There's one thing you can't accuse Francis! Francis! (FF!!) of not having, and that's style. Even the packaging of their products is unique and eye catching. Those who have bought FF!! espresso cups in the past will know what I'm talking about.
The box that the X3 comes in is certainly keeping in Francis! Francis!' style and uniquety (yes, I made up that word) - it's almost like a giant jigsaw puzzle that can collapse and flatten out as you remove the machine. And it does this while keeping the X3 secure during shipping - our test unit went through the fabled (and nasty) UPS cross-the-border experience, and arrived completely unscathed.
In the box you'll find a competent instruction manual, a funky looking portafilter designed for pods, a box of Illy ESE medium roast pods, warranty cards, and because this came from an authorized Francis! Francis! reseller, the box also includes a smaller box containing the grounds portafilter, two 57mm filter baskets, and a tamper, all at no extra charge.
The machine is undeniably a minor work of art. Some believe the X1 is more unique looking, but the X3 and its "Titanic" narrow footprint really caught my eye. Apparently I'm not the only one, because this machine was one of two chosen for the "cool cop apartment" makeover done in Robert DeNiro's movie, Showtime. After his residence is given a makeover by the Hollywood elite, there stands on the kitchen counter a shiny Francis! Francis! X3.
| It's Showtime! |
You can see a Francis! Francis! X3 (along side a la Pavoni espresso machine!) in Robert De Niro's made over "cop pad".
CoffeeGeek evaluated the Inox brushed steel model, but the painted models are equally appealing in looks and style. I'll say one thing right off the bat about the steel model - it looks uber-cool, but it sure does pick up fingerprint smudges fast.
If you visit the Francis! Francis! website, the promotional text for this machine says it was designed to be reminiscent of the bow of a ship or a 50s style diner; they have certainly pulled this off - my first impression when doing wide angle photographs of the machine (where angles are exaggerated) was - wow, this is like the bow of a ship!
I gave the machine a once over. I liked the fit and finish - with one exception: taking the water reservoir out and putting it back is a bit of a pain, but I'll get to that later on in the Operation section of this review. Generally, my feelings about this machine were golden, at least upon first glance and that whole touchy feely process I go through with a machine when it first comes out of the box. For such a small footprint, the FF!! X3 is relatively heavy (remember - in espresso machines, heavy = good); the metal is worked exceedingly well; the six hex nuts on each side of the machine (only two are actually used to secure the top to the sides) are nice and flush with the body; and the buttons look excellent and feel good with a positive tactile feedback-click when pressed. The indicator lights are small, orange, and they complement the look of the machine well. They do have one downside - they are very hard to distinguish under your typical kitchen lighting (florescent or halogen).
Though the machine has a narrow footprint, the top holds more than six espresso cups - in fact, it holds six with ease, with space for a tamper to boot. Colour me impressed. I've tested some machines with more than double the footprint of this one, and you can barely squeeze six cups on top.
I looked inside the machine, and was pleasantly surprised to see a brass boiler - the last time I looked inside an X machine (an X1, about two years ago), I saw a steel boiler (note - X1s now ship with the same innards as the X3). The boiler's capacity is claimed to be 7 ounces (207mm) on a few websites, but I have a hard time believing that. Visually, it doesn't look much larger than about 150 to 175ml and that's what I'll stick with. It's not the 270ml of a Rancilio Silvia, but it's also not the 100ml of a Gaggia or Saeco machine either.
Another thing impressed me with the innards: the lines and grouphead are brass, and the Ukla pump is the same class as that found on much more costly machines. The X3 also features an electronic temperature control, which is certainly beefed up when compared to some machines costing more than this machine, and a definite improvement over the first gen X1 models (again, current shipping X1s also have this improvement).
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| Inside the Machine |
This is the current generation, much improved over the original X3.
| Pump and Wiring |
A standard Ukla pump and good electrics
| Detailed Diagram |
Click for more details.
| Pod Portafilter |
| Dispersion Screen |
The pod portafilter that shipped with the machine is, to say the least - funky mojo. It doesn't have any side walls, per se - it is wide open. This is an ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) certified machine, meaning it meets certain design characteristics dictated by the Italian body that oversees ESE. The grounds filter is more traditional, with a nice 57mm basket size, and a good, if thin, straightwall design that lets you cram in the grounds. The portafilter features a spring, so you don't have to worry about knocking the filter basket loose when knocking out spent grounds.
