Love it or hate, cryptocurrency is enjoying its time in the technology spotlight. Whether you’re simply grabbing a few Bitcoins to experiment with this new currency or you’re a more seasoned digital currency investor, your process will remain similar. To purchase or trade digital currency, you’ll need access to an exchange, either an organized platform under a single corporate flag such as Coinbase Consumer, or one of the more automated and distributed exchanges that have lately started to emerge, such as ShapeShift.
Via the exchange, you’ll be able to purchase and trade your chosen crypto-bucks. But if you’re looking to store your new currency or even spend it on goods, services, or debts, then you’ll need a cryptocurrency wallet. But just like the constantly shifting crypto exchange landscape, the concept of the perfect cryptocurrency wallet is a constantly moving target, too.
What Is a Cryptocurrency Wallet?
Cryptocurrency wallets come in several different forms and can span software, hardware, or even paper. But they’re all intended to store at least one kind of digital currency, and in the case of cryptocurrency, manage the cryptographic keys and other security considerations associated with key storage, digital currency transactions, and sometimes identity (ID) verification.
When you’re talking about the cryptographic keys associated with your cryptocurrency wallet, you’re referring to a (very) long string of numbers and letters that’s machine-generated, and is used to lock and unlock access to your cryptocurrency collection as well as to generate the address(es) of your wallet. That’s a lot of power to attach to a key, so where these keys are generated and who controls them is something you should consider carefully when choosing your cryptocurrency wallet platform.
Kinds of Cryptocurrency Wallets
Currently, there are five basic kinds of cryptocurrency wallets:
1. Cold Wallets: This kind of cryptocurrency wallet uses keys created by a source that’s not connected to the internet. This adds an extra layer of “air-gap” security, and lets these wallets come in a hardware format. Usually some kind of portable universal serial bus (USB) hard disk or thumb drive.
2. Hot Wallets: As you might expect, this kind of cryptocurrency wallet uses keys generated by internet-connected devices, typically servers at the wallet manufacturer’s location or the wallet’s back-end exchange. Even though the internet connectivity makes hot wallets notably less secure than cold wallets, they’re still the most popular cryptocurrency wallets in use today since they’re easily able to trade currencies, make internet purchases, and even access other kinds of digital assets besides cryptocurrency.
3. Decentralized Wallets: You’ll see this term a lot, and it simply means that the cryptocurrency wallet has no centralized back end you need to work through when you want to sell, trade, or buy. You control your wallet’s keys and that lets you connect and generate transaction with anyone, anywhere. Then again, you control your keys, which means you better protect the heck out of them or face a potentially very bad day.
4. Hosted Wallets: This is the opposite of decentralized, where the cryptocurrency wallet manufacturer or the exchange control and store your keys. On the one hand, they probably have better security than you do. But on the other hand, they’re also likely storing thousands of users’ keys, which means the hackers will be targeting them much more strongly than they would a single user like you. It also usually means that you’ll need to begin your transaction with the hosted environment rather than simply connecting with anyone you like. That’s not just an extra step; it also potentially impacts your privacy.
5. Paper Wallets: As the name implies, this type of cryptocurrency wallet boils down to printed sheets of paper that record your public and private crypto keys. To use a paper wallet, you simply transfer your digital currency to a public address that’s shown on your paper wallet. To spend some of it, you simply initiate a transfer and reprint your wallet. Quick Response (QR) codes are often used to turn large chunks of typing into faster and less-easily-copied scanning operations. Some folks don’t consider paper wallets a separate kind of wallet, instead referring to them simply as the “coldest of cold wallets.”
In this cryptocurrency wallet review roundup, I’m reviewing hot wallets with an eye towards multicurrency support. All of the cryptocurrency wallets reviewed here support more than one kind of digital asset, though some support far more than others do.
A Word on Exchanges
Whether viewed from a financial or technical perspective, cryptocurrency moves fast. Blockchain technology is in an almost constant state of innovation and even conflict, while the regulations regarding cryptocurrencies are also in flux in multiple jurisdictions all over the globe. From an investor’s standpoint, this isn’t just a commodity, this is truly the wild, wild west. That can make choosing the right exchange on which to do your crypto-trading a crucial decision.
Fortunately, exchanges don’t have to be so wild and woolly. It depends on what kind of investor you want to be. In the reviews that follow, we make mention of two basic “personalities” when it comes to exchange trading. Those that want a more stable and regulated environment can choose an exchange that specifically caters to this kind of customer, such as Coinbase Consumer (mentioned above). This kind of exchange is characterized by lots of effort being paid towards adhering to the financial regulations of its geographic jurisdiction. In the case of Coinbase, that’s the U.S., which means the exchange is going to do whatever it needs to maintain compliance with US banking laws. That includes gathering lots of information on the people who trade with it, including personal contact information as well as financial data, like your social security number. Another characteristic of a more controlled exchange is fewer options when it comes to what kinds of cryptocurrencies you can trade. That’s because each type of cryptocurrency is being evaluated individually by each country’s banking regulators, so an exchange that wants to remain in compliance with banking laws needs to move slowly and carefully when it comes to the currencies it supports.
