Gizmodo Vs Lifehacker: 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.

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.

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.



    I go for the pocket Wifi, only because my laptop only has 2 usb ports and i can use the wifi with my phone and iPad when i am away.

    The only problem with the pocket Wifi is that because i live a distance away from the CBD the reception is really, REALLY shit but thats Vodafone and not the device.

    The device does get hot but only if i am downloading a small file but if i am doing just general browsing it gets warm but manageable.

    Hotspots, as noted above, can be used in USB Dongle-style so they become a hybrid unit...

    Now that I have my Samsung Galaxy SII.. I have no further need for my Vodafone Pocket Wifi because the Samsung does the Wifi Hotspot tethering.. so makes the hotspot pointless and costly.... that is 'for me'..

    I basically use the hotspot (or the galaxy now) for downloading Kindle books.. that's it.. so I basically switch it on, download the book, switch it off. Before I got the galaxy, I didn't have a phone with data plan.. so the hotspot was great for the iPod Touch that I did use..

    And I think that's what it comes down to.. usage... they each have their pros and cons but in the end it is a subjective thing.

    "mysterious rays" = 2.4GHz = non-ionising. It might scorch your moobs, but nothing worse.

    Personally I'd rather carry a spare battery for my phone than a mobile hotspot, and use the phone's tethering/hotspot. Generally cheaper than having two data plans or an extra device.

    I wonder if there's a niche for portable hotpots that can be detached from their battery and plugged directly into a USB port, no cable - best of both worlds?

      My mum has a Wifi hotspot for her home internet.. it's basically the 3G version of Unwired these days.. she has it plugged into the wall power socket 90% of the time and then when she does want to take her laptop outside, she just unplugs it and it goes with her. it works out a lot cheaper than Unwired and generaly has a better connection and speed than Unwired.

      So there's definitely some niche markets there.. also, as per my previous post, I was a non-data-plan mobile user up until I got my galaxy last month.. so for those people who want a basic phone but also have a need for light-usage iPod Touch.. there's no where to put a dongle in a Touch..

    I'm using a NetComm MyZone, into which I have dropped a Telstra prepaid sim. Works beautifully whenever I am away from home (essentially when I am on holidays). Works very well overseas as well, just pop in a sim from a local data provider. I don't use it for my core broadband demand, but it provides a great way to access the net relatively cheaply and conveniently whenever I am away from home.

      That's an excellent argument for a separate hotspot over using your phone - when travelling overseas, you can put a local sim in the hotspot, use its data for your phone over wifi, and still keep your usual phone number for texts etc.

    I have had 5 dongles in the past and always managed to break them.

    Now I am using a Ultimate WiFi device. I keep it in my bag most of the time hooked up to an Energizer battery pack (the same one I use to give my phone an emergency charge). I can run it on that for over ten hours with it still fully charged.

    The biggest bonus I find with the hotspots is when you are staying in a hotel with poor reception. You can place the device in the best spot, say high on a window ledge to get better service.... it's a bit hard to do that with a dongle :)

    The Mobile hotspots have another feature that people often overlook. It puts all your devices on a LAN. Comes in handy with my 16GB iPad with the boxee app.

    I have just purchased an iPad2 and have been testing tethering, free wifi and now Telstra mobile broadband via micro sim.

    Tethering, I don't know how to stop others using it and it does chew battery but I can live with it. it's just fiddly setting it all up.

    Free wifi - useless unless desperate

    Microsim - turn connection on and off and it works so simply. The pricing of mobile broadband isn't the same as that on your phone which is a downer but the convenience outweighs that.

      PrepaidPlans- you should call Telstra to change your MBB Plan to IPad plan and the rates are MUCH cheaper, although some recharges dont last as long except $150/12GB recharge which is 365 days.

    Thanks for the post.

    This has never been a concern for me, but I will hopefully be starting a new job soon which involves working away from home every other week.

    As well as deciding between netbook, laptop, or tablet as my tool to stay connected, I now have some research to do on how to connect.

    I won't be using any computer on the job - just for personal use in my room after work.

    Any advise from regular travellers?

      Tablet - not functional enough
      Laptop - too bulky
      Netbook - good for travelling, but look out for low res screwns otherwise not functional enough. Get 1366x768 minimum resolution. Might be a bit hard to find but worth it. Netbooks still arn't very powerful though.

      If you need someing for travelling form factor and enough grunt, MacBook Air is really the only option until Ultrabooks come out.

        Thanks for the advise.

        I was talking last night to another player on steam. (we play Left4Dead online)
        He mentioned that he was currently working at a mine in NT. He was playing on his laptop using a Telstra NextG dongle and had no problems with ping.

        This sounds pretty amazing. It had never occured to me that this was even possible!

        I hope he wasn't pulling my leg, as I'll definitely go the same route if it means I can get a game or two in after work.

    As someone who relies on mobile broadband for all my internet (I live on a yacht), I have to say that the PocketWiFi absolutely kills my old dongles for several reasons. Most importantly, my reception has gone from 3 bars to 5, with a measurable improvement in the reliability of the service to match. Two and three are well covered in the article - multiple devices, no stupid software on my PC that takes forever to connect. Another good thing is that it shows you how much bandwidth you are using, right there on the device. That's probably not so important as it was a couple of years ago, now that I can get 12Gb for $29. Yes, the battery life is poor but you can always plug it in like a dongle when it's flat, so the downsides are really tiny compared to the considerable advantages.

    For sure dongal is my choice for far away urban areas or the time I am in boat. But only if a coverage and service is available there. otherwise have to look for a hotspot near about or creat one myself.

    Just returned fro m a few weeks on business in the US and purchased a 4G wifi hotspot upon arrival. Awesome, gave my 3G capable phone 4G internet access. Allowed my laptop to also connect when back at the hotel. Saves me from very expensive data charges when wandering around the city and I can share it with my colleagues as necessary. Definitely be getting one here back in Aus. ASAP.

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