When Dr. Hon Lik first drafted his initial design for the original e-cigarette, it’s hard to imagine he could have foreseen the rapid and unprecedented evolution this technology would take in as little as a single decade. From the humble beginnings of the cigalike smaller than a stick of gum to the large regulated box mods we love to lug around, the e-cigarette industry has emerged from the ash and taken on a mind of its own, spurring spontantenous offshoots, individualized brands, various innovations and unique variations until even the person who invented e-cigarettes can hardly tell one from the other. So how can the average vaper hope to do so? With a little help from your friends at EVC! Read on as we delve deep into the evolution of the e-cigarette.
Cigalikes were the first type of electronic cigarette to hit the market, prompting the start of the 1st generation of e-cigs. Pulling straight from Dr. Hon Lik’s original design, these e-cigs are designed to appear extremely similar to analog cigarettes, mimicking the original’s small, lightweight, and pocketable form factor as well as the tight, restricted draw that promotes MTL vaping. Available in either rechargeable or disposable varieties, these were the only type of electronic cigarettes on the market in the early days of the e-cig industry and were (and still are) most commonly found in convenience stores and gas stations, but that didn’t stop early vapers from snatching them up like hotcakes—and beginner vapers still do, as they are the easiest technology to transfer to from cigarettes despite their shortcomings.
Cigalikes are often made with a plastic exterior, though they are sometimes made of metal, but rarely, if ever, come with some kind of significant safety protection suite to prevent mishaps nor any regulating chipset that will maintain a steady output voltage—instead, a cigalike will slowly lose power as the battery drains. Because of their diminutive size, they only come equipped with small capacity batteries, but this usually isn’t an issue for the high-ohm (>2.0Ω) coils installed in the atomizer. The atomizer, usually a dual atomizer/cartridge or a cartomizer of some kind, is typically irremovable and irreplaceable except in specific models—these types will usually have some kind of threading to allow for the install of third-party components such as 808D or LEO threading, but rarely 510, and a cigalike’s small battery can’t support much more than the stock atomizer. Cigalikes are available in either “manual” mode that requires the user to press a button to fire the atomizer or in “auto” mode that will automatically fire the atomizer when you activate the vacuum-sensitive switch by taking a draw.
When it comes to recharging, cigalikes are very sensitive due to their small-capacity batteries—they require a very specific type of charger, but usually, this kind of charger is provided with the cigalike free of charge (heh). It's also a good idea to attach these to a wall adapter within a low amperage if inserting it into a wall outlet—anything under 1A is good, but under 0.5A for these chargers is best. Also, avoid charging these through the 12V ports in a car—these can have inconsistent amperages that can damage your charger and/or device.
In addition, cigalikes are rarely available in a refillable form, so cigalikes don’t really have a wide range of options when it comes to customizing your vape—at least not as much as most later generations of e-cigs. Plus, studies have proven that cigalikes are far less effective than later generations at promoting smoking cessation, mostly due to their inefficiencies in nicotine delivery, so if your cigalike just isn’t providing the satisfaction you crave, don’t give up! Try any one of the newer and more effective models of e-cigarettes available—you’re sure to find one that’s perfect for you.
Pen-type e-cigarettes are essentially cigalikes on steroids. They have the same basic stick-like form, but a pen-type, also referred to as a 2nd gen e-cig, is far larger than a traditional cigalike, thanks to the souped-up battery held within the pen’s metal exterior—where a cigalike may get a few hundred milliamp hours from the battery, getting 1500mAh from a pen-type is about standard.
Like cigalikes, these rarely come with a screen installed to tell your details such as battery life, puff counts, and the like. Pen-types almost always come with a pre-installed battery that can’t be removed or replaced, but often possesses a voltage regulator that will ensure a steady power supply even when the battery is dying. Some of these do, however, come with a potentiometer that can increase or decrease the power, measured in volts, provided to your atomizer—simply twist the knob on the bottom to push even more power to your coils. These pens essentially established eGo and 510 threading and made them the standard for newer models to emulate—most commonly, pen-types will have a hybrid-connection that supports both 510- and eGo-threaded atomizers and come with an eGo ring that hides the threading for a super sleek exterior when a 510 atomizer is installed.
