Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/11/25/the_register_reviews_four_electronic_cigarettes/

Reg man inhales the smooth, non-cancerous, taste of USB nicotine

Do e-cigarettes give you a dose of the vapours or a breath of fresh air?

By Richard Chirgwin

Posted in Hardware, 25th November 2013 07:25 GMT

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigs or vapes, sound like a great idea because they deliver a nicotine hit in a familiar form factor, but without the nasty stuff you'll find in conventional smokes.

The jury's out on whether they're safe, with a University of Queensland study attracting criticism almost before it began, but my own desperate need to actually get off the gaspers meant this Vulture South hack had already started down the e-cig road with mixed success. The chance to conduct a field trial of different e-cigs was therefore too good to miss.

I tested four e-cigs, namely:

Each of these products is available as a starter kit that comes with USB battery charger and a wall wart to which one attaches the charger.

All e-cigarettes do the same thing: they run a juice over a heated element to create a vapour. The juice consists of flavour agents, two vapour agents (VG, vegetable glycerine; and PG, propylene glycol – more on this later), and nicotine.

Instead of smoke, the vapour is nearly all water vapour, and that's what proponents put forward as the big plus of the e-cigarette. Without all the nasties that go into making tobacco cigarettes, they've got to be safer. This remains a contentious point – the experts point out that nicotine is not harmless. But I'm happy to sit on the fence, and say that an e-cigarette is at least “safer” than tobacco, and list it as “harm minimisation”.

Author with e-cig

Reg hack Richard Chirgwin furtively puffing outside
the Vulture South office on a rainy day.

The basic components of the construction are the same, in spite of the different dimensions of each e-cig. There's a battery, which is detachable (naturally enough, since you need to charge it); and the tank with the heating element.

Mixing the e-juice is way beyond the scope of this article. It's a discipline that seems to have revived alchemy. Dedicated vapers will run up their own flavours starting from scratch – disdaining pre-mixed flavours, they'll haunt vape forums explaining the right use of vanilla, cloves, citrus peel, eye of newt and tongue of frog.

However, there are some things you need to know about the juice, which I've gathered together at the end of this article.

That's not my style, but it poses a problem for someone trying to review the hardware, because the flavours are (naturally) a very big part of the experience, and the reaction to a flavour is idiosyncratic. My wife and I are trying to quit from the same brand of tobacco cigarettes, but flavours I find acceptable are far to sweet for her taste.

So to be fair in this test, I used just one flavour juice, which brands itself as an imitation of the flavour of a tobacco brand that also makes high-end mens apparel, blended 50-50 with nicotine (which itself is mixed with PG and VG in equal measures). That way, I reasoned, differences in flavour and experience should be down to the different hardware.

With all four test units, I also made sure I started with clean tanks (for the units I'd bought), so that the brand-new review units didn't have an unfair advantage.

Each review looks at five characteristics of the e-cigs: ease of use (including filling); cleanability; battery life; recharge time; and build quality.

Ego-T

Ego-T e-cigarette

The Ego-T – a basic e-cig starter kit which I purchased myself

Ease of Use – Good There are two ways to operate e-cigs: some demand that the user activates the heater with a button (three out of the four units I tested), while some self-activate when the user draws on it.

The Ego-T is a press-button unit. The first e-cig I bought, it taught me something that you won't notice with “ordinary” cigarettes: technique can matter – a lot.

If you suck too soon after hitting the button, there's not been much heat applied, and the initial vapour comes through thin, weak and flavourless. Heat the juice for too long, and the result is very like burning the coffee beans.

Once you get the technique right, the scorching stops – and you learn why vapers can become so dedicated to the flavour mix. There really is a lot of difference between different flavour mixes: vanilla (a favourite additive even in tobacco flavours), sugars, cloves – they're all there.

Filling is acceptable The Ego-T is a little fiddly to fill. You need to use a squeeze bottle with a syringe attachment at the top (sold with the starter kit) to push the juice past foam at the top of the tank.

However: it fills from the top, which means once you've got your technique down pat, you won't be spilling juice when you're trying to fill it.

