What is a Dongle?

Brendan McGuigan

A dongle is a piece of hardware that attaches to a computer and allows a piece of secured software to run. The device does not contain the software in its entirety, but rather is an electronic key that unlocks the program on a computer. In most cases, it is used as an anti-piracy measure, since making a copy of the hardware is much more difficult than copying the program itself.

This bluetooth dongle gives a computer bluetooth capabilities via a USB port.
This bluetooth dongle gives a computer bluetooth capabilities via a USB port.

Original Uses

Software protection dongles are primarily used with very complicated, expensive software aimed at small markets. It costs the company extra to manufacture the hardware, so the price of the software must justify it. In addition, because these programs are typically expensive, it may be more likely that someone would try to download unauthorized copies or to sell them to other users. The word seems to have been chosen more or less at random as a placeholder to describe the device when it was first used in the 1970s, but over time it has become an accepted name.

A WiFi dongle provides WiFi functionality to a computer that doesn't have ia built-in.
A WiFi dongle provides WiFi functionality to a computer that doesn't have ia built-in.

Programs that use dongles include computer-aided design (CAD), image rendering, and audio mixing software. These devices are much more common in professional industries than in home-use settings, mostly because that's where higher priced software programs are used. Very few programs designed for the general public use this security method.

Other Types

The term dongle has expanded beyond software protection to include any small device that plugs into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) or other computer port, regardless of what it does. These devices are usually used to provide some function that is not built in to the computer itself. This includes adding memory, supplying Bluetooth® and WiFi® connections, and adding adapters so that other devices can be plugged in. Commonly, mobile broadband USB modems are often referred to as "mobile dongles."

Within industries that frequently use secured software, the term is still used primarily for security devices.


Early dongles were usually attached to a computer's serial port. While loading, the software would check for the presence of this hardware device and, if it did't find it, it wouldn't load. This system was vulnerable because a programmer could alter the software to not look for the dongle or to think it was present when it wasn't.

Modern security devices typically use a computer's USB port. Rather than simply checking for the presence of the piece of hardware, the software sends an encrypted request to the device for a validation key, which is also encrypted. This means that in order to crack the dongle, a hacker must first crack the encryption.

An even more secure approach stores encrypted bits of the software on the dongle itself, which the program calls for when it needs them. In this scenario, even if a hacker were to fool the software into thinking the device was present, the software would be unable to run because it would be missing key parts of its code.

Non-security dongles work by including virtually all of the hardware and software needed within the device itself. A mobile dongle, for example, includes a network adapter that allows a computer to connect to the Internet. Although the computer must have the correct settings to make the broadband connection, the device contains the technology that allows the connection to be made.


A few software companies have attempted to introduce dongle security with their consumer-oriented software without success, even though consumers are often familiar with USB technology. As technology changes and new operating systems and hardware become more commonplace, older software that requires the device may no longer be usable. In addition, dongles are easily lost or damaged. Specialists such as video editors or audio engineers may be willing to put up with the inconvenience, but the average computer user is usually not.

Another common problem is that people may need to use more than one type of locked software at a time and the computer may not be able to accommodate all the different devices at once. Most dongles take up a port, and do not allow other devices to be plugged into them; a computer that only has two or three USB ports, for example, may already have a mouse, camera, or other device attached, leaving no room for anything else.

To cope with these problems, some companies specialize in emulators that attempt to convince the computer that the dongle is present. These emulators are not always legal, however, as they are specifically designed to get around security issues. When a person buys a piece of software, what he or she is really buying, most of the time, is a license to use the software. With that license, the user typically agrees to certain conditions, and using an emulator may break those rules. If the person who purchased the software did so legally and does have the dongle, and/or if that piece of hardware no longer works correctly, it may be legal to use an emulator instead in some circumstances.


There are alternatives to using a dongle for security purposes, although they are not always as reliable. Some programs have key codes that must be entered when the software is first installed; others only allow the program to be installed once. In some cases, the computer running the software must have an Internet connection so that it can regularly connect to the manufacturer's servers to confirm who is using the program. As with dongles, each of these security measures can cause problems for the user if they do not work correctly or if the software needs to be transferred to a new computer. In addition, nearly all such methods have been cracked.

Information on how to create a dongle emulator is typically passed from hacker to hacker.
Information on how to create a dongle emulator is typically passed from hacker to hacker.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Actually, the basic function of mostly dongle is for software protection, so if you lost your dongle, your software cannot run, if you want to run it again, you need to purchase another one from the software company.


Can a dongle be used by a person to spy on other people cellphone calls out of state?


I see a lot of questions in previous contributions, but few answers. Most of your answers are to be found on the website of the maker of the equipment or software you are using

And for those of you who want the internet access for your portable computers, all I know is that my iPad has a thing called cellular data, which I purchase from a cellular provider, like AT&T, Verizon, or some other cell phone service. I can't use it to make phone calls, but I do get internet. Most laptops from 2003 on come with a built-in device that permits a connection, if you have subscribed to a cellular service with which to connect to the internet. You just need to check your computer's features to see if it's built in, and learn how to turn it on.

Talk to the people who sold you the computer, go to the manufacturer's website, or maybe even take it with you when you ask about such services at the cell phone store. But your best info is the technical support from whoever sold you the laptop. Jabbahdah.


