Lifehacker Vs Gizmodo: Hotspot Or Dongle?

Lifehacker Vs Gizmodo: Hotspot Or Dongle?

Mobile broadband is a traveller’s best friend, but is it better packaged as a hotspot, a dongle, or something else entirely? Gizmodo and Lifehacker debate the issues.

Giz: A while back, you wrote up the Telstra Elite Mobile Prepaid WiFi Hotspot, and decided it wasn’t the wireless connectivity option for you. I’ve long been a big fan of portable WiFi hotspots and nowhere near as fond of USB dongles. Care to elaborate on why you think hotspots aren’t so hot?

LH: As that post suggests, the main reason I’m not so hot on hotspots is that they’re far too hot. Putting one in your shirt pocket feels dangerously warm, to the point where I’m not only worrying about my burnt nipples, I’m also wondering what mysterious rays are emanating from the device. Before you ask, I haven’t found it anywhere near as satisfactory to put the device in a bag: you want it easily accessible if you’re using it on the move so that you can work out if there’s actually signal to be had.

I’ve had the same experience with the Vodafone and Vivid Wireless hotspot, so it’s an issue endemic to the category, not just one particular model. Charred tits aside, the overheating highlights another issue with hotspots: they’re only good as long as the battery runs, and I’ve often managed to run them down well before any other device. How has your experience been in that area?

Giz: The battery thing is a concern, but it’s rarely been a big concern for me, and certainly not one that I’d say was any more of an issue than using a USB dongle. I can usually get a few hours out of any hotspot, and typically that’s the gap between when I’d next have access to wireless services. I’ve used USB dongles in the same circumstances, and given they’re drawing power straight from the laptop, I’d be more concerned with my laptop running out of juice because of the USB power draw than I would the hotspot going flat!

I guess my other issue with USB dongles versus hotspots is that the hotspot connection model is so stupidly simple. Switch on hotspot, wait for connection (typically the same amount of time you’d wait for a USB connection, as it’s the same network) and then just hook up multiple devices at will. Compare that to a USB dongle, where I’ve not only got to wait for the OS to recognise it, I’ve then (all too often) got to fight connection manager software in order to get it running. You’re in real trouble if you need to run multiple dongles, or have older versions of the same software on a laptop, and on the road, there’s no real way to fix that — you don’t have a net connection, after all.

Lifehacker Vs Gizmodo: Hotspot Or Dongle?

LH: I’m certainly not going to argue about the benefits of a simpler connection — loathing mobile broadband connection software is something I’ve been doing for a long time, and it’s especially annoying given that there are actually functions built into WIndows which no-one writing the stuff ever bothers to use. But I am going to dispute the battery point for laptops.

In my experience, running Wi-Fi draws at least as much power as running a dongle, and often more. And I’ve actually had hotspots run out of power on the road every time I’ve tested one. Yes, I could connect them via USB to the notebook, but that means stuff hanging off in an ungainly fashion, which sucks if you’re on trains and planes.

Connecting multiple devices could be handy (especially for us gadget-testing types), but it raises another issue: are you getting the best value from your existing data allowances if you use a hotspot to connect your phone? If your hotspot can get a signal, chances are your mobile can too, so chewing up your mobile broadband allowance for the sake of not using the phone option could be fiddly. (That said, if you have a stingy data allowance, it could make a lot of sense.)

I guess the bigger related problem is this: given most of us will be carrying a phone anyway, are we both barking up the wrong tree? Would it make more sense to tether than to carry any kind of separate device?

Giz: I’ve done more than my fair share of phone tethering (on those models that support it; it’s almost always one of the questions I’ll ask about a new phone platform) when needed, and it’s certainly handy. But along with every other function the phone’s running, it’s a battery hog. I’m running a Galaxy S2, already something of a battery pig, and asking it to feed data out is a push if I want it to last an entire day. This is exactly where having a hotspot is handy; I can run that and its data allowance (typically a little cheaper than a mobile plan, but not always) down to battery exhaustion point, and then use my phone if I have to. I wouldn’t do the reverse, because then my phone stops working.

Lifehacker Vs Gizmodo: Hotspot Or Dongle?

But you raise the other issue that I’ve got with dongles in your reply, and that’s the fact that they stick out of your laptop in an ungainly fashion. I’m a big fan of window seats on trains, not so much for the view, but simply because the odds of some wandering goon bumping my USB stick and ripping it out are lessened. Whereas a hotspot can warm my little pink nipples, sit in my pocket, sit in my bag or rest on my head. Well, maybe not that last one.

LH: I’ve been a lot less worried by dongles sticking out since they stopped having cables attached — before that, I used to hack together some rather ungainly solutions. But I must say I’ve never had to worry about a drive-by dongle dropout on a train. It probably helps that I tend to travel with smaller, netbook-sized machines — it would definitely be a problem if you had 17 inches to contend with. (Insert your own size gag here.)

