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Vaporizer Usage: safety and toxicology

By Jorge Fernández

Dedicated to investigation for over 5 years, in 2006 he started as a co-founder in the establishment of a Hi-tech firm in San Sebastian. In 2008, he founded Hermes Medical Engineering S.L., committed to the reseach and design of devices for the administration of active principles in vapor mediums. The first device, called MiniVAP, is sold all over the world for its therapeutic effects. At present, Hermes Medical S.L. is developing a medical vaporizer for Bedrocan BV, that will be used in clinical trials.

Whether by medical recommendation or by one’s own decision, the consumption of any substance always entails a series of risks, speaking in terms of the health of the organism. Those risks not only form part of the specific properties of the consumed substance itself; the method of consumption also has a series of implications for our bodies (e.g. eatables could last too long or give unpredictable effects). In this article, we center on safety and toxicity, when using a vaporizer, comparing it with traditional and more common usage by combustion, whilst also considering certain technical aspects, with regard to design, materials and certifications. Our objective is to achieve some guarantees for usage close to its medical or therapeutic application.

Combustion

With regard to the combustion of the cannabis plant, it hardly needs saying that most of the toxicity is in the smoke. Although certain components are absent that are found in tobacco, the smoke arising from the combustion of any plant contains tar, certain polynuclear hydrocarbons that are potentially carcinogenic and other harmful compounds. Neither can we, of course, forget carbon monoxide.

Traces of CO2 and pyrolysis at over 230º C

Tar (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)

Table 1. Summary of the differences between vaporization and combustion

When smoking, we might add that not only are we talking about compounds in a gaseous state but also of small-sized solid particles that adhere to the lungs, which after prolonged use finally reduce our pulmonary capacity or become precursors of diseases that principally affect the respiratory tract (throat, trachea, lungs…)

Looking more closely at the combustion methods, it would be necessary to differentiate between the hand-rolled spliff or joint, and other utensils such as pipes, hookahs, and various water-based tools (e.g. water pipe). Beginning with the use of this last group, we reduce the quantity of solid particles by filtering with water or condensate, and we avoid the toxins coming from the slow-combustion of paper. It is true that there are more organic papers, the manufacture of which by-passes certain chemical processes, but it has not been demonstrated that their use avoids the formation of toxic substances. Anyway the largest proportion of toxins is produced by the combustion of the plant itself.

With reference to the materials from which smoking utensils are made, the principle concerns are the small particles that they can give off and the durability of those materials against daily use and high temperatures. There are materials of proven purity like borosilicate glass; but other materials such as copper and certain nickel-based alloys, are an example of how high temperatures can transform them into inhalable oxides with demonstrated carcinogenic effects.

Vaporization

With regard to vaporization, if the basic goal is to raise the temperature of a substance to such a point that you manage to extract its active principles without going so far as to produce combustion; it implies that no smoke is obtained in inhalation and therefore no toxic components are present in solid or gaseous forms.

However, it should be taken into account that some vaporizers can exceed the temperature of pyrolysis (spontaneous combustion) of the cellulose when the plant is heated up above 230º C.

This generates similar residues to those from combustion, although in the majority of cases the quantity of toxins is much smaller than smoking [Gieringer, 1996; McPartland, 1997].

Nonfilter Cigarette Filter Cigarette Waterpipe #1 Waterpipe #2 Vaporizer #1 Vaporizer #2
Total Tars (mg/puff) 309.8 140.5 24.5 9.2 4.76 11.3
Total Cannabinoids (% Tar) 7.82 5.32 5.46 4.48 7.89 9.82

TABLE 1. Tar and Cannabinoid Delivery–7 Smoking Devices
Adapted from Gieringer, D. “Marijuana Waterpipe and Vaporizer Study,” 1996

The materials of the vaporizer itself can also be harmful to the health of users. Those materials used for the manufacture of a vaporizer should be resistant to high temperatures as well as clean and long-lasting. With the aim of testing the safety of the materials that are used, it is important that the manufacturer test the device through various laboratory procedures: on the one hand, the degradation/formation of gaseous and potentially toxic substances for the user, but on the other, the release of solid compounds that can accumulate in the body.

