Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana: Updated 2023 Comparison

Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana

TL;DR

  • Ethereum broke ground as the first protocol to introduce decentralized applications (dApps) via smart contracts. The protocol quickly grew in popularity due to the usefulness of dApps.
  • Cardano, Polkadot, and Solana were all conceived because their developers believed Ethereum, as it currently stood, would run into major scalability problems.
  • All four protocols differ with regards to consensus mechanisms, performance (transactions per second and fees), economics, and overall strengths and weaknesses.
  • Ethereum’s extremely large economy and ability to upgrade and adapt indicates it will likely remain as the dominate Web3 economic hub for years to come.

As the cryptocurrency markets march forward, investors continually work to understand the underlying technologies and the protocols that might dominate the future. The winning narrative over the past three years has been the “multi-chain” future. The idea is that Bitcoin will be gold 2.0 and a basket of other layer-1 (L1) protocols will serve as Web3’s major economic hubs.

Currently, the four most prominent cryptos in that basket are Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana. This article steps back to compare these four side-by-side in order to see where they’re at and where they might be going.

Development History

The history between these four protocols is like a nerd version of Game of Thrones.

Vitalik Buterin proposed the Ethereum whitepaper in 2013. His big idea was dApps fueled by smart contracts. When Buterin assembled his team, both Charles Hoskinson and Gavin Wood were in the inner circle. Ethereum launched in 2015 and became extremely popular because of the usefulness of dApps.

At some point during all of this, both Hoskinson and Wood foresaw that Ethereum would run into scalability problems. So both men departed and went separate ways. Hoskinson launched Cardano in 2017, and Wood launched Polkadot in 2020. All the while, a developer named Anatoly Yakovenko kept tabs on all of this, and launched Solana in 2020.

Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana Meme.

The key takeaway here is that Hoskinson, Wood, and Yakovenko all believed Ethereum’s scalability issues would lead to its ultimate undoing. Thus, they saw an opportunity to build a better technical solution that might be able to handle true mass adoption. That’s the story.

With this broader context in mind, let’s delve into the protocols.

Macro Comparison

First, let’s knock out the similarities.

Ethereum, Cardano, Polkadot, and Solana are all open source, permission-less, decentralized, proof-of-stake (POS), L1 blockchain protocols. The only exception here is Polkadot, which is actually a layer-0 (L0) blockchain ecosystem. All four support the development of dApps via smart contracts. Generally, you can conceptualize these protocols as global computer blockchain networks that allow anyone to engage in commerce, entertainment, and self-expression.

Now, here’s the differences:

Ethereum

Ethereum initially launched as a proof-of-work protocol. As previously mentioned, the innovation behind dApps helped Ethereum become the second largest cryptocurrency by market cap with 20% market dominance. The protocol has over 3,600 dApps and is the run-away leader in terms of DeFi and NFT market numbers.

But high transaction fees, scalability and environmental issues forced the protocol to transition to a POS consensus mechanism in late 2020. That transition was successful. And during that time, a diverse ecosystem of layer-2s (L2s) was constructed to further increase scalability and lower fees. Ethereum’s next major upgrade is “sharding”, which is scheduled for late 2023 or early 2024. Sharding should boost Ethereum’s performance even further.

Cardano

Cardano launched looking to displace Ethereum through purposeful research, advanced tech, and better performance. Cardano’s development has been slow and steady, as the network is subject to extensive peer-reviewed research and testing. All this brain-time appears to have worked, because Cardano deploys a sophisticated technical setup that helps it achieve 250 transactions per second (TPS) with very low fees.

Cardano developers have extremely ambitious hopes for the protocol, hoping it will one day transform the global economy into a more financially inclusive and efficient system. But before that happens, Cardano first needs to complete its planned upgrades. The protocol is currently in Stage 3 (“Goguen” Smart Contracts) of 5 total. Stage 4 (“Basho” Scaling) and Stage 5 (“Voltaire” Governance) are TBD. The protocol has an extremely loyal fan-base and is a top 10 crypto asset.

Polkadot

Polkadot launched as a L0, multi-blockchain ecosystem. Polkadot’s core innovation is a platform that allows for the creation and deployment of interoperable, sovereign blockchains. Thus, Polkadot’s overarching goal is a multi-blockchain ecosystem that’s extremely scalable and efficient. And by extremely scalable, Polkadot’s stated goal is for the ecosystem to achieve 1 million TPS.

At the core of Polkadot is the “relay” blockchain. This is the central utility chain that provides security and interoperability for Polkadot’s “parachains” – sovereign, highly-customizable chains owned and operated by third-party developers. Currently, there are parachains 20 live and operating, with a total capacity of 100. It appears Polkadot has constructed a solid foundation for blockchain scalability and interoperability, but the network, at the time of this writing, is the smallest of the four being just outside the top 10.

Solana

Solana launched with hype that it was the real “Ethereum killer”, and it gained widespread recognition for its extremely low fees ($0.00025) and high TPS (4,760). In fact, Solana takes 1st place out of this list in these categories. And due to the low fees, the protocol has become a well-known hub for NFT minting and trading, and the network resides within the top 10 cryptos by market cap.

But not everything has been sunshine and rainbows. The protocol now has a reputation for instability as Solana has suffered more than seven major outages, some lasting longer than 24 hours. The most recent was on February 25th, when the blockchain had to be “restarted” due to software update issues. Solana is trying to repair this damage, both with technical fixes, and also with the release of the Solana phone, a Web3 phone set to debut at the time of this writing.