Pen-types rarely come with any type of atomizer attached, though most starter kits will include a compatible clearomizer that will get you well on your way to loving vaping! Because of the separation between the battery and atomizer of a pen-type, these don’t come in “auto” mode and are only activated by manually pressing a button, but will typically incorporate some sort of “power off” function that prevents misfires after the button has been rapidly pressed five times.
Recharging your pen-type is usually easier than recharging cigalikes—some are only rechargeable through the included 510-USB dongle, but most are recharged through a micro-USB port built into the device’s body. In vaping’s early days, there were almost no atomizers with a resistance under 1.0Ω, so most 2nd gen e-cigs can’t support anything lower (so no sub-ohm tanks or RDAs), though some modern pen-types can fire lower. Keep in mind, however, that these aren’t high-drain cells in pen-types, so amperage draw should be taken into account when installed atomizers.
If cigalikes are golf carts and pen-types are go-carts, mechanical mods are Honda Civics: when built to common specifications, these serve well as an ultra reliable vaping platform, but are still incredibly easy to install custom attachments onto until you’re left with a high-powered high performance vaping machine that goes fast and hits hard, but leaves something to be desired as far as safety.
The basic design of a mechanical mod, included in the 3rd generation of e-cigs, is surprisingly simple: all that is takes is a hollow tube to hold a battery cell, a switch (typically on the bottom of the tube) and a top cap that can accept installed atomizers, usually always of the 510 variety. No wires, no chips, no safety nets, just good old fashioned basic electrical concepts—which is exactly what gets some people in trouble.
Mech mods are always made of solid metal, which—alongside the fact that they possess no chipsets that can malfunction or circuitry that can fail—lends to their reputation for indestructibility. Which metal is used, however, plays a huge part in the performance of these mods, as the conductivity of the metal will either promote or reduce power sent to the atomizer. Copper is by far the most common—its superb conductivity and relatively low price has made it a favorite among mechanical vapers, even though it’s very prone to building a nasty layer of oxidation if not carefully maintained or treated beforehand. Stainless steel and aluminum are also options, but due to the higher resistance of these materials, low-ohm builds won’t play too well—building too low (<0.3Ω) can lead to a “hot button” from more electricity being pulled to the switch than to the atomizer, causing excessive arcing. Other materials such as brass and silver are also excellent choices for mechanical mods, though brass performs a little less efficiently than copper, and silver, while superior to copper in terms of conductivity, is very, very expensive. Mechanical mods will often, however, come with battery and atomizer contacts plated with a more conductive material such as silver and gold.
Caring for your mechanical mod is also an oft neglected but incredibly important facet to getting the best performance out of your vaping device. Unlike other types of mods that carry electricity through sealed wires, mechanical mods carry the electricity through the body of the mod—while not at all dangerous to any vapers holding it, if you’re looking to get a hit like a freight train from your mech, it’s crucial to keep the threadings and contacts of your device pristine and free of any gunk/crud/oxidization that could add unneeded resistance to the path of electricity travelling through your mod. Adding a protective layer of sealant to the exterior of your copper mod is a good idea and will keep it looking pristine for months—just don’t try to add any oxidation-preventing coatings to your threadings, as this will only increase the resistance even further. In addition, because electricity is literally travelling along the inner wall of your mod where your battery is held, it’s important to ensure that the wrap of your battery isn’t broken or nicked—otherwise, electricity travelling in the wall will jump to your battery cell’s exposed metal body, causing a hard short, thermal runaway, and an overall bad time for everyone involved.
Mech mods are most commonly found in a tube form that holds a single 18650 with the positive battery pole facing the atomizer and the negative facing the switch, but can come in many different forms, such as an extended tube that holds two battery cells stacked in series—so that the voltage output is doubled—or in a box form that can hold multiple cells wired in either series or parallel, or even both.
