A "throwaway" thermoblock machine that can make real espresso without using a pressurized portafilter.
Positive Product Points
Reservoir removes from the side. 58 mm portafilter with double and pod baskets. No crema enhancing device. Ulka 41 watt pump. Easily removable drip tray. Removable dispersion screen for cleaning. Real espresso for $79.
Negative Product Points
Reservoir on the smallish side. Snap-action thermal switches have tons of hysteresis. Low clearance under portafilter. Steam wand is painfully short. Difficult to prevent portafilter sneeze. Aluminum portafilter body.
For a bottom-of-the-price-range machine, the Hamilton Beach Cappuccino Plus comes awfully close to being a fairly decent home espresso machine.
If the temperature control was better, this machine could make consistently good-quality espresso. The snap-action thermal switches used for brew and steam temperature regulation have a large amount of dead band. For instance, the steam thermal switch turns off at 270 F and turns back on at 220 F. I'm sorry, but I don't have accurate numbers for the brew temperature variation. You need to do some serious temperature surfing to get consistent brew temperatures.
The commercial-sized portafilter (58 mm) is non-pressurized and is thick cast aluminum. Both a double filter basket and a pod basket are included. I have had decent results with Starbucks pods (before I got my grinder). My wife gave me some Illy pods for Christmas, but I was not able to get them to seal on a consistent basis. I wonder if a 58 mm pod basket is too big for pods-especially for pods like Illy's that have a large margin of filter paper. Once I purchased a grinder (Solis Maestro Plus), I stopped using pods altogether.
With fresh properly-ground coffee this machine can make great espresso. The Ulka 41w pump is identical to the pumps found on many mid-range espresso machines. If you follow basic principles, you can pull tasty shots with lots of crema. The machine includes a measuring spoon and a useless plastic tamper, just like machines costing hundreds of dollars more.
Being a geek by nature, I modified mine with a PID-based temperature controller. This has made a tremendous improvement in shot consistency and steam capability. I change the setpoint when steaming. Be forewarned though, this machine is not intended to be disassembled once it leaves the factory. You can see my mod at http://silk-purse-espresso.blogspot.com
I ordered a replacement portafilter and double basket from Hamilton Beach for $14.50, including shipping. Yes, I've gone bottomless. I'm also intending to modify the extra basket to measure brew temperature.
I have been using this machine daily to make three lattes every morning, since November. The machine shows no signs of wear. Ok, it is mostly black plastic, after all.
The steam wand is very short. It is workable, but you must choose your pitcher size carefully. I use either a 10 oz or 20 oz pitcher for one or two beverages respectively. A frothing aid (removable sleeve) is included, but I don't use it.
The reservoir is easily removed from the side. It has a usable capacity of 20oz.
The drip tray handles my morning lattes without overflowing. It is easily removed and replaced.
My ability to prevent portafilter sneezes has been hit-or-miss. The screw holding the shower screen in place also retains the spring and plunger for the brewing check valve. This valve does a good job of keeping coffee from backing up into the thermoblock. It also does a good job of keeping the portafilter pressurized after your shot is finished. I typically loosen the portafilter partway after my shot and let it sit until I've steamed my milk. It still takes some careful wiggling to release the pressure and prevent the used grounds from becoming airborne.
I bought it off the shelf at K-Mart. I hate going to K-Mart. There are never enough cash registers open.
Three Month Followup
Nothing to report.
One Year Followup
After more than a year of daily use, the machine is still going strong. What a deal.