Getting Started with E-Cigarettes

This section is mostly historical at this point as I don’t plan to be doing many significant updates, and some of the content is rather old right now (from circa 2010, vs it being 2020 as I type this). The information is still useful from the perspective of the journey of stopping smoking and moving to e-cigarettes, but not necessarily for specific models of e-cigarettes, as they’ve come a long way. 

The original article below was from 2009.  Refer to the intro/update page for what I vape today, but the info below remains generally relevant other than specific models.

How to get started

After researching as much as I could about e-cigs, and satisfying myself regarding safety concerns, and that indeed it seems a much better possible option than continued smoking, for me...there was still more to learn.

For some, they buy things purely on impulse. If you're that type, then I'm sure the local mall just loves you! Myself, I do buy many things on impulse, but there's a threshold at which it becomes an important purchase, one which I investigate to the best of my abilities, within reason, before deciding on. In general, most things costing tens of dollars I don't worry about, but the higher priced items, I'd prefer to buy 'the right one' for me, be happy with it without many surprises, and not have to replace it a short time later for whatever reason, whether missing features, quality, or it simply not meeting my needs or expectations. In the case of e-cigs, it is indeed a market likely in it's infancy, but one that holds some promise financially, and as such, there are choices, and a relatively wide range of products out there.

Thankfully for those of us who either don't visit malls or don't generally trust a salesman to tell us what's best for ourselves, there's this cool 'new' thing called the Internet, and on said Internet, a plethora of information for those with some patience and a small bit of skill. For the rest of you ( :-) ), or at least as a great starting point, there's also a quite active site out there, the Electronic Cigarette Forum . If it's related to electronic 'smoking,' chances are quite high it's been discussed there, been reviewed (including video), has links to it, or is about to be. That includes the good as well as the potentially bad, and if you're at all interested in finding out more information, I highly recommend it, as well as following along on my personal foray into electronic smoking if you'd like. I've spent a good number of hours searching and viewing different topics, there and elsewhere, but as always, YMMV - what's important to me may not be so much to you, and there is always more to find or learn.

What’s needed?

Besides 'arming' yourself with information, most vendors offer Starter Kits. These contain in general enough to 'try it, and see if maybe it will work for you.'

You'll need an e-smoke, including at least one battery, atomizer, mouthpiece, a charger, and some cartridges. Unless you have a local smoke shop selling e-smokes, you may want to buy additional cartridges with your initial purchase to avoid running out. An extra atomizer and battery are also usually a good idea.

Before worrying too much about what specifically to buy, and may want to ask yourself, what do you really think about smoking? What do you enjoy? Is there any more to it than the nicotine and/or chemical addiction? Could you see yourself smoking something that doesn't quite look like a cigarette? Has a pipe-like mouthpiece? Is the feel of the smoke in your throat most important? Or watching the exhalation of smoke, or the taste? Do you have to have it hanging out of your mouth, hands free? How much do you smoke/how often? How important is ease of traveling with it to you? Battery life?

There are other considerations, but those are a good starting point. Each of us may have similar, or in some cases, not so similar, 'needs' when it comes to smoking.  

Cigarettes, Pipes, Pens and the Truly Bizarre

Most 'newbies,' myself included, think they want it to look and feel as close as possible, to a 'real cigarette.' Which does make sense, as really, for many of us, it's that real cigarette we wish to cut down on, or quit entirely. However, maybe you enjoy a pipe, or cigar, equally or nearly as much..those options exist as well, but won't be covered here, other than to give a few examples: (NOTE: Image credits and links are given, but this is not an endorsement of any of the following companies)

PROD801 2T
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Myself, I never quite got into either cigars or pipes, so my preference, at least at this time, is for something a bit more like a cigarette, like the M-401 models shown above (although I fill my own cartridges).  For comparison, the black and the brown and white e-smokes are nearly identical in length with one another, and the cigarette shown is a Marlboro Light 100. There are a few e-cigs that are shorter than the ones shown.

Analogs, Vapor, Vaping, Throat hits, cartridges and liquids - WHAT?


When it comes to shopping around to try to find an electronic cigarette that's right for you, a lot of different terms get thrown about, some fairly obvious, and some not so obvious. Here's your crash course!

Often, you'll hear or read someone referring to 'analogs' (or 'analogues') electronic cigarettes are 'digital' of sorts, analogs refer to traditional combustible, tobacco burning cigarettes.

