Did you know you can use a VISA-card in any store but still pay with bitcoins? There are several providers emerging offering its customers an alternative to the credit / debit cards in your pocket.
These cards are similar to regular Visa/Mastercard debit cards, only you top them up with bitcoins instead of fiat money (dollars, euro, yen etc).
This solution is a convenient “bridge” between the ‘old’ economy and the new bitconomy online, however it requires a cloud component. So, which solution is best for a Bitcoin wallet – a local client or a cloud account?
Editor’s Pick (iOS): Breadwallet
Here’s the answer: a well-thought out local client is generally faster and more convenient to use than any of the cloud solutions below. In our test groups Breadwallet was simply the best mobile Bitcoin wallet available on the market today, unfortunately it is only available on iOS-devices and not on Android. Native local wallets do miss out on a few features only cloud solutions can offer though (such as a fiat Visa debit card) – see more on that below.
Breadwallet excels when it comes to speed and simplicity. When starting the app for the first time you’ll be presented with 12 words randomly selected from the English dictionary. Write those words down on a piece of paper and if you ever loose your phone your bitcoins are backed-up, thanks to those 12 words. All you need to do is to download the app again (or any other Bitcoin wallet that supports the standardized 12 word seed-backup), enter those 12 words and your bitcoins will be automagically restored.
Breadwallet quickly syncs with the blockchain upon startup and features only two main “buttons” for paying somebody on its start page – “scan QR code” and “pay address from clipboard”. Both work as advertised, and the camera is quick to find and identify QR codes. To receive bitcoins via a QR code (from someone you meet-up with who also has a Bitcoin wallet on their phone) you just navigate to the second page, which displays a unique bitcoin address as a QR-code. Click the address to copy it to the clipboard (if you want to send your address to someone else via email for instance).
A user-defined PIN-code is required to see the available balance, transaction history – and to send bitcoins away from the app. Breadwallet’s clear interface and ease-of-use turns it into a no-brainer when recommending an app to anyone who wants to try out using bitcoins for the first time. But there’s no two-factor authentication here (you don’t get codes via sms from a cloud provider) due to the app’s local nature – so don’t loose that PIN-code, or those 12 words.
For many, a combination of a local wallet like Breadwallet for “spending money”, and an insured cold storage vault for the “savings account”, is an adequate security-level. Experts and “rich” Bitcoin users may want to read up on hardware wallets (like Trezor) and/or the concept of a “brain wallet” (see below for more info).
Editor’s Pick (Android): Bitcoin Wallet (by Andreas Schildbach)
There are many opinions on which wallet to choose when using an Android phone, but in our testing we’ve found the so called “Bitcoin Wallet” by the developer Andreas Schildbach to be the most reliable of them all.
This wallet contains a lot of functionality for the “regular” user as well as the power-user, and it’s focused on security and ease-of-use. Though not as easy-on-the-eyes as our iPhone pick Breadwallet, Schildbach’s wallet is quick to get to grips with. At first start the app also prompts the user to do a 12-word-seed-backup (i.e – to assure the app that you’ve written down those 12 words in a secure way).
Bitcoin Wallet displays a quick overview of the latest transactions on its front page. There is one button each for the two main functions; “receiving” and “sending” bitcoins. With the former you may specify amount – making it easy to request a certain amount from another Bitcoin user.
The Bitcoin Wallet provides a unique address for each incoming transaction, for reasons of integrity and privacy. There’s also a slew of other practical menu options, such as a “paper wallet” scanner – for importing printed bitcoins, or bitcoins from a paper back-up or a paper “cold” wallet. You’ll also find a list of current exchange rates to fiat currencies and a few network monitoring tools.
All in all the Bitcoin Wallet from Andreas Schildbach is simple to learn and use, it’s stable and reliable and offers its users the most important features without confusing the user interface with too many options on each page (to be fair it’s a bit cluttered compared to the best user interfaces out there).
Recommended Cloud Wallet
Xapo offers its users a great combination of services. There’s a mobile app with a bitcoin wallet, a cold storage “vault” and a Visa debit card – so you can spend all those bitcoins in your regular supermarket.
Even better than with your ‘old’ bank’s debit or credit card, using Xapo you get a notification each time you use the card, right on your smartphone. What’s more, the notification states the sum and at which establishment you used the card – making it pretty convenient and easy to check that everything is in order, after a payment. To top your card up it’s as easy as pie to click the virtual “card” in the app for it to display a Bitcoin address for incoming payments. That address is also copied to the phone’s clipboard for further use in other apps or services.
There’s two-factor authentication (you get a code on your phone while logging in) and the user interface is usable, but somewhat unconventional and not the best-in-class. The biggest draw-back with Xapo is that it’s a cloud solution, you don’t have direct access to your bitcoins as you have with local clients (see below) and sometimes incoming payments take some time to show up (several hours at times). Still; if you plan ahead Xapo’s solution is great for anyone who wants to spend bitcoins via a debit card in any establishment that accepts a Visa-card, world-wide, for instance when travelling. You don’t have to wait for the bank to open to transfer funds to your Visa card.
