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Pod systems are based on the same principles as a standard cigalike, but brought radically up to date. They’re designed to be simple to use, and their target market is smokers who’re looking for a fuss-free alternative. To achieve that they’ve stuck with the cigalike principles, while taking the technology in a new direction.

The cigalike format is terminally limited by its tiny size; you simply can’t get much performance out of it. To solve this pod systems tend to be larger, but not usually by a lot. That allows more battery capacity, which has always been the biggest weakness of cigalikes; with batteries in the 90-180mAh range most of them wouldn’t last more than an hour or two of normal use. It doesn’t take much extra size to push that to 300mAh or more, which is a lot more realistic.

Where the changes really show up is in the atomiser. Cartos work well enough, but they have seriously limited liquid capacity and there are limits to how much power they can handle. Mainly that’s because the filling material burns easily, and once that happens the carto is scrap. Pod systems solve that problem by getting rid of the filling. Instead the liquid, wick and coil are contained in a disposable tank. It’s basically a mini clearomiser.

Right now pod systems are a very small segment of the e-cigarette market, but many people think they’re likely to become a lot more popular. Do they have that potential? Let’s look at the leading products and see how they perform.

JUUL

Juul, a vaporizer using pods (Pax Labs, California)
Juul, a vaporizer created by Pax Labs, California.

The JUUL is produced by PAX, who also make the very popular PAX 2 loose-leaf vaporizer. So far the JUUL is only available in the USA but it’s likely to be rolled out globally in the future.

It’s obvious right away that JUUL is targeted squarely at current smokers. This a very small device – larger than a cigalike, but not by much. It’s an extremely slim rectangular gadget, and also very simple – there are no buttons, and just a single LED on the front that shows charge status and lights up when you take a puff. It has an automatic fire switch, so all you have to do is inhale and the coil activates right away. It’s as easy to use as any cigalike.

Instead of a carto, this is fed with JUULPODs. Each of these is a tiny plastic tank with integrated mouthpiece, holding 0.7ml of liquid plus a wick and coil. To load it all you have to do is snap the pod into the open end of the device and it’s good to go. Currently pods come in four flavours – tobacco, mint, fruit and crème brulee.

Obviously there isn’t a lot of liquid in each pod, but PAX say each one is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. Is this believable? Actually it is, because the liquid is very strong. It’s 5% nicotine, which works out as roughly 50mg/ml, but the nicotine itself is slightly different. It’s natural nicotine salts, not the usual freebase, and PAX claim it gives a stronger hit. The science behind that isn’t clear, but the little JUUL certainly packs a respectable punch for its size. Of course this will be a problem if it goes on sale in Europe, because at this strength the pods are definitely not TPD compliant. The USA’s new regulations might be a different story; because JUUL is effectively a high-tech cigalike it might sneak through as being “substantially equivalent” to a 2007 product.

Apart from its TPD-defying strength there are two potential issues with JUUL. One is the charger. This is a neat little USB dongle, which the bottom end of the JUUL sits in. Unfortunately it pretty much assumes that you’ll be using your JUUL as you sit drinking chai latte and composing a screenplay on your MacBook. If you prefer to charge at the end of a cable you’re going to have issues. On the bright side a full charge should last about as long as the liquid in a pod.

The other problem is the price. The starter kit seems quite reasonable, at $49.99 for a JUUL, four pods and a charger. A pack of four pods is $15.99, though, so if you’re using one a day it won’t be that much cheaper than smoking.

My. Von ERL

My. VON ERL, a cigalike that also uses pods (VON ERL. GmbH, Austria)
My. VON ERL, a cigalike that also uses pods (VON ERL. GmbH, Austria)

This is not too different from the JUUL. The My. Von ERL’s slim, four-inch-long body is made of high quality aluminium and contains an auto switch and 350mAh battery. It is slightly larger than the JUUL but, to compensate, it’s sleeker and more rounded.