Vapor is what is 'substituted' for your traditional cigarette smoke. It's produced by the e-smoke liquid being heated by the atomizer, and inhaled and exhaled. Instead of 'smoking,' you'll often come across 'vaping' as it's equivalent. Additionally, in many reviews and discussions, people will be discussing the amount of vapor produced by a particular e-cig. The amount of vapor is, assuming a fresh/decent battery and a full cartridge, is generally a factor of the atomizer as well as the specific liquid being used, but is a good 'out of the box' comparison for different e-smokes, especially when used with the same liquid, as while you can usually change the liquid used, you're generally unable to switch to a different atomizer design for a given e-smoke.

A throat hit is the feeling you may get when you inhale a tobacco cigarette, that feeling or perhaps shock or itch in the back of your throat. Some e-cigs and liquid combinations seem to produce nearly no throat hit, while others are significantly better. Many people contribute their ability to wean or quit analogs due to good vapor, good throat hit, or a combination thereof with their chosen e-cig, obviously in combination with the amount of nicotine used.

Cartridges are pretty similar across most e-cigs. They're roughly the size of a cigarette filter, and sit inside (entirely or partially) the mouthpiece. Smaller e-cigs usually have smaller cartridges, which have to be replaced more frequently. Some advertisers claim each cartridge is good for a pack of smokes, but in reality, while it does depend on which e-cig (and thus cartridge), a more realistic expectation is between 3-10 cigarettes worth of 'inhales' per most pre-filled cartridge. Most cartridges are pretty similar on the inside - a small chamber, which has a wicking material, that holds the e-liquid, and wicks to the atomizer to be turned into vapor. Assuming a good battery, cartridges as they're used will start to produce less vapor as they become dry or used up, or you may start to get a slightly burnt taste, either which are a good indication it's time to swap out that old cartridge. In the picture below, the cartridge is inside the mouthpiece on both e-smokes, but it's sticking out from the mouthpiece on the upper one, which it's entirely recessed inside the mouthpiece of the lower. The picture shown also has the atomizers detached from the batteries, but in practice, replacement cartridges include both the cartridge and the mouthpiece together, and switching a used cartridge out simply involves pulling the old one off, and inserting a new one onto your e-cigarette.

Some newer e-cigarettes, instead of the more typical 3 piece shown above- cartridge, atomizer, and battery (mouthpiece and cartridge are considered to be one, in this case), are effectively only two pieces, battery and cartridge. Wait a second! You may ask yourself - what about that atomizer thingy? Isn't that required to make the vapor? Well, yes, it is...and still is. Instead of a 'replace when needed' atomizer that the 3 piece e-cigs have, the 2 pieces embed a new atomizer in every cartridge. This means in theory, fewer worries about an atomizer going bad when you don't have a spare on hand, and is a pretty nice idea. Some of these newer systems cartridges also seem to last significantly longer than some of their 3 piece cousins. However, the newer cartridges generally cost around double the cost of the more standard cartridge styles (roughly ~$12-$15 for 4 or 5, versus $4 or so for 4-5 for the traditional style), and can't easily be refilled, while standard 3 piece cartridges can almost always easily be refilled from your choice of liquids for a period of time, if you'd like to experiment or simply save a bit of money.

Refilling? Well, yes. The 2 pieces in some cases can be refilled, but it's usually significantly more difficult to do. While there are at least 50 or more 'off the shelf' flavorings of e-liquids available (plus more if you make your own flavorings) from different manufacturers and distributors, most of the integrated atomizer/cartridge styles are usually limited to a much smaller selection, typically along the lines of a pair of tobacco flavorings, a menthol or mint, and one or two others. Many are finding that while they may love a specific flavor from one company, they may not like the same flavor from another, so for some, the ability to fill their own cartridges is important, and should be considered. Likewise, if you simply don't want to be bothered, and just want convenience of the pre-filled cartridges only, for either the 2 piece or 3 piece styles, you may want to look into the number of flavors and strengths (the strength is of the nicotine, not the flavorings) available, and spend a bit of time reading reviews if unable to 'taste test' before purchase. If you have a friend who has an e-cig that has limited cartridges or you decide to only buy pre-filled, even better!

For an idea of the types of flavors available, take a look at Totally Wicked's selection. More inexpensive e-juice can be found, but many people like it, and it gives an indication of at least some of the flavors available. TW also has submitted their e-juice for lab testing and made the results public, something that should IMO be done by all e-juice manufacturers. (2020 edit - TW is now no longer directly sold but remains sold via the updated link.  Lots of other juice/e-liquid companies are out there today.  I use to buy 1L at a time..)

