Internet dongles explained:
Dongles take the form of USB sticks that allow you to connect to the internet, and are also known as internet/broadband sticks, USB modems/network adapters/mobile broadband sticks or simply dongles. Despite the multitude of names, they function quite simply as modems that plug into your device to allow you to connect to the internet via the mobile network.
They use 3G or in most recent releases 4G, and in this way they function like mobile tethering (which allows you to set your mobile device up as a hotspot).
The rise in popularity of tethering has taken market share from dongles, but they still represent a great option for many (especially since they generally provide better internet performance than mobile tethering, are more convenient since you can still use your phone at the same time, and use less power overall since tethering drains your phone battery quickly).
In particular, those who need a viable broadband source when away from home or office should look at dongles, as should those that want to avoid long contracts or tricky installation/setup (such as those in student accommodation who may not spend an entire year in their apartment). Dongles have become more powerful over the years, and are now more compact and reliable.
They also run on the laptop’s power source, so they don’t drain the battery on your phone (as with tethering) or require plugging in (as with broadband modems).
In fact, dongles and 4G can offer speeds nearly as good as conventional broadband in many cases. One drawback with dongles is that they are dependent on the mobile network, so if you work or travel through signal black-spots regularly then the same signal issues you have with your phone will also apply to the broadband dongle.
So given that the service is dependent on the mobile network, you won’t be surprised to hear that speeds vary a lot. This makes dongles mainly useful for light internet use such as communications, social media, and browsing. Streaming will likely not be of a high quality. They can go over 20Mbps in some cases, but in general the average is around 1.5Mbps.
MiFi adapters offer a kind of cross between dongles and broadband adapters. As mentioned earlier, some people like mobile workers or students might find the dongle very useful, but if they are sharing the connection or need to run more than one device from the dongle it is not possible. MiFis plug into your laptop and create a broadband hotspot (similar to what can be done with your phone), allowing several devices to connect.
But data limits for mobile broadband are often not very high, and if you have multiple devices on the MiFi it can use up your limit quickly. There can be surcharges in the event that you do go over. Thankfully, the days of extortionate charges for use abroad are over and rates for mobile broadband use abroad are much lower that before, but it’s also a good idea to monitor and be careful of your use while out of the country.