I’ve been wondering recently if providers will shift entirely away from dongles, simply to dodge the software maintenance cost. However, the fact that Telstra has gone with a “dongle first, hotspot later” approach for LTE suggests that we’re going to be able to choose between them for quite a while yet. So we should both be happy. But I might have to recommend some soothing cream for you in the meantime, or see if the Sugar girls have some spare nipple tape.

Giz: No way am I wearing nipple tape.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman admits it: he’s often got both a dongle and a hotspot in his pocket. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • From my point of view, I have used both USB and Wifi Hotspot connection devices, and found that USB device gets just as hot as the hotspot. Not sure if it’s just the Telstra dongle I have, but definiately to the point of not wanting to touch it. From a useability point of view, I hate having to install software on my machine to use the dongle. Something always goes wrong, the software always trys to start when I start the PC up, and my girlfriend can’t use the install them on her stupid ultra secure work laptop.

    My Biggest issue though, also there is problem of only being able to connect using a laptop or PC. While travelling, the two of us both have smart phones and laptops, how does one dongle work? It doesn’t. For this reason alone I like the Hotspot device. They typically have enough juice for a few hours of internet use, or just wall power it for infiniate power. Then its just nice simple wifi connection to it. Even the Ultra Secured laptop can use it.

    Ideally I’d like to wifi/bluetooth/cable teather one of our phones, but that doesn’t work for all situations. A simple portable Wifi hotspot kicks arse for our situation.

  • My phone’s with Optus, and reception is very average, so when I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab (P1000, the old 7 inch model) I got a $100 prepaid Telstra SIM. Then I picked up a 32gb TouchPad for $149, which is of course WiFi only.

    My solution for the TouchPad was to tether it to the Galaxy Tab. The Galaxy Tab now has software installed for an always-on WiFi hotspot, so I don’t need to fiddle around at all. It doesn’t appear to be a big drain on the battery of the Galaxy Tab either.

    Of course, this solution means I need to carry two tablets around. Longer term, once I ditch Optus as my phone provider I’ll tether the TouchPad to my phone, and my wife will get the Galaxy Tab.

  • The PocketWiFi 2 can be run as hotspot or dongle..
    Best of both worlds…

    The Vodafone 850MHz network is (currently in my area at least) also surprisingly good.

    It’s also dirt cheap, so you’re not even paying all that much (if at all) extra.

  • I also much prefer using hotspot as well. Don’t really use my laptop all that much these days and given that mobile internet is my main source of internet access It makes much more sense for me.
    It’s usually plugged into the charger but on battery alone I can get about 3-4 hours of constant use

  • There’s a customer site I work on that puts us in the middle of the building well below street level. I can put my hotspot in one of the few areas that get decent reception and work at my desk via wifi. Those who are tied to dongles are stuck with terrible reception.

    I had my phone with Vodafone for a long time and the mobile data reception was universally terrible. It was good enough for routine syncing throughout the day, but that’s it. So I’d carry my Telstra prepaid hotspot around in case I needed to get online with a reliable connection from either (or both) phone and laptop.

    When I get an iPad2, I’ll be able to save the money on the 3G version by just getting a wifi version and using my hotspot.

    Finally, I have an old android phone with no sim in my car (permanently on, trickle charged), which syncs to my wifi at home to auto-download podcasts. If I need to use it on the road for navigation or whatever, again the hotspot comes out.

    • i think you got it in one, the flexibility to position it in difficult areas makes the hotspot a better option. I live in a high up apartment and all networks seem to struggle with the height, metal and glass.

      To make a phone call i leave the phone on my desk (next to a window) and talk on the bluetooth earpiece.

  • I have been underwhelmed by Vodafone’s pocket wifi but the telstra ultimate (black) wifi hotspot is fantastic. I use it to get past vodafone’s poor data signal on a commute and I also tie it into my iPad which already has a telstra sim in it, because it performs better than the ipad antenna for telstra data.

    • That said, I would never buy a wifi only device with the intention of tethering to another device. It means you have two batteries to keep charged, two things to go wrong and more hassle. Nothing beats turning on the ipad and bang, you have internet. A wifi only ipad would really irratate me.

      I would by a car without wheels before I buy an ipad without 3G. Yes it costs more, but when you work out the cost difference over 24 months, it is nothing.

