With so many brands, and types, of “tank” system on the market, it’s difficult to know which one to go for. Hearing that VIP were soon to bring out a new tank model, I decided to wait for it, having already been impressed by their cigarette-lookalike model, and by their service generally. I was not disappointed. It’s an excellent little device.

First, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know, let me explain that a “tank” model means a refillable electronic cigarette, as opposed to the kind where you just screw on a factory-filled cartridge, and replace the cartridge when it’s empty. Electronic “cigarette” isn’t even the right word, since the device doesn’t look at all like a cigarette. They come in various shapes: some look like pens, some look like hip-flasks, some even look like screwdrivers. The VIP Photon looks pretty smart. It’s like a kind of narrow bottle, about 6 or 7 inches long and about half an inch wide, tapering to a narrower mouthpiece.

Tank models have various advantages over the cigarette-lookalike types. One advantage is precisely that they don’t look like cigarettes: though of course that might put off some people, if you’re used to cigarettes and you want something that’s close to what you’re used to. Another advantage is that it works out much cheaper, over any length of time. And another advantage is that it gives you a huge choice of flavours, at a range of different nicotine strengths. With the cigarette-lookalikes, you’re generally restricted to cartridges from the same firm that make your batteries. They’re not compatible with rival products: the screw threads don’t match up. But you have a vast choice of firms producing bottled e-juice: just google “e-juice”, hit Enter, and stand well back. You can put any of these into the Photon Tank. Except, VIP do tell you to avoid the pure VG-based juices: they might damage the tank, apparently. So, you need a juice based on PG, or on a combination of PG and VG: but that still gives you hundreds to choose from.

Another advantage of the tank system – and probably its main selling-point – is that the battery lasts much longer. If you use cigarette-lookalikes, you’ve always got a battery or two on the charger, or a queue of them waiting to be charged, and you have to carry a few spare, charged-up batteries around with you everywhere: they’re likely to suddenly conk out at any time. That’s the downside of having such a compact, tidy little product: the batteries are tiny. But tank batteries are much bigger. They take a few hours to charge up, but once charged it’s likely to last you two or three days.

Yet another advantage, in my view, is that the tank gives a much more satisfying experience. The flavours are so much richer and deeper, and the whole feel of a long draw from a tank is much more enjoyable. It’s deeply relaxing, and paradoxically, invigorating at the same time. While the cigarette-lookalikes imitate the general sensation of smoking a cigarette, a good tank model takes you off into a completely new world. I smoked tobacco for around 40 years, and I can honestly say I never enjoyed a cigarette as much as I enjoy the VIP Photon Tank. I still smoke a pipe occasionally – just very occasionally – but cigarettes have no appeal at all for me now.

The Photon isn’t without its problems, though, and it takes a little getting used to; and you have to get into the habit of a little routine maintenance. I’ll take you through what I’ve found. First, you get your “starter kit” through the post, within a day or two of ordering it online. It comes in a “presentation box”, which some people might like, especially if you’ve bought it as a birthday present for somebody, though personally I’d prefer a more practical carrying-case, like a zip-bag or something. On my box at least, the lid fitted so tight that I had to cut it open with scissors. But that’s just a minor problem.

Inside the box there’s a battery – a silver (or stainless steel) one, though you can also order them in black or in pink. When the kit is assembled, this doubles as the handle. There are also two clearomisers, as they call them. That’s a new word that hasn’t made it into the dictionary yet, so it may need some explanation. Early e-cigarettes used to come in three parts, which you had to connect together: the battery, the cartridge (containing the e-juice), and the atomiser, which is the electronic bit that heats up and vaporises the juice. Then they started combining the cartridge and the atomiser into one unit, which they called the cartomiser. The tank model has a corresponding part, but it’s transparent, so you can see how much juice is in it: hence the term “clearomiser”. The Photon clearomiser has a mouthpiece which unscrews, for filling the tank.

In the Starter Kit box, you also get a 10ml bottle of e-juice, in VIP’s “USA Tobacco” flavour, which apparently is their best-selling flavour. It’s a good, solid, down-to-earth, no-nonsense tobacco flavour, reminiscent of the taste of cigarettes. Like virtually all e-juices, it’s not actually made from tobacco at all, but from a combination of food flavourings which uncannily manage to taste like tobacco. Plus, it gives a first-rate nicotine kick. But I’m concentrating on the kit itself in this review, rather than the e-juices, so I’ll say no more about that.

