Amazing value, buy this machine for less than $50 and see if espresso is something you want to do...spend money when you know what you want after using this machine.
Positive Product Points
Incredible value makes real espresso easy to use setup very minimal
Negative Product Points
Preheating cup/portafilter almost mandatory small water resevoir hard to get crema all the time tamper is basically worthless Temp Surf is MANDATORY
I got this item on Ebay for less than $35 shipped and was very excited to have my first true espresso machine. My first shot was actually drinkable, but not perfect. My 4th and 5th shots were as good/if not better than the local coffee house. I am now getting crema here and there, but not a lot of it, but then again I didn't expect to get any at all...I got some on my 2nd shot of all things.
I used Starbucks pods for the first time last night and actually got more crema from those that any of my shots previous. I bought whole bean coffee from my local coffee shop that roasts on the spot. I bought 5 day old beans and had them grind them to an espresso for me. I've found that I was tamping too hard at first.
Anyway, for the money, this machine is insane, if you can find it for under $50, by all means pick one up and enjoy some espresso. I learned that I had to pre-heat and using a thermometer to get the precise temp of your milk helps a great deal. The steam wand isn't ideal for every pitcher known to man so you're going to have to find the right one. I picked up Starbuck's espresso kit that included a perfect pitcher, shot glasses, spoon/scoop and thermometer and it works great.
It's not Silvia, so don't expect a stainless steel gem to sit on your counter top. Basically this machine should be for anyone who is even thinking of getting an espresso machine. I've owned a steam machine and this surpasses it 1000 times over, steam machines = strong coffee makers, not espresso. So in this aspect you get what you pay for and a little more.
Three Month Followup
Still very impressed with the quality of shots I'm pulling with this bargain basement machine. I can't believe I got it for $30 and it actually makes espresso. I've only done 1 little mod to it, I enlarged the holes on the frothing tip to give me thicker foam in faster steam time.
Once you learn to temp surf the machine it's very easy to get consistent shots. I can't say enough how truly happy I am w/this product. It's not a piece of counter top bling and it won't make 20 Caps back to back(x20) but it will make 2 doubles very easily. I get crema on every shot now that I temp surf and I am quite satisfied w/the results of most every shot.
Do I wish I had a Gaggia, Saeco, or Rancillio machine? Sure, who wouldn't take one, but I'm very glad I chose to start out on a bare bones machine so I knew this is something I want to pursue and keep doing on a daily basis. I just found a $500 La Speziale grinder for under $200 so now I'm stepping into coffee geekdom with both feet. A fancier machine is on the horizon, but I'll always remember this little workhorse and probably give it to someone I know who is interested in espresso making.
One Year Followup
I'm still using this machine daily, usually for 2 double shots in the morning for the wife and I's Cappucino's. Sometimes I pull 4 to 6 doubles per day, sometimes I pull 1 double, but I generally use this machine every day. It still works, I've had absolutely zero problems with this machine. I recently descaled it, gave the shower screen a good cleaning and it made the shots taste better.
Now for the bad parts of this machine; It's a pump machine, so it's closer to real espresso than any steam toy, yet it will absolutely never brew at a consistent temp of over 200 degrees. I've measured the temp of an empty shot and I never gets over 170 degrees. Granted the thermometer is the starbucks milk frothing probe that came w/the pitcher, and I'm not measuring the temp inside the portafilter, but I highly doubt 30-35 degrees would be lost between the portafilter and the cup.
Anyway; here's what I've done to make acceptable drinks every day.
Push the on button + the steam buttton
Let the machine warm up for about 15 minutes, longer is better
Take the froth aiding tip and throw it in the trash
Steam milk first, just the single hole in the end of the wand makes decent foam, but do not expect micro-foam. I can't get latte art quality foam out of this machine to save my life
Grind beans while milk is frothing (after milk is done, turn steam button off, purge steam wand of all remaining steam)
Dose, distribute, tamp
Lock portafilter in (the portafilter will be very hot, it's good at retaining heat)
I push the steam button on for about 10 seconds, then pull a shot
I consistently get nice pulls of 25-30 seconds with good crema, but again due to temp inconsistencies, I never get the marbled, tigeer striped crema
While pulling shots, I put 2 mugs full of water in the microwave for about 2-3 minutes (cup warming top is too small and doesn't warm cups adequately)
After my two doubles are pulled, I take the mugs out of the microwave, dump the water, add the syrup, 2.5 ounces of espresso in each mug, spoon foam on top of espresso, then fill mugs w/the steamed milk.
enjoy adequate cappucino
This is my process of a drink that equals the Starbucks barista enterpretation of cappucino. All they do now is push buttons. To be fair, every other espresso business in my area that is a chain uses the same super auto's so I'm not just picking on Starbucks.
Anyway, the last year has taught me that I love the art of espresso. I am in the process of determining what machine to get. I have settled on the Nemox Cafe Fenice for the build quality and internal parts being brass and heavy duty. The steam wand is it's only achiles heal, but I plan on putting a Syliva wand on it upon purchase.
As other's have said, and tried to cram down people's throats....the grinder is the most important part of espresso.....my daily routine is testament to this fact. I have a very nice La Spaziale Junior grinder that does a fantastic job of grinding beans every day for me. If my $30 piece of crap semi-espresso machine can make tollerable shots, it's more proof that the grinder is the real star of the show.
Bottom line, after a year I can't complain much after an initial investment of $35 shipped. This machine is light years away from a Silvia. It's probably even below a Krupps or Capresso machines. As I said before this machine is a perfect "try out" machine. Find one for $30-50 bucks on Ebay or craigslist, put it on your counter and see if espresso is something you're willing to devote 20 minutes a day to. It takes a lot of time to learn the craft...a year later I thirst for more espresso knowledge. This machine was just the stepping stone to learning more. Consider the Hamilton Beach an Elementary machine, it's real enough to make you better at espresso crafting, it doesn't have a presurized portafilter so when you get crema, it's because you did something right. After enough practice w/the Elementary machine, you'll be ready to graduate to a High School Machine (Nemox Caffe Fenice, Sylvia, etc.) and then one day you'll be a Grad Student (Exobar, La Spaziale, HX - E61 machines).
So yes, this machine will make espresso, you have to coax it for tollerable drinks, but it's doable, just don't buy this machine and expect it to be your last, but it will get you off of $4 starbucks drinks quite easily. This machine will make 2 Cappucinos in about 15-20 mintues including cleanup...the real value of higher end machines is that you may be able to brew and steam at the same time, saving you upwards of 5-7 minutes...plus if your cup warmer actually wams cups that even more time saved. So the value of higher priced machines are more convenient, more consistent, more temp stability, better internal parts, true boiler, etc.