About six months ago, I was just wrapping up the Detailed Review for the Francis! Francis! X3 machine and I was one the phone with a FF!! rep in New York City....
"We'd really like you to review the X1 next."
"But, isn't it more or less the same machine inside as the X3?" I said.
"Well, all the machines feature similar componentry, but we've done some minor upgrades to the machine again, and have a new device that should eliminate... how did you describe it? The 'portafilter sneeze'." The rep said.
I was intrigued, so I made arrangements with FF!! USA to take delivery of a machine through a specific vendor. And you know what? When Dan Hughes of EspressoPeople contacted me to arrange shipment and the review details, he asked me what colour I wanted and I said "the most whacked out one in the lineup". So the neon, alien green Francis! Francis! X1 made its way up to the CoffeeGeek labs.
Out of the Box
Just like the X3, the Francis! Francis! X1 ships in a funky mojo, almost puzzle-like box that does a great job of protecting the machine. Some serious engineering and product design goes into this box to make all the folds, cuts and such so that, with a machine inside, the box is solid and protective; without a machine inside, it almost collapses into itself.
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| Product Box |
The shipping box for the X1
| Box in Box |
Inside is the actual product box.
| What is it? |
Easy to tell what it is by the graphics.
| Jigsaw |
The jigsaw commences!
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| Undoing |
As you undo it, you discover more flaps.
| Designed to Lift |
These flaps have handles - lift it up!
| Out it comes |
The interior box with machine. More flaps!
| Wallah! |
As you unflap the, uh, flaps, the box collapses.
Inside the box, I found a very bright and "out there" alien green paintjob machine, a 57mm grounds portafilter (with a single and double basket), a pod portafilter, a can of illy pods (next time send whole bean illy instead of the pods! Boo yah!), a scoop, two manuals, and some interesting new additions to a FF!! product box: the new stuff that the Francis! Francis! rep told me about.
| Sneeze Preventer |
The "tamper", in its two parts. This helps reduce the portafilter sneeze, but also reduces the amount of coffee you can use.
There was a device that at first looks like a clear plastic tamper, but upon closer inspection you see that the bottom of the "tamper" has a dispersion screen, and the handle can unscrew from the piston-base. But more on that later. The other surprises where dispersion screen replacements for the pod portafilter - one had finer (smaller holes) one had bigger holes. The concept here is, put the smallest-hole dispersion screen on the pod portafilter and get a ristretto pull. Put the larger-hole dispersion screen on, and you get lungo pulls. (the pod portafilter comes already equipped with the "normal holes" dispersion screen).
The X1 has a larger reservoir than the X3 - one of the first things I noticed. Up front, you have three metal bar rocker-style oldschool switches - one on the left for power, and two on the right, (one for brewing, the other for putting the machine into steam mode). Right smack dab in the middle of the machine is a dial with the machine's boiler temperature readout.
The panel has two indicator lights - one shows the machine being on or off the other shows when the boiler is active, either while cycling the heat back up to brew temperatures, or when the boiler is heating up for steaming temperatures.
On the right side of the machine is the steam control knob, a big round piece of plastic that feels a bit flimsy, but seems to work fine.
As you look at the machine from the front side, you see the control panel and a chrome-sheathed brass grouphead that is surprisingly beefy for a machine of this calibre and size.
Looking up at the dispersion screen in the grouphead, you notice that the design takes into account both pod use and normal grounds portafilter usage - there is a gasket that is the diameter of a typical pod, and it "slots" right onto the pod portafilter to keep a tight seal around the bag o' coffee should you brew with that mode.
The portafilters are decent for a machine of this calbre as well. They are not professional quality portafilters, but they aren't the inexpensive lightweight types you may find on machines like Saecos or the Starbucks Barista either. They are chromed brass and have a proper dual-channel spout underneath (on the grounds one; the pod portafilter has a single exit spout for the espresso it brews).
The filter basket size is 57mm, and thankfully there is no tricks going on in them - they are nice straightwall filter baskets without crema aiders or some whacked out design to try and make crema from stale coffee. Kudos to FF!! for sticking with tradition in the grounds-portafilter design.
The machine can hold as many as six cups on top and a tamper; the cups sit on the machine's slightly curved upper surface and are held in place by a tasteful-looking polished steel bar.
