Ledger Nano X vs Nano S
May 27, 2019
After some trouble and delays Ledger Nano X, the first hardware wallet with a bluetooth connection, is finally here. We decided to make a side by side comparison with their earlier flagship model, the Nano S.
The packaging is almost identical between the two and they both look and feel professional. When opening the box the first difference is obvious, the Nano X is quite a lot larger, which shouldn't come as a surprise as the Nano X contains a battery. something that wasn't necessary on the Nano S that always requires a connected cable. It is also notably heavier but on more positive note it feels sturdier. more robust. Included in the packages are cables, instructions for getting started and sheets to write down your recovery phrase - pretty much the basic stuff for hardware wallets.
The instructions for getting started are super simple, for the Nano X basically saying "turn on the device and go to this URL to download Ledger Live" (Ledger Live is Ledger's desktop wallet software). I still manage to get slightly confused when the instructions in Ledger Live are "Press both buttons to choose 'Setup'" while my (now turned on) device is in a menu with options such as "Bootloader mode". Some quick trial and error soon has me on the right path again though and the next step is to select a PIN.
Both the Nano X and the Nano S have two buttons that are used to operate the device. Each button moves you up or down in menus and simultaneously pressing both buttons selects the current option. This works reasonably well on both devices but I definitely prefer the buttons on the new Nano X. They are bigger and easier to press and the smaller buttons on the Nano S sometimes don't react when pressed quickly multiple times consecutively.
PIN and recovery phrase setup
At first the PIN selection has me surprised. Numbers are selected using the buttons for up/down but for each new number that I choose it starts on a random number. I soon realize that this must be a security feature. If it always started on the same number someone next to you could actually get a pretty good idea of your PIN code by simply listening to your clicking. Good thinking by Ledger here and it is comforting to know that they pay attention to details like this.
The recovery phrase is presented word by word to be written down on your recovery sheet and you then have to repeat it back to confirm that you have written it down correctly. Every word confirmation involves you scrolling through the 24 words to select the right one so it is a bit tedious but no big deal as it is a one-time exercise. This procedure is identical on both devices.
Before you can use the device an authenticity check is made to make sure that your device is genuine. Here is how this works according to Ledger:
- Genuine Ledger devices hold a secret key that is set during manufacture.
- Only a genuine Ledger device can use its key to provide the cryptographic proof required to connect with Ledger’s secure server.
This method is deliberately used by Ledger instead of tamper evident stickers that e.g. Trezor use as they, according to Ledger, are too easy to counterfeit. Ledger also provides a guide for more advanced users that want to check the integrity of the hardware in detail.
Using the wallet
Ledger has a concept of "apps" on their hardware wallets and support many different cryptocurrencies. This means that in order to use Bitcoin you must first install the Bitcoin app on the device, which is done through the Ledger Live application. You then need to add an account in Ledger Live. You can create as many Bitcoin accounts, Ether accounts etc. as you like. Every time you interact with your Bitcoin account (e.g. sending, receiving or creating new accounts) you need to be in the Bitcoin app on your Ledger device.
We compared sending and receiving on the devices and the experience is very similar, you initiate the operation in Ledger Live and then confirm it by checking that addresses and amounts displayed on the device are the same ones that you entered in Ledger Live. The Nano X has an advantage in that the display is able to show the complete address at once. I consider this a big pro as it increases the chance that users will actually check the address properly.
Bluetooth and mobile wallet
So, let's move on to the unique stuff about Nano X, the Bluetooth connection. There has been some concerns about the security implications of using a wireless connection but I haven't read any specific attack explained but rather more general comments that "simpler is better" and that a new type of connection adds more possible attack surfaces. Ledger has written an article that details the technology and addresses the concerns:
- Only public data is transported by Bluetooth; critical data (such as private keys and seed) never leave the device.
- Even if the Bluetooth connection would be hacked, the security of the Ledger Nano X relies on the Secure Element (SE) which will request your consent for any action.
- The Ledger Nano X Bluetooth implementation uses a state-of-the-art Bluetooth protocol. This Bluetooth protocol ensures authentication by using pairing. This is numeric comparison based and confidentiality is ensured using AES-based encryption.
- If ever, you’re not comfortable using your Nano X with a wireless connection, you can disable the Bluetooth and use the USB type-C cable.
When trying the Bluetooth connection on a computer I can't get it work. On my Windows machine I can pair the device but can't get it to connect. On Mac I can't even get it to pair. I don't spend a lot of time investigating this as I see the mobile wallet in combination with a bluetooth as the really interesting value proposition. Pairing the device with my phone and using the mobile app works like a charm.
[UPDATE: Ledger actually states on their site that Bluetooth does not work with desktop for now, something that I did not notice when writing the article]
The user interface is very similar to the desktop app so no problem getting started. I do find the process of sending and receiving a bit too cumbersome though. Here are the steps that I have to go trough in order too receive a transaction on my Ledger:
- Power on the device
- Enter PIN code
- Open app on my phone, press "Transfer" and then "Receive".
- Choose what account to receive to (even if I only have one account)
- Choose what the device to use (even if I only have one device paired)
- Wait for it to connect (a second or two)
- Open Bitcoin "app" on device
- Wait for 5 to 10 seconds for my phone app to realize that I completed the previous step
- Press "Continue"
- Verify the address on my device by choosing "Approve".
I would argue that it would be possible to remove at least a few of the above steps.
First, the negative stuff. I see a lot of room for UI improvements, in the desktop app as well as the mobile app, but especially on the device itself. The concept of apps is perhaps understandable from a technical perspective but unnecessarily complicated for the user. Some observations:
- I will only use the device for Bitcoin but I still have to enter the "Bitcoin app" everytime I want to do something (true for both devices)
- On Nano X, the other two options (besides Bitcoin) on my start screen are "Install app" and "Control center". None of them actually do anything, the first one tells me that apps are installed using Ledger Live and the second one that I should hold down both buttons at any time to reach the control center. The Nano S is slightly more intuitive with a direct link to "Settings".
- Since there is no context visible in the device it is sometimes hard to understand "where you are", e.g. when inside the Bitcoin app (both devices).
- On Nano X it is not clear to me when I would want to lock the device (screen saver) instead of powering off as the process of getting back in is identical in both cases (enter PIN). Turning on the device is perhaps a second or two slower but that's negligible compared to the time it takes to enter the PIN. On Nano S, the locking option (done by holding down both buttons) makes more sense as it can be quickly accessed and used instead of unplugging.
- The right button on the Nano X seems to get stuck sometimes. This is probably because it is part of the physical lid mechanism.
OK, that might sound like a lot of critique but overall I am very happy with the devices and most of the problems are UI quirks can be fixed by Ledger in updates without me having to buy new ones. The Bluetooth connection on Nano X in combination with the mobile app is what will actually make me use a hardware wallet on a more regular basis. Not having to carry around a cable in order to make transactions may sound like a small thing but makes a huge difference in practice.
The Nano X is priced quite a bit higher at € 119 (compare to € 59 for the Nano S) but I would say that it is definitely worth the price, especially if you want to be able to carry the device with you and make transactions on the go.
Get your Ledger Nano X or Nano S at shop.ledger.com.