Each vaporizer manufacturer should order the preparation of a toxicology report, detailing the methods and tests to guarantee that the device is safe and innocuous. All materials that have any contact with the flow of air/vapor from the device or from the substance should be tested, because their degradation by temperature or its use under extreme conditions could imply a risk when inhaled by the user. The objective is to test whether there are any detached materials and that they are below legal safely limits (metals such as: aluminum, chrome, manganese, magnesium, copper, silicon, zinc, iron; and whether toxic substances exist in the form of vapor, which in the case of plastics may be poly-fluorinated compounds (PFCs) and per-fluorinated alkaline phosphates (PAPs), for example.

The condensed air from the empty (with no load of vegetable material) vaporizer should also be analyzed by conducting simulated aspirations in frequency/time of use. For example: to simulate the case of an individual who uses the vaporizer 6 times a day for 2 years under the highest conditions for temperature and inhalation intensity.

Testing the device

The PEL (Permissible Exposure Limits) standards specified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the United States are used to arrive at a real comparison. In addition, scientific publications must be reviewed in such fields as: the deterioration of plastic materials because of the effect of temperature; the chemical composition of metallic alloys and their behavior against thermal stress; and their exposure to corrosive agents, among others.

In other cases, simple observation of materials that form the air duct very often indicate whether there are particles that have detached or that are not described by the manufacturer.

Figure 2. SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) analysis of the heat exchanger of the miniVAP. Dust particles from the process of both handling and manufacturing are visible before its cleaning.

Other factors

There are other aspects on safety in vaporization that correspond to a series of standards or norms. For example, those related to electricity safety, although it is also interesting to take into account the policy of the manufacturer and its consequences for the environment: programmed obsolescence, choice of raw materials, waste recycling, etc.

Electricity safety

The European Certificate of Conformity (EC marking), the German GS quality seal of TÜV and the UL Mark for North America are some examples of the commitments that a manufacturer acquires to uphold some minimum safety standards, as well as legal and technical requirements agreed by a specific country or region. These certificates permit the commercialization of any product and its use with complete safety within the above-mentioned territories, even though it may not have been manufactured there. These certificates are obtained through tests performed at independent laboratories.

Figure 3. CE, GS and UL marking guarantees some minimum safety requirements for electric/electronic devices, among others.

In an electric vaporizer, successful approval of the following tests is important: electricity safety tests, so that there is no danger of electric-shock or setting fire to the vaporizer; and electro-magnetic tests. For example, if the user is carrying a pace-maker and uses a vaporizer, it should not diffuse magnetic waves that interfere with the pace-maker and endanger life.

Environmental Safety

Over recent years, waste management has assumed greater relevance, once the useful life of the product ends. We are talking in terms of human health in either the short or long term.

Figure 4. Different symbols and acronyms that help identify the environmental impact of a device.

Various agreements have been established at an international level to avoid the use of dangerous substances of high toxicity in electronic devices like an electric vaporizer (RoSH standard, Restriction of Hazardous Substances: lead, mercury, cadmium, and others), as well as specific signs informing the consumer that the product should be disposed of at a reuse and recycling center (crossed-out container symbol) at the end of its useful life.

If hazardous substances are not disposed at a proper place, water would transport them in the rivers to the sea, so any plant or animal using that water would absorb the toxins, now they will be in our food chain.

On the other hand, recycling is a matter of energy efficiency reducing indirectly contamination by the combustion of carbon-based fuels.

Conclusion

Returning to the consumption of cannabis, it is evident that the use of the vaporizer brings a series of advantages and improvements to the health of the user, compared to the traditional use of cannabis by smoking.

Even so, we would like to add that we should take account of factors like design and manufacturing, the liability of the manufacturer; and health and environmental standards that should also be arguments of sufficient weight to influence the sale of these devices. At the end of the day, safety in consumption begins with awareness of consumption.

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Whether by medical recommendation or by one’s own decision, the consumption of any substance always entails a series of risks, speaking in terms of the health of the organism. Those risks not only form part of the specific properties of the consumed substance itself; the method of consumption also has a series of implications for our bodies (e.g. eatables could last too long

The Best Portable Vaporizer

Updated April 20, 2020

We researched this category in spring 2020 and remain confident in three of our picks: The Airvape X, Grasshopper Stainless, and Firefly 2+. We have moved the Grenco G Pen Elite to the competition.

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There’s no going back to smoking once you’ve tried the AirVape X, the cannabis vaporizer we recommend after spending four years researching more than 50 models and testing nearly two dozen. A great vaporizer provides a relaxing, enjoyable experience from start to finish, and the AirVape X delivers because it’s easier to use than other options.

