A closer look at Litecoin mining: Is it worth doing?

The era of Bitcoin mining on the GPU is dead. A year ago, a single Radeon graphics card could crank out a reasonable fraction of a Bitcoin in a single day.

Today, that same GPU earns a thousandth of a Bitcoin in 24 hours, generating little value while consuming a substantial amount of power. The shift to ASICs for Bitcoin mining mirrors the shift from CPUs to GPUs, but the market isn’t content to just turn those mining rigs off – not when there’s an alternative currency available for which ASIC miners don’t exist.

That alternative is Litecoin – and there’s reason to think that buyers have emptied the shelves of AMD’s Radeon hardware to build mining platforms. First off, there’s the fact that – over in the US at least – you can’t find a high-end Radeon in stock at the moment.

Newegg and Amazon.com are both out of stock, while over at Amazon.com, the lowly AMD Sempron 145 – a single-core, 2.8GHz chip with a $30 (£18) price tag – is the fifth most popular CPU.

Further proof of this trend is the Litecoin network hash rate, as shown here:

Clearly Litecoin miners are coming online, and they’re coming online en masse. Many of these are undoubtedly Bitcoin miners switching over now that GPUs are no longer cost effective, but some of these systems are probably driven by new miners.

Litecoin, like Bitcoin, is a cryptocurrency, but it’s based on scrypt, not SHA-256. Scrypt is a different cryptographic algorithm that’s purposefully designed to be difficult to parallelise. While that hasn’t stopped it from moving to the GPU, it requires far more memory than Bitcoin mining – several gigabytes worth, as opposed to several dozen megabytes.

Litecoin confirms transactions faster (every 2.5 minutes, rather than every 10 minutes for Bitcoin) and it contains more coins – 84 million coins will be found in total under the LTC protocol, as opposed to 21 million for BTC.

Bitcoin and Litecoin prices tend to move together; Bitcoins stratospheric leap over the past month – it’s down from a high of $1200 (£730) but trading at $870 (£530) as I write this – has created an odd situation where it’s easier to mine Litecoin and then convert LTC to BTC, than it is to just mine BTC to start with.

Nvidia users may also take note – the gap between Nvidia and AMD cards in Litecoin mining is slightly smaller than with Bitcoin, with the GTX 770 capable of up to 240 KHash/s (yes, we’re back to KHash, from MHash) as compared to about 880 KHash/s for the R9 290X. That’s still a significant gap, but it’s better than the BTC situation, where the 680 hit just 130 MHash/s compared to the R9 290X’s 874MHash/s.

Should you mine Litecoins?

My philosophy on mining cryptocurrencies hasn’t changed since I first heard about Bitcoin in 2011. If you want to make a bit of a play at earning a little scratch, go for it. Definitely go for it if you already own the hardware. If you think mining some coins could help defray the costs of buying a new GPU that you’re going to use anyway, then that’s probably a reasonable bet.

Understand, however, that the operative word is bet. In the two years I’ve been mining, I’ve gone through three pools. One became too small to sustain itself, one was DDOS’d to death, and 50BTC technically claims to still be operating, but its account system has been screwed up for nearly two months and the support staff no longer answer emails. Its FAQ on the attack hasn’t been updated in weeks. All withdrawals are frozen.

Jumping into this scene, therefore, isn’t something I recommend just for a lark, and I definitely don’t recommend investing thousands in building huge server farms to try and cash in on Litecoin. Yes, if you mined hundreds of Bitcoins between 2011 and the present day, you might have just settled your retirement – but the chances of predicting an essentially unpredictable market are too high. Don’t risk money you can’t afford to lose.

A tip of the hat to reader Justin Jaynes at Seeking Alpha, who alerted me to the sudden Radeon shortage and the LTC shift.

Image Credit: BTC Keychain