I would love to know how to make my laptop work by just connecting the dongle. I tried it, but it keeps telling me there is no server page? This is my first laptop. If it doesn't work soon, I will throw it in the sea.


I have video project and I want a dongle for it.


Why is it that I struggle to get online with a dongle? Sometimes I am in the middle of writing an email, and then I cannot send it as I have lost the connection, yet I have done nothing to cause this infuriating problem. It is a constant source of frustration for me!


I just had to look it up. Mike Greenburg on Mike and Mike in the morning on ESPN called it a Dongle, but I'd never heard of it before.


A dongle is a piece of attachable hardware, which provides some functionality. It is a general term, not about security devices only. It can be a mass storage device, USB modem, Bluetooth, etc., etc., etc.

Sorry authors, but in how you defined dongle, you could could define "hand is a piece of human body to hold a spoon, fork, knife and cup during mealtime" and "The head is a piece of the human body which contains the mouth where a person eats."


My friend has a dongle and she has these dell games on her dell laptop - desktop games. Will it take off her data?


I want to take my laptop on holiday with me next year (camping). what type of dongle do I need. I want to use the internet and read emails while away. thanks


Thanks for the comprehensive explanation. Needed to know definition of a dongle and why it was needed for certain embroidery machine software.


there is a real time clock dongle-Unikey Time, with a real time clock inside.


is a dongle the same with a flash drive?


I always thought a dongle was to receive illegal satellite transmissions so that a person could watch Dish Network TV without a subscription.


I have a dongle key. It still works on a older laptop purchased in 2003. Can I get a new laptop computer with a serial port so as to use that same dongle again today? Is there a USB key adapter, where I can plug the dongle into?


What is the use of Dongle in microwave communication in MUX and how does it work?


Is it possible to use a dongle to watch baseball games on a TV set via a computer? If so, how?


Isn't a dongle also the wireless connection between a computer and some other device? (like a wireless printer, or wireless slate)


There is a new use for the word "dongle." It is a short adapter interfacing a generic laptop power cord connector to the Laptop power Jack, usually about 3" in length. HP uses this idea for their "Smart" AC power adaptor.



I have an iomega screenplay pro and just received a gift of a dongle for it. Can anyone tell me what the hell does it do?


suzmck - a dongle is only for hardware meets software application

strategies to prevent hacking and piracy ...so, no, it won't help you

unless your isp in spain needs you to have one to access the internet.

in that highly unlikely circumstance the isp will provide you with

one for their service. and for everybody else, each dongle is

localized to what software or groups of software they can use ....for

the most part ...you can't just have a dongle for Arturia and use it

for SynReg Donmac you heard incorrectly Yes to giddavr the dongle and

hardware and software are completely separate from things like RAM and

chipsets and motherboards. reinstall your OS and run the dongle

specific programs and contact the manufacturer for further details.


I am moving to Spain and wonder if a dongle will enable me to get internet connection to my laptop?


i bought an infinity box last month and the dongle is corrupt what happened, please solve for me.


hello there. I was using a small software (about 18MB) for shop maintenance, which need a dongle or hasp that should b attached to the printer port (old type) in order the software should run. Now i lost that hasp and the software cannot b run. Although program can be installed and uninstalled but does not run. can a dongle eliminator or any other software can make it run again?


Apparently "dongle" has been expanded in meaning by usage. I have heard it used to describe a flexible plug in device for a USB flashcard.


i have a bluetooth headset. I work and use bluetooth for calls coming in at home. I would like to use this bluetooth to be able to hear my rca HDtv. I can do this on my cellphone by listening to music and then the call comes in. i am getting hard of hearing and would like to be able to listen to tv without running my family out of the room. I am getting older, Yes the older generation is interested in bluetooth. (62 years old female LOL) I have a bluetooth adapter usb and what i bought was called a dongle. i have usb port on the side of my tv.


I have a camera that holds 4GB of internal memory and you must use all of the 4GB in order to put in a memory stick. On different sites, it says that the dongle will be able to remove the pictures. I have the Sony DSC-T2 and i'm not sure what the sites are talking about/



Is that any dongle can work with any software or its each dongle come with the software which we bought as key to protect the software piracy.



I have an ultrasound machine which uses windows xp.

The unit consists of a PCI card which acts as the interface between the computer and the ultrasound module and related hardware along with the software program, which is protected by a pass through parallel port dongle from Rainbow.

I find the processor and memory are slowing the performance of the ultrasound module.

Can I change the motherboard, CPU and the Memory and still be able to use the setup with the orogonal Dongle?



I use my IOgear bluetooth dongle to copy my address book and calendar as well as music files to my Nokia 6126. Use Nokia's free PC Suite, and all works well.


Depending on the driver software of your Bluetooth dongle, you should see an entry in your Send To context menu like "Bluetooth" or the Bluetooth display name of your mobile. The mobile then automatically detects the type of file being transferred and saves it to the appropriate location. Bluetooth on the mobile should be turned on.


I use dongle to transfer data, like photos, music, videos, etc. from my mobile to my PC using bluetooth. How can I transfer music from my PC to my mobile using the same technology. My mobile is 6151 - Nokia


Post your comments
Forgot password?