Dongles: What is a mobile broadband dongle?
Dongle deals are widely advertised and can refer to any USB modem device or wireless adapter you plug in to your laptop, pc or other portable device with a USB port for WiFi access. However, since you’ve come to the Broadband Expert website it is probably a mobile broadband internet dongle that you are interested in since most recent use of the term usually refers to these devices which provide wireless broadband access anywhere with mobile internet coverage. At present mobile broadband dongles can use the 3G network where available to give you broadband access from you laptop or other portable device on the move with speeds typically of 1-2 Mbps. Many of those who don’t get 3G coverage can still access slower 2G coverage. The future for these little devices is bright with 4G on the future (Ofcom has announced recent plans to ensure 95% of the UK will have 4G coverage), which has the potential to provide superfast mobile broadband speeds through your internet dongle.
WiFi dongles for laptops are very popular and are a great way to take a broadband connection with you wherever you go however before you make the decision to buy one a little research could save you a lot of money and make sure you get the right option for your needs and budget. Check out our frequently asked questions, use our comparison tables and read the reviews on our site from other customers to help you make a more informed decision.
- Who are internet dongles suitable for? Anyone who wants to access the internet from anywhere with mobile internet coverage; they are particular popular with laptop and netbook users who want broadband on the move. However as speeds are slower than fixed line connections they are not suitable for all types of internet usage such as online gaming.
- How fast is mobile internet? Speeds are a little slower than fixed line broadband and download limits can be more restrictive so they won’t cope with activities such as online gaming very well but are fine for general broadband activity. Typical 3G speeds are 1-2 Mbps which is fine for most internet use. Speeds depend largely on how good the coverage is in your area and how busy the networks are. If you have a 3G signal and the provider you are using doesn’t have an overloaded network you can expect reasonable speeds. Outside of 3G areas speeds are slow and more comparable to dial-up.
- What do wireless dongles cost? Costs start at around £10 a month for contract deals and don’t require you to pay BT line rental like most fixed broadband services do. If you use lots of data then you may need to pay more for a higher level of plan. There are also Pay as You Go dongles which are great for those on a budget or for light data users. In fact if most of your downloading (of music, films, big email attachments and VoIP services like Skype) is done using your home fibre optic or ADSL broadband connection then a pay as you go plan will probably save you money compared to a contract dongle.
- Can I use my mobile broadband dongle abroad? Yes your dongle will work in most countries though you will be charged an additional fee based on your usage. This can be very expensive if you use lots of data and you may be better off with an internet plan from a local provider or using free Wi-Fi connections or internet café’s so please be careful and monitor your use.
- Will they work on trains? Yes though you may occasionally lose connection for a short period in areas of poor mobile internet coverage which can prove very frustrating. Remember some trains offer free Wi-Fi which may be a better option.
- Can an internet dongle replace my home broadband connection? This depends largely on two things; how you use your internet connection and how good the coverage is at your home. Firstly check the mobile internet coverage in your home and pick a provider that has good coverage. If you want to rely on this as your sole internet connection we would only recommend this to those with strong coverage at their home address. Secondly we would only recommend this for relatively light data users. For web browsing, emails, some music downloads and watching a few video clips a day your dongle should be fine if the coverage is strong. If you download lots of data we would not recommend replacing your fixed connection with a dongle since they don’t have the speeds for downloading movies, online gaming or other activities that require good speeds and lots of data (this may soon change with 4G). Additionally if you use lots of data you will need a more expensive plan or may exceed your download limit as these are much smaller than with fixed line home internet plans. If you are only a light data user and don’t need a home phone line then mobile broadband will save you the cost of your monthly line rental.
- Which providers offer wireless dongles? All the main UK mobile networks have USB dongles for mobile internet access and offer contract and pay as you go dongle deals and are listed on our site. These are currently Orange, Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile, 3 and Virgin Mobile. Currently these providers use 3G technologies although a more advanced form of 3G called HSPA+ which can offer higher speeds is available in some areas covered by 3 although you will need one of the suitable Huawei dongles which is HSPA+ compatible which are indicated next to the relevant 3 dongles listed in our comparison tables.
- How easy are they to set up? Setting up a dongle is straight forward which ever provider you choose. You will usually get a CD to insert in to your laptop (or there will be some pre-installed software on the device), the first time you use your dongle which will prompt you to follow some simple instructions (often just clicking next and agreeing with the terms and conditions) which will automatically set everything up. You only need to do this once then for future use it’s just a case of plugging the dongle in to the USB port you can be online in seconds. Even if you are not good with technology you shouldn’t have too many problems setting things up.
What data allowance and speed do I need?
Typical speeds in areas of 3G coverage are 1Mbps – 3Mbps and data allowances differ dependent on which plan you choose. Once you’ve narrowed your selection to wireless dongles from providers you are interested in next think about your data use. If you only need to browse the web, maybe usual social networking, email, watch a few video clips and download a little music then one of the cheaper contracts options with a lower data allowance or a pay as you go option may be best. If you download more data (such as downloading films and games) then use the comparison tables to pick plans with a higher data allowance and faster speeds so you don’t need to wait as long when downloading (this will still be slow compared to a fixed connection). If you do download lots of films and games our advice is that a fast unlimited fixed line connection will be a better option due to both speed and data allowance.
If you are not sure where to start our advice is go for a cheaper contract or PAYG plan as you can always upgrade at a later date and most mobile networks notify you so you know if you exceed your data allowance so can upgrade your plan or pay for more data if and when you need to.
Contract or Pay as You Go dongles and free laptop deals
If you are only an occasional user then a pay as you go dongle deal is cheaper and doesn’t have the commitment of a long contract and our advice is to start with one of these. However if you use your mobile broadband dongle regularly then it will usually be cheaper to sign up to a contract as the cost is much lower for the amount of data used. Some deals include a so called ‘free laptop’ though these are not really free. These deals spread the cost of the laptop over the length of the contract and you usually end up paying the same or slightly more than buying the laptop, notebook or tablet separately. Whilst you may be at a slight disadvantage in terms of overall money spent throughout the length of the contract this is usually minimal and you have the advantage of spreading the cost over the length of the contract. You can compare prices and read more here about free laptop deals and if they are a worthwhile option.
Using Broadband Expert to choose an internet dongle
Once you’ve decided if you want a contract or PAYG deal and have an idea of the sort of data allowance you need you can use the comparison tables to compare dongle prices, speeds and data allowances so you can easily pick out the suitable options.
Firstly check the coverage of the providers listed in the above comparison table, there is a ‘check coverage’ button next to each provider to quickly do this. You can sort the tables by speed, download limit and price to easily pick suitable plans. The ratings marked out of 100 for each provider are taken from the thousands of mobile broadband speed test ran on Broadband Expert where we ask dongle users to rate their providers. Whilst these ratings provide a good idea of the overall performance of each provider remember that performance will differ dependent on coverage and we can’t stress enough how important it is to pick a provider with good 3G coverage in your area to maximise the chance of having a reliable and quick connection.