Dongles: What are they, and how do I get one?

ByKim Staples
Dongle

When you want broadband on the go, you need a dongle. They’re portable, easy to use, and, best of all, mean you can get online wherever you are in the country. Read on and we’ll take you through exactly what a dongle is, whether or not you should get one, and how to find a deal on a dongle plan.

What is a mobile dongle?

A dongle is a little lipstick-sized gadget that plugs into your computer and lets you connect to the internet. Now stop giggling.

They're usually the size of a USB drive, and they look identical too. Some dongles are used to give your computer Bluetooth capabilities, Wi-Fi, extra security, multimedia, and so on - but usually when we say 'dongle', we're talking about the mobile broadband kind.

Okay, so how does it work?

A dongle is basically a very little modem with the ability to connect to wireless or mobile broadband - 4G or 3G, the same as the broadband on your smartphone. When you plug a dongle into a computer, your computer is essentially connected to a modem and can get online.

Unlike an awkward cabled connection, a dongle doesn't dangle - it plugs in securely straight into your USB port.

Pros and cons of using a dongle

Prongles

  • Lets you use the internet from anywhere: on holiday, in a café, on a train, in a park, at your gran's house - you name it
  • Very portable - they're small and handy enough to take anywhere
  • Easy to use - they're about as 'plug and play' as it gets
  • Ideal for flexible, temporary broadband, with short-term contracts and pay-as-you-go plans widely available
  • Powered by your computer, so no need to charge
  • Great for working on the go
  • Useful to have around for broadband emergencies
  • Can give you an internet connection in areas where fixed line broadband is slow or dodgy

Congles

  • Require a USB port on your device - so a dongle can only really connect to a laptop, and not a tablet, ebook reader, or mobile
  • …and it means they can only connect to one device at a time
  • More expensive than fixed line broadband, and often a lot slower too
  • Download limits can be restrictive
  • Portability is limited to where you can get adequate 4G signal
Dongle

Alternatives to dongles

Mobile broadband devices: Also known as Mi-Fi, pocket Wi-Fi hotspots, and so on. These are extremely similar to dongles - they're little portable gadgets that connect to mobile broadband wherever you are. Unlike a dongle, though, they do it by emitting a Wi-Fi signal. That means you can connect multiple devices at once, including smartphones, tablets, ebook readers, and more, but you'll need to remember to keep the battery charged.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots: The UK has a huge network of Wi-Fi hotspots that you can connect to - often for free - so you can get online when you're out and about. Speeds can be iffy though, and you can't always guarantee there's one nearby. Take a look at our guide for more info.

Smartphone: Pretty much all smartphones can connect to mobile broadband, provided you've got 4G or 3G data included in your plan. Some can even be turned into Wi-Fi hotspots so your computer can 'tether' to it and use the internet. Keep a close eye on your usage if you do this, though. Read more about tethering.

Mobile broadband router: If you're thinking of getting a dongle for temporary broadband, there are other options. Some mobile broadband providers - such as Relish in central London - offer proper routers for your home with much more generous download limits.

See our guide to mobile broadband for more.

Dongle deals

Dongles are generally available from major mobile networks. You can buy one outright and go pay-as-you-go, if you only intend to use it occasionally; or take out a contract. They're mostly 30-day contracts, but longer ones - 12 or 24 months - can work out cheaper if you use your dongle often.

Networks that offer dongles and mobile Wi-Fi devices include:

Contract plans can range from 500MB of data per month, which is just enough for occasional browsing, all the way up to 32GB - enough to comfortably work in a café for a couple of weeks, or watch a whole season of Game of Thrones in HD. Still, be mindful of your data usage and don't go downloading lots of huge files.

 

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