A few weeks ago, a reader called Jeff got in touch to ask about the difference between a “dongle” and “MiFi”. Now if that sounds like the start of a slightly off-colour joke, let me try to enlighten you a little.
If you’re using a smartphone to connect to the internet, you’ve usually got two options. You can either connect to WiFi (if you’re at home or somewhere else with a WiFi signal), or you can use “Mobile Internet” or “Data” through your mobile phone connection. It’s one of the things that makes smartphones so useful – you can get onto the internet from just about anywhere. All you need is a decent phone signal.
But with most tablets and laptops, mobile internet isn’t an option. You can get tablets with the same set-up as a phone, called “cellular” tablets, but they’re very expensive.
So what do you do if you want to have internet access on your laptop or tablet when you can’t connect it to ordinary WiFi? Either because you’re out and about, or (in Jeff’s case) you can’t use ordinary broadband internet where you live.
A “dongle” is a plug-in gadget that’s best for a laptop
“Dongle” is actually a bit of a generic term – it’s just a thing that you can plug in to your laptop (or other device) that gives it some extra features. More specifically, we’re talking about a “mobile internet dongle”, “mobile broadband dongle” or “4G dongle”.
It’s a small gadget – usually not more than an inch or so long – that plugs into your laptop using a standard USB plug. You then need to get a SIM card from a phone company (like EE or Vodafone or one of the others) that you slot into the dongle to give you mobile internet access. (I’ll come back to your SIM card options in a minute.)
Since they’re plug-in gadgets, dongles are best for use with laptops – if you want to connect a tablet or iPad (or just more than one device at once), you’re better off with something wireless.
“MiFi” or Personal Hotspots are just wireless versions
There are lots of names for the wireless versions of a mobile internet dongle – depending on who’s made the particular bit of kit – but they all work in pretty much the same way. They’re a bit like a normal broadband router, but rather than connecting to the internet through your home phone socket, you use a SIM card instead.
The gadget connects to the internet using the SIM card, then it sends out a WiFi signal just like a normal broadband router. You can connect your tablet, laptop and any other devices you like to it using the WiFi. And these things tend to come with a rechargeable battery (like you get in a phone), so you don’t have to plug them in to use them.
There are also gadgets that are both a dongle (plug-in) and WiFi. Rather than coming with a battery, they’re designed to be plugged into a laptop to get power, but then you can connect to them from a tablet using WiFi.
What type of SIM card do I need?
Most phone companies have data-only SIMs that are specially designed to be used like this. You can either get a certain amount of data per month (like most ordinary mobile phone contracts), or buy a chunk of data to use whenever you need it. Three and Vodafone (and maybe others – it’s worth shopping around) have unlimited data options, too. Unlimited data is effectively the same deal as home broadband – you pay monthly for your internet access, but you’re not limited to how much you can use.
Mobile internet is generally slower than landline broadband, though.
So there you go – a bit of a whistle-stop tour, but hopefully that’s made the whole thing a bit clearer.