Bitcoin vs. Litecoin: An Overview

Over the past several years, public interest in cryptocurrencies has fluctuated dramatically. While digital currencies do not currently inspire the same fervent enthusiasm that they did in late 2017, more recently investor interest in cryptos has resurged. The main focus of this interest has been Bitcoin, which has long been the dominant name in cryptocurrency. Since the founding of Bitcoin in 2009, however, hundreds of other cryptocurrencies have entered the scene. Although it has proven increasingly difficult for digital coins to stand out given the level of crowding in the field, Litecoin (LTC) is one non-Bitcoin crypto which has managed to stand up to the competition. LTC currently trails behind Bitcoin as the 7th-largest digital currency by market cap, as of May 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • Bitcoin has been the dominant name in cryptocurrencies since 2009, but Litecoin and hundreds of others have joined the fray as well.
  • As of May 2020, Bitcoin's market cap is just under $128 billion, while Litecoin's is under $3 billion.
  • Litecoin can produce a greater number of coins than Bitcoin and its transaction speed is faster, but these factors are largely psychological boons for the investor and don't impact the value or usability of the currency.
  • Bitcoin and Litecoin use fundamentally different cryptographic algorithms: Bitcoin uses the longstanding SHA-256 algorithm, and Litecoin uses a newer algorithm called Scrypt.

Similarities Between Bitcoin and Litecoin

On the surface, Bitcoin and Litecoin have a lot in common. At the most basic level, they are both decentralized cryptocurrencies. Whereas fiat currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Japanese yen rely on the backing of central banks for value, circulation control and legitimacy, cryptocurrencies rely only on the cryptographic integrity of the network itself.

Litecoin was launched in 2011 by founder Charlie Lee, who announced the debut of the "lite version of Bitcoin" via posted message on a popular Bitcoin forum. From its founding, Litecoin was seen as being created in reaction to Bitcoin. Indeed, Litecoin’s own developers have long stated that their intention is to create the “silver” to Bitcoin’s “gold.” For this reason, Litecoin adopts many of the features of Bitcoin that Lee and other developers felt were working well for the earlier cryptocurrency, and changes some other aspects that the development team felt could be improved.

Proof of Work

One important similarity between these two cryptocurrencies is that they are both proof of work ecosystems, meaning that the underlying process by which both bitcoin and LTC are mined is fundamentally similar (though not exactly the same, as we will see below).

Storage and Transactions

For an investor, many of the basic elements of transacting with bitcoin and LTC are very similar as well. Both of these cryptocurrencies can be bought via exchange or mined using a mining rig. Both require a digital or cold storage "wallet" in order to be safely stored between transactions. Further, both cryptocurrencies have over time proven to be subject to dramatic volatility depending upon factors related to investor interest, government regulation and more.

Differences Between Bitcoin and Litecoin

Market Capitalization

One area in which Bitcoin and Litecoin differ significantly is in market capitalization. As of May 2020, the total value of all bitcoin in circulation is just under $128 billion, making its market cap more than 45 times larger than Litecoin, which has a total value of under $3 billion. Whether Bitcoin's market cap strikes you as either high or low depends largely on a historical perspective. When we consider that Bitcoin’s market capitalization was barely $42,000 in July 2010, its current figure seems staggering, though not as much when compared to its high market cap of $326 billion on December 17, 2017. Nonetheless, though the total number of bitcoins is worth substantially less now than it was two years ago, Bitcoin as a network still dwarfs all other digital currencies. The closest competitor is Ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency, which has a market cap of around $19.4 billion. Thus, the fact that Bitcoin enjoys a significantly higher value than Litecoin is in itself not a surprise, given that Bitcoin is so much larger than all other digital currencies in existence at this time.