Our pick

AirVape X

The best vaporizer

Satisfying to use, intuitive to newcomers, and easier to live with than competitors, the AirVape X provides richer, smoother vapor than anything else in its price range.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180 .

The AirVape X nails ease of use both initially and long term: The rim of the heating chamber resists spills by funneling material in, the magnetic lid holds firm but doesn’t get stuck, and over time, the AirVape is easier to clean completely than almost any other vaporizer. The onboard temperature controls and status display are large, intuitive, and easier to use than competitors’ app-based controls, and this model’s USB charging is more convenient than competitors’ charging docks. From the first puff to the last, we found the AirVape X provided richer, smoother vapor than alternates at similar prices and with more of the pleasant flavors that make vaporizers such a treat to use.

Also great

Stainless Grasshopper

Portable, discreet, fast, tasty

The Grasshopper has thick, potent vapor, quick heat-up times, charming tactile controls, a lifetime warranty, and an inconspicuous design—but it gets quite hot, and its charging setup and battery life aren’t the best.

Buying Options

If you want a discreet design that does its job quickly, get the Stainless Grasshopper. This clever penlike gadget produces potent vapor faster than our other picks, with nearly instant convection heating and simple tactile temperature controls. It holds less material than our other picks but is still perfect for two folks to share. Easy to use and charming in its simplicity, it produces delicious flavors that are more concentrated than the AirVape. But it lacks those models’ informative displays, its battery life is shorter, and its proprietary charger is not as convenient. The pocketable size and inconspicuous design make it the most easily portable of our picks, and a lifetime warranty is a reassuring detail, as earlier versions of the Grasshopper had some reliability issues.

Upgrade pick

Firefly 2+

Best flavor, good for groups

The high-capacity Firefly 2+ quickly produces more intense, tasty vapor than competitors, and it’s attractive and easy to clean—but it’s expensive, and it buries critical info in an app.

Buying Options

The Firefly 2+ model’s convection heat produces some of the best vapor—tastier, cooler, and, frankly, stronger—of all of the models we tested. Its easy-to-load chamber holds more ground material than most vaporizers; cleaning the wide, open airway is straightforward; and its capacitive heat-up buttons are simple to activate. Although we like the overall design of the Firefly, it lacks the display of the AirVape, and it isn’t as portable, compact, or discreet as other models. Its price is higher than that of most competitors, it has a bulky charging dock, and the lack of an onboard display makes checking its battery life or temperature an unnecessarily complex process in comparison with our other picks.

Everything we recommend

Our pick

AirVape X

The best vaporizer

Satisfying to use, intuitive to newcomers, and easier to live with than competitors, the AirVape X provides richer, smoother vapor than anything else in its price range.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180 .

Also great

Stainless Grasshopper

Portable, discreet, fast, tasty

The Grasshopper has thick, potent vapor, quick heat-up times, charming tactile controls, a lifetime warranty, and an inconspicuous design—but it gets quite hot, and its charging setup and battery life aren’t the best.

Buying Options
Upgrade pick

Firefly 2+

Best flavor, good for groups

The high-capacity Firefly 2+ quickly produces more intense, tasty vapor than competitors, and it’s attractive and easy to clean—but it’s expensive, and it buries critical info in an app.

Buying Options

The research

Why you should trust us

We took the time to interview more vaporizer experts, read more reviews, and try more products firsthand than most regular shoppers ever get the chance to.

Aside from enthusiasts’ comments on popular vaporizer forums, we’ve interviewed two industry experts: Bud, the reviewer at The Vape Critic; and Buzz, the man behind the curtain at VaporizerWizard.com. We discussed industry trends, features, and favorites among the dozens of models they’ve tested and reviewed. Both sites include affiliate links for some products they recommend, as explained in The Vape Critic’s disclosure page and VaporizerWizard.com’s disclosure page.

Writer Mark Smirniotis has covered vaporizers for Wirecutter for three years, and he formerly worked for an e-cigarette–liquid manufacturer—exposure that showed the trade-offs necessary to make a good device. Co-author Jordan McMahon has overseen dozens of updates on Wirecutter guides, and after long-term tests of our existing picks, he oversaw a new round of comparison testing on the best vaporizers available in spring 2019.

