This is a good enough machine to learn how to make great espresso. It has lots to teach you, if you pay attention.
Positive Product Points
-Exceptional Value for a pump driven espresso maker -Relatively good looks -Fairly heavy, solid product -Holds good amount of water -Easy cleanup with removable reservoir tray -Holds up to wear -Possibly the cheapest machine CAPABLE of creating a great shot. Remember, I said CAPABLE, not GUARANTEED.
Negative Product Points
-Decent frothing ability. Not great. And the frother is at an awkward angle sometimes, and can't be adjusted. -Varying temperature, which causes a varying range of espresso quality. Can be overcome by warming machine up. -Vibrates during espresso pull, thumps during frothing. -Creates quite a mess, with dripping tray (machine itself is easy to clean, though) -Poor quality plastic tamper/doser
This machine is most appropriate to those starting out with the craft of espresso: as such, it is an apprentice's machine. The qualities that those nicer, more expensive machines have that help remove variability from the machine are lacking here. This puts the onus of responsibility on the home barista: you must be constantly working on your method, and experimenting with new techniques. For instance, I learned how important grind vs. bean is with this machine. Over time, the same bean will require different grinding in order to produce the same result. The dynamic environment of the bean and how it's stored conspire to rob you of your crema... to use this machine, you have to be willing to time your grind, to play with the fineness, and of course, to measure your pulls. After a while, this starts to become instinctual... you learn to make minor adjustments, and are rewarded for your efforts. The next step was learning how important temperature is to the pull. I learned that if I pull a blank warm up shot first, and then pulled my real shot, the quality of the warmed up shot was much higher than it would have been otherwise. This is the sort of thing that a complete novice won't appreciate at first, but the machine serves as a stern master, pushing the beginning barista towards the understanding of the critical, analytical side of espresso production. Think of the machine as a basic set of golf clubs, or a cheaper tennis racket. You're learning right now, and you care enough to get a machine that won't preclude you from mastery, as those steam machines certainly would. And that's a pretty good first step: knowing enough to buy a machine that isn't great, but will teach you what you should know to graduate onwards.
To present owners of the machine, I would advise:
1). Use the double shot filter 2). Warm up your machine by drawing a blank shot (if you have the time) 3). Pay close attention to your grind. Try getting someone with a good burr grinder to grind your beans, and see the difference a burr grinder gives over the blade grinder (if you have this $49 machine, you probably have a blade grinder). Of course, be careful about having a real shop grind your beans at "espresso" fineness, since your home machine isn't designed to handle a grind that fine. 4). Pay close attention to your tamp. See what side you come out on the "30 lbs pressure tamp" vs. "no tamp" camp.
I myself have started to roast my own beans, and have a good burr grinder, and am STILL using this machine (that probably sounds like bolting on Ferrari body pieces on a Kia, but I can't afford the upgrade yet).