

For iPhone and Android, there are dozens of apps available that offer some level of PC control. I've even found a few for Windows Phone 7, although the pointer experience leaves a lot to be desired in its current form. You could certainly find an app for your current phone, but this isn't about using a modern smartphone as a remote, this is about utlizing old tech for another purpose. Besides, you can't leave your phone at home for others to use.

One of the cool things about the old Windows Mobile OS is that it's a lot more like a mini-computer than modern day smartphones. There are few limitations imposed on hardware access in these devices (much like Windows) so there are lots of nifty, powerful programs available for Windows Mobile.

For remote apps, there are generally two approaches to how they work:

  1. Wi-Fi control - In these cases, there are two software components. One is a remote server program that runs on the client, and the software on the device can than connect to and send commands over a Wi-Fi network. This is by far the most common type.
  2. Bluetooth control - Software on the phone connects to a PC over bluetooth, mimicking a bluetooth mouse and keyboard. This is less common.

There are ups and downs to each approach.


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