Who this is for

If you’re completely new to cannabis or have been a casual smoker in the past, a vaporizer is a great way to avoid the byproducts of combustion and skip the sticky, ashy black mess that’s an inevitable part of smoking joints, pipes, and bongs. A portable vaporizer, dressed in a sleek and discreet housing, feels like something you can bring to a dinner party along with a bottle of wine. Compared with smoking cannabis, a vaporizer will give you a cleaner taste, less lingering odor, reduced throat irritation, no tar-like ash to stain your fingers or fabrics, and more efficient use of your material.

If you’re a patient looking to use medical marijuana for symptom relief, portable vaporizers offer additional benefits. A vaporizer for ground cannabis flowers can reliably hit a consistent dosage with precision temperature controls, allowing you to control the effects better. That’s not as easy with smoking or edibles, or when vaporizing stronger concentrates like extracts or oils.

A vaporizer doesn’t eliminate the harmful effects of cannabis use, but research points to harm reduction compared with smoking it.

How we picked and tested

In four years of research, we’ve considered about 50 vaporizers, mostly based on input from experts at sites like The Vape Critic and VaporizerWizard.com and from customers in enthusiast forums and sites. We’ve panel-tested two dozen over the years to get an idea of how people with different comfort levels and cannabis experience think about vaporizers and the experience that goes along with them.

We didn’t consider vaporizers for oils, extracts, wax, cartridges, pens, or other concentrates for this guide. Although these products are quickly gaining popularity, they can be hard to find in states where cannabis isn’t legal. We also didn’t consider e-cigarettes or other products for tobacco or nicotine use. The devices that use these substances are broadly called vaporizers, which is confusing. What we’re covering here is limited to “flower vaporizers” for old-fashioned buds—we feel this is the best entry point for most people because it gives you a lot of options in terms of flavors, effects, and potency.

As we tested and retested eight models this year, here’s what we considered important:

Easy to use

We sought clear, intuitive controls to start up the device, see when it was ready, adjust the temperature, and check the battery life. We wanted it to be easy to load, quick to heat up, and unlikely to burn material if you forget it’s on.

Pleasing vapor

We wanted good enough vapor that you wouldn’t consider smoking instead. That meant we dismissed vaporizers that produced unpleasant flavors (like burnt popcorn, for example) or harsh or uncomfortably hot vapor, and any that tended to clog or presented unusual difficulty inhaling. The truly great ones taste good, don’t burn, and feel like drinking from a straw.

Easy to clean

Cleaning has proven to be an important factor when living with these things long-term, because they all need it, and the best ones can reliably be returned to near-mint condition with minimal effort. The worst ones have parts that need replacement, areas you can’t fully clean, or a cumbersome disassembly process. We avoided long, skinny airways that you ream out with pipe cleaners—too hard to get truly clean.

Good battery life, simple charger

The best vaporizers use common charging ports like Micro-USB or USB-C, which work with cables you have already. A proprietary charger (like a dock, or a unique cable) is not as convenient, but we didn’t dismiss models for this alone. We’ve found battery life on most good vaporizers lasts about four bowls’ worth, without a ton of differentiation between models. We appreciate vaporizers that have user-replaceable rechargeable batteries, but that’s not crucial.

Attractive and functional designs

A good vaporizer has materials that look and feel nice, a body durable enough to survive a drop, and a simple and effective mouthpiece that feels natural on your lips—and doesn’t burn them. Subtle additions like concealed cleaning tools or aligned magnetic closures also go a long way toward making a satisfying experience. Many vaporizers put all the necessary info and functions on the body of the unit, so for simplicity we prefer the vaporizer to be controllable without a smartphone application—but we didn’t dismiss any based on that.

Our pick: AirVape X

Our pick

AirVape X

The best vaporizer

Satisfying to use, intuitive to newcomers, and easier to live with than competitors, the AirVape X provides richer, smoother vapor than anything else in its price range.

Buying Options

*At the time of publishing, the price was $180 .

We like the AirVape X because it’s easy to use, load, and clean, with rich vapor that tastes great. Small, thoughtful touches—like the magnetic lid and standby timer—stood out in our testing and had us reaching for the X even after our tests were done.

The AirVape X is easier to set up than other vaporizers. Its mouthpiece attaches securely by a magnet to a chamber below. Loading the AirVape makes less of a mess than with several other good vaporizers, like the Grasshopper, because the AirVape’s chamber’s concave rim helps funnel material inside.