The rate for using the card is approx. 3%, but if you pay in the card’s “native” currency (Euro or USD) there are no conversion rates at all. More on fees here. When ordering the card you get to choose between a “USD” or a “Euro” card.
Recommended Multi-Currency Wallet
Day traders, speculators and other industry watchers can choose to use a wallet for multiple crypto-currencies at once. These wallets have a list of “accounts”, one for each crypto-currency. You can not “exchange” currencies within the wallets though, instead you’d need to rely on a service like Shapeshift to “shift” inbetween currencies. The latter also offers an iPhone app where it’s easy to convert between cryptocurrencies – however, the Shapeshift app is not a wallet, it’s just an exchange mechanism. You still need to provide an address to a wallet where you like to have your “shifted” coins delivered.
At the moment I’ll only recommend one single app for multi-cryptocurrency use; Coinomi (and it’s only available on Android phones). Coinomi features a simple (Google Material Design) user interface. To avoid clutter and long menus the user chooses which currencies he/she likes to add from a list of the most “common”. Coinomi supports all the “major” currencies, including Dogecoin, Litecoin, Dash, Blackcoin, Nubits, Moneros and Peercoin (in addition to Bitcoin, of course). Each currency you choose to add effectively adds another wallet into Coinomi, and switching in between in the app is simple. Each balance is kept separate.
The Hive wallet (available for iOS and Android) is a also multi-currency app of sorts, as it offers its users Bitcoin and Litecoin simultaneously (and promises support for more currencies to come), but it’s still way behind Coinomi as of yet.
Recommended Browser-based Wallet
Pheeva is a great little wallet that lives in your Chrome browser as a plug-in (add-on). It’s free to download and use. It’s designed for the convenience of keeping a smaller sum of bits available in the browser, handy when you want to send a quick and small transaction on some website.
Conclusion on cloud vs. standalone Bitcoin wallets
After extensive testing of practically all Bitcoin wallets out there, on both iOS and Android, on many different phone models and several different tablets (also using a large review group of actual point-of-sale merchants around a Bitcoin Funfair event) we can conclude that there are a few big problems with many of the most visible of today’s cloud-based wallet solutions. Circle and Coinbase belong to this group of cloud-based solutions, where sending bitcoins outside of the wallet’s walled garden often takes a very long time, sometimes an hour or more (we saw confirmation times upwards of 12 hours at times).
In comparison to a “local” Bitcoin wallet that’s an abysmal transaction time. The best local native wallets perform flawlessly, and payments are noticed by the network and the receiver within seconds, often within only one second. Your incoming funds become available for spending as soon as the Bitcoin network finds the next block (approx. 10 minutes). Using cloud solutions, like Circle, Coinbase or Xapo, incoming funds can take hours before they become spendable and/or to show up in the app’s interface.
Also, these “big” players have a lot of support issues. Circle’s support seemed especially unbothered by reports of failures – for instance when the confirmation code failed to show up via sms – making all your Circle funds in practice frozen.
Calls for help via support (we made many) generally returned replies like this one (actual example):
“It’s likely an issue with our telephony provider. This comes up every now and then. I’ve opened a ticket with them on her behalf.”
– with no assurance of when or even if the problem would be fixed at all. That sort of attitude of course disqualifies the app for real-world time-critical use (such as at a physical point-of-sale, i.e when you want to buy something from a merchant in a store). Also, there’s been reports of frozen accounts with questionable reasoning, without the cloud wallet provider having notified the account holder beforehand. If you want to be sure you can access your funds you should choose a native, local wallet – and avoid cloud solutions (except in certain cases, i.e. if you are looking for “insurance” – still, your money is then being held by a custodian out of your control).
And why trust your money to “the bank”? Any cloud wallet solution that holds keys to your bitcoins is effectively a “bank”. Using your own local client wallet you are in control of your funds, you “are the bank”. And for most a 12 word seed is enough to keep your (moderate amount) of bitcoins safe. For larger sums use an add-on security solution, such as a Trezor, or an insured and secured Vault, such as Xapo’s or BitGo’s.
The future is near. There are no shortages when it comes to high-flying plans for the future in the Wallet area, there are for instance several actors racing to get a Bitcoin “vault” service up into space (onto a satellite), for really “deep cold” storage, and out of any government “control”. We’ll return to that subject as soon as such a service goes live (this blog’s author interviewed Jeff Garzik on that subject in 2014, if you want to read more). In the meantime: check out the concept of a “Brainwallet“. Here you create incoming Bitcoin addresses from a phrase “in your brain” (make it 12 words or longer, and not a regular sentence). You may create as many addresses as you like from that phrase, and also create the keys. A brainwallet makes it possible to carry any amount of bitcoins around in your brain.
There are many other Bitcoin wallets available out there not mentioned in this report. The domain Bitcoin.org offers up a selection of other wallets at this address.
These tests were carried out with the help of a group of reviewers, while learning about how to accept bitcoins as merchants during a Bitcoin Funfair event in Stockholm. This blog’s editor keeps an eye on the market and this post will be updated from time to time. Do you agree or disagree with these findings? Do you think there is reason to add another Wallet to this list of recommended apps? Get in touch.