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Tech Talk: Dongle

Consumer Reports News: October 27, 2010 01:35 PM

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What the heck is a dongle? Though it sounds vaguely like a new snack cake or kid's toy, it's neither. You may have seen the word in our blog posts ("the Sony Bravia KDL-60EX700 is a wireless-ready model that accepts an optional Wi-Fi dongle") and in ads ("The LG AN-WF100 Accessories Wi-Fi USB Adapter Dongle offers access to LG's NetCast content, such as Netflix, Skype, YouTube and more!").

As these statements suggest, a dongle is just an adapter you plug into the USB port on a TV, Blu-ray player, or home-theater system that allows it to connect wirelessly to your home network. Once connected, those devices can access the Internet content available to them, including streaming movie services such as Amazon Video on Demand, Blockbuster on Demand, Netflix, and Vudu; videos from YouTube, and more.

Also called a Wi-Fi adapter, a dongle can be very handy, because it means you don't have to run a cable from your TV to an Ethernet jack that could well be in another room. Some products may include the dongle with the TV or Blu-ray player, but in other cases you have to buy it separately, usually for around $80 or so.

Dongles are used with other gadgets as well, including phones and computers, for other purposes, such as Bluetooth connectivity.

Curious about this rather odd term, I checked out Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, which tracks the first use of the word dongle to 1981, defining it as "a small device that plugs into a computer and serves as an adapter or as a security measure to enable the use of certain software." M-W speculates that the word may be a variant of "dangle," since the device sticks out of the hub.

Webster's online dictionary debunks an amusing explanation: "In early 1992, advertising copy from Rainbow Technologies (a manufacturer of dongles) included a claim that the word derived from "Don Gall," allegedly the inventor of the device. The company's receptionist will cheerfully tell you that the story is a myth invented for the ad copy. Nevertheless, I expect it to haunt my life as a lexicographer for at least the next ten years."

More and more TVs and Blu-ray players are starting to offer optional wireless Internet connectivity, so you may see this word popping up more often. We're starting to include this information in our TV Ratings (available to subscribers).

Eileen McCooey

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