Pick up one of the refurbs on Ebay, for ~300ish you definitely can't go wrong. Good potential with the right technique, fresh coffee, and GRINDER.
Positive Product Points
SOLID machine -excellent consistency in results -neurotic little thermostat (keeps water temp more stable than most at this $$$) -quiet pump -attractive -2 separate portafilter handles -clock w/second hand on face (timing shots) -tried against a Marzocco FB70 (with all variables the same) at work and was very impressed with this little guy.
Negative Product Points
Frothing tip- should have been more traditional Milk steaming time- takes a little while
The story: I really wanted one of these after seeing it in person at a HomeGoods store (for those who don't know, they sell refurb and close-out mid and high end home stuff). Found one on eBay nearly used and began to experiment at home.
Heat up time: around six minutes to be fully warmed up first thing in the morning. The group head and boiler is solid brass (with exterior of GH and PF being chromed).
Portafilters: Commercial style portafilter-holds heat well, chromed brass, SOLID!, leaves the puck dry if you let it sit in the group head until after you make froth (if you pull it right away to pack another shot, you get 1/8" water in PF). Two shot basket is the only one I like to use- I dig its nearly straight walls. The single is your typical sloped wall type with the reduced screen area at the bottom- it collects dust in the cabinet. There is no solenoid valve on this unit, but if you're doing low volume it's not an issue. This only gets to be an issue if you're entertaining and want to make 3+ drinks. The pod dedicated portafilter comes with three baskets for three levels of density in your shots- ristretto or restrained, in between, and lungo or long shot. Using the pod portafilter, the Illy pods produced so/so crema in the first 5 minutes of having the machine, but you'll get MUCH BETTER tasting shots with fresh ground/fresh roast coffee. FRESHIE FRESH IS BEST!!
Making shots: After working at a coffee shop and taking classes, I took the learned techniques home and applied them to Francis- as best as possible. I've grown to appreciate the neurotic little thermostat that flashes on every couple of seconds. It keeps the water temp pretty stable, and I wonder if temp. stability is as precise as a P.I.D. If you keep all of your variables consistent (grind dialed in, fresh coffee, tamp method, etc.) shots pull pretty consistent too. Francis includes a tamper that does not cut it if you want serious results, but does a bare minimum job. The bottom of this tamper detaches and can be placed on top of the packed portafilter acting as a shower head. I found that it helps for the water dispersion, and keeps most of the grinds from getting on the group head while extracting, but it is not necessary. You can still get good dispersion without it and no channeling if everything is done right. This unit is not as forgiving as a pro or prosumer, but can have good potential with the right technique, fresh coffee, and GRINDER.
Frothing with the Francis: Okay, so I'll be picky. Frothing tip should have been more traditional, their unique frothing tip does not make the pour-able micro bubbles easy- but it's doable. Great article on frothing with this exact tip here http://www.coffeegeek.com/guides/frothingguide/steamguide . Slow to steam milk compared to big boys (but think of price too!) It takes a little while to steam larger pitchers of milk (16 oz and up). It seems to be due to the frothing tip being a "frothing aid type" and the amount of pressure. All in all, good for a newbie to toy with, hangs with others in price range- but please don't expect the results of a commercial unit with massive pressure and a four hole steam tip
www.wholelattelove.com has a really helpful "compare features and performance specs" section. I found it was pretty accurate in it's recording of how the machine performs (the data- was close to what I saw at home).
**Attention Espresso purists: I tried something really interesting with this unit at work one day. I wanted to see how it compared to the best machine in the business. After dialing in a Mazzer Robur, and pulling a few nearly flawless ristretto shots on a La Marzocco FB70, I wanted to see how the same grind settings would work on my Francis. I pulled a few shots on both machines, tried them against each other and was quite impressed with the results. The LM FB70 costs about 28x the Francis X5 ($14k versus $500). If the LM's shot was a perfect 10, then the Francis was at least a high 8.5. Francis showed beautiful crema filling 2/3 of the shot glass before settling- excellent smooth taste with a slightly acidic finish versus the FB70. *Remember the grind was dialed in for a ristretto on the LM, not the Francis. 25 seconds on LM, 22 seconds on Francis- before starting blonde. It looks like Mark Prince (moderator of this site) tried a similar comparison with a LM Linea and a Francis X3 (which has nearly identical guts and function as the X5 I believe) read more here http://www.coffeegeek.com/proreviews/detailed/francisfrancisx3/performance
You can find these at many online stores for about 500-550. Illy USA has this deal going where you get one dramatically reduced if you sign up for their coffee every month- Illy pods are good for a quick fix- out the door- don't want to clean up situation; but if you really get into your espresso making hobby and want to max out the flavor- freshly roasted, freshly ground coffee ummmmmmmm!!! that's goood! I bought mine from an Ebayer who did the above Illy deal, but was upgrading to a prosumer level Pasquini Livia 90. Pick up one of the refurbs (or nearly used) on Ebay, for ~300ish you definitely can't go wrong. Good potential with the right technique, fresh coffee, and GRINDER.
Three Month Followup
Excellent consistent results for price point, great shots, okay froth-tough to get the micro-foam of a commercial machine. I've gotten much better at frothing with this unit (it just takes awhile with the larger pitchers). This machine is great for a couple, but can take a little while to entertain guests (3+ drinks). Overall, good value (if you can get it through Ebay used-SCORE). When compared to the machines sold at Target/Charbucks/etc. it smokes 'em. Its competition is more like Gaggia Coffee, Rancilio Silvia, etc. - upper mid-level machines.