When you look at the grouphead, you'll see it's a compromise design to allow the use of both the pod portafilter and the traditional grounds portafilter. The dispersion screen itself is smaller than your traditional grouphead design, and there's two rubber gaskets in the grouphead - an outer one for both portafilters, and an inner one that clamps down on the edge of the pod (but doesn't play a role in brewing with ground coffee). The dispersion screen has a screw, and can be removed for full cleaning.
Fire it up
You must know by now that the mantra around the CoffeeGeek site is "read the freaky manual" or RTFM. I can't stress this enough, which is why you see it mentioned in pretty much every detailed review and first look that I do. The Francis! Francis! Manual is pretty good when you compare it to other Italian machines out there. It looks like a native English speaker helped to write this one, and it is well laid out and instructional. On top of this Francis! Francis! is now publishing a product brochure that contains some helpful tips and tricks on getting the most out of your machine. Here's a PDF of the brochure- have a look see: (XProject Brochure, 970kb)
The first job I had with the FF!! X3 was filling the reservoir, and this is also where I found the first flaw. It's not easy to remove or place in the machine. The reason is the overflow tube that feeds water back to the reservoir from the overpressure valve - it is a short, stubby tube that hangs down about two inches or so, and it's a Pain in the uh... Butt (PITA) to get fitted into the close fitting reservoir when you slide it into place.
| Tubing Difficulties |
X3's two tubes - note the overflow tube is short, and is hard to fit into the reservoir (click for more detail).
In fact, I didn't slide it into place the first time, and the result was a slow leak of water through the back of the machine. It would be better if Francis! Francis! made this overflow tube flush with the underside "ceiling" of the reservoir area - that way, there's no concern about making sure it flows into the reservoir. Either that or make it as long as the intake tube.
Once the reservoir is filled and placed in the machine, it's ready to be turned on and "primed" for the first time. You do this by activating the brew switch and opening the steam wand knob. Soon, water starts pouring out of the wand (into a cup you placed below it) and the machine is, as they say in NASCAR, good to go.
About 3 minutes after turning the machine on, the machine has heated up and the boiler has completed it's first "cycle". But given the amount of brass and metal in the machine, it's not necessarily ready to go quite yet - you need to get the grouphead and portafilter and the brass lines all heated up as well. I did this by just waiting about 20 minutes. You can do it quicker just by running a fair amount of water through the portafilter and steam wand. In fact, put the machine into steaming mode so it's extra hot - just be wary of steam flashing to water as it leaves the machine.
For my initial shots, I decided to give some pretty old Bristot pods (supplied by PodHead. I didn't expect much from these shots - the pods were months old.
It's good my expectations were low - the machine seemed a bit cold still, and the pod shots were pretty horrid.
I decided to give the machine another 30 mins or so, and ran about a dozen Bristot pod shots through it to "season the machine" as it were. I have to admit, by the last few shots, they were looking a lot better than the first few. I even tasted one. It was scary, but that's to be expected from the very old pods.
I should also take this opportunity to say this machine is very loud. Very loud.
| Big Well |
X3 with it's 43oz water reservoir.
I decided to go with the grounds portafilter next (sufficiently heated up) and try some fresh ground. I'll be honest here again: I was extremely soured on FF!! machines in the past (literally, the shots were too sour and cold), so I had my doubts about the grounds portafilter and what it could do, but hey, the sacrifices I do for you, the loyal CoffeeGeek reader!
As I mentioned in the First Look for this machine, here's where I eat my words (often spread in newsgroups like alt.coffee and even in CoffeeGeek Forums)...
From my very first "fresh ground" shot, I got what I'd call "acceptable" or better shots of espresso. The temperatures seemed good, the shot performance was nice, and even with my first guestimate at a level of grind, the shot time was between that of a traditional double and a ristretto (I got about 1.75oz in about 27 seconds).
In fact, the machine was producing better shots than machine costing almost twice as much, at least from the get go.
Things were looking good for this Detailed Review.