It's been a fantastic year for cryptocurrency investors and Bitcoin (BTC -2.24%) in particular. The market-leading cryptocurrency's price per token has surged roughly 113% year to date even with some recent pullback after hitting a new lifetime high of roughly $67,000 per token. 

Bitcoin appears to be gaining traction as "digital gold" and as a potential safe haven at a time when inflation and other factors are casting uncertainty over equities markets. As impressive as the crypto token's performance has been, a panel of Motley Fool contributors has identified three cryptocurrencies they believe are primed to deliver better performance from here on out. Read on to see why they think Ethereum (ETH -8.33%), Cardano (ADA -4.76%), and Solana (SOL -5.29%) offer superior opportunities for investors. 

A Bitcoin logo on a gold coin.

Image source: Getty Images.

Crypto's second-biggest player could be a better bet

Keith Noonan (Ethereum): The Ethereum blockchain is rapidly gaining favor as a network for smart contracts and decentralized application development. With a market capitalization of roughly $469 billion, Ethereum stands as the second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap. 

Many fast-growing cryptocurrencies, trading platforms, and smart-contract services are built on top of Ethereum, and the network's Ether token looks poised to benefit from rising utility and surging valuations for crypto assets.

Like Bitcoin, Ether has recently attracted attention as a speculative asset that could have explosive upside and a potential hedge against inflation and other destabilizing economic and market factors. There's a seemingly unusual combination of market forces helping to drive rallies for both crypto tokens. However, I think the long-term application building potential of the Ethereum network makes Ether a more attractive option for investors looking to benefit from the evolution of blockchain technologies. 

While Bitcoin has gained favor as a digital store of value, Ethereum's blockchain network has gained attention as a launching ground for innovative new applications and services. The decentralized computing platform could be a starting point for groundbreaking projects. Bitcoin's price per token may very well continue to climb higher and higher, but the superior utility offered by the Ethereum blockchain and its developer network lead me to think the Ether token is a more promising forward-looking bet. 

Ether's price per token has surged roughly 458% across 2021's trading. Despite significantly outpacing Bitcoin's gains across the stretch, I still think Ethereum stands a good chance of outperforming Bitcoin over the long term. 

This third-gen option solves previous crypto problems

James Brumley (Cardano): While Bitcoin has clearly been the poster child for the cryptocurrency movement -- particularly now that it has its own ETF -- the explosion of alternative digital money has thrust a major problem into the spotlight. That is, "mining" these things consumes a massive amount of electricity. Given how the green/renewable energy movement is going just as strong, this clearly creates a marketability problem.

Cardano is an exception to this norm, however.

It's kind of complicated, but here's the simple, condensed explanation: Bitcoin miners use their computer rigs to compete for the right to produce an eligible blockchain; this is the "mining" process you hear about. This is very energy intensive, as a mining computer must prove to all other miners that the calculations that have identified a newly found Bitcoin are legitimate.

Cardano is different in that the energy-intensive mining process doesn't start by proving that the calculation work has been done. Rather, Cardano mining starts with stunningly simpler (although still secure) proof that the miner in question already owns a stake in Cardano. That miner then is randomly assigned the right to create a new digital coin. Not only does this process require less than 1% of the electricity needed to mine a bitcoin, Cardano's underlying tech makes it more interoperable. That just means it's more usable in more ways, and not stymied the way other cryptocurrencies' 24/7 networks are.

If that's too much technical jargon, here's the quick and dirty explanation: Cardano is a true third-generation altcoin that was designed to sidestep flaws seen with first- and second-generation cryptos.

The heart and SOL of DeFi

Daniel Foelber (Solana): Solana has emerged as arguably the hottest altcoin on the market today. In the last six months alone, its price is up nearly five-fold and is hovering around an all-time high at the time of this writing. 

The triple constraint of blockchain is scalability, speed, and decentralization. It's impossible to have all three, as each currency compromises strengths in certain categories. For example, Bitcoin is very scalable and incredibly decentralized, but it is painfully slow. Its rigidity is its advantage, as its network is virtually impenetrable.

Ethereum, by comparison, is somewhat in the middle of all three categories. It's not the fastest, the most scalable, or the most decentralized; but it's pretty good in all three categories.

Solana is lightning fast, incredibly scalable, but fairly centralized. Similar to Ethereum, Solana has its own blockchain and is considered to have what's called a "layer-1" protocol. By comparison, tokens like Polygon are what's called "layer-2" scaling, meaning they are third-party integrations that run on top of a layer-1 blockchain. Polygon relies on the Ethereum blockchain to verify transactions, taking advantage of its decentralization in the process.

Solana's uniqueness is that it's the fastest sizable layer-1 blockchain out there, all the while having low transaction fees. Its blockchain is currently processing between 1,000 and 2,000 transactions per second at an average cost per transaction of less than one-tenth of a penny. One of the reasons it has low transaction fees is because there are only around 1,100 validators helping run the Solana blockchain. This means that Solana is, theoretically, easier to hack. But it also means processing and verifying transactions on its blockchain are much faster compared to the over 10,000 nodes that are actively supporting the Bitcoin blockchain. 

Like anything with cryptocurrency, it's important to know what you're getting into and why you're getting into it. Solana is a much riskier investment than Ethereum, and magnitudes riskier than Bitcoin; but its growth is something that's sure to appeal to risk-tolerant investors.