What is a USB Dongle?

People often talk about USB-this and USB-that. Between USB flash drives, USB bluetooth and USB-WiFi, it’s pretty easy to get confused about just what a USB dongle is. In this post we will look at the origins of the term and explain the different types of USB dongles available.

Feature image credit: Unsplash

“Dongle” is the weirdest computer term I’ve ever come across. You’d be mistaken if you thought the term has ancient origins. It’s actually credited to a 1999 paper by researcher P. B. Schneck. The term likely refers to anything that dangles from the multitude of ports on a PC.

Since then the term has only grown in popularly. As journalist Johanna Stern wrote in 2016, dongles are “those tiny, dumb, easy-to-misplace plastic adapters that are suddenly accumulating in your life right now.”

Types of USB Dongles

There is no such thing as a “USB dongle” by itself. Walk into a store and ask to buy one, and you will confuse everyone. This term is a catch-call for the many different types of peripherals that have latched onto our USB ports over the years.

These are the most common types of USB dongles:

  • Bluetooth dongles– These adapters provide bluetooth connectivity for accessories such as mice, keyboards, and speakers. Some computer and mice also ship with their custom Bluetooth dongles for easier pairing.
  • Wi-Fi dongles— These dongles provide wireless connectively so that your computer can access a Wi-Fi network and get online.
  • Ethernet dongles— Believe it or not, these exist! Although most computers have built-in ethernet ports, not all do. Ethernet dongles are especially common on Macs.
  • USB flash drives— these drives, which look a lot like Bluetooth dongles, let you read and store data. They’re great for keeping track of documents. The latest flash drives store many gigabyte sof data.
  • Memory card readers— let your computer read data from various types of memory cards

There are of course many other types of dongles. You’ll often see dongles used for charging accessoring or providing connectivity to proprietary devices. As more and more computers now have Bluetooth installed and wireless technology has become the norm, USB dongles have become less common over the years.