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Everything you need to know about wireless dongles

It's more than just an embarrassing word

Alex Kidman
Apr 05, 2024
Icon Time To Read4 min read

It’s becoming increasingly uncommon to find somewhere that doesn’t have a Wi-Fi network lurking nearby, unless you really do spend a lot of time in the desert on a regular basis. Just because there’s Wi-Fi nearby doesn’t mean that you can always access it, or that it’s prudent and secure to do so.

For most of us, we turn to our smartphones in those instances, either using them standalone mode or as a wireless hotspot. There is another approach you can take, however, using a dedicated wireless dongle or wireless hotspot device to provide Wi-Fi access to everything from tablets to laptops to portable gaming consoles and beyond. 

What is a WiFi dongle?

WiFi dongles typically operate as USB-connected devices, either using USB-C or USB-A type connections to hook into a power source – classically a laptop, though there’s nothing stopping you from hooking it into a desktop either, and some models can act as standalone devices without the need for a PC at all. 

As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that most WiFi dongles very closely resemble USB Flash drives, though they typically do cost more than all but the most high capacity flash drives. The whole idea here is essentially plug and play; you connect the WiFi dongle to your computer, run any configuration or connection software depending on your provider, and you’ve got connectivity on that device for as long as you need it, as long as you’re in mobile network range.

What’s the difference between a WiFi dongle and a WiFi hotspot?

While both WiFi dongles and WiFi hotspots have the same end goal – getting you online with a minimum of fuss – typically WiFi Dongles are single connection devices. You plug them into your laptop, connect to the mobile network and that laptop has exclusive use of however much speed you can get out of the network at that time.

A WiFi hotspot is a standalone battery powered device that uses the same mobile networks and Wi-Fi technology, but you usually don’t connect it via any cabled means to a laptop or other device. Instead it acts more like your home Wi-Fi router, powering up, connecting itself via its own software and then providing a WiFi network that you can then connect to. The idea here is more built around sharing a connection between many devices, rather than just the one.  There are some software/hardware workarounds to share out the connection from a USB WiFi dongle, but it’s not the typical use case for sure.

If you need all your mobile speed for one specific task – or you’re just not the sharing type – then a USB WiFi Dongle might be a better match for your needs. The other benefit here is that because you’re limited to a single device connection, you’ve also got a lot more control over who is actually using the data on that connection. If you’re on a plan with any excess data charges, it’s easier to keep them contained from one connection as distinct from a hotspot which can share data out to many devices.

One limitation to bear in mind with WiFi Dongles at the time of writing is that the smaller market size for these devices means that they’re not currently available from major networks with 5G connectivity. If you need that, a 5G WiFi Hotspot device would be your best bet.

How does a Wifi dongle work?

WiFi dongles are not terribly dissimilar to your mobile phone in terms of how they actually operate. Each WiFi dongle requires a SIM card to be installed in it with an active data plan from your provider to authenticate on a network. An antenna built into the WiFi dongle connects to whichever mobile network is identified by the SIM, as long as the dongle itself isn’t locked to one specific network. 

Power is drawn from the connected device over USB, so it’s also worth keeping in mind that you will see a degree of battery life hit while using a WiFi dongle – though this is typically no different and sometimes less than when using WiFi directly from most laptops for any extended period of time.

When would you need a WiFi dongle?

While the use of mobile phones as direct hotspots has seriously impacted the general desirability of WiFi dongles, they’re still an excellent option if you want a single secure and data tracked way to keep a single device (typically a laptop) online when travelling around. 

Unlike using your phone as a hotspot, which can quickly drain its battery, you’re instead

utilising the charge on your laptop to stay online, which could be beneficial if you’re not

going to be able to easily recharge your phone for a while due to your travelling conditions.

For some business cases, having a data-only USB WiFi Dongle can be a good way to track employee usage without having to provide a specific SIM card or smartphone to each employee. 

What plan do you need for a WiFi dongle?

Most WiFi dongles don’t necessarily require a specific mobile plan to operate, though it is worth checking the specifics of a given WiFi dongle to ensure that it’s not locked to a particular network or telco specifically.

Still, the most sensible approach here is to opt for a data-only plan, because there’s no inherent way to make calls or send texts on a USB WiFi Dongle anyway. Data-only plans are most commonly found from the big three network telcos; here’s a selection of plans that should work well for most data needs.

What types of WiFi dongle are available?

It's important here to draw a distinction between WiFi dongles and pocket WiFi or portable modems. Pocket WiFi and portable modems generally have their own chargeable battery, and don't have to be plugged into your computer to work. Dongles, meanwhile, generally plug into a USB port and draw power from your computer.

There are a variety of both true WiFi dongles and pocket modems available in Australia. For our take on the best on the market, read our Best Pocket WiFi and WiFi Dongles guide.

Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is some kind of word-generating AI from the future that somehow worked out how to sneak back in time to 1998 to start its journalism career. Across that time, including editorial stints at ZDNet, CNET, Gizmodo, PC Mag and Finder, as well as contributions to every major tech masthead, nobody has quite managed to figure out this deeply held secret. Let’s keep it between us, OK?

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