Our picks are all intuitive and easy to use, but the Airvape’s basic controls and clear display make it the simplest to use of any. Three taps of the power button turn it on, and a large display on the side shows the temperature and battery life. It takes about 30 seconds to heat up to 380 °F, which is an average temperature that produces good vapor with most flowers. The onboard directional arrows can toggle from 200 ºF to 428 °F as you fine-tune the vapor to your preferences and favorite strains. The AirVape doesn’t require a smartphone app to check battery life.

The AirVape’s vapor tastes clearly different from one flower type to another, and it’s very smooth and full—like with the best vaporizers we tried and better than anything else in this price range. Neither the vapor nor the mouthpiece got uncomfortably hot, though the top portion around the heating chamber gets warm to the touch.

Occasionally disassembling the mouthpiece and soaking the parts in alcohol (which is not as hard as it sounds) removes buildup and returns the AirVape to near-new condition. Photo: Rozette Rago

The AirVape’s oven has funnel-like slope to its sides that makes loading ground material easier than with most other vaporizers. Photo: Rozette Rago

Occasionally disassembling the mouthpiece and soaking the parts in alcohol (which is not as hard as it sounds) removes buildup and returns the AirVape to near-new condition. Photo: Rozette Rago

The AirVape’s oven has funnel-like slope to its sides that makes loading ground material easier than with most other vaporizers. Photo: Rozette Rago

The AirVape is among the easiest vaporizers to clean, which is a huge mark in its favor when living with it long term. The mouthpiece eventually accumulates resin, and you must pull apart its five small pieces to clean it. We’ve found the manufacturer’s suggestion—soak the parts in isopropyl alcohol for a few minutes, then wipe and scrape them the resin off—to be very effective and not as laborious as it sounds. You rarely need to do it, anyway. Many other vaporizers contain narrow or recessed mouthpiece areas that are not as easy to fully clean out. Cleaning the AirVape is far easier than cleaning vaporizers with a long airway, like the Vapium Summit, or the DaVinci Miqro, which needs to be cleaned from both sides.

The AirVape X feels well designed and constructed, with a matte-finish metal body, flat shape, nice balance, and clear display. A subtle vibration followed by a countdown timer makes it obvious when it’s powered on (not a given when using other vaporizers), and the device shuts off when the timer ends, helping to conserve battery life and avoid overcooking the contents. Testers appreciated the reminder buzz—it’s forgetful work.

The battery on the X lasted through roughly three bowls before needing to be recharged. That’s standard on most vaporizers this size. The AirVape X has a Micro-USB input—a detail that adds the portability, versatility, and convenience of using any USB charger you already have, like the one you use for your smartphone. Even other vaporizers we like, including the Grasshopper, need cradles or proprietary chargers. The AirVape X charges from empty to full in a little over an hour.

Bud at The Vape Critic liked the AirVape X as well; after reviewing the original AirVape XS, Bud worked with the company on improvements for the X. 1 “They did a really good job implementing the things we talked about. I now honestly feel that this is one of the best portable vaporizers under $200 that I own.” Buzz at VaporizerWizard.com doesn’t have a review up for the X yet, but he gave the previous version, the XS, an 8.8 out of 10 and noted that the good vapor and easy draw on inhale were all impressive for a vaporizer this small and this affordable. After our testing was already completed and our impressions noted, we also saw that another reviewer had a similar flavor experience: “The hits were full and potent, with an unbelievable amount of citrus flavors accentuated from the Clementine strain we were vaping.”

If something goes wrong with the X, AirVape offers a limited lifetime warranty, though you do need to register the vaporizer. (Vaporizers from unauthorized retailers won’t be covered.) And keep in mind that repairs come with a $20 shipping and handling fee, and battery replacements cost $40 after the first six months (shipping and handling included).

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The battery life on the AirVape X, while average, is not great. We tend to put it back on the charger after a use or two, just to not have to deal with using it plugged in when the battery gets low. You can’t replace your own batteries with fresh ones, like with the Grasshopper and others. But because of the Micro-USB charging setup, you can usually find a cord in a pinch, and to its credit, the AirVape is one of the few that consistently (if not accurately) displays its battery level—either full, ¾, or half (which basically means almost empty).

As Buzz at VaporizerWizard.com noted on his review of the earlier XS version, the X may run a little hot; we preferred setting the temperature about 10 degrees below where we normally would on other vaporizers—a good default temp is 380 °F; on the AirVape, 370 ºF is more like it.

