Cryptocurrencies are typically ranked by their market capitalization. Hence Bitcoin gets all the headlines when people talk about cryptocurrencies. But there are literally thousands of other options when it comes to these digital currencies. In fact, cryptos that aren’t Bitcoin are called ‘Altcoins‘, or alternatives to Bitcoin.
While Bitcoin may be the first major cryptocurrency to hit the market – it debuted in 2009 – many others have become highly popular, even if not quite as large as the original.
Today there are thousands of different types of cryptocurrencies, and while each is designed to provide some new feature or function, most are founded on similar principles to those that established bitcoin:
- Cryptocurrencies are not issued, regulated, or backed by a central authority like a bank.
- They are created using a distributed ledger (blockchain) and peer-to-peer review.
- Bitcoin and other coins are encrypted (secured) with specialized computer code called cryptography.
- As assets, cryptocurrencies are generally stored in digital wallets, commonly a blockchain wallet, which allows users to manage and trade their coins.
Here are the largest cryptocurrencies by the total dollar value of the coins in existence, that is, the market capitalization, or market cap. Data is from CoinMarketCap.com, as of Dec. 16, 2021.
- Bitcoin (BTC)
- Price: $48,826
- Market cap: $922 billion
As the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin (BTC) is also the most popular and highly valued, despite high volatility over the course of its history. Bitcoin is the original blockchain-based cryptocurrency. Created in 2009 by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin has since attracted millions of investors, becoming the largest cryptocurrency by market cap. Bitcoin is inherently scarce: only 21 million Bitcoin will ever be minted.
- Ethereum (ETH)
- Price: $4049.75
- Market cap: $480 billion
Ether (ETH) is the cryptocurrency of the Ethereum network, an open-source blockchain upon which developers can build apps and other cryptocurrencies. It’s also the second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, behind Bitcoin. Ether was first proposed by Russian programmer Vitalik Buterin in late 2013. The technology adds a scripting language to the Bitcoin blockchain, which extends its capability by enabling smart contracts to be written, with trades subject to conditions. The most popular use of Ether is in buying shares in initial coin offerings (ICOs), which represent start-up capital.
- Binance Coin (BNB)
- Price: $539.79
- Market cap: $90 billion
Binance is one of the few cryptocurrencies that has surpassed its 2017 mark. There was a bull market during that year, and the prices of all cryptocurrencies increased along with it, hitting a peak before peaking and declining in value. Unlike the other cryptocurrencies, Binance Coin has maintained a slow but steady upward trajectory since 2017. Thus, Binance Coin has emerged to be one of the more reliable investment options with fewer risks due to its success.
- Tether (USDT)
- Price: $1.00
- Market cap: $76 billion
Tether, is a different type of cryptocurrency called stablecoin that is backed by fiat currencies such as US dollars, making it more consistent and reliable compared to other volatile cryptocurrencies. Since it is linked to the US dollar, Tether is the most reliable of all cryptocurrencies. The Federal Reserve Bank has one dollar for each unit of Tether. Tether is therefore ideal for investors who want to use their cryptocurrency to make transactions.
- Solana (SOL)
- Price: $185.65
- Market cap: $57 billion
2021 has been an eventful year for cryptocurrency as a whole, but one of the more remarkable storylines of the year was the sudden emergence of Solana, which went from accounting for just 0.01% of the market to more than 2.6% by early December.
Solana has made strides in decentralized finance (a.k.a. DeFi) and specifically its smart contract technology, which are programs that run on the platform according to preset conditions (like paper contracts, but without the middlemen). Solana was also behind the “Degenerate Ape Academy,” a non-fungible token (NFT) that was launched in August 2021.
- Cardano (ADA)
- Price: $1.31
- Market cap: $44 billion
Cardano’s cryptocurrency is called ADA, after Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician. Cardano bills itself as a third-generation blockchain platform, to cast itself as a next-level player. Cardano relies on Proof of Stake (POS) meaning that the complicated proof-of-work (PoW) calculations and high electricity usage required for mining coins like Bitcoin aren’t necessary, potentially making its network more efficient and sustainable.
- USD Coin (USDC)
- Price: $1.00
- Market cap: $41 billion
USD Coin (USDC) describes itself as “the world’s digital dollar.” Created by a global financial firm called Circle, USDC is the result of work that has been invested in by Goldman Sachs, Baidu, and IDG Capital, among others. USD Coin is tied to the U.S. Dollar, which makes its price much more stable than other cryptocurrencies. That stability lends itself more toward digital payments, while other cryptocurrencies have more potential to increase in value as investments.
- XRP (XRP)
- Price: $0.826
- Market cap: $39 billion
XRP was developed by Ripple Labs, Inc. And while some people use the terms XRP and Ripple interchangeably, they are different. Ripple is a global money transfer network used by financial services companies. XRP is the crypto that was designed to work on the Ripple network. You can buy XRP as an investment, as a coin to exchange for other cryptocurrencies, or as a way to finance transactions on Ripple.
Along with every other token on the market, $XRP lost considerable value during the crash at the beginning of 2020, but has risen in value and remains relevant as the fuel for Ripple, the open-source platform developed to facilitate quick and cheap transactions.
- Polkadot (DOT)
- Price: $27.35
- Market cap: $27 billion
Polkadot (DOT) is a unique PoS cryptocurrency aimed at delivering interoperability among other blockchains. Polkadot (DOT) says its mission includes allowing different blockchains to exchange information and transactions with one another. Its website plays up data and identity security and users being in control.
- Avalanche (AVAX)
- Price: $106.45
- Market cap: $25 billion
Avalanche describes itself as an open, programmable smart contracts platform for decentralized applications. AVAX is used to pay transaction fees and can be staked to secure the network. Avalanche is compatible with Solidity, Ethereum’s programming language, and can be used to deploy custom private or public blockchains as “subnets.”
The native asset connecting the Avalanche network is the AVAX cryptocurrency. There will only ever be 720 million AVAX coins in circulation, and AVAX can also potentially be used in proposing and voting on future network upgrades.
The cryptocurrency market is a Wild West, so those speculating in these digital assets should not put in more money than they can afford to lose. Volatility can be intense, with crypto assets fluctuating significantly even in a single day. And individual investors can be trading against highly sophisticated players, making it a horrifying experience for novices.