Micro Comparison

We got the big picture. Now let’s inspect the micros. We will keep this short and sweet.

Consensus Mechanism

All four use POS consensus mechanisms. But here’s the differences:

  • Ethereum: Validators stake a minimum of 32 ETH on Ethereum and run special validation software. Security via slashing.
  • Cardano: Uses the “Ouroboros” variant, a randomness algorithm that itself randomly changes over time to select Cardano’s next validator. No slashing. Validators are incentivized to behave though a game theory called the Nash Equilibrium.
  • Polkadot: A “nominated” POS system. Nominators stake a minimum of 250 DOT to the validators (up to 16) they support. The validators with the most nominations validate and propose blocks on Polkadot’s relay chain. Security via slashing.
  • Solana: POS + proof of history (POH). POH means all validators run “cryptographic clocks” that are synchronized with each other. This time alignment makes for faster ordering of transactions, and it’s why Solana achieves such high TPS. Security via slashing.

Transactions per Second (Scalability) and Fees

TPSFees
Ethereum 29$1.68
Cardano250$0.15
Polkadot300$0.5
Solana4,760$0.00025

Ethereum’s 29 TPS includes all L2s except for Polygon. And as mentioned previously, Ethereum “sharding” is scheduled for late 2023 or early 2024. And Cardano’s “Basho” upgrade (TBD) will introduce side-chains to its network as well. Meaning, if all goes well, both Ethereum and Cardano should see significant increases in their TPS after these upgrades are completed.

Decentralization and Security

It’s difficult to make hard conclusions as to which is the most decentralized and secure. But here’s what we know:

Active Validators% of Staked Tokens to Overall Supply
Ethereum 635,91014.86%
Cardano3,17663.63%
Polkadot29740.47%
Solana1,76871.65%

Ethereum’s active validator count just keeps ripping. The protocol’s +600K validators is fantastic. However, Ethereum’s percentage of staked tokens to overall supply is very low compared to the other three protocols. But since the Shanghai upgrade, staked ETH is flowing away from centralized staking services to decentralized liquid staking protocols, which is positive for decentralization.

Ethereum Validators

Source.

Cardano and Polkadot’s validator count seems low compared to Ethereum. But given they use different POS systems, one can’t really make an apples to apples comparison. Cardano and Solana have high staked tokens to overall supply, which is great.

Regarding Solana, it has two major black-eyes. First, the top 33 SOL validators collectively control 33% of all staked SOL. This means these 33 could halt the network if they colluded together. Second, the network uses just one validator “client.” Thus, the entire network is exposed to a single point of failure because all validators must connect through one software service. Not good for decentralization!

Economic Statistics

Here’s how the four protocols compare in terms of economics.

Total Market Cap Total dAppsDeFi TVLNFT Trade Volume (All Time)
Ethereum $230B+3,600$28B$43B
Cardano$13B+2,000$151M$580M
Polkadot$6B+550$290MUnknown
Solana$8B+1800$270M$4B

The big takeaway here is just how dominate Ethereum has become! To put it plainly, Ethereum blows the other three completely out of the water in terms of economic numbers. It’s not even close. And this isn’t even factoring in Ethereum’s L2s and Polygon! Wow.

Another takeaway is how small Cardano’s DeFi and NFT numbers are to its competitors and its own market cap. The protocol is lagging in terms of real world usefulness. Its relative high market cap is likely due to Cardano’s loyal fan-base.

Strengths, Weaknesses & Final Thoughts

After comparing these four protocols, their respective strengths and weaknesses become more apparent.

StrengthsWeaknesses
Ethereum – Largest economy by a mile
– Ability to successfully upgrade and adapt as needed (e.g. ETH 2.0)
– Lowest TPS
– Highest Fees
Cardano– Advanced tech due to peer-review process
– Solid TPS and low fees
– Lowest DeFi and NFT trade volumes
Polkadot – Dynamic L0 ecosystem, with built-in interoperability and cross-chain communication
– Potential for extremely high scalability
– Lowest Market Cap and dApps
Solana– Lowest fees and highest TPS by a mile
– Decent NFT trade volumes
– Recurring outages.
– Concerns over decentralization and security

No one knows the future, but allow me to put on my Nostradamus hat for a moment. OK that’s better.

Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana Meme.

Ethereum is the most promising project by a long-shot, for two reasons. First, because of the project’s first mover advantage in terms of dApps via smart contracts, the network has developed a very diverse and large economy. Keep in mind that Ethereum has 20% dominance of the entire crypto market. That’s huge. Second, Ethereum has proven that it can upgrade and adapt as necessary to changing user and market conditions. Case in point: Ethereum’s transition to POS.

When I add these two factors together, it’s difficult for me to believe that one of these other protocols will be able to overtake Ethereum. For me, this theory is solidified considering the innovation happening on Ethereum’s L2 networks and the upcoming sharding upgrade.

Now, that’s not to say that Cardano, Polkadot, and Solana will wither and die. The future is likely multi-chain, and there’s room for multiple projects. So I generally expect these networks to continue to grow and mature. But these “killers” just couldn’t pull the trigger.

Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana: Updated 2023 Comparison - - 2024

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Ethereum vs. Cardano vs. Polkadot vs. Solana: Updated 2023 Comparison - - 2024
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