If you want to most potent possible vapor per puff, look to a convection model like the Grasshopper. The AirVape, in contrast, stretches out good flavors longer and makes controlling the effects easier.

The only other odd quirk we noted: The up-arrow button is on the left of the power button, and the down-arrow button is on the right, and it always felt backward.

Also great: Stainless Grasshopper

Also great

Stainless Grasshopper

Portable, discreet, fast, tasty

The Grasshopper has thick, potent vapor, quick heat-up times, charming tactile controls, a lifetime warranty, and an inconspicuous design—but it gets quite hot, and its charging setup and battery life aren’t the best.

Buying Options

The Stainless Grasshopper heats up instantly and delivers potent vapor that’s more concentrated than that of the AirVape, and that, combined with a slim pen-like housing, makes a product that’s more portable, more discreet, and easier to use quickly on the go than our other picks. Although this model has remained available throughout spring 2019, a main drawback has been inconsistent availability since its release in 2016. Early on, customers reported reliability issues. But the company backs each unit with a lifetime warranty, and its product gets great reviews in spite of all of this and its high price—proof that the unique Grasshopper, which is honestly the most fun to use of our picks, is really a satisfying item.

The pen-shaped device is a departure from a lot of the vaporizers we look at. Instead of digital buttons, tactile controls manage the activation and temperature. To turn the heating element on or off, just click the back of the device like you would any retractable pen. Around the clicker is a rotating, five-step knob that controls the temperature. That’s about it. The LEDs toward the other end are blue when ready, red when heating, and blinking red when the battery is low. It’s charming in its simplicity, and it packs a punch with each puff.

The Grasshopper’s proprietary charge cord works well but is not as convenient as a universal connection. Photo: Rozette Rago

The tip of the Grasshopper can get extremely hot. Plan on using this silicone mouthpiece cover, even if it does kind of ruin the design. Photo: Rozette Rago

Subtle plus and minus engravings by the clicker—aka the power switch—adjust the temperature. Photo: Rozette Rago

The Grasshopper’s proprietary charge cord works well but is not as convenient as a universal connection. Photo: Rozette Rago

The tip of the Grasshopper can get extremely hot. Plan on using this silicone mouthpiece cover, even if it does kind of ruin the design. Photo: Rozette Rago

The mouthpiece unscrews to reveal the chamber underneath. But it’s pretty narrow and tends to be a little messier to fill than the AirVape X, which has a concave rim to catch errant flower crumbs.

The Grasshopper is a convection vaporizer, so it heats the air you inhale, vaporizing the contents into concentrated clouds that taste delicious. Sweet notes of orange popped from our sativa-dominant hybrid flowers, whereas our other picks left us with just a faint citrus flavor or general sweetness. The potency of the Grasshopper’s vapor stood out when we did side by side tests with the AirVape over the course of a week. Using the same indica strain, Birthday Cake, a few puffs on the Grasshopper matched the effects you’d get from the AirVape in three or four times as many draws.

The Grasshopper’s number-one flaw is that the metal mouthpiece (the pen tip) gets incredibly hot during use. The Grasshopper ships with a silicone mouthpiece cover, and we consider this to be a requirement for day-to-day use. But it pretty much ruins the look and prevents the Grasshopper from fitting in its box, if that’s where you want to keep it. Hopper Labs (the Grasshopper’s manufacturer) sells a Performance Front-end that works with water pipes; we haven’t tried it.

The only parts of the Grasshopper that require cleaning are the combustion chamber and the front-end mouthpiece. Both pieces routinely require a brief brushing out (no cleaning tool is included) but the device generally doesn’t get as dirty or resin-y as the AirVape. The mouthpiece has an even simpler design than our other picks’. It screws off and has a flat metal screen recessed inside, which is easy to clear out with a damp cotton swab. If you’re ambitious you can use isopropyl alcohol, but after a year of use, we haven’t cleaned it thoroughly and have had no problems.

With no space for a charging port, the Grasshopper has an inductive and magnetic charging cord that connects around the clicker and plugs into any standard USB charger. It’s charming but not as convenient for travel as a multifunctional Micro-USB cord. There is no indication during use of how much battery life remains—although, on the charger, it blinks green when it’s full. The charging cord is proprietary and, at $35, a little pricey to replace. The Grasshopper’s custom lithium battery is removable and two are included in the box, so you can bring a spare if you’re worried about battery life—a nice compromise and an option that the AirVape lacks.

