I purchased the X3 about six months ago, and have been enjoying fine coffee out of it almost daily ever since. I got the machine to replace a cheap Buon Caffe espresso machine I purchased at Starbucks almost six years ago. The Buon Caffe served me well in my coffee-addicted high school days, but now I was looking for something to take my espresso experience to the next level. Unlike the cheap plastic machine I was replacing, I wanted something that both looked good and produced a superior product. With roughly $350 budgeted for a new machine, I started to look around online. The Rancilio Silvia looked tempting as a first "real" espresso machine, but was definitely on the higher end of what I wanted to pay. Reading about the X3, I strongly considered it. When I spotted a refurbished unit at a discount price in my favorite color of orange, I took it as a good omen and bought it. Six months later, I don't regret it at all.
Enjoying the flowing lines of the X3 sitting on my kitchen counter for the last few months still hasn't gotten old. Admirers of elegant industrial design will certainly appreciate its curves and retro-modern aesthetic. The machine itself is constructed almost entirely out of metal, and is built very solidly. The only obvious bits of plastic are the drip tray and resivoir tray, both of which have to be plastic because of their need to be both light-weight and resistant to corrosion. Moving the compact but hefty machine around on the counter gives you a sense that it is indeed a quality product. The only gripe I have about the build quality is that the steam wand seems a bit loosely attached to the inside of the machine, wiggling a bit too much for an overzealous reviewer. However, in practical use this is not an issue. Otherwise, the X3 looks and feels bulletproof, giving the impression that it could survive a trip out of a second-story window. It has given me six trouble-free months of frequent operation, and will hopefully give me many more.
Operating the machine is very simple in principle, and is for the most part simple in practice. The only controls on the machine are three buttons and a large wheel. The buttons toggle the main power supply, the brew pump, and the boiler temperature between brewing and steaming modes. The wheel controls the valve for the steam wand. Shying in the direction of form over function, the buttons are not labelled at all. While this may hinder first-time use, it doesn't take long to remember which button does what.
While the controls are simple, actually making good coffee takes a little more effort. Like all espresso machines, the Francis!Francis! X3 has a learning curve. If you are not willing to deal with this, you do not want an espresso machine, you want a Mr. Coffee. In my six months with the machine, I am still learning how to consistantly pull good shots. While this may seem like a negative attribute, I know that as I continue to learn more about espresso and this particular machine, my shots with the X3 will only get better and better. The same goes for the X3's steam wand. My first attempts at steaming milk produced bubble-bath quality foam, but now I consistently make microfoam that varies between good and excellent. The machine definitely leaves the novice to intermediate barista room to grow, but it only takes a week to go from "motor oil" grade coffee to "tastes like S*bucks" grade coffee. The exciting part comes when you realize that there is coffee that looks and tastes ten times better than S*bucks, and that it is entirely possible to make it with the X3. The high quality coffee you can make with the X3 will leave you smiling both because of the taste and the relative bargain the machine presents in its segment of the espresso machine marketplace. There aren't many complaints when a machine this good comes at such a low price.
However, no machine is perfect. Fortunately, the majority of my criticisms come either as a result of the cost segment of the X3 or because of the deliberate design of the machine. In other words, there isn't anything about the machine that leaves you feeling like you didn't get what you paid for or makes you question the basic common sense and engineering skills of the designers at Francis!Francis!
The first thing novice buyers should be aware of is that while the X3 can make one steamed milk drink very easily and two drinks with not too much trouble, anything more than that will cause problems. The X3, although a capable machine for home use, has a small boiler compared to those monstrous Marzocco machines at your local mega-chain coffee house. If you are making a lot of steamed milk drinks with the X3, be prepared to wait for the boiler to get up to temperature between each drink. So, if you expect to do a lot of entertaining with your new espresso machine, either work out some patter to humor guests between repeated steaming and brewing, introduce all your guests to the joys of drinking straight espresso shots, or go upmarket and buy a more expensive espresso machine. While this is a negative aspect of the machine, it's not really a complaint; No other machines in this price range are meant to deal with a large volume of drinks.
The rest of my complaints come as a result of the designers at Francis!Francis! sacrificing a bit of practicality in order to make the X3 the beautiful piece of functional art that it is. In my opinion, losing a bit of function for the sake of form isn't such a terrible thing, but then again I also drive a Miata, so these negatives may be a bigger or smaller thing depending on how much you value practicality. However, none of these issues severly hinder the operation of the machine during typical use.
In creating a small, short, curvy espresso machine, certain design decisions were made that resulted in neat-looking but less than practical features. First of all, the drip tray is fairly shallow. Depending on how you use the machine, the tray can fill up pretty quickly. Whenever I make two drinks, the tray is almost overflowing from waste water generated from blowing out the steam wand, cooling down the boiler while warming up the brew head, and the excess espresso that drips after pulling shots. While the tray is just big enough to catch all the waste water without overflowing, it's a pain to try and pull out a shallow tray brimming with hot water and not slosh the almost boiling water all over the place on the way to the sink.
Being a relatively squat machine, the brewhead on the X3 is placed very low and close to the drip tray grill. This results in low clearance underneath, which may hinder the use of taller cups or mugs. I use cups which are round, short, and wide like the typical Illy cups without issue. However, using mugs of the usual cylindrical pencil-holder/coffee mug height makes things a bit more difficult. Unusually tall cups simply will not fit directly under the brewhead, requiring the use of shot glasses instead.
The final issue of function taking a hit for the sake of form is the steam wand's length and location. Yes, the stumpy wand does look neat hanging down from the machine's overhang, but it's not entirely practical. The wand is very short, and making cappuccinos generates enough foam to almost engulf it in bubbles. Additionally, because the wand hangs from the same low overhang that features the low brewhead, the wand is also a bit low, providing little clearance between the wand and the countertop. It's difficult to use even small steaming pitchers without scooting the machine to the very edge of the kitchen counter for more room underneath the wand, and those who use large, Big-Gulp-sized pitchers may find the combination of a low and short wand to be prohibitive.
However, despite all of its little quirks, the X3 gets the job done, and it does it in style. The machine looks good, is constructed well, and produces good to great coffee with a little bit of effort. Once you figure out all the little things the X3 demands to make good coffee, like grind size, warm-up time, and steaming technique, your coffee will only get better. An excellent value, the Francis!Francis! X3 will serve novice and intermediate baristas well, ultimately producing drinks that can taste 90% as good as machines that cost 400% as much. If that's not a bargain, I don't know what is!