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The portable vaporizer has not just been around since the early days of modern vaporization, it was a portable that began it all. Eagle Bill Amato wanted an affordable vaporizer that anyone could use, so he invented one. In 1994 he introduced the Shake and Vape, a glass pipe with a large chamber that you would heat with a lighter. It wasn't too big or too heavy, and since it didn’t need to be plugged in like the common desktop vaporizer, the Shake and Vape claims the title of first portable vaporizer.
Although portable vaporizers have therefore been with us from the start, for a long time they were on the fringe. Vaporizer development concentrated on devices that had to be plugged in, making them stationary. At the turn of the 21st century, battery technology still had not evolved enough to provide heat in sufficient quantity and duration for practical vaporizing. If you wanted a portable vaporizer, you were limited to flame as your heat source, so it wasn't surprising that the second successful portable vaporizer also used a flame to generate heat.
The Ubie, introduced in 2000, is still the cheapest vaporizer you can buy ($10); it's also one of the smallest. Consisting of just two small glass tubes, the Ubie uses an arrangement of holes to provide a heated air path. To use the Ubie, you carefully use a lighter to heat one end of the tubes and draw through the other, pulling heated air over your aromatic blends to create vapor. The Ubie is therefore a portable convection vaporizer. This method is still rare to find in a portable because of the amount of energy needed to keep flowing air hot enough for an extended period of time. So it wasn’t a surprise that the next portable would also use a flame and convection heating.
The VaporGenie arrived in 2002 and was the first commercially successful portable vaporizer. The original was made from wood and stainless steel, and assembled so that it looked like a more traditional pieces. To operate the VaporGenie, you first load your blends in the stainless steel chamber, screw on the ceramic filter top and then apply flame as if you were lighting a traditional piece. The flame never touches your aromatic blends, however. Instead, it heats a ceramic filter contained in the wooden top portion of this portable. The filter heats air passing through, distributing it evenly to create a smooth vapor.
The VaporGenie's shape and the way it operated felt familiar to traditional users It cost more than the Ubie, but it wasn't (and still isn't) expensive ($55). The Vapor Genie hit the market when vaporizing was still considered exotic and expensive, as well as a time when many people doubted whether the concept worked at all. The Vapor Genie provided an affordable way to try vaporizing. Its effect on the awareness and popularity of vaporizing should not be underestimated, but it didn't advance the evolution of portable vaporizing much. For that, we look to California manufacturer Vapir.
The Vapir Classic, by Advanced Inhalation Revolutions Inc. or AIR2, was actually available a little in advance of the Vapor Genie; however, this vaporizer wasn't a true portable. It was already a lot more expensive ($300), and to make it portable you had to purchase the optional battery pack ($100). It was also too big for a pocket, making it cumbersome. These factors probably had a lot to do with why the Vapir never became nearly as popular as its little Vapor Genie cousin. Popularity aside, the Vapir is still significant in the evolution of portable vaporizers because it was first to use two important features: digital temperature control, and its use of energy from a rechargeable battery pack to generate heat.
Digital temperature control was important because all the portable vaporizers at the time were vulnerable to accidental combustion. The rechargeable battery gave it portability of course, but there was a price: short battery life. Batteries with energy densities high enough for sustained vaporization would not be commonly available for several more years.
By 2006, batteries had come far enough that the Volatizer VM3 became the first true portable using battery power. Like the Vapir, it also featured digital temperature control. Unlike the Vapir though, it claimed to be small enough to fit in your pocket. It did—provided you had big pockets. It was more expensive ($500) than the Vapir, and it never achieved the same level of success as some of its counterparts.
Portable vaporizers didn't really start evolving again until the introduction of a portable that took a different approach. In 2008, the I-inhale was introduced, but because the name was already in use, it quickly became the IOLITE.
The IOLITE was different because instead being powered by batteries, it used butane to power a catalytic heater, and instead of a digital temperature control, the IOLITE ran at only one temperature. It could run for two hours on a single fill, which is longer than the run time of many of today's battery models and made the IOLITE quite appealing. The IOLITE was small, light, and could easily fit in your pocket. Possibly as a consequence, it was also the first portable designed to look like something else: a cross between a 2-way radio and an early cell phone (convenient when discretion is a concern).
The IOLITE wasn't cheap ($250), but it was a lot less expensive than the Vapir or VM3. It arrived, perhaps not coincidentally, at a time when interest in vaporizing was on the rise. Experienced vaporizer users wanted to be able to vaporize on the go, and others that were interested wanted the same portability they enjoyed with combustion. It all added up to make the IOLITE the leading portable, but by 2009 there was a battery-powered challenger. Advances in battery technology were about to change everything.
The Magic-Flight Launch Box used NiMH batteries in a simple but elegant conduction design. Small enough to conceal in the palm of your hand, and powerful enough to provide dense vapor, the Magic Flight Launch Box also had a highly competitive price ($100). It was made from simple materials like wood, copper wire, and steel mesh, and was backed by the ultimate warranty: lifetime, including failure due to user error. This American made vaporizer is operated without technical controls, so it became important to understand your inhaling technique when using this little guy. It was an immediate hit.
Portable vaporizing began to take off, and manufacturers knew it. In 2010 AIR2 introduced the NO2, their first true portable, but Arizer, makers of a respected plug-in vaporizer, had the next portable vaporizer sensation. The Solo was highly anticipated for nearly two years before it was released in 2011, and it was the opposite of the Launch Box in almost every way. It had high tech ceramics, digitally controlled temperature, lithium ion batteries, a glass stem, and could barely fit in a large pocket. Although Arizer asked a premium price ($300) the Solo quickly became popular.
Since the introduction of the Solo, the number of different portable vaporizer models has increased by an order of magnitude, largely in parallel with the growing selection of suitable batteries. Users have always wanted longer battery life, but now that batteries can provide the higher power levels needed, there is also increasing interest in devices that can vaporize concentrates and essential oils.
The most popular form factor is the pen shape, although batteries still haven't reached the point where these devices resemble a pen in size. This is the style favored by sophisticated emerging manufacturers, many of whom are casting a hungry eye on the aromatic vaporizer market. One of them, San Francisco based Ploom, made their move this past summer when they introduced Pax.
The Pax is perhaps the leading edge of the development direction set by the Solo. Resembling a large Bic lighter rather than a pen, Pax is a sleek stylish unit with Apple-like aesthetics. With digital temperature control, a clever LED light display, and design choices. Pax has set the mark in the portable space. Both the temperature range it offers and the air path through the device favor thick vapor production, which many ex traditional users like as most want to get as close as they can to the combustion experience.
It is much harder to evolve in the direction taken by the Launch Box because the design is already simple and minimal. Nevertheless, the Launch Box showed that a good conduction vaporizer was possible, a point that had gotten lost in the years dominated by plug-in convection units. The result is that many of the latest portables are either largely or completely conduction. Although the Pax is unlike the Launch Box in almost every way, the exception is that these two both share conduction as their primary source of heating.
The portable vaporizer market has never looked brighter—or more confusing. New models of every conceivable type, including some using flame power, have appeared in recent months. It seems that the primary influence on future development will be advances in battery technology. In particular, increases in battery power will allow the development of more portables that use convection, which is considered a superior way to create vapor.
Where that will end is impossible to predict, but one thing does look certain: even with the swelling interest in vaporizing, the portable market is headed for a shakeout.