Before buying a dedicated BBQ smoker, you'll need to decide whether to go with a charcoal, electric, or propane-fueled model. Each type has pros and cons, and in the end what's best for you depends on whether you care most about cost, convenience, or taste.
If taste trumps all other considerations, you'll probably be happiest with a charcoal smoker. They're not the least expensive type, but BBQ aficionados say they're the most capable of producing tender, moist food that's browned on the outside and infused with a true smoky flavor. As The BBQ Institute says on its website, with charcoal-smoked meat, BBQ sauce "is an option, not mandatory."
In addition to being more expensive than other types, charcoal smokers are the least convenient to use. It takes longer to ignite the coals and get them to the right temperature, and constant tending is required to maintain the correct internal temperature. You also need to deal with a water pan (the water keeps the temperature lower and the food moist).
Not only are they usually the least expensive type, propane-fueled smokers are simple and easy to use. Most are cabinet-shaped, with a burner, a box for wood chips, and a water pan. Metal racks hold the food , and you'll usually find a door with a magnetic closure. Some BBQ experts say that the food produced in gas smokers carries a slight propane taste, making it undesirable. Others, like Craig Goodwyn of AmazingRibs.com, say that the taste is different from that of food from a charcoal smoker, but still good. For Goodwyn the main drawback of propane smokers is that they aren't wide enough to fit a full rack of ribs or a brisket on one of the racks.
Electric smokers are similar to propane smokers in terms of how they operate, but they're safer because they minimize the risk of fire or explosion. They're fairly inexpensive, too; one well-reviewed electric smoker sells for about $125. Like propane smokers, electric models feature "set it and forget it" ease of use; you put in the meat to be smoked and set the temperature, and then just wait until it's done. Electric smokers don't get hot enough to brown meat, though, so you won't end up with a crispy or crusty surface.
Electric pellet smokers are heavier and more expensive than regular electric smokers. Most are sold as smoker/grill combinations. Pellet smokers incorporate a mechanism that automatically feeds hardwood pellets into a metal pan, where they're ignited to produce smoke. According to Craig Goodwyn, however, food from a pellet smoker doesn't actually taste very smoky, and like other electric smokers, a pellet smoker won't brown meat.