The drip tray is very shallow on this machine, and the cover plate on top of it tends to slide around a bit. For the Detailed Review, I may investigate ways to keep this thing more secure. The drip tray does slide out of the front of the machine (there's a polished and beveled knob on front); in fact, the whole front panel slides out, and you can remove the plastic drip tray and empty easily in the sink.
The machine includes a removable power cord that is almost identical to the type of plug you have in a desktop computer system.
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| All the Stuff |
Everything the X1 ships with - note the "tamper".
| Retro Old School |
The brew and steam switches on the machine's front panel, right side.
| Temperatures? |
I didn't find this dial particularly useful. A clock with a pronounced second hand would be better.
First Use of the Francis! Francis! X1
Well, you know our mantra. RTFM. Ride the Freaky Mama. No... read the flickin' manual. I think finally some of you "get it" when it comes to the manuals - I gotta say, my email load of people who obviously didn't read the manual about their machine before they blew it up or something has gone down in recent months.
I read the manual (heh heh), and learned that the FF!! folks seem to "get" espresso a bit more (being part of the Illy family helps), and also, the manuals are well written, a welcome change from reading poorly translated copy that you usually get with a machine. The startup and fill procedure is similar with most machines in this class:
- rinse out the reservoir
- fill the reservoir
- plug in the machine
- turn the machine on
- flick the brew switch and open the steam knob.
- place receptacle under the steam knob to capture the water flow
- wait for the boiler to fill up and for water to flow through the steam wand.
- once the flow is full, turn the brew switch off, shut the steam wand, and let the machine heat up fully.
- start a' brewin!
And so I did all those steps, then I gave the machine an additional thirty mins to warm up. I noticed that the portafilter gets acceptably hot - a consequence of the grouphead being bolted directly to the boiler. My first brewing was with the grounds portafilter.
At 57mm, the filter is only slightly smaller than most commercial filters, and the depth is similar, so I would guess the double holds about 15 or 16 grams of coffee at maximum pack. Since I was so familiar with the X3, I knew the approximate grind and dose to use - time to lock and load and brew a shot.
My first shots were nothing to write home about - well, actually they were. Geez, for a second I forgot I was supposed to be writing a first look here! :) The shots weren't very good, and this contrasts with my experience with the X3 model from Francis! Francis!. My first shots out of that machine were what I'd call "okay" (they got better); but on the X1, I was struggling to find a sweets spot for brewing early on.
I noticed quite quickly that the 'improved' electronics may be a factor in this. The boiler appears to be cycling a lot, especially while brewing. Now, this is a good thing, because it means the boiler and thermostat are working hard to maintain a constant brewing temperature. Where it's not good is that everytime the boiler thermostat turns the heating element on (and it can happen as many as three or four times during a shot pull), the power draw of the heating element reduces the power of the machines pump, fluctuating the pressure delivered. You can actually see it - when the boiler isn't active, you see a specific volume in the pour; when the boiler activates, that pour volume reduces.
The X3 didn't have this issue. For the full Detailed Review, I'll get into this more, and see if there are ways around it.
I decided to give pods a try, and again, I put the X3 model against the FF!! X1. This time around, performance was very equal, even though I heard the same fluctuations in pump pressure when the boiler would cycle on and off on the X1. . I was using pods I received the day before from , and they were roasted and prepped within a week or two, so they were about as fresh as pods will probably ever be.
(As a side note, the X3 has older electronics, and rarely cycles during a shot pull, unless the boiler water temperature is already too low).
Don't read too much into the shot performance at this time... let me use the machine for at least a few months before you (or I) come up with concluding thoughts on the machine's brewing ability.
First Week with the Francis! Francis! X1
| Drip Tray |
The drip tray reflects the dual-purpose disperson screen in the grouphead - for both grounds and pod use.
In the first week of use, I tried the steaming functions of the machine and fooled around a bit with the tamper / anti sneeze gizmo. I also tried to pull better shots. Here's what went down.
Steaming with the X1, in terms of steam output at least, is identical to the X3 model we reviewed. Usability however, is a bit more weak. The wand has a funky curvy design for the sake of beauty that unfortunately forsakes some usability - using anything larger than a 12oz pitcher is definitely a challenge with this machine because of the limited "reach" of the wand.
