This machine turned an espresso control freak into a completely satisfied auto machine user - humble pie happily eaten here.
Positive Product Points
At last a fully automatic machine that will satisfy the needs of the manual machine devotee. I can't see how making good espresso could be simpler, quicker, or more idiot-proof.
Negative Product Points
Large footprint means it takes up a fair bit of your kitchen real estate, and for a machine this size, the cup warming area is not huge. Have to remove the drip tray to empty the coffee dregs. Underpowered steram arm.
This machine has replaced my lovely old Novitalia L'Espresso single boiler manual machine - a machine not very many people seem familiar with. To me the Nova was similar in function to say the Gaggia Classic: required a little bit of temperature surfing, but if cajoled correcly could produce lovely espresso with about half an hour to warm up and get stable. In fact, when I went in to buy the machine, I was definitely going to buy another manual to replace my departed Nova and I was 'upsold' to the auto machine, - astonishingly I couldn't be happier. I should point out that I am one of those coffeegeeks who insist that absolute manual control over every aspect of the process is required to get an 'acceptable' espresso, anything less may as well be tipped down the sink. Automatic machines: of course I look straight down my nose at these with the contempt that they so clearly deserve.
I'd read some commentary on this site in passing about the Saeco Magic Deluxe, and this convinced me that there were too many compromises in this and other auto machines for my liking, so I was as surprised as anyone that I ended up walking out having bought one particularly given that I spent more than I had planned to spend on a machine. I now think that (with all respect) the criticisms I've read about this machine on these forums are simply due to people not having read their manual properly. More on that later though.
The user's experience in making espresso just couldn't be simpler. Turn the machine on and within a minute or two, it's ready for steaming milk (yes - steam your milk first). Plenty of power to get about 250mL of milk in a chilled jug from 6 degrees C up to 62 degrees C in about 65 seconds with a good microfoam that to me seems only limited by the technique of the operator. Now you switch to espresso, and purge your steam arm - I choose to do this into the cup I plan to be using and this has the bonus of not having to heat up my cup, although this can make a little mess. Less than 10 seconds later and the temperature is right for espresso. If you don't purge the steam arm, it would take significantly longer, but in all honesty, why wouldn't you do this? I'll keep doing this for as long as Her Majesty tolerates the occasional mess, although I should say that moving from the manual machine to an auto has meant an exponential decrease in the amount of mess I leave in the coffee area of our kitchen, so I think I'm safe for the time being. If I used a deep jug to purge into, there would be no mess. John from Bravo (who is a Saeco service agent) tells me it is very important to purge the steam as otherwise there is high pressure and temperature water in the system which is not healthy for any machine. Push the espresso button of your choice (three pre-set shot sizes come configured to 'short, normal, and large'), the machine then grinds the beans, packs, and brews. Total time from turning the machine on to getting a flat white: 2 and a half minutes. Bliss.
Now the nitty gritty - fine-tuning. My advice in the following is to adjust one thing, pull a few (> 2 shots) and then make your next adjustment. Repeat until success is achieved.
This machine allows for fine-tuning over every aspect of the coffee making process except how hard the tamp is. Firstly adjust your grind size - seven levels to choose from here, and as with all grinders you should only adjust to finer while the grinder is running. Inspection of the puck once brewing is finished shows a pretty even grind as far as I can see. Of course it's going to take a few shots until the new settings completely take over as there is inevitably some coffee left in the system. Next, adjust the volume of the coffee you're putting into your shot, 7 more levels to adjust here. The results of this will be available to you on the next shot, as this is a dosing issue. Once you've settled on these two, you can then adjust how much espresso goes into your cup. This is very important, and I think it's something some other reviewers may have missed. While the machine comes pre-set with three shot sizes, this is completely adjustable. All you do is press AND THEN HOLD the espresso button all through the process until you're happy with the volume poured into your cup. As soon as you let go of the button, the pour stops, and the machine has now had this button reset to your new preference. Next time all you do is press it once and it remembers what happened last time - easy. If you want two of these shots (two cups, or a double shot into one cup) press the button twice in quick succession. (My preference here is to set the shot so that as soon as the pour starts to lighten in colour from the deep gold the pour stops) You can choose whatever you like, and the machine can remember three preferences for you, say one or two for me, and one other for Her Majesty. There's no need for these to infer 'small, medium, large' either, and perhaps this has caused some confusion. Maybe the setup could've been simpler if the button said "I, II, III' or something similar. Alternately you could've read the manual, however I digress.
For most people this is enough tinkering, although it doesn't end there. You can choose if the machine does it's 'pre-brew' where a small amount of water is pre-infused, and then the remainder of the shot is poured. This seems to make a difference to the quality of the crema, and is something very hard to mimic on a manual machine. Another option is to pre-grind the coffee for the next shot. I can see this will be useful when you have to make a lot of coffee - say the dreaded dinner party - as it speeds up the process by perhaps 10 to 15 seconds. Finally, when you first run the machine, you can adjust for how hard your water is. The machine comes with a strip which you dunk in your water for one second, and then depending on how many boxes change colour, adjust the machine for your water hardness. If your water was to change (say you moved to another area with a different water supply, or like us you changed from tank water to town water), I don't know where you would get another of these strips though. The process for setting these is a little fiddly, and I won't go into it here, but suffice to say that read the manual and you're through to the semis without dropping a set.
