January 2021 Ian Chiu
Dongles (a.k.a. adapters) have been with us since the inception of USB. They are pretty handy in upgrading our PC functionality and can be shared between users. Price-conscious consumers who aren’t ready to step up to a brand new laptop will also find these USB dongles listed below deliver best bang for the buck.
Dongle marries USB audio and Bluetooth 5 for high bit-rate or low latency wireless audio streaming
It’s relatively easy to find smartphones and laptops supporting AptX or AAC codecs (or both) for Bluetooth audio. Yet those who want additional codec support for their premium wireless headphones will likely find the Creative BT-W3 very tempting.
The USB-C dongle from Creative is an external Bluetooth 5 transmitter that is recognized by Macs or Windows as just another USB audio device. When you pair your headphones with the BT-W3, the two connect directly on a separate Bluetooth channel and operate independently of existing Windows drivers and Bluetooth hardware. As long as you know which audio codec works best for you, you can simply toggle between SBC, AptX Classic, AptX HD and AptX Low Latency. This plug-n-play solution provides a clear advantage of allowing more audio codec selections for different audio applications instantly.
Despite the fact that the dongle is natively USB-C, it also works with included USB-A adapter. As for other platforms, Nintendo Switch will benefit from BT-W3’s AptX Low Latency to deliver sound in sync with gameplay. Android smartphones coupled with AptX HD can deliver higher bit-rate audio than AAC and classic AptX.
Adapter brings Wi-Fi 6 speed & WPA3 wireless security to older laptops
Households and small offices are beginning to jump onto Wi-Fi 6 bandwagon. With a spare USB-A port, D-link’s DWA-X1850 – the first dongle compliant with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – makes it easy for old-school laptops to meet the latest generation of wireless standards.
The D-link, however, only delivers max. performance at 1200Mbps when operating at 5GHz when other add-on cards are rated for 2400Mbps on the same frequency band. On 2.4Ghz band, expect speed up to 574Mbps. The DWA-X1850 also features WPA3 – the first major (and much-needed) upgrade for wireless data encryption in 14 years. In this day and age, Wi-Fi Alliance stepping up the game in data security is welcome.
USB DAC Cable brings high-resolution audio playback on older laptops
Built-in DACs found on most smartphones and laptops aren’t known for high fidelity. Even if you shell out for a brand new laptop, the situation is going to be more or less the same. This is where USB DACs come in. They in essence bypass less than ideal onboard audio and perform a higher quality digital-to-analog conversion for your music. With the recent development in the growing popularity of high-res audio, the demand for USB DACs surges.
The latest model from Astell&Kern can handle media with sample rates up to native DSD256 and PCM 32-bit 384kHz PCM. The dongle boasts a pair of Cirrus Logic’s low-power CS43198 DACs for handling left and right channel audio separately. It is also paired with an independent headphone amp to drive more demanding, high-impedance headphones.
While having dual DAC implementation reportedly provides better stereo separation, the extra power draw also exceeds the current limit of what iOS allows on a USB device. So, the Astell&Kern is limited to PC, Mac, and Android compatibility. As a dongle, the DAC dongle is tethered to a four-core silver-plated copper shielded USB-C cable that is built for longevity and that is touted to block distortion and digital noise.
USB dongle stays semi-permanent on PC for hassle-free two-factor hardware authentication
Two-factor authentication has always been at our disposal, but most of us don’t really bother unless we are forced to comply with online banking requirements. There has been a solution called YubiKey; it works with U2F, an emerging open authentication standard hosted by FIDO Alliance whose goal is to add an extra layer of security for browsers and mainstream web services, such as Gmail, FaceBook and DropBox.
The YubiKey neither requires drivers nor client software. Since it is recognized as a USB HID device, the platform-independent token works seamlessly with Windows, Mac and Linux. The keys themselves are manufactured in Sweden and USA in ways that reportedly make them tamper-proof. The fourth-generation of YubiKey now offers even faster and stronger crypto. Out of the three models, one ($50) supports the new USB-C connector while a nano version with regular USB-A plug allows you to flush mount it on your PC.
USB-C video dongle wirelessly extends or mirrors desktop on iPad
Astro HQ’s Luna Display is a tiny USB-C dongle that lets you make use your iPad as a secondary screen over WiFi. By taking advantage of iPad’s screen, the Luna Display brings multi-touch capability to already familiar Mac interface. There’s also particularly a strong use case if your iPad supports Apple Pencil. This opens the door for creative professionals and power users alike to tap into the potentials of working with desktop apps on their iPads, particularly the more powerful ones.
For Mac version of the Luna Display, its accompanying software takes advantage of Metal hardware acceleration of Mac’s GPU to boost performance so that Luna Display adapter has a better chance of delivering 60fps video to your iPad. (Windows version is also slated to ship in first half of 2021.) Having said that, decent refresh rate and optimal image quality are largely dependant on having a strong and consistent WiFi coverage throughout your place. Luna Display’s app also seems to work on a wired (USB-C or Lightning) connection but you would be confined to the length of the cable connecting from your tablet to Mac. Given the popularity of iPad, the $80 USB-C dongle might be what you need to breathe your laptop a new life.
USB-A dongle brings fingerprint security with Windows 10 Hello compatibility
Fingerprint authentication is also an integrated part of Windows Hello that replaces passwords with biometric recongition. Though, generations of older PCs wouldn’t have the hardware sensors required by Windows’s new bio-security system. If you have a spare USB port, then the unobstructive PQI dongle might be what you are looking for.
The PQI’s My LocKey fingerprint reader is powered by Synaptics-powered Natural ID fingerprint sensor that works with Hello. The engine is reportedly fast enough to finish authentication with 0.15 second. Everything is housed inside a USB dongle whose size is comparable to that of a mini flash drive so the PQI can stay connected to your laptop at all times. Getting this ready only requires that you follow several steps of simple registration procedures before you can start logging in Windows with a single touch of a finger.
Low-profile USB drive saves laptops running out of storage
If your laptop is going out of space and need a quick and easy solution to increasing storage, you are in for a treat with Samsung FIT Plus. Traditional thumbdrives protrudes quite a bit from a laptop’s USB port. Any drops could potentially damage to an attached USB port, or even worse, a laptop’s motherboard.
The FIT Plus’s low-profile allows it to stay connected as a semi-permanent storage for media and other files, freeing up precious space on the laptop’s internal drive for more mission critical tasks. Keep in mind such a drive isn’t ideal for games and virtual machines as they run far more smoothly on a SSD. Available up to 256GBB, the Samsung FIT Plus can reach up to 300MB/s read and 42MB/s write. A 5-year warranty also comes with the drive.
Just in case you need to throw a Zoom party. This has you covered.
It’s been never easier to throw a party with ION Audio USB Party Ball. The sphere flashes in vivid red, green and blue lights to form a wide array of different colors on the ceilings and walls, creating a non-stop light show in your living room or bedroom.
While the Party Ball gets its power from a USB port on a PC, you can also plug it to the back of a TV or to a power bank. The package doesn’t come with a base but there’s also a gooseneck arm for flexible positioning of the Party Ball. Perhaps the best feature is the built-in microphone that syncrhoizes the lights to the tunes playing in the room.