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One Bitcoin by the numbers: Is it still possible to make a profit?

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! I have mined a Bitcoin. This was not much of an accomplishment a year or two ago, but in 2013, after the infamous early-April peak at $260 (£170), unearthing a Bitcoin is no easy task. Competition is on the rise and we are getting close to the end of the good ol’ days of Bitcoin; the time when a desktop computer (or two) had any real mining capabilities.

Everyday gaming rigs, which could once mine hundreds of BTC a month, are now only good for a coin or two when working for a huge mining pool. As competition increases, difficulty ramps up, and ASICs become available (hey, it could happen!) these Radeon-powered machines will have little to no impact, spending more on power than they earn mining. That day hasn’t come quite yet though, and I’ve used the resources I have available to me to mine an actual, real-life (well, real-on-the-Internet) Bitcoin.

I earned the Bitcoin using between two and three computers that I have around. Working on technology sites, I have better access to computers than most people, but surprisingly few of them use AMD graphics cards, and aren’t being used for something more productive. Ultimately, for my BTC quest, I was able to rustle up 2 to 3 machines at any given time, which managed between 600 and 1400Mh/s (millions of hashes per second). None of the machines were specially built and I didn’t invest any money in new hardware at all.

Towards the end of the run I was getting impatient and my colleague Joel Hruska helped me sprint to the finish by giving me access to some of his machines, bringing my mining operation up to a nearly respectable 2.7Gh/s (gigahashes, billions of hashes per second). Joel’s additional mega-hashing muscle is the turquoise line on the below graph which shows my mining operation (the blue and yellow), with the Y axis displaying millions of hashes per second:

And here’s how the figures from my little mining escapade break down:

  • Bitcoins earned: 1.00
  • Value today: $133 (£85)
  • Total time: 14.5 days
  • Rigs operating: 2-3
  • Hours spent setting up and tinkering: 5
  • Current hashing rate: ~850Mh/s
  • Peak hash rate: 2700Mh/s
  • Average hash rate: 924 Mh/s
  • Minimum wattage: 700 Watts
  • Peak wattage: 1440 Watts
  • Current efficiency: 1.2Mh/W
  • Peak efficiency: 1.88Mh/W
  • Total power cost: ~$24.05 @ $0.15/kWh (£15)
  • Number of times pool went down: At least 2
  • Number of 502 errors encountered when checking Countless

While these numbers might be revealing, they don’t take into account the cost of the video cards, which would be significant if you don’t have them around, or the heat and noise produced by the systems.

For the two week mining period my typical setup was my decommissioned Intel Core 2 Quad system which I upgraded from a Radeon 4650 to a Radeon 7970, and an AMD-powered benchmarking rig that was good for a paltry 300Mh/s when combining the discrete and on-board graphics. The former system, thanks mainly to the new-ish video card, produced impressive amounts of heat, was loud enough to hear from the next room, and continuously sucked down 400 Watts. Basically, it was not the ideal rig to have running in my living room for two weeks.

While every indicator I have points to my mining operation as being a profitable one, it’s highly dependent on the value of Bitcoins. If prices drop well below $100/BTC (£65/BTC) again, the operation will make so little profit that I might as well aim those boxes at something more practical, like SETI@home.

While I have no idea what to do with my Bitcoin (I’m open to suggestions) and I’m not planning on mining in the future, this was a revealing experiment. Bitcoin mining is very easy to quantify and lots of data is available if you are interested in collecting it, making it an interesting pursuit for the analytically-minded hardware enthusiast. The party might be over, but you can still earn some Bitcoins and have a bit of fun if you have enough hardware handy.

For more on Bitcoin mining, you might want to have a look at: AMD thrashes Nvidia at Bitcoin mining – will the gap ever be closed?