Technology Explained

Dongles vs. Portable Hotspots: Mobile Internet Devices Explained

Bertel King Updated 15-05-2020

Gone are the days when most of us connected via phone lines. Gone, too, are the days when Ethernet cables were necessary to achieve high speeds. We go online wirelessly, and we’re not limited by the range of our routers. Mobile internet devices can bring us online anywhere with a strong connection to a cellular tower.

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Do you connect everything via a portable wireless hotspot or your smartphone? Should you invest in a USB dongle or a WWAN card? Each has their own pros and cons. Let’s take a look.

Portable Mobile Hotspots

Coolpad Surf portable wireless mobile hotspot
Image Credit: Coolpad

Portable mobile hotspots access the same cellular network as your smartphone. You can add them as another device on your shared data plan, or you can get one with its own data-only plan. Data plan prices tend to be similar to the amount you spend on phones.

These mobile internet devices tend to have between 10 and 20 hours of battery life. Some models serve as portable battery packs that can charge your phone or offer shared storage via a microSD card slot. Many have screens that show how much data you’ve used out of your monthly allotment. The specifics change depending on which model you buy.

With the rollout of 5G, portable wireless hotspots can better function as your home’s primary internet connection. That’s because 5G has lower latency, allowing devices to communicate more quickly with one another. This is key for gaming and VR.

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Some hotspots, such as 2019’s HTC 5G Hub, can support up to 20 devices and provide enough battery life to cover a day’s usage. But since 5G networks have been slow to roll out, most areas will still rely on 4G LTE.

One downside to a portable mobile hotspot is having to lug it around in addition to your phone, tablet, or laptop. The cost of a data plan can also add up. If you’re merely adding one to your shared data plan, you may be able to get by with tethering your smartphone instead.

Pros

  • Reasonably long battery life
  • Supports more devices
  • The right unit could serve as your home’s primary source of Wi-Fi
  • Added features such as an informative display, shared storage, Ethernet port, or back-up battery power
  • If used exclusively for work, can be helpful for tracking internet usage

Cons

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  • Cost
  • Having to carry around another device

Dongles

4G wireless USB dongle
Image Credit: Amazon

Like portable wireless hotspots, dongles tend to come straight from a carrier. Many look like flash drives, while some look like small modems that you plug into your computer via a USB cable. Sticking one in your laptop has the effect of giving your computer a cellular radio. It’s now able to hop online via Wi-Fi or cellular data, just like your smartphone. It can also share that connection with other devices.

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One big difference between dongles and mobile hotspots is that dongles don’t take up as much space. Nor do they drain on your battery quite like smartphone tethering does. That said, you have to keep the dongle plugged in for it to work, which means giving up a USB port. This probably is not all that big a deal on most laptops, but there are many sleeker models out there that skimp on the number of ports. Some have even done away with full-sized USB ports entirely Making Sense of USB-C and Thunderbolt Cables and Ports on Your MacBook Wondering what USB-C and Thunderbolt are, and how these types of cables affect your MacBook? Here's everything you need to know about your MacBook ports. Read More .

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Dongles aren’t limited to USB ports or even PCs. Some plug into a car’s OBDII port, providing passengers with Wi-Fi on the go.

A dongle doesn’t get you out of a data plan. You still need one, and they’re not going to be cheaper than buying one for a portable wireless hotspot. Another downside: dongles often require special software. Setup can be slow or annoying. If you’re a Linux user like me, this may mean you have to jump through additional hurdles, or you may be out of luck entirely.

Pros

  • Cheap upfront cost
  • Less drain on battery
  • Takes up less space than a portable wireless hotspot

Cons

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  • Typically requires a USB port
  • May need special software

Mobile Tethering

Don’t want to buy another device? That smartphone you probably have in your pocket may just be all the internet you need. Sounds great, I’m sure. Before you get too excited, the drawbacks are substantial. Here’s the situation.

Smartphones can provide internet access to other devices by turning into hotspots. Tell your phone to start sharing its data, and give the temporary network a name. Your laptop or tablet can connect the same way they would to Wi-Fi. Alternatively, you can connect your phone to a computer using a cable. Regardless of which method you choose, this is called tethering How to Connect Mobile Internet to Your PC via Tethering With data tethering, you can use your mobile internet on your PC, laptop, or tablet. All you need is an Android phone! Read More . Wherever you have your phone, you have internet.

If you can even connect a 4G phone to a 5G phone’s hotspot to experience fast speeds on both, if for someone reason you find yourself in that situation.

Doesn’t this mean everyone who buys a dedicated hotspot is being duped? No. Smartphones aren’t designed to serve as hotspots, so they don’t broadcast as far or handle as many devices as dedicated units. Plus, tethering is a huge drain on battery. If you use your phone to provide internet for a few hours, expect to need a charger before the end of the day. Also don’t be surprised if your handset becomes a little hot to the touch.

Pros

  • Convenience
  • Doesn’t need a separate bill
  • Only one device to carry around

Cons

  • Puts a strain on your smartphone
  • Often comes with a smaller monthly limit
  • Isn’t intended to support many devices at once
  • Phone calls happen, making sharing internet with others awkward

WWAN

Wireless wide area networks, or WWAN, are something you’re more likely to interact with while working than in your own time. These are wide area networks that utilize a cellular network to keep corporate computers connected. These can be employee laptops, kiosks, point of sale machines, or vehicles.

A WWAN card gives your PC the ability to connect to a wide area network using a cellular connection. This enables you to connect to a corporate network wherever you’re in range of your company’s WWAN. Typically a traditional carrier provides and manages the infrastructure.

WWAN is offered straight to businesses, not general consumers. For that reason, it’s hard to make a comparison to the options listed above. Don’t think of this as your personal solution to get online. But keep in mind that if you do want to access a wireless wide area network, you will need specific hardware, such as a WWAN card, in order to do so. Some laptops come with this functionality built in.

Which Is Better: Dongle or Hotspot?

You might not be surprised to hear that there is no single best answer. For lightweight, occasional use, smartphone tethering is just fine. Work away from home often and need to connect multiple devices? A portable wireless hotspot can come in handy. Have only limited space to work with? A USB dongle can fit in your pocket.

Or if you’re not particularly interested in another monthly bill, you could stick to Wi-Fi hotspots instead How to Find Free Wi-Fi Hotspots Near You When you need to find free Wi-Fi near you, turn to these apps and services to help you get internet access anywhere. Read More .

Explore more about: 4G, 5G, Jargon, Mobile Broadband, Mobile Plan, Wi-Fi Hotspot, Wi-Fi Tethering.

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  1. Steven
    August 19, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I use a old grandfathered Verizon unlimited plan sim in a cradlepoint router. Works great.

  2. Mike_Walsh
    August 18, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    TBH, for Linux a mobile hotspot is the way to go. I spent years messing around with broadband dongles (which were very prone to dropping out.....and all the software was invariably written for Windows). I invested in a TP-Link hotspot around 18 months ago.....and straight away, wondered why I hadn't done it ages ago. All you need is a wireless connection; even my 15-yr old Dell lappie can muster one of those...