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What Is an Internet or Network Dongle?


Dongle for the Tmobile network
hystiff / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

In computer networking, a dongle (pronounced DONG'-ul) is a small device designed to plug into a computer and enable it for specific types of network connections.

Dongles for Wired Networks

A conventional network dongle supports wired networks and features a short cable with connectors on each end. Dongle cables typically run no longer than about six inches (15 cm).

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 fit the thin PCMCIA connector while the other end featured either

  • a RJ-45 connector (for connecting an Ethernet cable), or
  • a RJ-11 connector (for connecting to dialup Internet via a phone line).

Most dongles today 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 (not to 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
  • 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 being using 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.

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 (usually), 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 re-plugging a dongle has the effect of resetting the network connection. Some dongles incorporate built in LEDs to help the user verify it is operational.

Dongles can be expensive to purchase, particularly if a person is looking for one that supports the latest wireless networking standards.

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