  • personally i prefer the hotspot option. I tend to travel with a tablet/netbook (asus transformer) rather than a 17inch behemoth of a laptop (which is my desktop replacement). getting the USB drivers for a dongle onto a tablet is not possible without a customised ROM and only works with a limited range of dongles. Also, i tend to rely on the hotspot to conserve the battery life of my phone, as the phone also uses less power on wifi vs using mobile data. The hotspot running out of power isnt a major issue because I can always plug it into a usb port on my transformer (having a tablet with a 16 hour battery life when docked does help :P)

  • Great thread. But in response to the third last comment (Giz), if you’re basically using a hotspot to get better battery life out of your phone, wouldn’t you be better off just getting a spare battery for the phone?

  • USB tethering on my Galaxy S2 is my preferred way. I have a 3GB quota on my Telstra mobile plan which I use for both mobile and PC data. This is cheaper than a separate mobile plan.

    In fact, it’s currently what I’m using right now to post this comment.

    Because it’s USB, my phone still charges, albeit very slowly. My laptop battery is still ok despite this.

  • My complaint with all these devices is that you end up with a second bill. Until recently I had a second SIM from my provider, but unfortunately it was billed separately and with it’s own download capacity – which was enormous, I wasn’t even using 10%. I couldn’t afford the extra monthly charge and ditched it. Now I tether my phone instead since I never manage to use the whole data capacity on it either. I was using the SIM in a built-in 3G device in my laptop and it worked really well. Shame I can’t get a second SIM which draws from the same download capacity and doesn’t bill in addition to my phone – it’s much less convenient to get my phone out and switch the tether on all the time. Not exactly always on.

  • So I always thought a hotspot would be the obviously preferable solution, but after using my iPhone for internet quite a bit, I much prefer USB tethering. Why?
    – Unlike a normal dongle, iPhone+Mac OS needs no drivers, it is all autoconfiguring and just as easy as wifi
    – With wifi sharing, I’m using both the phone battery and laptop battery for wifi, which drains them both very quickly. Effectively, this is wifi+wifi+3G. With the phone plugged in, it is 3G only (considering total power draw across devices). End result is that I’m able to be online for longer, which is the right outcome
    – USB tethering on the iPhone is noticeably faster than wifi tethering

    But I agree that hotspot tethering is the way to go, the moment you have multiple devices

  • I use both. Use a dongle and an Edimax. So if Im stuck in an area where there is poor reception I stick the dongle into the Edimax and viola a hotspot. Move it to an area of reception and away I go. I can also connect more wifi devices if I want. The Edimax also has a dc plugback to keep it going all day if there is a power point handy.

    If I dont want to use the Edimax I just plug the dongle straight into the laptop.

    This is best of both worlds.

  • WiFi hotspot is my preference, if the hotspot device is actually usable. The crappy pocket MiFi devices from Optus, Vodafone and the ilk have opaque UIs: you get used to it after a while, but it’s still hard to work with.

    Using the smartphone as a hotspot is better since you’ll have the device with you anyway. My smartphone lives in a pocket on my backpack, so I’m not too concerned about radiation or heat. What I am concerned about is battery life.

    I can USB-tether my phone to charge it, which is great when I’m sitting at a desk and don’t have to worry about bumping things that are plugged into the USB ports.

    USB dongles aren’t suitable for me since I use a mixture of computers, some of which simply do not have USB ports. USB dongles don’t support WiFi either, unless I turn on Internet sharing on the device using the dongle, which means another setting to fiddle with when I want to connect to a proper WiFi network.

    So for me it’s smartphone-as-hotspot as the ideal solution.

  • I recently got a $99 Optus prepaid WiFi hotspot, and I’ve got to say I was impressed with it. I get about 5 hours battery life from it (I’m not a heavy mobile data user, I use around 1GB/month), and if I need to extend it further, I just plug it into my external battery pack (I use it for emergency phone changing on those days I forgot to put my phone on charge) and have around 1 week battery life or so (as it will stop charging after a while and draw less power). Usually I keep it in my backpack while I’m travelling and monitor the battery level and signal via the web interface.
    I used to use the integrated 3G in my netbook (Gigabyte T1028X) and got about 4 hours from my laptop (FF may have contributed to this). I get about 5 hours now using the hotspot (could be coincidence after starting to use FF8b). Either way, I have 2 options for internet, doing WiFi tether with my phone (using up the data on my phone’s TPG mobile plan) or using the hotspot to preserve my phone’s data. Or if my phone is running real low on data, connecting my phone to my hotspot to ensure I don’t have excess data charges.
    There is one sort of downside to the mobile hotspot, and that is how Optus charges for data usage (10MB blocks per connection session) which isn’t a huge issue as I usually use at least 10MB a session, although it’s annoying when the Optus network has decided to be worse than usual. Either way, $99 for a Wifi Hotspot (which can also be used a USB dongle) and includes 8GB of data which lasts for 6 months before expiring, I think I got my value for money.

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