Battery life and recharge time are good After its first full charge, the Ego-T battery easily lasts me more than a day, and has the fastest recharge of the four units I tested. From completely empty, the battery will recharge in 2.5 hours; after a normal day, it might only need 40 minutes.

Cleanability is low There are a host of videos on the Internet that will purport to demonstrate how to disassemble the tank and element to clean them. They make it look easy, but it's not: even with the right tools, you're quite likely to break the glass. The good news? Replacement tanks are cheap.

Build quality is disappointing It started well, but over time it's been a bit of a disappointment – in a way that also underscores a problem with reviews of nearly anything. Most reviewers don't have their hands on the product for long enough to turn up what should be warranty problems, I've had a couple of months with the Ego-T.

What's wrong with the build quality? Simply this: threads strip. The battery charger has had to be supplemented with a rubber band for more than a month now, to hold the battery in place. The thread that holds the tanks to the batteries is also poor quality (and this experience was repeated with the original tanks and the six-pack of replacements).

As a result, the contact between the heater and battery is unpredictable. Calls and emails to the retailer, Vaping Cobra, brought no response.

Ego-T cigarette style

Cigarette-style e-cigarette

Ego cigarette style – a slim version presented to resemble a “real” cigarette Review unit provided by GenEcigs

This is the only “breath-activated” e-cig provided for test. Instead of hitting a button, you suck on the end that looks like a filter. When it's working, the LED at the end lights up and the smoke comes out.

Ease of use is acceptable While it's “discreet” – El Reg suspects the designers had some kind of preconceived “ladies' market” in mind when they created this e-cig – usability suffers in a few ways.

Filling is fiddly It's design again: the “filter-like” look of the tank means you can't see how much you've put in. Too much, and there's a difficult mess to clean; too little, and there isn't enough for (say) a day at the office.

Battery life and recharge time – Passable In the review unit, no amount of time on the charger convinced the battery it was full. An overnight top-up gives it just enough charge for a day, but to be fair, the battery is much smaller and the whole unit is very light.

You will need to buy a second battery if you adopt this vape.

Cleanability – None You'd have to be a brave soul indeed to disassemble the tank, so buy spares.

Build quality is good My only complaint is that the coloured coating representing the “filter” began to separate, by the end of a week's use.

Ego-510

Ego-510 e-cigarette

Ego-510 – a larger version of the Ego-T Review unit provided by GenEcigs

The Ego-510 looks and behaves like a scaled-up version of the Ego-T – except that it didn't break.

Ease-of-Use – Good Whether it's the slightly larger tank, the battery or the element design, the Ego-510 behaved much more consistently than my Ego-T did, even when new. It heats quickly, but with a slightly bigger tank, it's hard to overheat the juice.

Filling is acceptable Filling is the same top-foam arrangement used in the Ego-T. Fiddly, but you can get the hang of it without too much trouble.

Battery life and recharge time are very good After the overnight initial charge, I could not empty the battery. Even a constant user would be hard put to empty the battery in a day. That means I haven't been able to test the Ego-510's charge time with an empty battery – but my refill charges in the morning are always finished within the hour.

Cleanability: Not tested Because this is a review unit, my prior experience with the Ego-T meant I didn't try pulling the tank apart, lest I destroy it.

Build quality – Good The build quality of the Ego-510 is far better than that of the Ego-T: more solid, and with a better thread on the battery collar.

Kanger Pro Tank

Kanga tank with Ego-510 battery

Kanger Tank – a “mod” for the Ego-510: clearomiser that attaches to the 510 battery (owned by the author)

Someone made a present of this to me, not realising that I didn't have a suitable battery for it. For this reason, I don't know which retailer the Kanger tank came from. What I can tell you is that it's a good fit on the Ego-510 battery, with its adapter collar.

So quite by accident, I found myself at the edge of e-cig “mods”, buying a custom (and although I haven't tried, customisable, if the sales slip in the pack is anything to go by) tank.

The Kanger is more than a little bit intimidating: it's a considerable chunk larger than the Ego-510 tank, it utterly dwarfs the cigarette-style tank, it's heavy, and has a mouthpiece that looks like it could be attached to a bugle. Someone probably thinks it's beautiful, whereas I thought “solid” – not a bad thing after my first experience.

