I bought the Freshroast as a backup, after my Hearthware Precision failed on its 55th roast, and after an unused Hearthware Gourmet I got from a friend as my initial backup melted (!) on its first roast. Now, my fixed HWP gathers dust, and this is the roaster I use. Here's why:
Inexpensive, but not cheap. Instead of being crammed with unreliable features like the Hearthwares, the Freshroast leaves out everything that can go wrong. The motor is smaller and sturdier. The smaller heating element is spaced far enough from the case and other components to prevent problems (there is almost no heat build up in the unit's base, even after repeated roasts). There are no electronics, just a mechanical timer and a line voltage thermostat. Finally, there are no seals or tricky interlocks; the roasting chamber and lid assembly simply sit in sleeves. The thing seems practically fail safe.
I've heard that the roast chamber generally needs to be replaced every two years or so, since it's base cracks from the heat.
In general, one can roast 2 ounces (55 grams) of coffee by weight at a time. This doesn't sound like a lot, but the roast is so fast that one can do 4 roasts, or a 1/2 pound, in 30 minutes without any problem. So the "throughput" capacity of the Freshroast is about twice of the Hearthwares, and nearly as good as the Alpenrost. Moreover, lots of fast roasts means lots of bean and blend variety. At a street price of around US $60, that's a tremendous deal.
The machine is whisper quiet, which is great since one needs to carefully watch the roast. On my machine, the first crack starts at about 1 min 20 secs and ends at 2:10. After this, one has to attend, and be ready to stop the roast manually (by turning the timer to "cool"). City roast is at about 2:25, the second crack starts at 2:40 and ends, with the beans at an oily Vienna roast, at about 3:05. So all the useful roast stages are traversed inside 40 seconds. Moreover, the fast roasting continues for about 5 to 10 seconds after the machine is set to cool. The roast process is so fast that one can literally see the beans go from cinnamon to chocolate.
Nevertheless, I find this machine a lot more pleasant to use than the Hearthwares, since it is so much faster and quieter. For me, the Hearthwares made roasting a chore, while with the Freshroast, it's enjoyable.
One note: the mesh screen on the lid can get blocked by coffee oils. It needs to be thoroughly cleaned after each roasting session.
Unlike most appliances, the instructions that come with the machine are excellent.
A d d e n d u m -- 03/07/2002:
The new model, the Freshroast+, roasts 70 to 75 grams and takes about 3 minutes to the end of the first crack and 4 1/2 minutes to reach a rolling second crack. It has a taller roasting chamber and a more powerful and slightly louder motor. The improved mesh screen on the lid no longer traps coffee oils and needs less TLC. The simple, bullet proof construction has thankfully been left unchanged.
Here's the rub. The microprocessor on the Hearthware Precision gives a consistent roast time after time, and almost eliminates the learning curve. With the Freshroast, even and consistent roasts are very difficult, and there is a learning curve for achieving quality.
That being said, the Freshroast produces a brighter, more strongly aromatic and complex, but slightly lighter bodied cup than the HWP. One can roast quite dark, and still retain a lot of acidity and regional aromas.
After 2 months of use (about 75 roasts), I'm still learning some tricks. Most importantly, one can lengthen and mellow a roast by interrupting it between the first and second crack. Set the machine to "cool" for fifteen seconds, then resume the roast. This will extend the roast by about a minute, and increase body and decrease the brightness to roughly the same level as an HWP roast. Extending the roast a second time will produce a syrupy, sweet cup with almost no acid taste.
A d d e n d u m -- 03/07/2002
The new Freshroast+ model produces a more balanced, heavier bodied cup, but it's still nice and bright. The mellowing tricks work on it as well, but are less necessary.
I use the Freshroast for espresso, and am very happy with it. But if you value consistent, even roasts more than a quiet, reliable, and inexpensive roaster, you should consider another model.