That bothers a lot of crypto-investors, who are attracted to this commodity specifically because of the large number of currencies they can trade (hundreds on some exchanges!) and because of the anonymous nature of the transaction. These folks represent true cryptocurrency speculators; and if you’re on of these, then regulated exchanges like Coinbase are not for you. You’re looking for exchanges with a wide swath of currency support and as little information as possible being gathered on both the transaction and its participants. In the reviews that follow, we pull out Shapeshift as one exchange that fits this kind of bill. However, in true crypto-fashion, in the time it took to write these reviews, the market changed and Shapeshift altered its anonymous trading policy in favor of one that adheres to KYC banking guidelines intended to combat money laundering and other financial crimes. That measure will help Shapeshift with scrutiny from banking regulators, but it’ll effectively kill its reputation for privacy.
If you’re still in the market for a Shapeshift-style exchange, however, don’t fret as there are still plenty of options. One that’s moved very quickly to capitalize on Shapeshift’s change of heart is Flyp.me, which offers about 26 cryptocurrencies, everything from Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin to some fairly fringe altcoins. There’s also Coinswitch, which boasts support for over 300 cryptocurrencies, though it also seems to be built on top of several other exchanges, including Shapeshift and Changelly, so it remains to be seen how Shapeshift’s new KYC policy will affect Coinswitch. Changelly is another Shapeshift-style option, however, with support for a wide range of cryptocurrencies and fairly little personal information required to start trading.
All that said, however, be very careful when picking your exchanges. There’s still plenty that can go wrong with a crypto-investment these days, up to and including the loss of your funds. Therefore, picking a platform from which to store, invest, and trade cryptocurrency is an important part of maintaining a positive experience and not getting burned. Research your platform carefully, ask current traders about it before using, and when investing, start small.
Desirable Cryptocurrency Wallet Features
The most important feature you should be looking at when choosing a cryptocurrency wallet is whether or not it supports the currencies you want to use. Bitcoin is a standard, but even this currency isn’t supported by every cryptocurrency wallet, and not even by every cryptocurrency wallet reviewed in this review roundup yet. There are literally dozens of cryptocurrencies available today, with more on the way.
If you want to use a specific currency for some reason, then you need to make sure your cryptocurrency wallet supports it. If you want to dabble in multiple currencies or other kinds of digital assets, then you should make sure that your cryptocurrency wallet supports as many as possible, and can also easily connect with an exchange that allows multicurrency operations. Both Exodus and Jaxx fit this particular bill.
If you’re looking to speculate, then you’re likely comfortable with a certain amount of risk. You’re probably also interested in protecting your transaction privacy. This means you should be looking for a cryptocurrency wallet that doesn’t require any specific exchange on the back end, or if it does, then it’s an exchange that doesn’t require much in the way of ID verification or identifying transaction data. ShapeShift is currently a very popular exchange for these kinds of users (but not covered in this cryptocurrency wallet review roundup). Again, both Exodus and Jaxx are good fits for you.
But maybe speculating isn’t your thing. Perhaps you’d like to experiment with cryptocurrency but you want to do it in a safer, more regulated environment, and you’re willing to give up a certain amount of transaction privacy to do it. This kind of user is looking for a regulated exchange such as Coinbase Consumer, which also makes the Coinbase Wallet (included in this review roundup). Coinbase is a company in the United States that goes to great pains to meet US banking regulations and has the deep venture capital (VC) financial backing to do it. You’re limited in the kinds of currencies and assets you can access via Coinbase Consumer or store in the Coinbase Wallet, but many people feel safer using this kind of platform for that very reason.
Next, there are more minimalist cryptocurrency wallets, such as BRD and Copay Bitcoin Wallet (also included in this review roundup). These are primarily mobile wallets intended to let you track and access your digital funds on the go. They’re not meant to work as trading platforms nor as holders of large amounts of different kinds of digital assets. The good thing about these is that their security is decent and you can use many of them at the same time.
The Security Question
You may be wondering if cryptocurrency wallets are safe. Unfortunately, that’s not an easy question to answer. On a day-to-day basis, all of the cryptocurrency wallets I reviewed in this roundup are safe and employ a basic layer of security to protect your assets. But, yes, some are a little more safe than others.
At a basic level, these cryptocurrency wallets all have password-controlled access to them, which is potentially another passcode or pin code to control access to your account (though most often this is one step, not two). They encrypt all transaction data via Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) while in transit, and they securely store your public and private keys, either encrypted on your local device or on the cryptocurrency wallet maker’s servers.
