Electrum vs Multibit: a Bitcoin thin client comparison

I couldn’t find a decent comparison between Electrum and MultiBit, so I downloaded them both, and decided to write my own. They’re both excellent Bitcoin thin clients; and for the average user, the choice likely doesn’t matter. If your Bitcoin client needs are a little beyond basic, keep reading for a showdown of Electrum vs MultiBit.

I’ve written a follow-up to this article: Bitcoin – Two (ish) Years Later

Edit September 8, 2017: MultiBit is apparently dead. Bought by KeepKey.  Electrum remains strong; however having got back into Bitcoin recently (and it’s price increase) I’ve moved my coins to my new Trezor.  The newest version of multibit I could find would not send coins properly; I had to import my private keys into a new electrum wallet.

Edit July 4, 2015: there is a new version of MultiBit available – MultiBit HD.  This review pertains to the previous version.  I have not used MultiBit HD.

Background

I’m testing both of the applications on Mac OS 10.8 and Linux (Kubuntu raring). I don’t have a Windows machine, or any desire to run Windows.

Download Electrum here.
Download MultiBit here.

A Draw

I’ll start off with what they both do – that is, where the playing field is level.

  • Encrypted wallets. Both of these applications can encrypt your wallet. Encrypting your wallet is sort of akin to not leaving your physical wallet sitting on the bar when you go to the bathroom. It’s just common sense – if your wallet is encrypted, you cannot spend Bitcoins without the key.
  • Lightweight clients. Both MultiBit and Electrum are “thin” clients – they do not run bitcoind and download and index the entire blockchain. Thus, they both rely on being able to connect to a server which is running a “full” Bitcoin client. Fortunately, this process is seamless to the user in both applications, and both applications had no trouble finding a server.
  • Import/Export and Backup/Restore. Both of these clients can import private keys from other applications, though Multibit requires a little bit of file massaging to get it to understand the private keys. They also both support making backups of the wallet, in case of disaster.
  • Open source. Both are open-source software, which means that anyone can download and audit the code themselves to ensure that everything is on the level. For something like currency management, this is a must for security, but also, if the team programming the application decides to throw in the towel, the community can fork the project and pick up where they left off.

MultiBit Wins

Next, since I started with MultiBit…this is where MultiBit wins over Electrum

  • MultiBit supports having multiple wallets open at once. This is the feature that drew me to MultiBit in the first place. This is a nice way to go if you like to manage multiple wallets – in my case, I have my main wallet, my wife’s wallet (she doesn’t want to be bothered with the tricky parts of Bitcoin), and another wallet for testing, Bitcoin fountains, etc.
  • Java application. Since MultiBit is written in Java, the installation and application operation works the same on Mac, Linux, and (presumably) Windows. There is no need to make sure you have libraries installed (on Linux – both worked out of the box on the Mac).
  • Multiple access protection. I have my Bitcoin wallets stashed in my DropBox using encfs to encrypt them – so I can open the same wallet on Mac and Linux simultaneously. MultiBit gets points here for aborting all operations and warning me about the other program editing the wallet – to protect the integrity of the file.
  • Multiple exchange tickers. I like to see the prices on both Bitstamp and BTC-E. It’s just a nice touch.

Electrum Wins

Next up, these are the points where Electrum wins

  • Private keys and labels are stored together in the wallet file. This means that I can just worry about keeping a single file safe and backed up. It is absolutely maddening when you have 20+ addresses and the labels aren’t there to tell you what each address is for. I can’t tell which payment came from my mining pool and which came from a Craigslist sale.
  • Opening a specific wallet from the command line. This is the only thing that saves Electrum’s inability to manage multiple wallets – I can just pass the path to the wallet on the command line and open whatever wallet I want. This is nice, because a) if the default wallet doesn’t exist, the app either wants you to create one or terminate; and b) having to go to File -> Open just to switch wallets kind of sucks. In Linux I just have an application association electrum -w wired up to my Electrum wallet filetype. I haven’t solved this for the Mac yet, but I suspect if I just edit the .plist file I can add a -w to the arguments and get the same effect when dropping a wallet on my dock icon.
  • Explicit change addresses. Change addresses are a bit complicated to explain here, so see this page for a detailed explanation. The bottom line is, careful management of change addresses helps to protect your anonymity when sending Bitcoins.
  • Send from address specification. Electrum lets you specify which addresses to send coins from. Without this capability, the wallet would choose the send addresses for you when compiling the transaction, and if you’re trying to stay anonymous, this may not be what you want.
  • Wallet generation and restores from a seed. This is a wonderful feature. This lets you generate your entire wallet and all future generated keys from a string of twelve words. If you remember those twelve words, you can restore all your funds on all addresses, and you don’t need to worry about backups. Your labels, of course, will be lost if you do this, but at least you will have access to all of your money, which is what’s important here.

The Bottom Line

In the end, I think I’m sticking with Electrum. Its privacy features more than outweigh the convenience benefits provided by MultiBit’s simplicity.

Misc

Want some free Bitcoins to play with? If you’re new to faucets, they’re basically websites that let you earn BTC by clicking stuff every hour or so. These are all referral links. You don’t make any less, but copy the links w/o the refer ids if you’re concerned. These all work as of September 2017.

https://freebitco.in/?r=105837 | http://moonbit.co.in/?ref=18c73e6686d0 | http://bitfun.co/?ref=8CC597A0C26A

10 Replies to “Electrum vs Multibit: a Bitcoin thin client comparison”

    1. It is in fact! I’m not sure why I didn’t notice that before, but I’ve updated the post to reflect this. Thanks for pointing out that error.

  1. This is an exceptionally useful review that doesn’t get lost in the deep technical weeds, like too many do on security-related applications. When I used Coinbase directly, I discovered there was no anonymity at all; might as well use Paypal. This is not ideal when one is making anonymous donations or whatever. Electrum’s clear leanings toward protecting anonymity in addition to simplifying the bookkeeping – those are deciding factors for me.

    This is a type of user-oriented review I wish I could find on all complex software. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Hello Thomas,
    Very interesting review of Electrum and MultiBit in 2015.

    It would be informative to see what you thought of the most recent Electrum code and MultiBit HD.

    Regards,

    Jim

    1. The requirement of a software tacked-on fee (in addition to the normal fee paid) to spend bitcoins is pretty off-putting, and sets a somewhat dangerous precedent in my opinion. I can’t in good conscience consider Multibit HD to be truly free, with this restriction. I really like MultiBit (non-HD) but I can’t on principle use MultiBit HD for the above reason. I understand that software development costs time and money, but why not make this optional, at least?

      1. Agree 100% with you Tom. I was using Multibit and then upgraded to Multibit HD. HD didn’t bring across any of my addresses, in fact it started with a brand new file. It appears the developers have changed (this disjointed upgrade process is the first annoyance), and they are now trying to monetize their software by adding an ADDITIONAL fee besides the transaction fee. The fact that this fee is compulsory and I was not informed about it prior to downloading the software bothers me. I would rather things like this be donationware.

        So I exercised my freedom of choice and switched to Electrum. Much better.

  3. With Electrum I get a few keywords as my “seed” which I can either memorize or write down some place safe, in case my HD gets corrupted. I don’t see this feature with Multibit, or did I not know where to look. Thoughts?

    1. There isn’t a way (as far as I know) to do this with MultiBit (old version, not MultiBit HD). My advice, as with any irreplaceable data, make many backups, and keep them in a safe place.

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