Sizes, batteries and mouthpieces


Onwards...assuming you want an e-cigarette that resembles an actual cigarette, there are more tradeoffs the smaller they get. Smaller batteries, unsurprisingly, lead to shorter runtimes before needing a charge, which can take anywhere from 2-4 or more hours for a complete charge for most, or replacing the battery with a spare. Larger (thicker as well as longer) e-smokes generally last longer without a fresh battery, but obviously may not fit into a shirt pocket or purse as easily as the latest super-mini. Mouthpieces are semi-soft or hard plastic usually, depending on the model, and as previously mentioned, may resemble pipe mouthpieces, as shown below (from Totally Wicked, their version of a DSE901).

Some like it, some don't. It's got flatter edges, but may be easier to bite down on, if you like the idea of having one hang out of your mouth...but note, e-cigs are heavier..while not obnoxiously so, and it's possible to bite down a bit on one to let it hang, it's unlikely you'll do so for an extended period of time with most e-cigs out today.

As you can likely tell by now, e-smokes also come in a variety of colors, and LED colors, from looking very similar to an analog smoke, to woodgrain or all black, with a blue LED. Parts within a specific model are interchangeable regardless of color, so maybe you really want that green mouthpiece with a green battery and blue LED..if you look hard enough, you may be able to find (or build) the combination you want!

Batteries are starting to come in two types recently. The standard pressure activated switched ones, which activate (and thus start creating vapor) when you take a drag/inhale, and recently, manual switches. Manual switches have a small button on the battery itself which turns on only when depressed.

The standard (pressure switch) batteries often have a cut-off built into them, some of which are quite frustrating to some, cutting off after a few seconds drag, then disabling the battery for up to 2 minutes. Most recent batteries don't cut off so soon, nor do they disable themselves for so long, but it is worth considering when deciding on a specific e-cig model. Most current pressure styles I'm aware of allow at least 4-5 second drags.

With any new atomizer, or when a new cartridge is inserted, you generally want to take a 'primer puff' or two. This is simply taking a drag, which many don't inhale, which just gets the new juice flowing into the atomizers wick. Some e-cigs, or new atomizers (depending on style/type/model) may take a few primer puffs before it's 'at normal operation,' while others may be ready to go nearly instantly.

Manual batteries by comparison, have no such cutoff. That doesn't meant it's necessarily a good idea to hold down the button endlessly, as eventually it's likely you'll burn out the atomizer, especially with a dry cartridge, but they do allow you to decide how long you'd like to take a drag for. Additionally, the pressure type batteries are open, and could if careless, or over time, wind up getting some e-juice in them, which may harm the battery. The manual switch type batteries are sealed, so don't have that issue.

Under general use, it's unlikely that the battery will become saturated with e-juice, but for those experimenting with filling (perhaps overfilling) their own cartridges, or those 'dripping,' a manual battery may provide a longer battery lifetime, with the tradeoff of feeling slightly less like a 'normal cigarette.' (Dripping refers to people dripping 2-3 drops directly onto the atomizer wick, sometimes not using the cartridge at be covered in a future article)

All batteries for e-cigs are rated in mAH, or milli-amp hours, and the specifications are available online, if not with the base kit, with the replacement batteries. For similar style/sized e-cigs, the higher mAH batteries will last longer in the majority of cases.

Accessories and Extras

For some, just like buying a car, they may be nearly as interested in accessories as in the main thing they're buying. I'll admit, I tend to like gadgets myself, but in this case, I'm really aiming for convenience.

There are different types of chargers available, not dissimilar to cell phone charger types:

  • Standard Power Cord

  • USB Power Cord

  • Combination Cord

  • Car Chargers

  • Edited for 2020: Majority of choice today is still effectively USB charged to a proprietary battery that isn’t user-replaceable, or to a ‘mod’ type box with removable, usually 18650 battery cells, which can be charged either via removing (easily) in a standalone charger or a USB power supply cable to mini/micro USB on the device.  A much larger selection of devices nowadays, but still the same basics - a power supply with integrated or separate battery, an atomizer or tank/atomizer system, and some juice - there ya go.

The standard cord plugs into a wall outlet and is connected to a charger, which charges one or more batteries. A variant on this is a 'wall wart,' or a brick/block that accepts one or two batteries, and plugs directly into the wall.

USB Power cords are sometimes sold separately, and unsurprisingly plug into a computer's USB port on one end, and the battery charger on the other.

A combination charger is the best of most worlds - it has an adapter for plugging into a wall, but the charger itself is USB, and can be plugged into either the standard power adapter, or directly into a USB port, with the same cord. A car charger *usually* is just a car power adapter that accepts a USB style plug into it.