The box also contains a USB battery charger plus a mains adaptor, and the first thing you need to do is charge up your battery. VIP say this can take up to 6 hours but everybody seems to have a different experience. Basically the red light on the charger goes green when it’s ready. If it goes green really early – after just an hour, in some cases – you’re advised to leave it charging for about another hour anyway. There’s no particular danger (apparently) if you get this wrong, but it might affect the life of the battery. Batteries can be re-charged many times, but they’ll wear out eventually. I can’t say yet how long it’s likely to last, but we’re advised that it’ll last longer if you re-charge it every 2 or 3 days rather than waiting till it actually stops working.

While the battery’s charging up, you can fill your tank with e-juice. This is a little fiddly, and requires a steady hand (which I’ve got) and good eyesight (which I haven’t). You’ll need to prepare a little workspace, either on a table-top or in a tray on your lap. Have some paper tissues to hand, and a makeshift mat to catch the drips: an old newspaper maybe, or your latest piece of junk mail.

Unscrew the black mouthpiece and lay it aside, checking that the little rubber ring doesn’t come off: it’s a seal. Some people manage to lose this, which means your tank will leak.

Then, take the lid off your bottle of e-juice. It has a child-proof lid, which you have to squeeze gently and push down on just before you unscrew it. E-juice is quite toxic (it contains nicotine, which is very toxic), and you wouldn’t want anybody drinking it, and you don’t even want any splashed on your skin. Don’t worry too much though. If you do splash a bit on your hand, just wipe it off with a tissue and wash your hands. I do this all the time and it hasn’t done me any harm yet.   

Inside the clearomiser, once you’ve removed the mouthpiece, you’ll see a piece of white plastic tube sticking up, with a hole in the top. This is the air-hole, which you’re going to breathe the vapour through. You have to keep the juice out of the hole. Tip the clearomiser, and carefully squeeze a drop of e-juice against the side of it, so it drips down the side into the tank, running round that plastic tube rather than into it. It’s fiddly, and the thicker the nozzle on the bottle, then the harder it is to avoid that hole. What we really want here is a small funnel, tapering to a fine point, to direct the juice to the side of the plastic tube. But if you haven’t got a funnel (and I haven’t), just take care. Fill the tank, a small drop at a time. Every now and again raise the tank upright, so you can read off the juice level against the gauge along the side. You should fill it to the 1.6ml line, and try not to overfill it.

When it’s full, carefully put the mouthpiece back on and screw it home – firmly (though without force, you don’t want to break it), so it makes a good seal: you don’t want to get e-juice inside the mouthpiece. With your paper tissue, wipe off any liquid from around where the mouthpiece meets the tank. Once the mouthpiece is back on, I recommend holding it over your piece of junk mail, or party political leaflet, or whatever you’re using as a splash-mat, and blowing through it, gently but sharply. Chances are you’ll blow some blobs of liquid out: you tried to keep it out of the air-hole, but without a funnel, you’ve probably got some in. Blow through it a few times, till it seems more or less dry. More or less. Don’t worry too much about it. Remember, you used to be a smoker: and even if you are going to swallow tiny amounts of toxic liquid, that’s nothing compared to the health hazards of probably even one drag on a fag.

Next, you need to look at the bottom end of the clearomiser: the end that screws on to the battery. Look for drops of liquid trapped within the various metallic nooks and crannies. Tear off a small piece of paper tissue, fold it into a tapered point, and poke it into any blobs of liquid you can see, to absorb them. Repeat till it seems dry. If you’ve been re-filling the tank and you’re putting the same battery back on, check that there’s no liquid lurking on the end of the battery too. Just get it as clean and dry as you can, then screw the battery back on. VIP say you should then leave it for a couple of minutes before you actually use it, to allow the liquid to settle. Wash your hands too, just as a precaution.

