Reviewing new Heat not Burn products isn’t exactly a high-pressure job. It’s not like e-cigs, where there are dozens of new devices and liquids every week. In fact there are only a handful of mainstream heated tobacco systems right now, although the number is slowly growing as the technology becomes more popular. Still, it’s an exciting event when something new appears, so I was pleasantly surprised when an iBuddy i1 turned up in my mail last week.
The iBuddy is a stick-type device, the same concept as iQOS and Glo. Maybe more importantly, it’s also a sign that Chinese companies are taking an interest in heated tobacco. Most of the products we’ve looked at so far are made by the tobacco industry or companies who’ve been making loose leaf vaporisers for a long time, but this one isn’t. iBuddy is a Chinese company based in Shenzhen, the province that’s home to most of the big vaping manufacturers, and so far they’ve mostly made e-cigs. Now they’ve branched out into heated tobacco products.
Earlier iBuddy products look like clones of popular e-cig models, but that’s not the case with the i1. This is an original design, and while the concept is familiar the device is totally new. It doesn’t look anything like either Glo or iQOS, although it has a lot in common with them. Because it’s an independent product it also hasn’t gone through the usual years-long evaluation and test market process that its rivals have; you can simply order one from China and it’ll turn up in the post.
The other interesting thing about this device is the tobacco sticks it uses. iBuddy have, sensibly, decided not to develop their own sticks. That would cost money, and setting up a distribution network would cost even more. Instead they’ve designed the i1 to use PMI’s Heets, which are already available in many countries. PMI probably won’t be too upset by that, either; if someone buys an iBuddy they’re not buying an iQOS, but they will be buying Heets.
Would anyone actually buy an iBuddy instead of the PMI device, though? Good question! Let’s have a look at it.
The iBuddy is nicely presented, in a solid box with two plastic trays inside. The top one contains the device itself. This is a bit longer than an 18650 battery and fits neatly in the hand. It’s very light, and seems to be mostly plastic, but it feels fairly solid. The front and back have a rubberised anti-slip finish that gives the device more of a quality feel. It’s quite simple, too. There’s a metal button on one side, and a plastic slide at the other. A row of three small LEDs on the front show battery charge and heating status, there’s a hole at the top to take a Heet, and a micro-USB charging port at the bottom. According to iBuddy the built-in battery has a 1,800mAh capacity, and its performance suggests it certainly isn’t any lower than that.
Under the device is a comprehensive instruction booklet, and below that is another tray that contains a USB cable, cleaning brush and some alcohol-soaked cotton buds. That’s it for the package contents, but then apart from a box of Heets it’s all you need.
Plugging it in lit up all three LEDs, showing that the battery was already fully charged or close to it. I left it for a while just to top it off, then opened a fresh pack of Amber Heets and started playing.
The first difference I noticed is the way the device is loaded. With both iQOS and Glo – and apparently KT&G’s new Lil, although we haven’t been able to get our hands on one yet – the stick is loaded straight into a fixed chamber. The iBuddy has a removable holder that can be ejected by pushing up the slide on the side of the device. You don’t have to take it out to load or remove a stick, but I’ll come back to that. I found that the easiest way to load a Heet is to leave the holder in place and insert the stick. They go in easily, with just a little resistance for the last half inch.
To use the iBuddy you just have to press the button to wake it from standby, then hold it down for three seconds to start the heating process. The right-hand LED starts blinking red to show that the heater is running; when it stops blinking and glows a steady red, it’s ready to vape. It heats up quickly – I timed several sticks, and they were all ready to go in under twenty seconds.
So, with the tobacco heated, it was time to take a puff. The iBuddy might be a lightweight device, but the heating element and airflow certainly seem to be up to scratch. With Amber Heets it delivered a satisfying amount of vapour; I would say it’s competitive with iQOS and Glo. The heater is controlled by a puff sensor that allows 16 puffs on a Heet, then shuts down; the LEDs blink as a warning that you have a few seconds left to snatch a last puff. Once the heater switches off the iBuddy will quickly go back into standby.
It was at this point that I found out why the iBuddy has a removable Heet holder. When I’d finished the first stick I just pulled it straight out, which works fine with similar devices. A while later I tried to load a new Heet, and it wouldn’t go in. This was a puzzle, but then I happened to notice something odd about the first one. Imagine my surprise when I realised I was holding a filter and empty paper tube. The contents were still in the holder; once I’d ejected it I was able to get the tobacco out by blowing through the hole at the bottom.
Examining the roll of tobacco, and then shining a light into the hole in the device, soon gave an explanation. The iQOS heats the tobacco with a blade that pierces the end of the roll; the iBuddy has a spike. It’s a fairly substantial spike, which probably helps the performance, but it also gets a good grip on the tobacco and doesn’t really want to let go. If you just grab a used Heet by the filter and pull it out, more often than not the tobacco will stay on the spike. Ejecting the holder helps, but it’s not infallible – the tobacco still stays in the holder at least once every five or six sticks. This isn’t a massive issue, but it is a bit annoying – especially when you blow a roll out of the holder and it disintegrates, spraying strands of tobacco all over your keyboard.
Despite this problem I was able to give the iBuddy an extensive trial, using it for several days – including one day when I didn’t use anything else – and it does the job. The vapour is satisfying, and battery life is good – better than iQOS, and similar to Glo. After using a full pack of twenty Heets on a single charge, one of the three LEDs was still lit, showing more than 25% charge remaining; I’d say that, unless you’re a very heavy user, you should be able to get a full day’s vaping out of a full battery.
Given the choice, would I personally take the iBuddy over an iQOS? No, probably not. That’s mainly down to the bother of having to clear tobacco out of it every few sticks. It does get irritating, and for me the superior battery life doesn’t quite compensate for that. It also feels a lot less robust overall; it’s so light that I’m pretty sure the whole body is made of plastic, and it just doesn’t have the solidity of its competitors. It’s by no means a bad device though, and it does have another advantage – price.
Officially the iBuddy i1 sells for $69.99, but you can find it online for $45.99 – a bit under £35. An iQOS is going to cost around twice that. If you’re on a tight budget, or want to try a heated tobacco product without investing in an iQOS just yet, the iBuddy could be what you’re looking for.