I'm a longtime (1996) alt.coffee lurker, although my posts have been few. I have been a homeroaster exclusively for 3-4 years now, and I have dabbled in nearly every coffee preparation method available. However, I only just recently got serious about my espresso production.
With its pressurized portafilter, the Magic Combi does a reasonable job of producing espresso. Tamp becomes unimportant to a large degree, although you can render liquid delivery impossible by tamping too much. Ideally, a slight tamp to gently pack the grounds is all that is required. However, the crema - while always present - is lighter in color and not terribly thick. It will fade within one minute or so, leaving you with a less visually appealing beverage. Even with 'perfect' conditions such as fresh, properly ground homeroasted beans, correct temp and ideal tamp, the crema always has that slightly 'faux' quality. The mechanism of the portafilter cannot be disabled, so it is always working - even when it doesn't theoretically have to.
*After reading many passionate words about the art of espresso preparation, I decided to request a standard portafilter from Saeco. I called their support line, discovered that one was indeed available, and ordered it. One difference I had to observe immediately was that I could only pull double-shots; the Magic Combi had only come with a double size filter basket, because the pressurized PF allows this basket to hold either 1 or 2 doses of ground coffee. The standard PF would not allow that variance, so it was two doses in the double basket at all times.
NOW I began to see the art unfold. And at first, the art was very much elusive! Too little tamp, and coffee streamed out sans crema. Too much tamp and the pump buzzed in futility. Finally, I decided to devote the good part of a day to perfecting my settings. I burned through nearly a pound of coffee, but in the end, my grinder was set on '6' and my shots were pulling at 25-30 seconds for a generous double with thick mahogany crema. I timed its staying power - at least two minutes before any sign of dissipation occurred at the surface. The liquid was pure syrupy essence of bean. Delicious! The only variable that was not in accordance with alt.coffee lore was my tamp. A 30 lb tamp would have deterred any attempt at extraction... I was tamping to compress fully and tightly, but never so much pressure. Perhaps a coarser grind would have made the 30 lb tamp possible, but I was aiming for results - and there are indeed several combinations of the variable set that will get you there.
Being an eschewer of coffee additives, I had never used the steaming wand, Panarello, or Cappuccinatore in nearly 3 years. Now that I'm engaged to a wonderful woman who loves her lattes, that has changed. I am still experimenting with technique to achieve consistent and ideal microfoam. However, it's clear that the machine delivers. I recently frothed a 4 oz serving of milk, decanted it into a clear mug, and let it sit undisturbed. One hour later, the foam was essentially unchanged. I consider that a success! The finer points will surely emerge as I learn to serve my better half her ideal beverage.
The negative points of the machine are minor, especially given the price. For just over $300, you get a dependable burr grinder (the MC2002? - I dunno) and a complete coffee drink station capable of either A) Consistent, reasonable performance; or B) Customized, skill-based performance. The former is with the pressurized PF and standard settings, while the latter is with a standard PF and operator skill. In other words, the machine can be operated like an appliance, but it can also be lovingly coaxed into higher performance. The choice is yours.
Would I buy again? If my interest level and skill were the same as before, YES. However, I am now more sophisticated and I would buy something else. Ideally, I would own a quality super-automatic (tuned based on my 'manual' techniques) AND a dedicated old-school manual machine. The super-auto would help me in the mornings as I got my 3 year old ready for preschool. The manual would be for those times when function can leisurely follow form just a bit. To me, both of these are welcome and noble purposes.