The Grasshopper comes with a lifetime warranty, and its design has had ups and downs (and some changes) over the years. Early on, in 2017, customers experienced reliability issues. Later, others saw delays in fulfilling orders. You can read more about it in this subreddit. We’ve had a great experience with our test units and have found the company responsive and reassuring in interviews about these problems, for what that’s worth. If you try a Grasshopper and have issues, feel free to give us feedback about it.

Upgrade pick: Firefly 2+

Upgrade pick

Firefly 2+

Best flavor, good for groups

The high-capacity Firefly 2+ quickly produces more intense, tasty vapor than competitors, and it’s attractive and easy to clean—but it’s expensive, and it buries critical info in an app.

Buying Options

If you’re looking for top-notch vapor or want something that’s easy to pass to friends, we recommend the Firefly 2+. It has an attractive design, the quickest heat time of any model we tested, and an easy-to-clean chamber. Its size makes it less pocketable than our other picks, but it’s still small enough for solo sessions at home and group settings.

The Firefly’s design makes it easy to load—all you do is pop off the magnetic lid and load a generous amount of ground flower into the chamber. Tap its capacitive buttons, and the device heats in about three seconds. Its design is unique in that the airway is really the entire underside of the lid, forming a wide channel that keeps the mouthpiece cooler than those of most other vaporizers.

The Firefly lacks an on-device display, and the product originally relied on an app that, as of November 15, 2019, has been removed from the App Store; it remains available on Google Play for Android devices. The app, which continues to function if you already had it downloaded, is not necessary for regular use. But it is the easiest way to set precise temperatures or check the battery life. After the Apple news, Firefly sent an update, which included a link to a video showing how to set the temperature of the Firefly 2+ without using the app. It is a ridiculously complex procedure, requiring you to press hold the righthand button while tapping the lefthand button ad infinitum, all to achieve “highest” and “lowest” temperatures—the actual number only appears in the app. To add context, though: Once you have it set to a temperature you like, you probably wouldn’t mess with it regularly even if it were easier.

The charging dock, which is bulkier than the Grasshopper’s proprietary cord, is another inconvenience, and you need to carry it with you if you plan on charging the Firefly away from home. You can get to a full charge in just over an hour, about the same as with the AirVape. A plus: The Firefly has a replaceable battery, so you can swap on the go if you don’t bring the charger. In tests, we got in the habit of just leaving it on the charging dock and topping off battery life betweeen uses—a method that reduces frustration whether you frequently check the battery life on the app, or if you’re stuck without an app at all.

But the thing that makes these compromises worth tolerating is the vapor quality, which was the best of all the vaporizers we tested: easy to draw, smooth, and remarkably cool, with a delightful hint of citrus. It’s also surprisingly potent—the Firefly uses convection heating, like the Grasshopper, which tends to produce more intense effects per puff than conduction vaporizers like the AirVape. The large oven heats up only when you’re pressing the buttons, which prevents the flower from continuing to burn between puffs. This combination of potency, efficiency, and the high capacity of its bowl makes it perfect for puffing and passing the device in a group of more than two people.

A full battery lasted through about two bowls, each of which would have been enough for two to four people to share. Given the Firefly’s efficiency at burning material, we didn’t need to inhale as much as with other vaporizers we tested. We found that after we stopped getting vapor, mixing the flower around in the chamber gave us a few extra puffs before we needed to refill. The Firefly is easy to wipe free of residue with an alcohol wipe once you’re done and you’ve emptied the chamber.

The Firefly has a greater learning curve compared with the other vaporizers we tested, because it doesn’t have an on-device display or any clear indicators. If you want to change what the Firefly’s two buttons do, you can do so within the app, but we found that the capacitive nature of the buttons made any configuration tricky to get the hang of.

The competition

The Grenco Science G Pen Elite is a little cheaper and a little worse than the AirVape. It’s a nice vaporizer overall, with simple controls, vapor that our testers enjoyed, convenient charging, decent battery life, and a sleek design that’s portable and functional. The lower price is appropriate, as the Elite is a touch below the AirVape in several ways, including vapor quality, ease of cleaning, and other design details. This was formerly a budget pick in this guide, but in long term tests, we found we consistently preferred our other picks over it.

