Small Business Networking Review: Connectify Dispatch

by Joseph Moran

When you have multiple forms of Internet access at your disposal, Connectify Dispatch combines them together and increases your connection speed.

When mobile professionals need Internet access from the road, they frequently have multiple connection options available at any given location. For example, you might have access to an Ethernet jack, one or more Wi-Fi networks, and perhaps even 3G/4G connectivity, too.

Windows has the capability to connect to several networks at once, so when you link your notebook to several of the aforementioned network types, they're all available to use simultaneously. But if you thought this would automatically place the most demanding tasks (e.g. media streaming) on the fastest available connection, or boost your download speed by pulling files down across multiple links simultaneously, you'd be wrong. Windows can use multiple connections, but not in any particularly intelligent or efficient way.

Connectify Dispatch, on the other hand, manages a cornucopia of connectivity to maximize performance and reliability. By merging all of your available Internet connections so that they act as one, Dispatch lets files and Web pages download faster. It also monitors the characteristics of each connection to determine which one should be used for a particular type of network traffic. Finally, it provides failover so that if one connection goes south, the others can keep the data flowing.

In our testing, we found that Dispatch (which was born last year on Kickstarter) does what it promises, although the practical benefit it delivers can vary considerably depending on your circumstances and equipment.

Let's Talk Pricing

Normally we address pricing toward the end of the review, but in this case we'll deal with it up front. The software is sold by subscription – but the pricing seems somewhat malleable depending on when you check and from where.

Connectify Dispatch dashboard

Figure 1: Through Connectify Dispatch's dashboard, you can enable or disable the software and see how much total bandwidth you have available (as well as how much you're currently using).

For example, the day we downloaded the software, Dispatch pricing was listed at $10 for a three-month subscription, $35 for an annual one, or $55 for a "lifetime subscription" to Dispatch bundled with the company's Hotspot Pro  software. That was on a Windows 7 PC.

When we happened to check the same day from Internet Explorer or Firefox (18) on a Windows 8 PC, the price list was quite a bit different, with no standalone Dispatch subscription options offered, and the aforementioned lifetime bundle listed for $64 rather than $55. From Chrome on Windows 8, the pricing was the same as on a Windows 7 PC, which was the same irrespective of browser.

A couple of days later we checked the pricing again, and the price for the lifetime bundle was listed as $59 -- either a $4 hike or a $5 discount depending on your perspective. We tried contacting Connectify for an explanation, but we didn't receive a response. Perhaps prices will have stabilized by the time you read this. Note that currently, pricing seems to be holding at $12 per quarter and $45 for a lifetime subscription.

How to Setup and Use Connectify Dispatch

Getting the Dispatch on your computer (the software supports Windows only at the moment, though Mac and Linux versions are planned down the road) seems a bit more laborious than it needs to be. After you purchase the software (from Connectify's Web site), download and install it, you need to reboot and go back into the website in order to activate the software with a license key provided. Once you've done that, however, one click gets Dispatch up and running.

We installed Dispatch on a garden-variety notebook running Windows 8 Pro and equipped with both built-in Ethernet and Wi-Fi capabilities. We connected the former to a network linked to the Internet by Comcast cable modem service, and the latter to a T-Mobile 4G Wi-Fi hotspot device.

We connected to each network individually and ran the bandwidth test at www.speedtest.net in order to gage what each connection was capable of on its own.  (We ran each test three times and averaged the results to smooth out variability.)

The Ethernet/cable modem connection averaged 23.5 Mbps downloads, while the Wi-Fi/4G connection managed 5.7 Mbps. We also ran the test multiple times while connected to both networks, and the results shifted back and forth between the two figures, indicating that only one connection or the other was in use for each test run. 

Conectify Dispatch application management dashboard

Figure 2: Connectify Dispatch lets you override it by associating applications with specific adapters. That comes in handy for VPNs, which don't work over multiple connections. 

Next, we turned on Dispatch and ran the bandwidth test again. This time, the download speed reached or slightly exceeded 30 Mbps, clearly indicating that the test was drawing from the bandwidth available to both connections. Dispatch can accelerate download speeds for any application that uses multiple network sockets; Web browsers and BitTorrent, for example, do this to pull down different components of a Web page or file at the same time. 

Finally, to test Connectify's capability to keep us linked to the Internet after one of the connections goes dark, we opened up a video streaming app (Netflix) and a remote control session to a corporate desktop PC. Then we then pulled the plug on Ethernet, leaving only the 4G connection available. Although there was a brief interruption in connectivity, both connections restored themselves automatically in a little less than a minute.   

You can keep tabs on how Dispatch manages your Internet connections through an attractive and informative dashboard tool. From there you can also define particular connections as secondary or "backup" in order to prioritize faster connections over slower ones (e.g. Ethernet over Wi-Fi) or free connections over ones that could cost you money (e.g. Wi-Fi over 3G/4G). 

Dispatch also lets you assign programs to one specific adapter, which you'll need to do if you connect to a corporate network over a VPN (they won't accept connections originating from two different IP addresses, as this is a security no-no).

Connectify Dispatch Device Support

In addition to Ethernet and Wi-Fi, Dispatch can also work with USB-based 3G/4G adapters, USB-tethered smartphones, and even an ancient technology called dial-up modems. One base that Dispatch doesn't cover is Bluetooth networking connections, so if that's how you tether your phone to your PC, you're out of luck.

It's also important to note that Windows can connect to only one Wi-Fi network per adapter, which means that if you use a 3G/4G Wi-Fi hotspot device rather than directly connecting a phone or other modem, you won't be able to connect to it and, say, that airport or coffee shop Wi-Fi network at the same time.

You can get around this limitation by equipping your laptop with one or more additional USB Wi-Fi adapters, assuming you have spare USB ports to accommodate them. If you were so inclined, you'd be better off sticking to micro-style adapters rather than their conventionally-sized counterparts to avoid carrying an extra bulky kit with you. 

A Connectify video shows a laptop achieving up to 85 Mbps download speeds, a feat as impressive as it is impractical for the typical road warrior since it required the use of a USB hub to link up nine separate Wi-Fi or 3G/4G adapters).       

One final caveat: Dispatch probably won't be much help if the different networks you connect to share the same link to the Internet. If you plug into Ethernet and connect to Wi-Fi on the same corporate or hotel network, for example, chances are both are fed by a common pipe to the Internet, so in this scenario you wouldn't enjoy any link redundancy since your two connections are essentially different paths back to the same place. You likely also won't see any boost in performance, unless the network is configured to limit the speed of any one connection.

The Bottom Line

Connectify Dispatch is an impressive piece of software with an oddly dynamic price tag. That said, if you frequently find yourself with access to multiple Internet connections and can benefit from using them all at the same time, the software is worth a look.

Price: Currently $12 for a quarterly subscription and $45 lifetime

Pros: Combines multiple Internet connections to improve download performance and link reliability; requires little to no configuration

Cons: Subscription only and listed pricing keeps fluctuating (granted, this is probably temporary); doesn't support Bluetooth tethering; connecting to multiple Wi-Fi networks requires multiple Wi-Fi adapters; Windows only

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Mar 27th 2013
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