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What’s a Dongle? Find Out, Because You’re Going to Need One.


Hard drive. Memory stick. Keyboard. Monitor. Those are all pretty straightforward and well-known computer terms.

And then there’s the dongle. Yes, dongle. It must be the strangest name since the “scuzzy” port/connector from days past, which derived from “SCSI” (Small Computer System Interface).

The word dongle has been around for a long time, but its meaning has transformed over time. Since you probably don’t know what it used to mean, let’s just focus on what it refers to.

As Wall Street tech-review journalist Johanna Stern wrote in November 2016 article, dongles are “those tiny, dumb, easy-to-misplace plastic adapters that are suddenly accumulating in your life right now.”

But that doesn’t explain what a dongle does.

A dongle is…

A dongle is simply an adapter that plugs into an open slot/port on your computer. The adapter itself has one or more ports of its own built into it, allowing you to plug more devices into your computer at the same time.

Yes, a dongle is something like an extension cord for your computer. After plugging it in to your laptop you can plug other devices simultaneously into your laptop via the dongle.

But wait a minute: Aren’t there a few openings on computers to choose from? The answer is yes, but not the kind you need.

And that’s why dongles are suddenly in the news, and why leading accessory makers (Belkin and others) are raking in plenty of extra dollars selling dongles.

Today, and probably for the foreseeable future, dongles refer to the type that plug into an iMac’s or PC’s new USB-C ports—that is, if they have one. (Go to our Learning Center for more about the USB-C.)

By the way, smartphones have their own new dongles as well: There are special dongles for iPhone and Android phone because of changes in smartphone technology.

Why dongles are latest thing.

Why is it that you might suddenly need a dongle when you never did before? There are a few reasons:

The new USB-C ports.

When you plug-in a mouse or keyboard, it almost always uses a USB port. That’s the universal connector, so to speak, that’s been around for decades (It’s the one you typically have to first plug in upside down, then flip over.) The USB-C connection is a newer and better one connection, and not just because you can never plug it in wrong (it’s reversible!). The USB-C connector delivers a much faster data transmission. Over the next few years, the USB-C jack will likely replace all others.

But all of us have the standard USB connectors (and others) for our mice, keyboards and cameras that we still use and need. And many device manufacturers haven’t switched to the USB-C plug, as it will take time for them to convert, if they ever do.

Streamlined design.

Apple has started to streamline some of its devices by eliminating a lot of the “extra” jacks and ports on a few devices. Incredibly, on their new MacBook, Apple has provided a single jack. You guessed it, a USB-C port.

One jack. For the entire laptop. And that includes the plug to power and charge your MacBook. Compare that to some PCs today where there are still up to five places to plug in devices. Here’s why Apple, in their own words, took away all your port options:

“As long as we were including a port for charging your MacBook, we wanted to make sure it was the most advanced and versatile one available. The USB-C port puts just about everything you need in a port all in one place. This amazing port provides charging, speedy USB 3 data transfer, and video output in a reversible design that’s one-third the size of a USB 3 port, giving you the flexibility to easily connect your favorite devices.”

They left out the part about needing dongles. (That’s not a word Apple would use anyway.) Lucky for you, Apple does sell the adapters you need in order to plug in an HDMI, USB and other connectors.

It comes down to this: To make everything more streamlined and less complicated, companies are striving to reduce the number of holes/jacks on laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Is there a dongle in your future?

Here’s the good news: You likely won’t need a dongle until you buy a new device that has switched to a new connector and/or eliminated one of their existing jacks.

For example, Apple recently eliminated the round headphone jack from their iPhone 7, leaving customers with only one Lightning port for both charging and listening. So, there’s now a dongle that gives you two jacks; one for charging and one for plugging in your now “old” headphones, if you want to charge and listen to music at the same time.

Another reason why you don’t need to go dongle shopping: Many PCs don’t even have a USB-C port yet, and those that do still offer the standard ports you rely on. But keep in mind that the USB-C port will work better and faster than the other ones.

Dell Corp., for example, offers a dongle for the USB-C port on some of its newest computers, even though the laptop still offers several other ports. However, once one of their own Dell dongles is plugged in, you can link as many as four different types of connectors, with each taking advantage of the speed and power of USB-C technology.

One piece of advice tech advisors offer: treasure your dongle. Translation? Don’t lose them (they’re small and easy to misplace) and they’re not cheap.

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