I wanted to get a machine for a member of the family who bought a Saeco super automatic from Costco (I told her to return it and leave the shopping to me). I came up with a checklist of features that I thought are important, presented the list to her, and explained why I chose them.
List of features:
--Commercial brew group
--Solid brass or copper boiler
--Strong steam pressure
--Heat exchanger boiler
--Clear buttons and easy to operate
She had been using my old Gaggia Classic Coffee (the ancient machine that refuses to give up the ghost) and she is used to the advantages of solid portafilters and brass components. She also is used to the 3-way solenoid and is pretty decent at getting the grind, tamp, and brew temperature right. I wasn't certain why she wanted a super automatic machine, so I asked and she told me: "steaming milk to make lattes when my friends come over tests my patience and makes me want to pick up the drinks from the local Starbucks at the supermarket." This made sense to me: the Gaggia is great at heating up quickly and recovering, but its tiny boiler can't keep up with making drinks for more than 2 people. She thought that a super automatic would make all the milk drinks she needed with a push of a button, so that's why she bought the Saeco.
After hearing this, I decided to look for a machine that would be easy to use like the Gaggia and that would be able to open up her eyes to the possibilities of brewing with a larger machine. I considered the Rancilio Silvia, but I have had so much experience with my Audrey to know that the Silvia can sometimes test peoples' patience. I crossed the Rancilio off the list and thought about the Quickmill Anita and other "chromies." I decided to cross the Anita off my list along with the Pasquini Livietta (not a HX machine, but dual thermoblock, so steams and brews at the same time). So...what was left? I could have given her my Andreja premium or bought her one, but the machine is so heavy that it's not easy to move it around in the kitchen when needed. I thought that I had struck out until I remembered the Oscar.
I had looked at this machine several years ago before it had the Sirai pressurestat; I had thought that it was a decent attempt at the time, but I had heard that the original pressurestats would flake out. Then I remembered that Nuova Simonelli had upgraded the Oscars with Sirai pressurestats. I started to research and thought that the Oscar combined great features at an appealing price. I called JL Hufford and ordered it (had thought about getting the red one, but decided to get the silver one).
Well, the machine arrived this week and I'm going to brew on it for a couple of weeks before handing it over to the "real" owner. After a few days of using the Oscar, I have to say that I am extremely impressed with all of the functioning elements of the machine (I have a few nit-picks about some other non-functioning parts of the machine, but they are minor).
The Oscar is great! it heats up pretty quickly (I let it go for about 25 minutes before pulling the first shot). It also is so simple to operate. The machine has two buttons, one for on/off and one for brewing, and one steam knob on the front. Oscars operating and status lights are labeled (no mysterious red or green unlabeled lamps that are too dim to see)...what could be more straightforward? The minimalism of the controls is great for people who just need to/want to brew and not fool around with settings and such. There aren't any boiler pressure/temp gauges, but gauges are really only of limited value if the user is never going to change the internal settings of the espresso machine (some gauges have been known to give false/inaccurate information, anyhow) . The portafilters are solid and they have the newer ergonomic handles with the bumpy rubber grips, as opposed to the older-style portafilter handles with smooth grips that are pictured in some of Nuova Simonelli's product brochures. The cup warmer on top of the machine heats up quickly and evenly. I wondered how Nuova Simonelli achieved this on a machine with a plastic body and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is a metal plate on the underside of the top panel that distributes heat across the entire surface of the cup warmer. This made me smile, as a lot of people have been going on and on about how disappointing it is that the Oscar has a plastic outer case.
But there are several advantages to the plastic case that people don't think about (because metal is supposedly always better, you know) and I can't complain at all about Oscar's skin. First, the machine weighs much less than all-metal-bodied HX machines. While the Oscar is not exactly portable, it is easy to pick up the machine and move it to another location at any time; for some people the Andreja Premium is a little too heavy for them to easily move. Second, the plastic cover on the Oscar is so easy to clean: just wipe it and you're done! Try that with a shiny stainless or chrome machine! Third, Nuova Simonelli has done a great job at building the Oscar on a solid metal frame and there is so much metal behind the scenes that most users never see (the plate beneath the cup warmer surface is the perfect example of this). Fourth, I have no reservations about the durability of the ABS cover. ABS is the same material that is used in automobile bumpers and trim, football helmets, housings for commercial vacuum cleaners, and so many other products that take a licking and keep on ticking. Plastic technology these days is really outstanding, so I don't hesitate to say that the ABS cover on the Oscar is going to hold up without problems. Did I mention yet that the ABS doesn't dent or show scratches? How about that it keeps a lot of the heat of the machine inside the machine instead of heating up the kitchen? The silver version of the Oscar looks really good (thinking about getting one for myself, and I'd like to see the red up close and personal if I do buy one for myself) and it's a little larger in person than I had expected...think about it as a beefy espresso machine on steroids.
