Since their first appearance in the Chinese market back in 2004, personal vaporizers have seen several designs, iterations and styles come and go through the years.
It can be hard for the uninitiated to select the best unit for them and, in the end, can make or break a permanent switch to e-cigarettes.
Thankfully, these devices can be divided into a few broad categories – each with its own distinct strengths, weaknesses and characteristics.
While all electronic cigarettes work under the same basic principles (battery powers an electrical resistance to evaporate a nicotine solution), it is how these are achieved that can make a big difference to anyone’s vaping experience.
The Battery Variety
Electronic cigarettes are, by and large, modular devices. Vapers commonly mix and match parts of different devices – as long as they can fit a certain battery thread.
Likely, the first part anyone will need to replace is the atomizer their e-cigarette uses, with the batteries being the part that will last the longest before needing replacement.
With an average of 300 charge cycles, batteries can last anywhere between 6 months to year and a half, depending on quality and usage, while the average atomizer needs to be replaced every two to four weeks.
This means that selecting your first e-cigarette is mainly a factor of what batteries it comes with and whether or not they will fit your vaping needs or not.
The Cig-a-Like (or Mini Cig)
Designed to look like a real cigarette, these are normally the device of choice for most beginner vapers. They offer not only a familiar look, but also a familiar weight and feel.
While most other batteries are manually operated, cig-a-like kits come with automatic batteries that operate when they detect suction. In other words, they work through puffing, just like a regular cigarette would, making the transition easier and more familiar.
On the downside, they come with smaller mAh (milliamp hours) ratings. The mAh rating on a battery indicates how much charge it can hold, and therefore, how long it can operate.
Traditionally, mini cig units come with 150 to 250 mAh batteries, which would last the average vaper a few hours. To compensate for this, some kits include a portable charging case (PCC) made to resemble a traditional cigarette package.
The smaller battery also means that these types of e cigarettes tend to have a lower voltage output, making for a weaker vapor production.
On the plus side, since they have less powerful batteries and atomizers, they tend to be the cheapest introductory units currently available. Additionally, they are the only type of e-cig that can be found in a convenient disposable form in stores and gas stations across a few countries.
Vape Pens are larger and usually also longer than the cig-a-likes. Vape Pen Starter kits can range anywhere between 600 and 1200 mAh per battery, which can last the average vaper between 1 and 3 full days of vaping.
In size they are much closer to a cigar than a cigarette, which makes them heavier to use. Some vapers with smaller hands also have found them a little bulky for their taste.
Additionally, automatic units are extremely rare, and when they are found, the suction sensors are normally outperformed by those found in mini cig units.
On the bright side, their larger mAh capacities mean less charge cycles through the year, which translates into a longer battery life. Similarly, it also translates into bigger voltage outputs, providing a more satisfying vape experience.
The Vape Mods
Before vape pens came into the market, homemade mod schematics were already making the rounds in internet vaping forums. The first ones were usually modified flashlights, laser pointers and any other tube-shaped electronic a dedicated tinkerer could find.
It was not long before commercial vape mods started appearing, from tube-like vaporizers to pipes and boxes. As can be expected, these commercial versions are the ones at the top of the price scale, some costing as much as $400 USD for their basic kits.
Mods are usually reserved either for advanced vapers, wealthy ones, tinkering enthusiast or all of the above, and require more care and preparation than the more common mini and fat cig vaporizers.
Usually mods are composed of a battery casing with a heat exhaust, electronics to control the output, the atomizer connector and, depending on the mod, variable voltage and wattage controls. The batteries themselves, however, are normally sold separately, along with the battery chargers.
A good mod with either voltage or wattage regulation, however, rewards the high price tag with a highly satisfying and customizable vape.
Variable Variety Mod
Most e-cigarette mods, as well as some fat battery units, include specialized electronics that can regulate the output of the device.
They can be dialed to user-specified outputs that can be fine-tuned for specific atomizers or e-liquids. The higher the voltage or wattage, the hotter the heating element in the atomizer will run. In turn, this extra heat creates more vapour and a stronger throat hit. The downside may be too much of a throat hit, as well as burnt flavours.
While slightly more complicated to use, these units can provide the most consistent, customized and enjoyable vape available in the market.
The Atomizer Analysis
As mentioned previously, atomizing components are what needs replacing first and most often in an electronic cigarette. As such, there are plenty of options out there. Beyond the basic categories of atomizers, there are two things any vaper needs to look at before making a purchase: battery connection and ohm rating.
The ohm rating refers to the electrical resistance in the heating element. The lower this number, the hotter the atomizer will run, which runs into the same issues as running too much voltage on a variable device – too strong a throat hit or burnt flavour. Some vapers enjoy this, others do not. It is important to find the ohm rating that best works for you, your liquid flavors and your batteries.
Ensuring you are purchasing the right connection is also just as important. While most batteries in the market today use a 510 thread type, others may use an 808, 901 or many others. Some also have a special eGo thread, which is actually the same as a 510 with a recessed connection. That recessed connection, however, may cause some regular 510 devices to not make contact with the battery.
Always research to make sure a specific atomizer will fit your battery.
The Classic Atomizer
While now almost extinct, the original e-cigarette atomizers used a small cartridge with filler material. This filler was soaked in e-liquid and then got wicked into the heating element with a metallic mesh. Modern iterations of these cartridge systems now use clear cartridges with no filler material and a small spike containing a wick that pokes into the reservoir.
The first atomizers had several issues, from not wicking properly to constantly flooding the heating element. Cartomizers were the first attempt to address the issue, and they were so successful that many vapers still love them today. They work by combining both the cartridge and atomizer (hence the clever name) into a single unit. The heating element is usually nested in the middle of the unit, surrounded by filler material that the user can soak with whatever liquid they choose.
Another iteration of the cartomizer, these still combine both elements, but have done away with the filler material. As the name implies, they have clear walls, so the user can always know how much e-liquid is left.
The clearomizer has gone through several iterations, being plagued by design flaws over the years. 2013 was the first year clearomizers really came into their own, addressing their design problems and even outperforming some of the most popular cartomizers, especially when it comes to flavour quality.
The Tank System
Tank systems have been around for a while, and are a staple for many veteran vapers. Originally created using syringes and plumbing washers by the same tinkerers that brought us mod units, a tank system is essentially a cartomizer inside a much larger reservoir.
Once the cartomizer is punctured and placed inside the unit, it begins to wick the surrounding e-liquid. Some tanks are large enough to hold up to 10ml of e-liquid; enough nicotine to last the average vaper a whole week or more.
Nowadays, there are also clearomizer tank systems, with exchangeable atomizer components that can just be taken off and replaced when needed.
For some, the top of the line are rebuildable atomizers. These are units that users can construct from the ground up.
Kits like these only come with the basic elements, such as the connector base, strands of wick, wires to create the heating coil and the electrical connections with, in some cases, DIY tank systems.
As can be expected, they require a good deal of mechanical inclination, and should only be used by very experienced vapers.