WiFi Dongles: Value for Money or a Gimmick?

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In the modern world, we need internet access on the go, and away from home. Whether you are cafe-hopping, on holiday or even chilling in a park, connectivity is a must. WiFi dongles could be just the thing for you, but what are they, and how do they work? Let’s find out.

What Are WiFi Dongles?

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Traditionally, in order to connect your device to the internet, you need to find a WiFi connection. These signals are generally emitted from a router, which in turn is usually connected to a fixed-line network which is managed by an operator, such as Eir or Three. Dongles help you remove the necessity of clinging to public WiFi hotspots or your home broadband, by allowing you to bring an internet connection with you.

A dongle is a small electronic device, somewhat like a pen drive, that is inserted into your laptop via a USB port. The dongle will then pick up the 3G, 4G or 5G signals of its network operator, transmit these to your device, and form a connection to the internet. This allows you to have the same amount of freedom that you experience with your mobile, but with the added utility of being able to work on the go, and save on your mobile data.

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Is Dongle WiFi Better Than Mobile Broadband?

If you are looking for a mobile internet solution, then you have likely also come across the term “mobile broadband”. While fulfilling a similar role to WiFi dongles, they do have several key differences.

Mobile Broadband

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  • Stronger connection on average than dongles
  • Modern supported devices and software
  • Higher-end plans can support dozens of devices at once
  • Mid to long term plans - Potentially disadvantageous if your signal is poor
  • Most modem models require a connection to a power supply
  • Longer-term contracts

Dongle WiFi

  • Uses your device's power - no mains connection
  • Cheaper than mobile broadband
  • Generally short contracts - good for temporary solutions or travel
  • Decreasing support
  • Limited contract options
  • Can only support a single device at a time

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In essence, though dongle WiFi does allow for a greater range of freedom due to forgoing the reliance on mains power, it seems that currently, the market is making a shift towards mobile broadband providers such as Eir and Vodafone, which is leading to an overall decrease in both support and popularity for dongle WiFi.

A common theme between both, however, is that due to their reliance on 3G/4G/5G signals, your connection will depend very much upon local signal strength, your device's capabilities, and what networks operate in your area. For instance, if you purchase a 5G dongle/mobile broadband modem, but your area can only achieve 3G signals, your service will be downgraded and your device connection may not be stable.

Check your local signal strength before buying! The ComReg signal coverage map is a great tool to provide guidance on what type of signal your area gets, and if dongle WiFi is worth it for you.

Is Dongle WiFi Better Than Traditional Home Broadband?

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This really depends on what you need. Dongles and mobile broadband have not been invented to directly compete with or replace your home broadband connection, but instead to allow you to bring your broadband with you when you are away from home. Your home broadband is likely to always have a stronger and more stable connection due to it having fixed cables, rather than variable signals.

That being said, plans such as National Broadband Ireland (NBI/NBP) are rapidly developing the nation's infrastructure, with a particular focus on boosting connectivity amongst rural communities, and areas that have traditionally been signal black spots. So though signal strength can vary greatly currently if you live outside of cities, in the very near future you should notice a considerable improvement.

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How Much Does a WiFi Dongle Cost?

Due to the shift away from Wifi dongles, and towards mobile broadband, finding contracted dongle deals in Ireland can be a little challenging. When embarking on a search, you are likely to find offers from both independent retailers for dongle devices, along with short-term device rental deals from companies specializing in the travel sector.

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Dongles can come with integrated SIM cards, or as device only. The difference is that integrated SIM card dongles tend to be long term or ongoing contracts, whereas if you purchase a dongle without a SIM from an independent retailer you can purchase a dongle-compatible SIM of your choice, enabling you to choose your network, plan inclusions, and price more freely.

Dongle-only options can start anywhere from €15 for a basic device, and increase towards the €100 mark for more sophisticated and modern versions. For general purpose use, it is recommended for your device to have 4G capabilities as a minimum standard. As most mobile networks have a 4G coverage area exceeding 90%, this would increase the likelihood of receiving a stable signal, versus 5G, which currently has a low coverage area.

Where Can I Purchase a Dongle WiFi Sim?

Many broadband providers also offer various mobile phones and SIM-only deals. These SIMs are often compatible with dongle devices, and can be paired with ease. Make sure that you check both the specification of your dongle device and the details of the SIM deal you are interested in before making your purchase to ensure that both aspects are compatible with each other.

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What Speeds Can I Get With Dongle WiFi?

As we have mentioned previously, user experience can vary greatly depending on their device, the model of the dongle, and more importantly the availability and strength of local network signals.

Assuming that your equipment and local signals are perfect, with a 5G package users can expect to experience speeds of up to 1 Gbps, with average speeds of 150-250 Mbps. At the lower end of this scale, those on the older 3G dongles report speeds varying between 0.5 Mbps to 10 Mbps, and 4G covering the middle ground.

To put these speeds into perspective, here are a few examples of recommended speeds for common tasks.

Recommended Broadband Speeds
Task Recommended Speed
Checking emails, listening to Spotify, basic web browsing, video watching in low-quality forms 5-25 Mbps
Streaming videos in high quality (HD/4K), gaming, downloading light files, several people using devices such as mobiles 25-50 Mbps
Online gaming, consistent home working, downloading moderate files 50-100 Mbps
Running several data-heavy tasks at once, sending mass files, peak performance streaming and gaming speeds 100-500 Mbps
Several people working from home, multiple devices streaming in high quality, downloading HD/4K films in seconds 500-1000 Mbps

Dongle WiFi FAQs

Can I connect more than one device to dongle WiFi?

Only if your dongle is capable of this. Most dongles provide internet access only to the device that it is plugged into. Some dongles however can additionally act as hotspots, enabling multiple devices to connect. This can lead to heavy data consumption, however, so beware of your dongle limits before connecting multiple devices.

Can I use a dongle abroad?

Generally yes. Dongles require a 3G/4G/5G signal, and a compatible network. If you can access these then your dongle should function normally. Check for any potential usage charges before using your device abroad.

Can I plug my dongle into the TV?

This depends on the model and manufacturer of your TV and dongle. With some devices, it is possible to access the internet on your TV via a dongle, but this is not a common function of the device.

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