In a battle for great vapor flavor, the Storz & Bickel Crafty, Arizer ArGo, and DaVinci IQ would all rank very close to one another. All three had rich flavor that made our taste buds sing. The ArGo also had particularly smooth vapor, though the IQ and Crafty weren’t far behind. But all three devices are expensive, and the flavor is the only real advantage. Each one had other disadvantages too—cleaning problems with the Crafty, durability concerns when traveling with the ArGo, and a combination of cleaning and interface flaws with the IQ.

The X Max Starry was our previous budget pick. We liked it for its digital temperature controls, easy-to-load chamber, and accessible price. But the G Pen Elite often hovers around the same price and offers higher quality vapor, a better display, and an overall better experience.

The DaVinci Miqro has a pleasant aesthetic and it’s compact enough to take on the go, but its preset temperatures make it a more limited choice than our picks. Its deep chamber also makes the DaVinci tougher to load than our picks, and its mouthpiece gets hot quickly.

The Linx Gaia requires a cap to protect its glass stem and the vapor quality is just so-so.

If you’re looking solely for vapor quality on a budget, the Arizer Air does a better job than any other but that’s its only bright point. We disliked the color-coded LED control scheme, and the DC-input charger means you’d need to carry a special charger instead of a convenient Micro-USB cable. Plus, the polarizing design, with its conspicuous glass stem, isn’t something most people will want to tote around.

The Pax 3 corrects most of the problems of its predecessor, the Pax 2, with a cooler mouthpiece, better vapor production, and the ability to vaporize dry herbs or concentrates. But even the improved Pax 3 doesn’t strike us as worth the price with so many great picks available for less. The charging cradle is inconvenient, as is the need to use the smartphone app for the full range of controls.

The Grenco Science G Pro is just one variation on the same device that’s also marketed as the X Pen Pro. It’s the epitome of a generic vaporizer, with none of the nice touches that the Grenco G-Pen Elite offers. Shaped like a small flashlight, the G Pro’s plastic body matches its plastic mouthpiece. It also matches its taste: The vapor was thin and plasticky on every setting. The whole device is controlled by a single button and gives feedback with just a single light.

Health and legal

The downsides of vaporizers can’t be ignored. Although cannabis has long been considered safer than tobacco, that’s about as helpful as saying that spa treatments are safer than being on fire. And though state laws in the US have changed considerably in the past few years, federal law still prohibits any sale, use, or even possession of marijuana, if for questionable reasons.

Using a vaporizer generally set between 370 °F and 410 °F supposedly skips the nasties generated from joints and pipes. You need at least 356 °F (PDF) to convert the naturally occurring acids in cannabis, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDa) into their active, neutral forms, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). (Say that five times fast.) Scientists think these are the two main compounds that will give the desired psychotropic and medical effects. A study backed by NORML (which, granted, exists to promote the legalization of marijuana) found that 95 percent of the vapor coming through a Volcano vaporizer was either THC or CBN (another cannabinoid). A pipe spit out smoke that was 88 percent non-cannabinoids, including several known polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Another study, funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, says that people who switched to smoking vapes said they had a decrease in their respiratory problems, but the study included only 20 people. So is a vaporizer healthier? The literature answers with a resounding “maybe.”

Portable vaporizers are legal, though—unless you use them with a substance that some combination of federal and local laws says is illegal. At the time of publication, 34 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, 11 of them (plus DC) have legalized some level of recreational use, and some of them have simply decriminalized small amounts used recreationally. That leaves 16 states—and the federal government—with some form of criminal laws against possession, even in small amounts. Adding to this strange patchwork, the Justice Department no longer has funding to go after the medical marijuana industry and a federal judge sided with a dispensary over the issue, but it’s unclear if Justice Department officials will let that become the new status quo. Even though roughly more than 650,000 Americans were arrested for simple marijuana possession in 2017, millions of people in California, Colorado, and elsewhere can walk into a shop and buy a joint. More broadly, Europe and the Americas have slowly seen pushes for medical exceptions and decriminalization, but much of the world still bans the substance outright.

Footnotes

Wirecutter’s testing and recommendations were done independently of Bud’s relationship with AirVape. We asked for further details on their arrangement and Bud told us that he has received access to AirVape’s test products prior to their release in exchange for his feedback on the company’s products. His relationship with AirVape otherwise follows the same guidelines he uses for all other manufacturers seen on The Vape Critic—that is, he is not influenced by compensation from any manufacturer—as outlined on the site’s affiliate disclosure page.

We’ve considered about 50 portable vaporizers, panel-tested two dozen, and interviewed experts. Read on for which vape we recommend for most people.