Vaporizers & Vaping

Vape Pen vs. Portable Vaporizer: Which Is Right for You?

Gabi Antunes

Aug 6, 2019

Initially, the differences between vape pens and portable vaporizers might seem subtle, but each device type provides a unique experience. Depending on your priorities during a session, one might be a better fit than the other. So, how can you tell whether a vape pen or portable vaporizer would better suit your needs? The key is understanding the characteristics of each type of device and how they measure up to your wants and needs in a vaporizer. Here, we’ll review the differences and similarities between a vape pen and a portable vaporizer.

Defining vape pens and portable vaporizers

A vape pen is named for its long and slender design, not much longer and thicker than a ballpoint pen. The body of the device is typically made up of a battery, which powers a heating element that turns the material into vapor. A single button on the vape pen controls temperature, typically limited to one or a small handful of temperature settings, while some models support auto-draw with no need to press a button. Some models employ screw-on pre-filled cartridges filled with cannabis or hemp-derived CBD oil, while some vape pen models have a chamber for dry herb material. The mouthpiece is generally attached to the chamber or cartridge. There are disposable vape pen options as well, which come pre-filled with oil.

Portable vaporizers are generally more powerful than their pen counterparts, packing a serious punch into a handheld unit. These units are typically comprised of an oven, a vapor pathway, and a mouthpiece. Portable vaporizers typically use conduction heating, which heats materials in the oven on contact, or convection heating, which uses circulating hot air to create vapor. Many portable vaporizers boast advanced functionality, either accessible through the control panel or multifunction button on the portable vaporizer or through a companion smartphone app.

It’s not just the device designs that make a difference. Features and capabilities vary widely between vape pens and portable vaporizers, and even within each category. These differences will be significant factors in deciding which type of device is right for you. Keep in mind that there is much diversity within each style of vape as well, but generally these are the differences you can expect between vape pens and portable vaporizers.

Difference #1: Material type

The first question you should ask yourself when selecting any vaporizer is “what kind of cannabis material does it support?” Many vape pens only support the use of one kind of material, either dry herbs, cannabis oil, or another type of concentrate. Cartridge vape pens, for example, employ pre-filled oil cartridges that screw into a battery or click into a device. These vape pens will not be compatible with dry herb material at all. There are vape pen models made for use with dry herb material, typically employing a chamber for loading the ground material. Less common are vape pens that support the use of both dry herb material and concentrates.

If you’re looking for a vaporizer that can work with both types of material, you are much more likely to find a portable vaporizer that meets your expectations. For example, the PAX 3 features an oven that can hold up to 0.3 grams of finely-ground dry herbs; the device also comes with concentrate inserts that allow you to vaporize concentrates. However, many portable vaporizers also only support one type of material or the other, so it’s important to check before you buy.

Difference #2: Temperature settings

Another key consideration when selecting a vaporizer is understanding whether it offers multiple temperature settings and, if so, how many. Vape pens tend to be more simplistic in their design: many are programmed to only support a single temperature, while others offer general low, medium, and high settings. Vape pens also tend to have a one-button functionality, where a series of clicks as defined in the vape pen’s manual turns the device on and off, changes temperature, and begins the heating process.

If you’re after a more customizable temperature setting, portable vaporizers are more likely to offer what you need. There are many portable vaporizers on the market that only offer four pre-set temperature settings, but many others still allow you to set temperature down to the precise degree, supporting dozens of temperature settings.

Difference #3: Loading system

The loading system is where vape pens and portable vaporizers can vary quite a bit from one to the next. Depending on which type of vape pen you purchase, loading systems range from screw-in cartridges to pods to ovens. Screw-in cartridges tend to be oil-based and pre-filled; these cartridges can be used with any battery that has the same sized threading. On the other hand, the PAX Era, which is a pod system vape, is compatible with SimpleClick™ pods that are pre-filled with oil. Vape pens with ovens work similarly to portable vaporizers and require you to manually pack your material. Many vape pens with ovens only support the use of dry herb.

There is also some variation between portable vaporizers when it comes to loading systems, though a chamber or oven method is far more common. Most portable vaporizers include this chamber on the bottom or below the mouthpiece. To load your chosen cannabis material, simply remove the oven lid, pack your material in accordance with the directions in your device owner’s manual, and replace the oven lid once again. If your portable vaporizer also supports the use of concentrates, it might require the use of pads or inserts onto which you can load your wax.

Difference #4: Maintenance

Finally, one of the biggest differences between vape pens and portable vaporizers is the degree of maintenance required. Vape pens are usually very simple and require little to no maintenance. Pod vapes and cartridge vapes merely need to be switched out when the cannabis material is depleted. Beyond checking the battery to ensure nothing is blocking the contacts, there is little maintenance involved with these types of vape pens. Vape pens with ovens will need to be cleaned out periodically, typically with a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol. Cleaning your vape pen means ensuring there is no residue in the oven, blocking the vapor path, or obstructing the mouthpiece.

Portable vaporizers tend to require more care than vape pens. They need to be cleaned after every few uses and many come with maintenance kits that include wire brushes or pipe cleaners. Like vape pens with ovens, portable vaporizers require regularly cleaning of the oven, vapor path and mouthpiece, although oftentimes they are slightly more complex than their vape pen counterparts. It is not uncommon that the mouthpiece will include several components that must be disassembled, for example. Once cleaned, portable vaporizers must be allowed to dry completely before being reassembled.

Similarities

For all their differences, there are some similarities between vape pens and portable vaporizers. These similarities contribute to the popularity of both types of devices, making them easy to use devices that are perfect for discreet use.

Similarity #1: Portability

Vape pens and portable vaporizers all tend to be compact in design, with the largest weighing about 200 grams and standing just about 5″ tall. Many are significantly smaller and can be easily slipped into a pocket or bag. Their highly mobile nature makes vape pens and portable vaporizers alike a go-to choice compared to their stationary forebears, desktop vaporizers.

Similarity #2: Discretion

In addition to their impressive mobility, vape pens and portable vaporizers are perfect for discreet use. These devices can be used in a way that minimizes vapor production, smell, and visibility. Most vape pens and portable vaporizers can fit in the palm of your hand and won’t draw attention. You can also typically keep your vapor clouds small and unnoticeable by only heating your cannabis material to a low temperature level and in short draws. Some vaporizers, like the PAX 3, include programmable settings that reduce the level of vapor production even further while minimizing odor and dimming the LED lights.

Similarity #3: Ease of Use

Finally, vape pens and portable vaporizers are relatively easy to learn how to use. In a short time, even a new device will be familiar. Typically vape pens and portable vaporizers have a simple control system. Many employ a single button, while some have just two or three. Others have no buttons at all but respond to an intuitive system of shakes and taps. Many buttonless vaporizers will heat your cannabis material when you inhale on the mouthpiece, making your vape session a seamless, automatic process.

What to consider when buying a vaporizer

When choosing your vaporizers, it’s important to keep in mind your top priorities. If a high vapor quality, customizability, and versatility are your chief concerns, portable vaporizers are likely more your speed. If you prefer simplicity and a very low level of maintenance, vape pens might be better suited for you. Each type of device offers a great deal of mobility and discretion, but there is plenty of variation between individual models as well, so it’s important to do your homework.

It’s not uncommon that a vape owner keeps both a portable vaporizer and vape pen on hand for different circumstances. Just because you prefer one type of vape session to another doesn’t mean you can’t switch things up. After all, variety is the spice of life. Experiment with different types of vaporizers to find out what your personal preferences are, and they will guide you well when choosing the vaporizer that is best for you.