Larger size gives the Von ERL one major advantage – its Liquidpods are much bigger than the JUUL’s. Each one contains 2ml of liquid as well as the wick and coil, and they come in TPD-compliant 9mg/ml and 18mg/ml strengths. That means each puff doesn’t hit as hard, but you get a lot more puffs per pod. At the moment there are six flavours, including tobacco, menthol, café latte and ginseng with ginger.

The Von ERL is available in Europe and the USA, and it’s significantly cheaper than the JUUL. The starter kit with one pod costs €23.95; a pack of four refills is €9.95, and contains almost three times as much liquid as a pack of JUUL refills. The charger is also a much more conventional (and versatile) micro-USB cable.

Vype ePen

Now in its second generation, the Vype ePen is BAT’s attempt to revolutionise vaping. It’s more conventional looking than the JUUL or Von ERL, and also larger – about the length of an eGo-style device, and slightly fatter. However, instead of a tank it takes ePen Caps. These conical objects come in six flavours and an unflavoured variety, and four strengths – from 0 to 18mg/ml. Each one holds 2ml of liquid, and they’re self-sealing; you can take out a partly used pod and replace it with a different flavour, then go back to it later.

The ePen doesn’t use an auto switch; it has a fire button and two voltage settings, so it’s a lot closer to a conventional e-cig. It also has a larger battery – Vype don’t say what capacity it has, but around 650mAh would be a good guess. Again, charging is via a micro USB cable.

The ePen is quite affordable, at £17.99 for the starter kit (with two pods) and £6.99 for a pack of three pods. It also has BAT’s massive marketing team behind it, so it could easily become very popular if vapers are happy with it. However the tobacco industry is sometimes not very well welcomed in some parts of the vaping world and this product definitely holds Big Tobacco’s signature.

XOLO

Xolo, a box using pods with an extending mouthpiece.
Xolo, a box using pods with an extending mouthpiece.

The XOLO isn’t really on the market yet, but it looks very interesting. Designer Taman Powell’s aim (co-director with Oliver Kershaw) was to create a high-performance device that was as simple to use as a cigalike and looked more stylish than the typical mod.

From what’s been revealed so far he’s certainly succeeded at that. The XOLO’s lightweight, two-part polycarbonate body is about the site of a small box mod but much simpler looking. It has no screen or buttons. One side of the case slides up to reveal the mouthpiece and turn the device on; after that an auto switch will trigger when you take a puff.

There’s plenty of room in the case for a large battery, and – this is one of the most exciting things about the device – a huge 10ml pod, which can be swapped out for a different flavour whenever you like. Obviously this gigantic pod isn’t TPD compliant, but lower capacity versions wouldn’t be hard to make.

A drawback of all the other pod systems is that they’re strictly closed systems; you need to use proprietary pods from the device manufacturer, and that means you’re stuck with a limited range of flavours. XOLO will be very different. Apparently a range of liquid makers are gearing up to make pods for it and the plan is that when it launches in the near future there will be at least 40 flavours available.

The price for a XOLO should be around $65; no price for replacement pods is available yet, but thanks to their high capacity they should work out more economical than the smaller ones. If this takes off it could be the ultimate pod system – and possibly the ultimate hassle-free vape.

What future for Pod systems ?

So how much potential do pod systems have? For cloud chasers and hobbyist vapers, probably not much. They’re deliberately kept simple, and that means there isn’t a lot of scope for tweaking and customization. On the other hand they could really appeal to the millions of smokers who’d like an alternative but are put off by the thought of fiddling with coils and refilling from bottles. All that stuff is second nature to experienced vapers – but if you’ve spent a couple of decades just taking a cigarette out the pack and flicking your Zippo, most vape gear looks pretty complicated. So overall, pod systems probably aren’t going to replace today’s mods and atomisers – but they could persuade a lot more smokers to switch to vaping.

Starter kits or Pod Mods that accept pre-fill cartridges can be compared to the very popular coffee pods distributed by Nespresso. Such disposable refills have several advantages, not only from a commercial point of view but also for compliance with local regulations.  Their commercial success principally relies on customer retention to the brand. In a regulatory framework like the TPD or the US FDA’s deeming rules, manufacturers may opt to these closed systems that are also much cheaper and faster to bring into compliance than open ones.