Bitcoin in the real world: Hive app review

Sunday 06 July 2014

Here we are with a fifth and likely final review of bitcoin smartphone apps. Just to recap, the purpose of this series has been to test-drive the apps that make it possible to use bitcoin in real life. And let’s not overestimate how important that task is. These apps are the bridge that span the chasm between the complex online mathematical world of a cryptocurrency protocol and the simple, sticky and poorly-lit landscape of your local bitcoin-accepting pub bar.

So far, I’ve been impressed by two apps and decidedly underwhelmed by another two. For those who haven’t read the previous reviews, the results in so far include:

Blockchain: Thoroughly competent and an excellent choice.
Coinbase: Frankly a little disappointing.
Mycelium: Go and get it right now.
Bitcoin Wallet: No. Stay away.

Getting started
Hive walletHive, like all the other apps, is a trifle to install on your smartphone. The only complication is that there’s a British Gas app also called Hive, and just for a moment there I was confused. Good sense prevailed, and within a few moments the right Hive was sat on my phone, a faithful servant eagerly waiting to become my conduit to the world’s most popular psychoactive drug.

And what a great-looking conduit it is. Really quite stunning. And that’s my first problem, because to a cynic like me it raises questions. Is Hive, like Derek Zoolander, ‘Really, really, really ridiculously good-looking’ but with a face that writes a cheque his brain can’t cash? Or will it be more like discovering a Miss World whose hobbies include performing Tensor Calculus and teaching Akkadian rather than shopping and, er, shopping?

Seeing their extensive feature list is cause for optimism. You can take a closer look at, where you can also create a web wallet. For now, I was most interested in whether it did what it needed to do to buy me a coffee.

‘Can I just...?’
Before you use it, the Hive app will ask you for a list of permissions. To be honest, it’s a little bit Big Brother and I was a touch concerned, but then I realised what it was doing: trying to humanise bitcoin and make it intuitively simple to use. Amongst other things it asks for access to external storage, so you can backup and restore your wallet; your contacts, so when you’re entering a new one it can auto-suggest existing names in your address book (that’s all it says it does with them, by the way); and your location, so you can use bluetooth and GPS to find other Hive users, should you wish.

I was particularly impressed with the idea of integrated contacts, since dealing with bitcoin’s address strings when you’re trying to send someone coins is a chore. Other apps and wallets do make it easier for you, of course, but doing it automatically and including an image as well as a name is a really nice touch. So hats off, Hive.

Getting down to it
Moving past these promises of features beyond my wildest dreams, to be explored another time, I loaded up the app with a minimal amount of bitcoin and off I went to the pub.

There’s a couple of points it’s probably worth raising here. One is that Hive doesn’t seem to have a security pin, which anyone who has read my previous reviews will know upsets me quite a lot. It’s such a small but obvious step to take to protect your bitcoins. Without one, anyone who gains access to your phone can snaffle the lot. Of course there are disclaimers: you should use a pin for your phone itself, you should only keep a minimal amount of funds on your phone’s wallet, you should discourage people from stealing your phone in the first place, and so on, and so forth. I know all of this. But still. Would it have been so hard?

I think not.

One nice feature is that your recent transactions are easily accessible but hidden a swipe away from the home screen, so they don’t clutter the place up. Also welcome is the ability to choose between different denominations of bitcoin: whole bitcoins, mBTC, µBTC. I left it on mBTC because it makes me feel richer, but not obscenely so.

In the bar
So I found myself back in the bar of the Devonshire Arms, where I have become something of a regular recently, ordering a coffee and (after last time and my disastrous experience with Bitcoin Wallet) somewhat sheepishly asking please, if they didn’t mind awfully much, would it please be alright if I paid in bitcoin again, please?

Hive’s interface is really easy to use and it was a pleasure to know exactly what to do without worrying it was going to get complicated. There are four icons on the home screen: request coins, send coins, display my wallet’s QR code and snap one for a purchase using the camera.

Presented with my QR code receipt, I touched the camera icon and centred it on the image. Once again, it was tricky getting a read on the QR code but I persevered, mindful of my shame the last time when Bitcoin Wallet had completely failed to read it for me. This time I could see it was trying hard all along, as two or three corners lit up, and finally there it was. A sigh of relief later and my coffee was in front of me.

I was just ever so slightly disgruntled to be informed by the app that I had paid the bitcoin equivalent of £1.26 for a coffee that was priced at £1.25, but that probably wasn’t Hive’s fault. A little research suggests that the exchange rate displayed by Hive is updated on starting the app, but not in real time. The Pub chain itself, which of course gives the bitcoin cost of your coffee, sets a fixed exchange rate once a day. Both of these could do with a little fine tuning as you could end up out of pocket in periods of high volatility, but I’ll let it go for now. (As an aside, if you think that complicates life, try filing a tax return in four currencies, two of which are digital, bearing in mind that you pay tax on what they were worth at the time of receipt – not when you sell them on an exchange, when the money hits your account, or when you submit your tax forms. Such is the life of a cryptocurrency contractor, and whilst I would never practise or condone tax fraud, I’m increasingly able to understand those who do. I hate to make the argument for more regulation, but we need something workable here.)

And that’s Hive. Very nice looking, perfectly up to the job, loads of outstanding additional features and altogether very promising. I’m still a little bit upset about the lack of a security pin, and it’s not quite of Mycelium’s calibre. But still, very solid and respectable on the whole.

Verdict: 8/10. Good work, Hive, but with just a little more effort you’ll be truly exceptional.

Brandon Hurst

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