The Oscar's solid copper boiler is really a treat (a powerhouse, too) and, along with the Sirai pressurestat, the Oscar continues to look more and more like a bargain. Attention to detail on the inner components is outstanding for a machine at this price...the neoprene insulated boiler is especially nice, along with the aforementioned metal plate beneath the cup warmer. Also, the machine brews like a dream and it is so much more agreeable than many other espresso machines out there (the Rancilio Silvia, in particular). Steam is, in a word, awesome, and keeps coming and coming long after the milk is steamed or the water is heated for tea/americanos. Speaking of which, a lot of people have taken issue with the fact that the Oscar has no hot water tap. I'm not a heavy user of the hot water taps on my other machines unless I want to flush the boiler or take a look at the water quality inside the boiler. I really think that boiler water makes a bad drink, anyhow, so I don't miss the hot water tap at all. That being said, I'm uncertain how easy it is to access the boiler drain plug (haven't looked yet), so I'd advise to use softened water if your water is more than 3 grains of hardness. I hear good things about the Nuova Simonelli technical department, so maybe I'll give them a call and report back on the boiler drain and such. Bottom line on the hot water tap: unless it's a "gotta have" feature, which for most people it isn't, you won't miss it when brewing on the Oscar. There is so much steam power in this machine that it would probably be easier, cleaner, more hygenic, and (maybe) quicker to steam heat fresh water in a pitcher...like I said, stale boiler water can make for a nasty drink and you never really know what the water quality inside the boiler is (especially after a few years). Some people have also made note of the need to open the steam valve when turning the machine on after the boiler has cooled. Not really a problem...it would be better if this were unnecessary (I've read that some people have added a vacuum breaker to remedy this), but the rest of the machine is so good, that I'll overlook it. It's a give and take relationship, after all, with any espresso machine no matter how advanced, expensive, or feature-packed it is; treat Oscar right and he'll give you exactly what you want.
I also found out how to do a little pre-infusion "trick" on the Oscar. Once the brew temp is right and you've got a ready-to-brew portafilter on the machine, press the brew button slightly and hold it. Doing this opens the solenoid that allows brew water into the group, but the pump doesn't turn on (yet). Once you're preinfused for the amount of time that you'd like, press the brew button the rest of the way in and let Oscar do his stuff. I haven't been able to do a ton of experimenting on this, so I can't really say how beneficial it is to do this trick (I don't think that it should be damaging to the machine, by the way) in terms of how it affects espresso quality. Oscar is supposed to have a "patented mechanical pre-infusion system," but I've looked all over the place to find out exactly what this means and I still don't know. Anyone want to fill me in? I'd appreciate it.
You might think that I have only great things to say about the Oscar. In terms of functions, brewing, and steaming, this is absolutely spot-on. However, there are a few funny and somewhat disappointing things. First, the manual leaves a lot to be desired. A diagram lists the parts that are supposed to come with the machine, but there are more parts included with the Oscar than listed in the diagram. Also, someone made a mistake in numbering the parts in the diagram in the manual (there is a mysterious item #16 on the list that is nowhere to be found on the diagram). On a hilariously entertaining (yet kinda sad) note, the Oscar manual makes a BIG boo-boo. From the manual's troubleshooting section: "If your expresso coffee maker is not functioning properly, see if you can find the problem in the troubleshooting list below." Excuse me? An Italian manufacturer using the word "expresso"? What a riot! There are also no instructions on brewing or steaming techniques or on the correct procedure for backflushing the machine. In the troubleshooting section the list describes the need for possibly descaling the machine if the water flow is less than ideal. There are no instructions on how to descale the Oscar, though, so I'd check with a Nuova Simonelli tech before attempting any descaling.
Also, the lid that covers up the water reservoir only opens 90 degrees (from closed to standing straight up when open). This is a little bit of a problem because the compartment for the reservoir is narrow from front to back. If you're not careful when removing the water reservoir or in using a funnel to fill it through the overly-small opening, you might overextend the reservoir compartment lid and (possibly) break the hinges. I chose to pop off the reservoir lid before testing to see whether or not it would be a potential problem and I simply place it on top of the reservoir compartment and lift it off as needed. Also, there is no way to tell how much water is in the reservoir without looking down into the reservoir, so this is probably not the best machine to place underneath a cupboard or in a location that is too high to allow you to see inside the reservoir. Personally, I think that leaving the reservoir in place and using a funnel to fill it is the best idea b/c you can hear and see when the tank is nearly full (take the reservoir out periodically to clean it, of course). One last issue is with the portion of the drip tray that sits beneath the 3-way solenoid and into which the solenoid drains water after brewing. This is not a problem when making espresso but, when backflushing, it can be a little messy: water splashes up between the drip tray and the body of the machine. Because the machine is so easy to clean, wiping it clean and moving on is easy. I'll eventually find out how detergent affects the splashing while backflushing and report back.
Overall I really like the Oscar and I feel like I've had a good amount of experience with several different machine brands and types. When I hand Oscar off to the person for whom it was originally bought, I'm gonna miss him.