A great alternative to FrancisFrancis. What I like about Ascaso is the way they've out-smarted the Italian espresso machine companies. Ascaso himself started out as a worker in a mechanical plant that sold parts to Italian espresso machine companies. Eventually, Ascaso opened his own manufacturing plant and decided why export espresso parts to the Italians when we can build the machines in-house? Why I chose the Ascaso over the FrancisFrancis was for two reasons: Ascaso was able to drop its price point by building the machine body out of polished aluminum instead of the FrancisFrancis' stainless steel, which is more expensive. Really, the aesthetic is identical -- why pay more for stainless steel? You don't get any more machine. The second attribute that made me choose Ascaso was that FrancisFrancis started replacing steel parts of their portafilter with plastic. Why would you pay nearly $1000 retail for plastic parts on a portafilter head? It made me wonder what other corners FrancisFrancis was cutting in building their machine. Ascaso still uses entirely stainless steel on their portafilter heads.
POWER/PRESSURE The Ascaso Dream has enough pressure to easily push water through any ground -- including Turkish powder. The machine is impossible to choke. Not only that, but the pressure in the machine can force steam through the grounds as well. While it's not ideal for the coffee, it does mean you can pull a shot slightly over boiling temperature. The machine doesn't balk. Very impressive.
SLEEK DESIGN You have your own aesthetic tastes, so you can judge for yourself, but the machine is as beautiful in person as it is in the photos. The machine is well laid out and part positions are intuitive to use.
SOLID BUILD The Dream is heavy, solid, and well-built. There are a couple of plastic parts (water tank and steam knob), but most of the construction is metal, including a brass boiler. (You can browse online to see replacement parts of the machine and what they're made of).
A SIMPLE OPERATION The water tank slides out the right side of the machine. Simply pour the water in (no top to remove). Click on the power switch and let the boiler warm up (2 min). Tamp your coffee into the portafilter basket. Set and lock the portafilter into the group head. Click the coffee switch. Coffee arrives in moments. Click off the coffee switch. Click on the steam switch (which gets the boiler piping hot) and watch the temp rise on the temperature gage. Turn the steam knob open on the side to drain the small amount of water in the steam wand. A consistent stream of steam follows. Use a small steel pitcher with an arm to steam milk. Click off the steam switch and the power switch. Done. The functions of the Dream could not be simpler for a manual machine. (However, in the real world, you do have to clean the group head, portafilter, drip tray, surface, and water tank often or periodically. Also note, the machine does rattle loudly when one pulls a shot. It's not a problem unless there's a sleeping individual in close environs to the machine).
CONSISTENT COFFEE QUALITY The coffee from this machine is consistent and easy to reproduce each time. The temperature gage on the face is easy to read and accurate. The power switch warms the boiler to acceptable coffee temperatures, but if the user would like to raise the temp, he or she simply clicks on the steam switch temporarily to jack up the temp (then clicks it off before pulling the espresso) -- which makes it real easy to get the exact temp you want every time. The Dream comes with a special portafilter basket that has a filter in it that slows the draw of water through the grounds, making the coffee draw time consistent on many different ground types. Between the temperature gage and the (removable) special filter basket, you can product the same, delicious shot every time.
SOME POLYCARBONATE PLASTIC PARTS The water tank is made of polycarbonate plastic (#7 plastic), which contains Bisphenol A, a chemical that leaches into water at room temperature and that some scientists believe can cause hormonal disruptions (Google "BPA" for the debate). Lots of coffee machines use polycarbonate plastic parts, so it is not unique to Ascaso. This was not enough to deter me from buying the machine, but I wish the water tank were made of glass. It seems impractical to make a water tank out of glass, but if hundreds of thousands of cheap coffee carafes made of glass can ship from China around the world every year, why can't Ascaso design one for its espresso machines?
NO PRESSURE GAGE The temperature gage works well, but there is no pressure gage, so it's very difficult to coordinate the temperature and how long it will take for the water to run through the grounds. The machine comes with a special filter that slows the draw time of the water through the grounds (and the filter is very effective), but when one uses a traditional filter basket, the power of the machine makes the water rush through the grounds at a high rate. The coffee still tastes good, but it's nearly impossible to pull a 25 sec double shot with the traditional filter. If you're into manual shots made with a traditional basket, buyer beware.
PORTAFILTER IS 57 MM This was a minor inconvenience, but the portafilter head of the Ascaso espresso machine is 57 mm instead of 58 mm, which many of its competitors measure. This means it's difficult to buy third-party accessories (though not impossible). The biggest inconvenience is finding a solid tamper, because the Dream comes with a weak plastic one (I would call it a temporary one). Ascaso's 57 mm tamps are not cheap. If you search long enough around the Internet, you'll find a third-party supplier for less. It's just sleazy to build a portafilter one millimeter smaller than the industry standard.