In brief

  • This year, we show how to set up and run a Bitcoin node using Umbrel.
  • It's much easier to do and has a really nice interface.
  • With the solid state drive, it's a bit more expensive—but much faster.

In late 2019, I set myself the challenge of building a Bitcoin node on a Raspberry Pi. It went well but it was a rather complicated process. My second attempt ran into a host of problems, which proved to be insurmountable.

But it’s now 2021, and there are far better tools available to the would-be node runner. This time around, putting together a Bitcoin node took just a couple of days’ work, and $200.

Here’s how I did it.

Putting the Raspberry Pi together

This time around, I tried using Umbrel to set up my Bitcoin node—and it was impressively simple.

First you have to order the parts. The basics you need are a Raspberry Pi 4, a charger, a 1 TB solid state drive (SSD), a 16 MB SD card and a heatsink case, to keep the whole thing cool. Umbrel’s website has a list of the specific parts that you need. You will also want an ethernet cable to connect the Pi to your Internet router, and may need an SD card reader if you don’t already have one.

Once they’ve arrived, you’ll want to put the Raspberry Pi into its case.

Attaching the case to the Pi is very straightforward. First, you need to take the small blue square, which is a thermal pad, and take off the plastic bits on either side. Then stick it down on the silver square (Broadcom CPU) in the middle.

protecting the node from heat
Here's why you put the blue thermal pad. Image: Decrypt.

Then you want to place the Pi careful inside the lid of the case. Angle it slightly toward the four smaller ports on one side for it to fit in. Once it’s in snug, put the base on top. Then simply put the four screws in and it’s ready.

Four screws in the case
The four screws are easy to screw in. Image: Decrypt.

To connect the hard drive, simply plug it into the USB port. Similarly, the power charger just goes into the USB C port. And the ethernet cable goes into the ethernet port—this connects your Pi to the Internet (allowing you to access it from your computer).

Loading the Umbrel software

To start with, you’ll need to download the Umbrel OS onto your computer. It takes about 10 minutes to download. You also want to get balenaEtcher, a software that you’ll need to put the system onto the SD card.

Once those are both downloaded, insert the SD card into your computer. Then you want to use the balenaEtcher software to flash the Umbrel “.img” file that you’ve downloaded. It’s a straightforward three step process and takes about three minutes.

Flashing an SD card
balenaEtcher lets you flash software onto SD cards. Image: balenaEtcher.

Once you’ve done that, take the SD card out of the computer and put it into the end of the Pi on the opposite end to the ethernet cable. And then you’re pretty much done.

After about five minutes, go to http://umbrel.local and you should be able to get set up.

In my case, it wasn’t working, so I had to download Angry IP Scanner, to find the right link. Once I found the IP address associated with the Umbrel node, I just put that in my desktop browser and it took me to the landing page.

Setting up your Bitcoin node

Umbrel makes setting up your Bitcoin node a straightforward process, with a beautiful UI (a big help for getting wider adoption of Bitcoin technology). You start by choosing a name for your device and creating a password, which has to be at least 11 characters long.

Welcome to Umbrel
Welcome to Umbrel!. Image: Umbrel.

Then you have to write down your mnemonic code, which comprises 24 words. These words enable you to access your Bitcoin wallet so it’s important to keep them safe. Finally, you need to accept three conditions, including that the software is in beta and that you’re not going to put more funds on the Bitcoin node than you’re prepared to lose.

Then the dashboard appears and you have easy access to your Bitcoin node inside your desktop browser. It really is impressive.

The main dashboard
The Umbrel dashboard shows you details about your node. Image: Umbrel.

For any readers who remember reading my 2019 Bitcoin node article, they will remember that I had to use Terminal to “SSH” to the Pi. For a non-coder, it was awkwardly complex—and when things went wrong on a later attempt, I struggled to troubleshoot anything, spending many frustrated hours on it. As a result, using the Umbrel software was a breath of fresh air.

Exploring what you can do

Umbrel lets you get started right away. In the background, the node is processing all the Bitcoin blocks in its history, which will take around two days. But for now, it uses a SPV node, which means the node has a list of all the blocks but hasn’t verified that each one is legitimate. This means you can interact with the Bitcoin blockchain—but you’re not helping to maintain it yet. (The alternative would be that you wait two days before you can do anything)

The dashboard is very clear. It shows you that your node is processing the Bitcoin blockchain—with mine already at 28% after an hour or so (although it will slow down). You can also see your Lightning wallet to interact with the Lightning network and send Bitcoin both faster and cheaper.

You can perform simple tasks like sending Bitcoin to your wallet (although the site cautions against using it to store large funds). And once you have Bitcoin, you can make it accessible on the Lightning network.

When using Lightning, you can request payments. That means you specify how much you want someone to send to you and it creates a QR invoice. If someone else scans that invoice, they will automatically be presented with the amount that you are requesting, and they may choose to pay that invoice if they so wish.

A Lightning invoice
A Lightning invoice will look something like this. Image: Umbrel.

There are a few limitations to using the Lightning network, such as having to start by sending money first. Plus there are limits to how much money you can send through the network in one go.

What’s also interesting is that you can install apps to make the most out of your node. These apps include BTCPay Server for accepting Bitcoin payments as a company, Specter Desktop for connecting your hardware wallet to your node, and several Lightning apps for viewing and connecting to the network.

The few apps on display
There are several apps in its app store. Image: Umbrel.

There’s also a blockchain explorer app called BTC RPC Explorer. This is a straightforward Bitcoin block explorer but all the data comes directly from your Bitcoin node. So even if all the Bitcoin block explorers in the world were taken down, you would still be able to search the history of the Bitcoin blockchain.

One final comment is that Umbrel runs through Tor and does so by default. This helps to protect your privacy when connecting with other nodes. You can also access the node from another computer via Tor, using a link that’s provided.

With its slick UI, Umbrel brings the notion of building your own Bitcoin node into the 21st century, making it practical for everyday people to take control over their own money.