This M401 kit below has a combo style, where the (single battery) charger has a USB end, but plugs into the wall transformer when needed (this kit/picture is from Midwest Vapor.  Pay attention to what comes with any kit you're buying - if the kit or e-cig has a combo USB/wall power style adapter, and you already have a $3 car USB power adapter, you do *not* need to purchase the car kit. Likewise, if there's an option for standard wall adapter only cord, or a USB kit option (including the wall power transformer), the USB combo is the most flexible, allowing you to charge that spare or depleted battery at work or on the go.  You can buy carrying cases, to hold a few cartridges, batteries and atomizers..

PROD801 2T
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You can even find some cases that act as a battery charger, like for the Joye 510/TECC Titan below (able to charge 4+ batteries before the pack needs charging itself! It's on the right hand side of the picture, can hold one battery, 2 cartridges, and an atomizer).

You see the 'box' on the left hand side of the picture? This is, simply put, quite cool. It's a USB Pass-through. Inside the box, is a battery, and one end of the cable has a standard USB connector, and the other a 'dummy battery,' which is white, and connected to an atomizer and cartridge in the picture above. Worried about your batteries dying? Not any long as it's plugged into USB, you have power for your e-cig, with a 4' or so long cord. Need to leave the computer? Not a problem, the battery is also charged by the USB cable, so just unplug it, put it into a pocket, and keep on vaping! Note this is not the same as a 'USB power cord' - that simply charges a battery, which must be detached from the cartridge and atomizer at the time.

Other accessories usually include different flavored cartridges (not so much an accessory, really), or blank cartridges, if you're going to fill your own. Filling your own cartridges or re-filling is worthy of it's own article, so you'll have to wait on that one for now.

Ok, I’m ready!  What do I need to do before I buy, and what DO I buy?  From who?

Ok, you've decided on a specific style, whether e-cigar, pen style, super mini cigarette lookalike, or a 'super smoker' flashlight looking thing. You've decided on the mouthpiece type, and got a feel for the types of cartridge flavors available, and checked out a couple of vendors sites. There's a LOT out there, isn't there?

To make things better or worse, depending on your viewpoint, many vendors also re-label a specific e-cig to 'brand' it for themselves. RIght now, nearly all e-cigs are indeed coming from China, and while this is changing slowly, it means there may in some cases be up to 4 or 5 names from different vendors for essentially the same e-cig. Unfortunately, they don't always tell you this. How does an M401 compare to a Pilot? Well, in this case, they're the same. If you've narrowed your choice down to a few options, always:

  • Search the forum and the web for the specific model to determine other 'labels' for the same model.  Sometimes the same thing is re-branded by MANY companies - sometimes also at huge price differences.

  • Search the forum, YouTube and the web for reviews on the specific model (or other 'labelings' if you know them, and see what real people are saying about them.

You don't need to OCD over reading every single review out there, but finding out what the real model of a specific e-cig is can be invaluable, in terms of cost savings as well as replacement parts, and perhaps finding additional reviews. People may also use a 'generic name' for comparing to their latest reviewed e-cig. You get the point, and may either decide you've found a winner, or perhaps come across something that seems better suited for your own desires.

Once you've narrowed it down, also take a look at the consumables cost, which is really..nearly everything. How much are replacement atomizers, and filled cartridges or batteries? How many places stock them for replacement parts?

Check the warrantee offered by each place...some offer good prices, but limited warrantees, and only you can decide on what tradeoff is right for you. Also, if a particular option is really important to you, such as a manual switched battery or a USB passthrough, does the model you're looking at even offer one, and if so, at what cost?

Lastly, what about the specific vendor(s) you're looking at? Are they generally well regarded (just search the e-cig forum, nearly all vendors are discussed), or are there more reports of non-shipment or other poor customer service reports? Do bear in mind, people who are unhappy are very much more vocal than the happy customers, so try to take that into account when reading, but do at least do some investigation to avoid being ripped off by the occasional poor vendor. Also, you may want to check if a specific vendor lists their stock, or can confirm it's in stock before you purchase. Many of the e-smoke vendors do list if an item is in stock or not.

Make your list of items to purchase along with your first (or second, or..) e-cig.

Make sure you've got:

  • one or more chargers. Do you need a separate one for the car, or a spare USB power cable to leave in the office?

  • enough cartridges to last a week or more, or liquid + supplies for refilling/filling.

  • a spare atomizer and battery at the minimum.

Too much information, can't you make it simple and tell me what to buy??

Ask on the forum, as it's likely whenever you read this, the 'current models' no longer are. In general, buy a starter kit for your first, plus an extra battery and atomizer if the kit only has one of each, and some cartridges, in different flavors, especially if this is your first purchase. One may taste awful to you, and the next, divine. Buy any additional power cords you may need, and preferably buy it from someone with a warrantee, in your respective country, that has what you want in stock. For an initial purchase, it's really just nicer to 'get it all from one place.'

Good luck and Happy Vaping!