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
- 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
- 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
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.
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.