Intro to Internet or Network Dongles

Dongle isn't just a funny word

In computer networking, a dongle is a small device designed to plug into a computer and enable it for specific types of network connections. Google Chromecast, for instance, is a dongle. 

Person using a laptop with various dongles connected

Lifewire / Julie Bang

Dongles for Wired Networks

A primitive network dongle supports wired networks and features a short cable with connectors on each end. Dongle cables typically are no longer than about six inches.

Wired dongles first became popular with mainstream consumers many years ago as the way to connect PCMCIA "credit card" adapters in laptop computers to a local network. One end of the dongle fits the thin PCMCIA connector while the other end featured either:

Most modern dongles plug into computers via USB ports. USB to Ethernet adapters, for example, enable a computer without Ethernet ports to be joined to an Ethernet network.

Dongles for Wireless Networks

Although wireless networks do not require cables, external devices that enable a computer to make wireless connections are still classified as dongles. These devices are typically USB sticks, which should not be confused with the USB sticks used for data storage. For example,

  • A USB Wi-Fi dongle enables computers to connect to Wi-Fi local networks.
  • A USB modem dongle enables mobile internet access by enabling internet connections via 3G or 4G wireless networks.
  • The Microsoft Xbox Wireless Adapter for Windows plugs into a computer and allows it to communicate with wireless Xbox controllers for the purpose of playing PC games.

How Network Dongles Work

A dongle contains standard physical circuitry to support whatever type of network it enables. For example, USB modem dongles contain 3G/4G radios inside.

Plugging a dongle into a computer automatically triggers the computer's operating system to use it. On Windows PCs, for example, built-in device driver software compatible with the type of dongle—USB drivers, in the case of USB dongles—loads and supports the unit. Users can configure any settings the dongle supports in the Windows user interface through these drivers.

Internet dongles work with televisions from a variety of manufacturers including, but not limited to, those made by LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and Vizio.

Issues With Using Network Dongles

  • Just because a device has a USB port or other type of connection that a dongle fits, doesn't mean the computer can actually use it. The computer's operating system must be capable of recognizing the dongle and possess the right software to utilize it.
  • Dongle hardware protrudes from the side, back, or front of a computer. Dongles can easily be damaged when moving a computer from one location to another.
  • Just like other kinds of network interfaces, computers can sometimes fail to connect to an outside network via their dongle. Unplugging and replugging a dongle has the effect of resetting the network connection. Some dongles incorporate built-in LEDs to help the user verify they are operational.
  • Dongles can be expensive to purchase, particularly if a person is looking for one that supports the latest wireless networking standards.
FAQ
  • What are the best Wi-Fi dongles?

    Lifewire recommends the Netgear Nighthawk A7000 overall for its high speeds and great range. If you're looking for great value, the Net-Dyn AC1200 has a 100-yard range and plug-and-play functionality. Road warriors may want to look at the Glam Hobby Ourlink U631 AC600.

  • What is an AllShare Cast dongle?

    Samsung's AllShare Cast dongle let users stream content from a compatible device to a TV, similarly to Google's Chromecast or a Roku stick.

  • What is a Fitbit dongle?

    The Fitbit Wireless Sync Dongle is a device that plugs into the USB port of your computer and lets you wirelessly sync your Fitbit tracker. Older computers running Windows 7 or 8, or newer computers that don't have Bluetooth functionality, need the dongle to sync the data.

  • How do you sync a Fitbit with a dongle?

    If you've never used the dongle before, you first need to set it up. Download the Fitbit app for Windows and install it, then insert the dongle into an empty USB port. Go through the steps to set up a new device. Your data should sync once setup is completed.

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