Its been a good 10 months with this machine. The 41w pump is a huge step up from any steam powered machine. Right out of the box I was making cappuccinos that were so much more smoother. Considering the cost of a steam machine, you're better off with the HB right there. With a little more practice, you can refine the shots and have them tasting even better on a consistent basis. Having a standard portafilter allows you to produce a real shot. Nothing fake, nothing enhanced. If its going to be a bad shot, you might as well not have anything to cover it up. I bought an inexpensive aluminum tamper from BB&B. The plastic one is way too flimsy. Just keep it in its compartment on the machine. Tamp it hard. Don't crush it, but be firm.
Having a good grinder helps too, especially with experimenting. Store or shop ground beans are ok, but you won't know what effect the grind has on that bean. I'm using part of the extra fine section of a Capresso Infinity. It can make things slow, but it gets the results, even on old beans. While the thermoblock is not ideal for heating the water, it has at least been consistent enough for me as long as the machine and portafilter have been warmed. If you're concerned about a cold shot, just hit the steam button about 1/3 to 1/2 through pulling the shot. As for steam, I've been able to heat up milk for a single cappuccino to exactly where I need every time, just as the steam slows down. It comes out nice and hot. If that is a concern, you can steam with the light on, that is start your steaming before the light extinguishes. The steam wand has a frother. Knowing how to froth helps here as you can make lots of microfoam, little microfoam, or many big bubbles! I didn't like how loud it was with the frother off, so I just adapted.
Cleanup at the end of a brew is simple. Cleaning the brewhead and internals is a bit more involved. There is no official way to clean the HB, other than flushing with water only. Its not enough to keep this machine flowing well. The grouphead screen is removable with a wide flathead screwdriver. Once removed, you'll have the backflow spring & valve, screen, and screw out, and you'll notice there is a 5 section flow divider in the grouphead. Clean the screen well. I've found it 90% blocked at times. Since I've owned the machine I've cleaned it three times. I've used the Starbucks Barista method with diluted lemon juice. It seems to help remove some of the scaling, though I'm not sure if its causing any trouble with the aluminum parts. Seems to work ok. At minimum definitely remove & clean that screen.
At this price point, you're gonna get cheapness. There is an awful lot of plastic here. Thankfully the metal pieces, even though they are aluminum (and steel if you count the filter basket) are where it counts. Nothing pretty, but this is as bare bones as a machine gets, maybe too much so for some standards. I've been able to make 3 cappuccinos at most from a full water tank. Its also important that you mark the low water level on the outside of the tank, since the water levels are hidden with the tank installed. A sharpie took care of that one.
Beware the portafilter sneeze too. A very fine grind will cause a pressure buildup. I combat this two ways. One, I leave the PF in though steaming the milk. This allows the pressure to bleed off, usually though the shot into the cup. I know, i'm probably messing up the quality of my shot right there. The other is to slowly release the portafilter. Kinda like opening the cap on a well shaken soda, I'll find the right point where pressure starts releasing, sometime wiggling the PF to get that to happen. I've only had a big mess happen twice. Normally its just a little bit of steam released.
For the price, its hard to beat this machine as an entry-level into the world of espressos and espresso drinks. I dont believe it to make the best shots, the parts just dont allow for maximum consistency. But to learn the processes and how to deal with inconsistencies to make a darn good drink, maybe some can even call it espresso, then this machine is a great start.