I did the same "surf the side hole" trick on this machine that we used successfully on the FF!! X3 model, and the good news is, microfoaming is very doable on this machine.
The Tamping / Anti "Sneeze" Gizmo
I'll be honest - I only used this thing three times during the first week. It does prevent, for the most part, some of the "portafilter sneeze" you get from these types of machines if you remove the portafilter right after brewing a shot.
(sidenote: the portafilter sneeze occurs on many home espresso machines that are not equipped with a 3 way pressure relief valve. What happens is that, after a shot is completed, the water remaining at the top of the filter basket is still under pressure. If you remove the portafilter, this pressure "explodes" (sorta), often spraying grounds all over. It's slightly dangerous, but not much so. It's more of an annoyance than anything else. You can reduce the portafilter sneeze by either a) removing the portafilter very, very very slowly (micrometers of turning as you leech off the pressure), or b) wait two or more minutes... the pressure will slowly leech off on its own.)
One thing the tamper gizmo does do is reduce the amount of coffee you can put into the filter basket. That's not necessarily a good thing. Also, I found the act of twisting and removing the handle (so you can insert the portafilter with the new dispersion screen into the grouphead) is sometimes difficult.
I did note one positive though (besides the reduction in the "sneeze")... shot performance seemed more consistent and at times, better than some of the shots I tried to do without the gizmo in place. But the gizmo never produced a better shot than some of the best shots I pulled in the first week.
As I mentioned above in the first use section, the Francis! Francis! X1 cycles a lot. If you sit there and watch the machine, you'll see every 10 or 15 seconds, the boiler active lamp will come on, if only for a second or two, then shut off.
That in itself is a great thing. It means that the "deadband" of the thermostat is very low (if in fact it uses a deadband style thermostat). "Deadband" is a type of thermostat found in most espresso machines - usually it has an allowable range, between 2 and 10C, where it will shut off the heating coils whenever the machine reaches the top end of the "deadband". Typically, the top end of the deadband is 100C (sometimes more)... when the heating coils heat up the water to 100C, the thermostat trips off, and shuts down the heat. As the water in the boiler cools, it gets down to the low end of the deadband, and the heating coils are triggered on again.
Just from the short testing I did, I could see the deadband of the FF!! X1 is very tiny. That's good. But where it's not good is that the engineers didn't allow for both the pump and the heating coils to work in concert without any power (pressure) reduction in the pump. Maybe on the 220V (European) version of the machine it's not an issue, but on my 110V test machine, it is.
A varying pump pressure can play a role in how the produced shot of espresso tastes, but only in the more discerning palates. For a long time, I could not distinguish between the taste of a shot of espresso on a vibe pump machine and a rotary pump machine, with all other factors being equal. A couple of years back, I did head to head tests with two Rancilio S series machines. The S24 was vibe pump, the S27 was rotary. Everything else was equal. But the rotary shots were better. Today, I really see the difference, and that's probably why I'm not getting great shot performance from the X1 (as compared to the X3). But I need to do some more testing on this (including figuring out ways to overcome this problem) before I draw any real conclusions on shot performance.
The first week with the Francis! Francis! X1 left me with mixed feelings. I wasn't getting as good shots with this model as I did with the X3 from Francis! Francis!. I was getting intrigued and also miffed at the way the fast cycling of the boiler would affect pump pressure. And I was getting irked with the steam wand physical design (the curves) and the lower usability of the machine.
But I will say this. It's certainly cool looking! In my first week, I had about a dozen people through the "lab", including several pro Baristi, and even one rep from a major commercial espresso machine manufacturer, and every single one of them commented on the coolness factor of the X1. Even with the X3 beside it, the X1 model drew all the attention.
All things being equal, I like the new electronics and super-shallow "deadband" of the X1, but as I continue to test the machine, I'll have to do a more indepth examination of how much a role the varying pump pressure plays in shot quality. Maybe it's just me. Maybe the machine needs to "season" more before shots will be on par with the FF!! X3. This is why I ask you not to take my words above as the be-all, end all review - this is just a first look, and I've barely had a week (and about 4 dozen shots pulled) on the machine.