Free coffee (the drip kind) is a given in the world of High Tech here in Ottawa, and the quality of said coffee is general bad. Then, about six years ago, work got an decent espresso machine. I can't tell you what model it was, but it quickly became a part of my morning routine to go in, pull a shot, steam some milk (well, the contents of five milk "creamers"), and make myself a latte. That machine broke, and the replacement wasn't nearly as good, so I began hinting broadly at my family about what I wanted for my birthday. A few months later, I got to unwrap my Krups Gusto espresso maker.
At that time, my world consisted 90% of drip coffee (mostly from work, 2nd cup or Timmies), and the occasional S'bucks Latte. So it's safe to say that my standards weren't all that high. For the first year or so, I mostly used the Gusto to make home-brewed latte's. The nice thing about a latte is that the drink is 3/4's milk, which helps to mask the quality of the espresso. I used decent quality pre-ground espresso (lavazza, I think), but it would take me a good month to use it all (tupperware notwithstanding, even <<I>> could taste the difference by the end of the month).
The problem with Latte's, though, is that they take a lot of extra time, a lot of extra dishes, and a lot of extra mess. So I started making espresso. Over the course of the next two years (and with the help of internet sites like this one), I began to refine my skills.
I've since "graduated" to a S'bucks Barista espresso maker (still working the kinks out of that one), and I've donated my trusty Krups to some friends in another city (not really being nice; we stay there when we visit, and I wanted decent coffee!)
As I mentioned above, this machine is perfectly capable of delivering a good quality espresso shot. But it is a very finicky machine...you need to have just the right amount of coffee, with just the right amount of tamping. And the quality of the internals is such that you can only really do this once. Twice if you're lucky. After a couple of shots, the whole machine has warmed up to the point that the quality of shot is noticably degraded. Still, for what I was using it for (my morning shot), its limitations aren't that noticable.
My espress process was such: I'd turn the machine on, and while it was warming up, I'd fill the grinds basket with a full, packed scoop of coffee. Once the machine was up to heat, I'd attach the empty portafilter, and draw a blank shot into my espresso cup. While the machine was re-heating itself, I'd put the grinds basket into the portafilter, and reattach it. Once up to heat again, I'd dump the water out of my (now toasty warm) cup, and pull my shot. The time for this would normally be between 15 and 25 seconds, depending on how hard I tamped. Remove portafilter, wipe down group head, and power off. Usually, I'd get a decent flavor, with enough crema to hold a bit of sugar up for a couple of seconds.
Latte's are another story. Forget about steaming your milk before you pull your shot; steaming milk requires the machine to heat itself up to such a degree that the only way to get a good shot is to turn the entire machine off for about 15 minutes. Not conducive to a good Latte. I found my best results for a latte were to pull the shot, switch to Steam (which takes about 1min to heat up) and froth up just enough milk for the latte (another minute or two). The time frame isn't great for the shot, but its as good as you're gonna get. It has a tendancy to vent steam out the grouphead during the heat up, which will quickly fill up the rather limited drip tray. It shipped with a rubber froth-aiding device, but I quickly took that off and just used the basic metal wand. It takes a bit of surfing to get good foam, but its worth the effort.
As far as looks go, there's not much to say. Everything visible but the group-head, portafilter, steam wand and drip-tray cover are plastic. The water resevoir is a decent size, and the design of the take makes it easy to see how much you have. You can refill by pouring into the top, or you can remove the whole tank and take it to the sink.
All in all, this is an excellent machine for an aspiring espresso drinker. There's a certain sense of accomplishment to getting all the variables right, and getting a good shot, and the lessons learned with this machine have raised my knowledge and appreciatation for the craft of espresso brewing.
On the other hand, don't buy this for making milk based drinks, or for entertaining all your friends.