Ease-of-use is good This came as a surprise. The Kanger Tank is fairly heavy (as is the Ego-510's battery), which means there's no chance you'll casually dangle it between two fingers trying to look like Bogart.

What you get with that huge tank and more expensive heater setup is a noticeably different performance – it heats fast, but with a full tank, it doesn't burn.

Filling – Acceptable By now, you've noticed that I don't think anyone's got filling completely right. The Kanger has to be turned upside-down for filling, and it's all to easy to forget that when you're unscrewing the tank from the battery.

Battery – Same as for the Ego-510

Cleanability – Excellent The Kanger tank is designed to be disassembled easily. It's supplied with a spare element – so it's no surprise that I was able to pull it apart and reassemble it without trouble.

Build quality is good I said “solid”, didn't I? 'Nuff said.

Summary

Nearly everything in e-cigs is a trade-off: weight versus cost versus performance. However, it's pretty easy to rank the four devices I tested:

4. Ego-T

– unless you're sure someone will be around for warranty calls, don't bother.

3. Ego “cigarette” style

– the “cigarette-like” behaviour is nice, but the design flaws are irritating.

2. Ego-510

– a good package that I'd recommend as a starter kit.

1. Kanger Tank on Ego-510 battery

– my clear winner.

Notes for the beginner

Shopping for the first time is intimidating: “what on Earth do I buy?” That's especially so, given the complexities of mixing juice, VG/PG and nicotine. So here's the El Reg e-cig first-timer's shopping list:

1. E-cig starter kit – make sure you have a tank (or clearomizer/iser) and battery charger as a bare minimum. A decent starter kit should also comes with bottles and the odd medicine syringe to help you when it comes to mixing juice, and a squeeze bottle with a metal tip, for filling your tank.

2. Spares – spare parts can be so cheap that they'll cost less than postage, so put a pack of spare tanks and a second battery in your first order. Make sure the spare tanks match the battery you bought.

3. Flavours – It's hard to give advice here, but don't expect to hit your flavour mark first time. Buy a few different flavours (with at least one tobacco-style) in your first order, and order more than you think you'll want. The flavour bottles are tiny and cheap, and again, there's no point in spending five dollars on postage for two dollars' worth of flavour juice.

4. Alcohol – In particular, Vodka: lots of "vapers" use vodka as a cleaning agent. Others add it to the juice. I haven't tried either.

5. Nicotine – You're only allowed to buy it for personal usage in Australia, which means it's going to come from overseas. It's pretty cheap, so you should be able to get six months' supply in your first order. One word of advice: it's better to buy nicotine mix too strong and dilute it, than to buy it too weak. Without the nicotine hit, your e-cig won't go anywhere near replacing tobacco.

What about quitting?

I have replaced some of my cigarettes, and I can manage whole days on vape alone, but I haven't made it all the way, yet.

I will say this: I've tried gum (tooth fillings are costly), patches, inhalers and sprays from the pharmacy.

They're all designed by people who are deeply hostile to smokers, so they fail for me because they are unpleasant to use. The nicotine replacement therapy designers simply can't imagine designing a product that someone wants to use because they like it. The punitive mindset appears ineradicable.

The e-cigarette isn't the real thing: it's a noticeably different experience. But it's also a relatively pleasant experience. It also has one huge advantage over pharmacy nicotine replacement therapies: after the initial purchase, the consumables (VG and PG, flavours and nicotine liquid) are very cheap.

VG and PG

These are the agents used to dilute the flavours and nicotine. Vegetable glycerine produces lots of cloud and “softens” the vapour in the throat. Propylene glycol delivers a sharper “throat hit” but less “cloud”. Mixing them is a personal preference; most advice suggests the user start at 50-50, and adjust it from there.

Nicotine

The nicotine liquid comes diluted in 50-50 VG-PG, in differing strengths. Buy the strongest mix your supplier offers, because you'll be diluting it anyway – there are many online calculators that will help you work out the proportions.

Support

Wherever you shop – there is a small host of online suppliers – check out what other e-cig users have to say in online forums, because a lack of support is a pain in the neck.

GenEcigs, which provided two of the review units – the Ego-510 and Ego cigarette style – were responsive to all of El Reg's questions. ®