Form and Function (but watch out for faulty boiler elements)
Positive Product Points
Best styling and build quality available for this price. Fast heatup. Small size.
Negative Product Points
Small steam capacity. No 3-way valve. BAD boiler element design and wiring safety. Replacement parts not available unless you send the machine out for servicing.
For the niche that it was designed to fill, it is really hard to find a better machine than the X3. If you want designer styling, top notch build quality, a good boiler, and good coffee all out of a small machine that actually fits on a counter, then the X3 is about the only choice. If you want a machine that will serve a dinner party, or that will froth a liter of milk, you want a different machine.
I've owned 2 of these, a standard steel model and a stainless model, both of the classic design and not the new 'Trio' model which uses only the crap pods. The first one I bought (well) used, and it lasted almost 2 more years of daily use before the boiler element developed a short.
Other users have complained about the limited water capacity, but the tank is as large as possible for such a small machine. Since this machine is not suitable for serving many people at once, you probably will only be filling the tank once or twice a week anyhow. With a larger tank you would just get biofilm issues.
Another common complaint is the consistency of the espresso. Without a high quality burr mill, you have no hope of getting good results from the X3. It took me quite a while to tune the grind on my machine, but once I found the right grind for the 2 or 3 roasts I use, the results are bang-on every time. If you have quality issues, either you got a faulty unit, or its a matter of 'garbage in, garbage out'.
Finally, steaming with the X3 is a challenge. Getting froth is easy. Getting decent foam takes a lot of practice. The steam wand has a special aerator tip threaded on to the end which is designed to compensate for the relatively low steam output. If used properly, it works fine. The trick is positioning the intake hole at exactly the right level, and keeping it there for the entire steaming process. I found the steaming temperature (and thus pressure) to be quite different in the newer stainless model, and I had to relearn how to steam with it. In the end, I found that the hysteresis in the steam temperature thermostat is too large, so if you wait for the 'steam ready' indication you will not be able to produce microfoam. Starting the steaming process about 30 seconds before the boiler light would normally turn off, allows the element to stay on throughout the steaming, and the steam pressure remains perfect for microfoam. Some complain about the short wand, but in reality having a big pitcher is useless with this machine, since you will be making at most 2 drinks at a time. Having the wand come out the side of the machine would probably make it easier to use, but would affect the looks.
There are a few tricks to using this machine, apart from the frothing:
1) Steaming order - I normally pull first and froth second, even though the manual suggests that the machine was designed to handle the reverse order. In theory, the incoming cold water cools the internals down to the proper brewing temperature from the steaming temperature, but I'm sure using this method the first few seconds are superheated steam, instead of hot water. Also, steaming last drives the remaining water out of the grounds, leaving a dry puck behind which is much cleaner.
2) Overflow tray - The tray is small and not that convenient, but if you don't dump too much water in it, it works fine. I remove the cup as soon as the shot is done, and catch the last dribbles with another small cup. Steaming will result in some more water being forced through the grounds, so the cup catches these too. This way, you only need to clean the tray occasionally.
3) Cleanup - I use a paper towel moistened with water from purging the steam wand to clean the tip after steaming, and also to clean the grouphead of the remnants of (now dry) grounds.
My main complaint is that FrancisFrancis! has a really bad policy for replacement parts. The parts are cheap, which is good, but they are only available to authorized repair shops with the condition that they install the parts, which is stupid. You would think that a relatively small, progressive company would realize the importance of keeping their machines running and users happy, instead of milking them on repair costs.
I bought the first unit in a personal sale, and the second off of an Ebay refurbished unit dealer. Both transactions were smooth. Finding parts is another matter. Neither FrancisFrancis! nor their authorized repair centres (Canada, US, or UK) were willing to sell me a replacement heating element. The cost of the element is ~$20, but they require sending the full machine in for repair, at a cost (labor and shipping) approximately equal to buying a refurbished unit.
Three Month Followup
About a year and a half after buying a factory reconditioned unit to replace my original X3 which shorted out, the second machine developed the same fault. It seems the boiler elements are the weak point in the design of the X3, and they tend to burn out. It wouldn't be so bad if the wiring was designed differently, but as it is, the elements short out due to corrosion in such a way that steam leaks into the element and out of the electrical feedthrough at the top of the boiler. The result is that current flows into the element, and then finds a path to ground. Since the wiring is designed such that the power is switched on the neutral side, such a short can result in a dangerous ground fault situation. My first unit failed safely since I had it plugged into a GFCI socket, but my second unit ended up overheating to the point that the thermal fuse blew out.
I've reduced my ratings on the X3, since it appears that this is a systematic flaw that has happened to many owners. If replacement elements were available for this machine like they are for its many competitors, maybe I could recommend the X3 as good value for money. As it is, the X3 is a great deal for the money, but only for the first year or two until the boiler burns out. There is the possibility of hacking a Saeco element ($40) to fit into the X3, but good luck finding replacement FF parts.
One Year Followup
After sitting on the shelf for more than a year, I finally got around to replacing the boiler elements with Saeco units. The Saeco part number 188153955 is a very close match to the Francis part (which is impossible to buy without service charges), with the exception that the power rating is 900 W instead of 1000, the element is a bit shorter, and the terminals are a bit larger with requires the holes in the boiler to be drilled out slightly. There are instructions on the web for this procedure. There are slight design differences in the early (pre-pod) and later model boilers. In the earlier models, the thin gaskets from the Saeco elements can be used after the holes are drilled. In the later models, thicker o-rings are required, or sealing with food-grade silicone. After the element swap, the machines seem to work like new.
It appears that the elements in both units failed at the joint between the element and the crimped-on threaded studs, and not in the element itself. It appears that water starts to leak through the crimp, and ends up soaking the insulator where it exits the boiler, creating a ground fault. Apart from this, the original elements look like new where they actually are in contact with the brewing water. Whether the Saeco elements will fail in the same way remains to be seen. I used distilled water in the first machine that failed, and hard tap water in the second. This didn't seem to affect corrosion of the elements, but the boiler with distilled water was covered in black oxidation whereas the tap water boiler was covered in red oxidized copper. A chemist could probably explain this, but it is probably healthier to use tap water and deal with regular descaling.
As another note to anyone trying to rebuild a Francis!Francis! machine, the thermal fuses (which will likely blow in the event of a boiler element short) are available from Digikey.com as part number 317-1134-ND for about 1$).