That’s the minimum level of security any cryptocurrency wallet should support, and surprisingly, it’s all that four out of our five reviewed cryptocurrency wallets can do. Only Coinbase and Copay Bitcoin Wallet added more security than what I just listed, even though many cryptocurrency wallet customers are asking primarily for two additional capabilities: two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-signature support. What are these features?
2FA: This feature would generate a token or key from the cryptocurrency wallet maker that you’d need to know in order to access your wallet. Generally, this additional code is initially sent via an email or text. However, things aren’t over once you enter the code. Once this code is entered and you have full access to your cryptocurrency wallet, the two-factor system will keep generating new codes every few seconds. That means, to hack your account, malcontents would need to know not only your primarily account credentials but also your device itself. That’s significantly more difficult and dangerous for the bad guys to do, so it’s an excellent additional layer of security.
Multi-Signature Support: This feature works like a joint bank account but at the key level. Typically, such a system is referred to as a “two out of three” system. That’s because it generates three keys: one controlled by the account holder (you), one that’s controlled by the service, and one that’s shared. To access the account, you need at least two out of the three keys. There are variations on this them, including the 3-of-5 scheme that Coinbase uses for its Vault service.
Overall, the cryptocurrency wallets I review here in this roundup represent some of the best hot wallet solutions available. All of them will do well for you whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran. However, even among this relatively small group, you’ll need to decide which of two basic camps you fall into before you can choose the right cryptocurrency wallet for you. The first camp is comprised of the speculators who are comfortable with risk and therefore aren’t looking for a cryptocurrency wallet that asks a lot of questions. The second camp is made up of conservative investors who are interested in fewer digital assets and desire a safe environment that’s more akin to our regulated banking industry.
If you’re in camp number 1, then you’re best off with our Editors’ Choice Exodus. This cryptocurrency wallet is easy to use and supports a huge number of digital asset types via the distributed exchange ShapeShift. If you’re in camp 2, then our Editors’ Choice Coinbase Wallet is the cryptocurrency wallet for which you’re looking. This one is backed by a reputable US firm that’s not only well funded, but also well secured and in compliance with all relevant US banking laws.
There are many more cryptocurrency wallets, and we’ll be adding reviews for them over time. For now, the five reviews here will get you safely started in the exciting cryptocurrency space that’s rewriting how the financial industry works.
Pros: Multi-signature and two-factor authentication support. Well funded and backed by a reputable exchange. Ability to access more digital financial instruments than just cryptocurrencies.
Cons: Doesn’t support Bitcoin at this time. Acts as a hosted wallet, so keys are stored elsewhere.
Bottom Line: Coinbase Wallet is an excellent cryptocurrency wallet that has great things in its future. While it’s a little limited on the digital currencies it supports, it’s not only easy to use but also the safest to use of any wallet we tested.
Pros: Excellent, even beautiful, user interface that’s well suited for beginners. Great charting features. Large selection of supported currencies. Supports ShapeShift.
Cons: No two-factor authentication. No multi-signature support. Desktop only; no mobile version.
Bottom Line: Exodus is a great solution for those who want an easy-to-use desktop cryptocurrency wallet that provides access to a broad array of digital currencies. For beginners who want access to a large list of digital asset types combined with a gorgeous and easy-to-use user interface, Exodus simply rocks.
Pros: Supports multi-signature accounts. Supports multiple wallets. Easy-to-use interface.
Cons: Bitcoin-only. No multi-factor authentication.
Bottom Line: While it’s Bitcoin-only, Copay Bitcoin Wallet has a lot going for it. This cryptocurrency wallet is easy to use, supports multi-signature accounts, and also supports immediate transaction verification. If you’re not an altcoin speculator, then this wallet is a solid choice.
Pros: Easy to use. Able to purchase Bitcoin and conduct transactions directly from the app. Gathers little user information to protect privacy.
Cons: Supports Bitcoin and Ethereum only. No desktop or web browser version, only iOS and Android. Lacks advanced features such as two-factor authentication and multi-sign transaction support.
Bottom Line: We like BRD because it’s not only free but very easy to use, and you can buy your Bitcoins directly from the app. But a lack of advanced features and a narrow focus on Bitcoin and Ethereum may force more advanced cryptocurrency users to look elsewhere.
Pros: Broad device and platform support. Clean, easy-to-use user interface (UI). Long list of supported cryptocurrencies. Built-in Shapeshift support.
Cons: No two-factor authentication. No multi-signature support. Desktop interfaces don’t take full advantage of the device.
Bottom Line: Jaxx is a cryptocurrency wallet that used to lead the pack when it comes to platform support, overall currencies supported, and ease of use. Since Exodus showed up, however, Jaxx has fallen to second place in most areas, except for platform support.