Distribution

Another of the main differences between Bitcoin and Litecoin concerns the total number of coins that each cryptocurrency can produce. This is where Litecoin distinguishes itself. The Bitcoin network can never exceed 21 million coins, whereas Litecoin can accommodate up to 84 million coins. In theory, this sounds like a significant advantage in favor of Litecoin, but its real-world effects may ultimately prove to be negligible. This is because both Bitcoin and Litecoin are divisible into nearly infinitesimal amounts. In fact, the minimum quantity of transferable Bitcoin is one hundred millionth of a Bitcoin (0.00000001 Bitcoins) known colloquially as one “satoshi.” Users of either currency should, therefore, have no difficulty purchasing low-priced goods or services, regardless of how high the general price of an undivided single Bitcoin or Litecoin may become.

Litecoin’s greater number of maximum coins might offer a psychological advantage over Bitcoin, due to its smaller price as of yet for a single unit.

In November 2013, IBM executive Richard Brown raised the prospect that some users may prefer transacting in whole units rather than in fractions of a unit, a potential advantage for Litecoin. Yet even assuming this is true, the problem may be solved through simple software changes introduced in the digital wallets through which Bitcoin transactions are made. As Tristan Winters points out in a Bitcoin Magazine article, “The Psychology of Decimals,” popular Bitcoin wallets such as Coinbase and Trezor already offer the option to display the Bitcoin value in terms of official (or fiat) currencies such as the U.S. dollar. This can help circumvent the psychological aversion to dealing in fractions.

Transaction Speed

Although technically transactions occur instantaneously on both the Bitcoin and Litecoin networks, time is required for those transactions to be confirmed by other network participants. Litecoin was founded with the goal of prioritizing transaction speed, and that has proven an advantage as it has grown in popularity. According to data from Blockchain.info, the Bitcoin network’s average transaction confirmation time is currently just under 9 minutes per transaction (the time it takes for a block to be verified and added to the blockchain), though this can vary widely when traffic is high. The equivalent figure for Litecoin is roughly 2.5 minutes. In principle, this difference in confirmation time could make Litecoin more attractive for merchants. For example, a merchant selling a product in exchange for Bitcoin would need to wait nearly four times as long to confirm payment as if that same product were sold in exchange for Litecoin. On the other hand, merchants can always opt to accept transactions without waiting for any confirmation at all. The security of such zero-confirmation transactions is the subject of some debate.

Algorithms

By far the most fundamental technical difference between Bitcoin and Litecoin are the different cryptographic algorithms that they employ. Bitcoin makes use of the longstanding SHA-256 algorithm, whereas Litecoin makes use of a comparatively new algorithm known as Scrypt.

The main practical significance of these different algorithms is their impact on the process of “mining” new coins. In both Bitcoin and Litecoin, the process of confirming transactions requires substantial computing power. Some members of the currency network, known as miners, allocate their computing resources toward confirming the transactions of other users. In exchange for doing so, these miners are rewarded by earning units of the currency which they have mined.

SHA-256 is generally considered to be a more complex algorithm than Scrypt, while at the same time allowing a greater degree of parallel processing. Consequently, Bitcoin miners in recent years have utilized increasingly sophisticated methods for mining Bitcoins as efficiently as possible. The most common method for Bitcoin mining consists of the use of Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs). These are hardware systems that, unlike the simple CPUs and GPUs which came before them, can be tailor-made for mining Bitcoins. The practical consequence of this has been that Bitcoin mining has become increasingly out-of-reach for the everyday user unless that individual joins a mining pool.

Scrypt, by contrast, was designed to be less susceptible to the kinds of custom hardware solutions employed in ASIC-based mining. This has led many commentators to view Scrypt-based cryptocurrencies such as Litecoin as being more accessible for users who also wish to participate in the network as miners. While some companies have brought Scrypt ASICs to the market, Litecoin’s vision of more easily accessible mining is still a reality, as a good portion of Litecoin mining is still done via miners' CPUs or GPUs.

While Bitcoin and Litecoin may be the gold and silver of the cryptocurrency space today, history has shown that the status quo in this dynamic and emerging sector can change in even a few months. It remains to be seen whether the cryptocurrencies with which we have become familiar will retain their stature in the months and years to come.