Right, now you’re ready to vape. You can’t just puff away on it continuously, like you can on the more compact cigarette-style ones: you need to get into slower, more deliberate habits. First, you have to switch it on, by pressing the button 5 times in quick succession, which makes the blue light blink. Then, hold the button down while you draw from the device. A long, slow draw is best, rather than a lot of quick little puffs. You can draw the vapour deep down into your lungs, or you can just roll it around your mouth and hold it then let it out slowly, like pipesmoke, whichever you prefer. I do either myself, depending how I feel. If you inhale it deeply you get a more aggressive nicotine hit; if you keep it more in your mouth, you’ll get more of the flavour, and the nicotine builds up more slowly. Both are enjoyable. The Photon delivers a good, smooth draw, and produces plenty of vapour. Personally I like to surround myself with great vapour clouds: I like the shapes the vapour makes as it drifts around the room, like tobacco smoke, except that unlike tobacco smoke, it all evaporates away in a few moments, leaving no trace, no residue, and no smell.

While the clearomiser is new, you may get a bit of a metallic taste coming through. This gradually disappears over the first couple of days, as the juice soaks into the wick. You can sometimes improve it by tipping the device upside down, and rolling the juice around inside it. It may take you a while to get used to it, so give it time. It feels very different from smoking a cigarette, but once you’ve adapted to it it’s much better than a cigarette. Not only is it healthier, and cheaper, but it tastes better too.

One problem though is that the Photon is so enjoyable you’re likely to find yourself doing too much of it. The advert says it’s designed with the heavier user in mind; but then, paradoxically, the instruction leaflet says you shouldn’t take more than 2 tokes a minute, and after 10 minutes you should leave it to cool down for half an hour. Now, a device that needs a half-hour rest after every 10 minutes of use doesn’t exactly sound like it’s designed for heavy use, to me. The leaflet is exaggerating a little, as health-and-safety guidelines generally tend to do (think “use-by” dates on packaged food, or “maximum-number-of-persons” signs in lifts), but after a bit of heavy puffing the blue light will start flashing, indicating that it’s overheating. VIP say the atomiser is likely to burn out after about a month on average, depending on how much care you take of it, and I suspect that if you ignore the flashing light and keep blasting away, it’ll burn out sooner rather than later. So, when it flashes, I switch it off (by pressing the button 5 times again) and lay it down awhile. You might want a back-up system to use while the Photon is cooling; or alternatively, you might reflect that once it starts flashing you’ve already had plenty of nicotine and you could do with a break from it anyway. Drink something instead, or suck a mint or something. When you come back to the Photon, you’ll enjoy it all the more from having been away from it for a while.

One other feature needs describing. The manufacturer tells you not to let the liquid level fall below 0.6ml: you might damage the clearomiser if you vape with less juice than that in it. So, when it goes down to 0.6ml, you have to top it up (to 1.6ml). That’s not a problem, unless you want to put a new flavour in and get rid of the old flavour. In which case, you’d have to pour that last 0.6ml out – which would be quite difficult to do, apart from being a waste – and then wash the clearomiser out with warm water, and leave it to dry for a few hours. Even if you do that, I’ve heard that it’s virtually impossible to completely get rid of the old flavour. Personally I don’t bother. I don’t mind the old flavour mixing with the new, but then I’m only using tobacco-imitation flavours. If you’ve been using menthol, or one of those daft flavours like bubblegum or candy floss, you might want to wash it out as well as you can. I doubt if a lingering fruit flavour cherry, say – would give me a problem, but I’ve yet to try it. So, when I start a new flavour, I pour 1ml of the new juice on top of the last 0.6ml of the old, and let them blend together. After 2 or 3 refills with the new flavour, it asserts itself and drowns the old flavour out.

VIP are very straight people to deal with, and unlike some firms, they won’t trap you in a repeat-order scheme you didn’t know you’d signed up for. Any problems, you can call their very helpful Customer Services (in Manchester). There’s a Facebook fan page, with a lively forum where you can exchange views and experiences, get your questions answered, and generally chat about things.

So, in conclusion, the VIP Photon Tank is an excellent product and I thoroughly recommend it. When I carry it about in my pocket or briefcase, I generally put it in one of those plastic bags which VIP use to post things out to you, just in case it leaks: but mine never has leaked. I’ve heard it can do, if you leave it in direct sunlight for instance. The need to fill it up, and keep it reasonably clean, makes it rather more hassle to use than the cigarette-lookalike type of e-cigarette, but it’s well worth it for the much richer vaping experience it delivers. Not to mention the greater variety of flavours available, and the money you’ll save.


Mick Bruce

August 2012


Other reviews:

VIP USA Tobacco / Rolling Virginia

Puffin Virginia


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