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A dongle is a small device, typically in the shape of a USB flash drive, that plugs into another device and provides extra functionality. A wireless dongle, also called Wi-Fi adapter, is a thumb-drive-looking device that provides Wi-Fi capabilities to a device that otherwise isn’t Wi-Fi-capable, such as a desktop PC with no wireless network card.
Dongles are generally useful because they can be easily moved between devices, they don’t take up much space, and the added functionality is convenient (e.g. a Roku Streaming Stick lets you stream thousands of services directly to your TV).
But when using a wireless dongle, you may run into some issues — in particular, poor wireless speeds that don’t live up to what your ISP plan can deliver. Here are some reasons why you may have subpar wireless dongle performance and what you can do about it.
1. Wireless Interference
Wi-Fi devices can communicate using two different bands: the 2.4GHz band, which is older and supported by most devices but slower, and the 5GHz band, which is newer and faster but has a shorter range and is only supported by devices from the past few years.
While modern wireless dongles tend to support both bands, you can only utilize the 5GHz band if your router also transmits on the 5GHz band. If your router isn’t a dual-band router, then you’re stuck using the 2.4GHz band. This is why dual-band routers are essential.
What’s so bad about the 2.4GHz band? Well, it’s extremely narrow. In the U.S., you only have 11 channels to choose between — and even that’s deceptive because each channel’s frequency overlaps with the frequencies of neighboring channels. This means that channels 1, 6, and 11 are the only non-overlapping channels.
Overlapping channels are bad because the wireless data waves can interfere with each other, causing lost data packets that need to be resent. Resending data packets takes time, and this can cause your wireless speed to drop. With a lot of interference, the drop can be significant.
It gets worse. If you live in a densely populated building, such as an apartment complex in a major city, then you have hundreds of devices all around you trying to transmit Wi-Fi data. Even if you’re using a non-overlapping channel, transmissions on the same channel can interfere. A wireless dongle on the 2.4GHz band simply has no chance to perform well.
If you have to use 2.4GHz, make sure you’re using the newer N mode instead of “legacy” or “mixed” mode, which is limited to 7MB/sec for backward compatibility.
The best solution? Switch to the 5GHz band.
This means you’ll need to upgrade your router to a dual-band model if your current router doesn’t support it. You’ll also need a wireless dongle that’s capable of it. Fortunately, the 5GHz band has 23 non-overlapping channels and many devices still don’t support it, so interference is minimal. Learn more about ways to solve wireless dongle interference.
2. Internal Antenna
Wireless dongles come in two forms: compact ones (which have internal antennas) and bulky ones (which have external antennas).
Compact wireless dongles, sometimes called nano dongles or pico dongles, are preferred by most users because they’re tiny, portable, and more aesthetically pleasing. Who wants a massive antenna sticking out of their device? Nobody, that’s who! Plus, internal antennas are cheaper to produce so compact dongles are more affordable.
While internal antennas have come a long way and aren’t terrible anymore, external antennas generally provide better performance. External antennas often have higher gain and therefore better signal reception. You can point them towards the router for even better reception, and they aren’t as close to internal electronics (which can cause interference).
The best solution? Upgrade to a dongle with an external antenna.
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with using a compact dongle with compact devices (e.g. Raspberry Pi). Just be aware that you probably won’t get full Wi-Fi speeds. A dongle with an external antenna may be ugly, but is often the more performant option.
3. Hardware Bottlenecks
There are at least three specifications you need to pay attention to.
First, the dongle’s specifications. A dongle labelled as 600Mbps probably doesn’t support that much throughput per band. Instead, it might be 150Mbps on 2.4GHz and 450Mbps on 5GHz, for a total of 600Mbps when both bands are used. Be sure to get a dongle that lives up to your ISP plan’s max speed on the band you’re going to be using.
Second, the USB port you plug into. USB 2.0 ports have a theoretical max speed of 480Mbps, but due to protocol overhead and hardware inefficiencies, the practical max speed is closer to 320Mbps. If you want greater data throughput, be sure to plug the dongle into a USB 3.0 port, which has a theoretical max speed of 5Gbps (faster than any modern residential connection).
Third, your maximum internet speed. If you’re paying for 25Mbps/5Mbps, then no combination of router and dongle will get you faster speeds. And most ISPs don’t actually provide your plan’s full speed 100 percent of the time, so you may need to upgrade to a plan that’s even higher than what you think you need.
Other Ways to Boost Wi-Fi Performance
If you’ve tried all of the above tips but still experience Wi-Fi performance issues, we highly recommend this article on common reasons why your Wi-Fi is slow and things that could be slowing down your home network. It may not be your wireless dongle after all!
If your Wi-Fi issues stem from distance, such as your router being stuck at the other end of the house, then you should consider increasing your wireless reach using a Wi-Fi extender or powerline adapter. If your speed issues stem from too many users on the network, try using these network-optimizing tips for home routers.
What kind of wireless dongle are you using? Know of any other Wi-Fi performance tips we missed? Share with us down in the comments below!