A mech mod will almost always have 510 threading for compatibility with 99% of modern atomizers and usually comes with a top cap equipped with either a floating positive pin—meaning it slides freely in between the battery’s positive pole and the atomizer’s positive pin until the atomizer and battery are fully installed, holding it in place—or a positive pin that’s spring-loaded, which just means that the pin will retract and extend towards the atomizer automatically when pressure—typically from screwing down the atomizer—is applied and removed, kind of like the push-button of a pen.
Some high performance mechanical mods, however, will include a type of top cap called a hybrid-type or direct contact. These do away with any type of positive pin in the mech, instead putting the positive pin of your atomizer in direct contact with the battery’s positive pole, which greatly reduces resistance and pesky voltage drop. However, this type of mech 510 connection can be very dangerous if you don’t take care that the positive pin of your atomizer is extending further than its threadings—otherwise, the battery’s pole won’t make contact with the atomizer’s positive pole, but instead the threadings that serve as the negative pole of the atomizer. This completes the circuit prematurely, leading to a hard short, thermal runaway, and, you guessed it, a no-fun super sad bad time.
All mechs will put out power by way of direct output, meaning the voltage being sent to your atomizer will slowly decrease as the battery dies, starting at around 4.2V and slowly dropping until it reaches around 3.4V—pushing your batteries past this limit will only damage their lifespan, so take care to never run your batteries until they’re completely drained. Otherwise, unless you have an advanced external charger that has a Revival Mode to do so, you’ll have a very hard time reviving your now-KO’d cell. Besides, since mechs will never have the chipset needed to charge battery cells through USB, picking up a quality external battery charger is mandatory for these devices.
A mechanical mod isn’t a great choice for atomizers with a set resistance such as sub-ohm tanks and clearomizers, as only a specific range of resistances will work well with the direct voltage of a mech. However, this property is exactly makes them the top choice among vapers using an RBA, which users can custom build to an exact resistance in order to get the wattage/performance they’re looking for. Thanks to the way electricity plays with resistance, as the resistance of a coil is lowered, the wattage output goes up—so when you hear about vapers building “super low-ohm”, know it’s because they’re trying to reach the maximum wattages possible rather than simply doing it for fun (well...I mean, it is just for fun, but you know what I mean).
Additionally, because there’s no chipset, the lower limit of acceptably safe resistances is designated only by the amp rating of the battery cell(s) you have installed. When making a coil build you’ll be using on a mech, it’s incredibly important to check the resistance of your build against the amp rating of your battery cells and calculate your build’s amp draw using Ohm’s law in order to make sure that your build’s resistance won’t pull too many amps for your cells to handle—otherwise, battery failure and thermal runaway are a serious risk. So before trying out that fresh build on your mech, always double check it with multiple ohm meters to ensure that it’s at a safe resistance with no shorts from a coil accidentally touching the deck or internal wall.
Unregulated mods are very similar to mechanical mods: by definition, unregulated mods are mechanical mods, but not all mechanical mods are unregulated—kind of like squares and rectangles. The only distinction between mechanical and unregulated is the presence of some kind of safety protections, usually a MOSFET or fuse that will either throttle the amp load or break the circuit if a set amp limit is passed in order to ensure that thermal runaway can’t be reached, but can also come with other safety protections against things like reversed polarity from an incorrectly inserted battery cell. Other than that, unregulated mods function just like a mech, although they usually come in a box form that accepts multiple battery cells—these cells are wired in either parallel or series.
A quick refresher:
- Parallel: Connects each cell as part of independent circuit with the atomizer; multiplies amp limit and mAh by the number of cells; great for beginners.
- Series: Each cell is connected end-to-end in one big circuit with the atomizer; multiplies voltage by the number of cells; for experienced vapers ONLY.
It’s also possible to merge these two types by having two cells wired in parallel, then wiring two of those pairs in series for a hard-hitting, long-lasting device.
