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What is a mobile broadband dongle and is it worth buying one? All you need to know

What is a mobile broadband dongle, what kind of internet speeds can you get with one, what are the best mobile broadband dongles in the UK and how much do they cost? Here’s everything you need to know about setting up a mobile internet connection using a dongle.

It’s tough to imagine getting much done these days without an internet connection. From checking emails to writing documents using online cloud-based tools, our laptops are largely only as good as their online connection. Otherwise they’re just massive, heavy machines for playing Solitaire on the go.

When away from the home network comforts of a reliable Wi-Fi setup, there is one simple way to stay connected: use a broadband dongle.

So what is a mobile broadband dongle, how does it work and should you buy one for your laptop? Read on to find out everything you need to know.

What is a mobile broadband dongle?

A mobile broadband dongle is a small device, roughly the size of a pack of gum, which plugs into a laptop or desktop computer via any available USB port. Power provided by that port is used by the dongle to run its own onboard modem, which is able to connect to the internet (much like a smartphone’s modem).

The result is an internet connection piped directly into your computer via the high-speed USB port.

Dongles are super easy to use, with a plug-and-play setup that will have you online moments after plugging in. Thanks to their compact, wire-free build they’re also easy to transport and leave plugged into your laptop without getting in the way.

Mobile broadband dongles are now so advanced that they’re often used to provide a home internet connection, in areas where wired broadband is not available. Many can also be used abroad, meaning you can stay connected even when away with work or on holiday. These can be more expensive than standard dongles, but you can bag a contract especially suited to international roaming data.

Read next: How can I get internet without a phone line?

These broadband dongles are not to be confused with other dongles, meaning anything of that shape which plugs into USB. These come in different forms and provide all kinds of add-on functionality, be it security measures, extra storage or whatever.

How fast is a mobile broadband dongle?

The speed of mobile broadband dongles has improved drastically in recent years. Now, thanks to 4G, you can get an internet connection through a dongle that’s sometimes even better than some wired home broadband connections.

Dongles are available in 3G and 4G variants, with the faster 4G models proving more expensive. Speeds roughly vary between a 7.2Mbps connection for 3G right up to a speedy 100Mbps for 4G with an LTE Cat 3 connection.

Speeds do of course vary based on your current conditions, as those numbers above refer to a maximum possible speed with an ideal connection. In the same way that your phone’s antenna can struggle to get a full connection in some areas, a mobile broadband dongle too can struggle.

The advantage of a dongle compared with tethering your laptop to your phone is the dedicated, larger antenna in the dongle’s modem, which often means dongles can get a better connection.

What mobile broadband dongles are available in the UK and how much do they cost?

The different UK mobile networks offer up a number of dongle options, so you’ve got plenty of choice. Most even provide the dongle for free when you sign up to a monthly data contract.

O2 offers a 4G speed dongle with 20GB of data per month on a 24 month contract for £26 per month. Check out O2’s mobile broadband dongles page for more info.

Three provides a 3G dongle option with 15GB of data on a rolling monthly contract – meaning you can end any month you like – for £20 per month. That’s a good option if you want flexibility, and are only using the dongle for a short period.

Vodafone offers its own broadband dongle with a top speed of 7.2Mbps. Using this on a 12 month contract with a 10GB per month data limit you’ll pay £20 per month. Lower that to 1GB per month and it’ll cost £10 per month.

TalkTalk offers up to 17Mbps speeds on a 12 month contract with unlimited data, for £20 per month.

What’s the difference between Mi-Fi and mobile broadband dongles?

Another option available right now comes in the form of Wi-Fi mobile broadband or Mi-Fi. These are wireless battery powered devices that act like a modem and Wi-Fi router in one. The result is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot that multiple devices can connect to at once, to access the internet.

On the plus side, you can connect multiple devices to the Mi-Fi as well as providing internet for devices without USB, like phones and tablets.

The downside is that the Mi-Fi dongles are battery powered and chew through the juice pretty fast. These are generally USB powered though, so you can recharge them using an Android phone’s charging cable via a wall plug, laptop or in-car charger.

Should I buy a mobile broadband dongle?

If you need internet for your laptop computer and you regularly struggle to find a reliable WiFi network on the move, then a mobile broadband dongle could be an ideal solution. If you don’t get wired broadband internet at home, a dongle could also be a perfect alternative. Or if you go abroad a lot and want a permanent connection, the dongle could be a winner.

If you need internet for multiple devices then a Mi-Fi dongle might be more useful overall, however.

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