These types of mods were far more popular in years past as experienced vapers tried their own hand at assembling the simplistic circuitry of unregulated mods to custom specifications, but these types of boxes have fallen out of favor this past year or so, giving way to modern regulated mods that make achieving mech-like wattages as easy as pressing a button, all without the need to build dangerously low.
Regulated mods make up the vast majority of APVs on the market, especially today. They can come in a box or tube form and can accept any number of battery cells, although 1 - 4 cells is by far the most common. By definition, regulated mods are the only type that can be adjusted to output a specific wattage or voltage as decided by the user’s preference and maintain that stable output across the entirety of the battery life, making these types the most user-friendly type of e-cigarette as well as the most versatile. The chipsets regulating the output of these mods are often very complex and advanced, building upon nearly a decade of the e-cigarette’s technological evolution, and some—like the DNAs and Yihi series—are held as the standard in e-cigarette regulation and are often purchased in bulk by many different independent brands to install in the mods they make.
In the past, due to inefficiencies in technology at the time, regulated mods were only capable of achieving low wattages (10W - 50W), used only one battery cell, and cost anywhere from $50 to $150. Now, however, 300W+ outputs from 2-4 cell devices are becoming increasingly popular and prevalent, not to mention affordable as the cost per watt has plummeted in recent years—so much so that today, a 350W device can easily be found for well below $100.
When regulated mods first appeared on the market, they were only capable of producing the static output of power mode and measured the power in terms of variable voltage (VV)—with the advent of Evolv’s DNA series of chips, which used variable wattage (VW) as opposed to VV, mod makers began making devices with a power mode almost always described in watts, which translates a lot more efficiently than voltage across different resistances. This change in terminology was despite the fact that Evolv patented the process of “VW”, although, with the exception of one ongoing case with Joyetech/Wismec, they have yet to wield this fact to their economic advantage.
Then, in 2014, Evolv released the DNA40, which introduced temperature control (TC) for the first time. Although it was only compatible with nickel (Ni200) in its early infancy of efficiency, it was quickly copied and adopted until it became the ubiquitously standard feature we know it as today, finding its way into nearly every single modern mod. The TC modules of most mods are only compatible with nickel, titanium (Ti), and stainless steel, but Evolv chips—as well as some other mods—can accept user-input TCR values for other heating element materials, then use that value to calculate proper TC performance. Some mods have even found a way to use TC on kanthal, which is normally off-limits due to its inability to change its resistance as it heats up.
While most regulated mods are equipped with only power and TC mode, some are capable of Bypass mode, which simply bypasses the circuitry of the mod and converts the output to direct voltage, making it perform more like a mech than a regulated mod. In addition, some regulated mods have even more auxiliary features, such as a Preheat function that outputs a raised voltage, then throttles it back down to the set wattage after a set time, reducing the lengthy ramp-up times of bulky builds.
Regulated mods usually accept 18650 battery cells, but some take cells as large as 26650s, or even come with an irremovable LiPo pack powering the device. Having a micro-USB port integrated into the body of the device is by far the standard, but in some devices, this port can only be used to connect your device to your computer in order to upgrade the firmware—firmware updates are released periodically by manufacturers in order to add fixes/features to your device even after the release date—so it’s a good idea to pick up an external charger for the battery cells going into your mod, especially if you want to have an extra set on hand to swap out whenever your batteries are running low.
Because of the extensive circuitry powering regulated devices, it’s fairly easy to include a vast number of safety protections, and doing so has thankfully become the norm for e-cigarette manufacturers. Including features such as a timed cutoff that will cease firing after a certain timespan (usually 6-10 seconds) and a weak battery warning that will prevent over-discharging your cells has not only become the standard, it has moreso become expected of manufacturers to include functionality that ensures the worst can’t happen to their devices.
So there you have it—from cigalikes to regulated mods and everything in between, the evolution of e-cigarettes has been a surprisingly extensive process given the short timespan in which it occurred, but hopefully, now you have a better understanding of not only which products came first, but also how they function and which one will work best for you! Keep an eye out for our next upcoming piece, this time on Atomizers! Stay tuned!