The machine has a couple of other nice features worthy of mention here. Firstly, the machine has a large footprint, but this is offset with the entire machine being on a turntable. Secondly, the cup warming area, although a little small for mine holding only about four cups, is actually heated. Throw a switch on the front and this area heats up nicely. It wouldn't take long for this to heat the cups up sufficiently. Next is the option to grind your own beans and dose it yourself. This is really handy for when you want to use a different kind of beans, and don't want to have to purge your hopper - especially if you were after a decaffeinated shot at night say. Maintenance is pretty simple. The machine tells you when it's time to descale which is really handy, it won't let you brew if the water level is too low so you can't accidentally run your boiler dry and kill it. The brew group (which has a 5 year warranty) is so easy to remove and clean that I've been doing it daily. Nothing can go in the dishwasher apparently. Removing the filter from the brew group is a little bit fiddly, nothing too major though. The machine won't let you run it if the dregs drawer is full of pucks, and although you have to remove the drip tray to dump the used pucks, this is no big deal either.
In summary, this machine has turned an espresso control freak into an auto machine user - no mean feat, and I couldn't be happier.
This was one of the nicest buying experiences I've had. John at Bravo Coffee in Enmore in Sydney had a tall bill to sell me on an automatic machine, and the Gaggias in the showroom were beckoning. John was happy to sell me any machine I liked, and he demonstrated the machine I was about to buy for about an hour and a half in a back room. All this with two under-fives wandering about causing trouble, this fellow has the patience of Job. Even after all this demonstration, John was happy for me to choose a different machine. John also does the repairs on the Saecos, and to me this is a good thing to get a demonstration and recommendation from a guy who fixes the machine if it doesn't live up to expectations under warranty. The price was fine - we bumped up another $50 for the silver at the insistence of Her Majesty (to $A 1,000 = ~ $US 750) but I would've paid another $50 to $100 for the lessons and demonstrations). By the time I got home, there was a follow-up email with a promise of a 20% discount on his coffee for the life of the machine. A free kilo of his premium blend, and a hundred grams of his turkish blend ground to talcum powder fineness on a spectacular stone grinder which is a treat to watch in action made the first few shots taste all the sweeter. The ongoing discount means that I'll effectively have the beans posted for free, and since he roasts three times a week, there's no excuse for stale beans ever again. John's business model he tells me is to make only a little on the machines, but hook you with a lifetime of coffee sales - well, as long as the coffee remains as good as it is, that'll do me. This experience is in complete contrast to my experience with trying to get my lovely Nova repaired at Caffe Bianchi (where I had bought it, had it regularly serviced, and bought about 2-3 kilos of coffee a month for the last 10 years). No-one could be happy to make a 2 hour drive after being assured the week before that the machine would be accepted, to be told 'come back later in the week, maybe Thursday or Friday. I know you've driven a long way, but come back another day'. Sorry Audie, you just lost a customer.
Three Month Followup
After three months of solid use (at least 5 shots/cups per day) the Saeco continues to impress. Firstly however the downsides: you really should clean this machine regularly. Every day I choose the 'pre ground' beans option and send through a 'blind' shot (no beans) or two until the result is clear water coming through. This certainly makes a difference, and is no real hassle to do. I also clean the brew group every week, and almost always find grounds left in various parts which must be influencing the quality of the espresso. Cleaning the brew mechanism is no big deal and takes about 3 minutes to do, although it does take an hour or two to dry, so I end up doing it last thing at night. I probably should be doing this each day, but as I'm impossibly indolent, this just isn't going to happen. With regard indolence, whilst the manual says that nothing can go into the dishwasher, it turns out that the tray and it's grille along with the sundry plastic covers and spill protectors happily survive the horrors of our dishwasher unscathed. The other downside is that whilst this machine does steam milk well, I think I was spoiled with my old Novitalia, and whilst it took a bit of fiddling and temperature surfing, I reckon it made better milk for pouring latte art. The Saeco certainly makes better foam for cappucino type drinks though as the milk froth seems to end up more 'solid'. This of course simply could be down to my (lack of) technique, and more news will come to hand at the one year follow-up. the steam head is probably the fiddliest bit to clean, and ther's always some 'cooked' milk in there. Interestingly the manual doesn't address cleaning this part of the machine. The only other downside is that I just saw this machine in a Myer catalogue for $150 less than I paid ;-( Oh well. The upsides continue to be quality and the sheer convenience. My wife was pretty scared of the old Nova, and with this she's happy to make espresso anytime she likes. This machine has also helped clean up our kitchen as there's no longer grounds, splashed milk and steam all about the place. I still love this machine, and it is going to take a lot of convincing for me to ever go back to a fully manual machine.
One Year Followup
In short: After a year of daily use the good points of the Saeco continue to impress: ease of use, and good coffee. I have had a reliability issue, but compared to others on this forum it seems minor. I'm still very happy with this machine, and would buy another.
I use this machine daily for at least 3 shots, usually 5-7. For the most part, I make milk based drinks: Flat White, and Latte, along with the occasional short black, cappuccino, hot chocolate, and mocha.
The machine has been back for warranty repairs once - apparently the main board failed, and this worries me a fair bit now that the machine is out of warranty (the brew group has a 5 year warranty) as it seemed a bit arbitrary for it to fail. Make no mistake: I look after this machine, cleaning the brew group every few days, always purging the steam arm and cleaning the lines before use so the failure has bothered me a little, although I guess time is going to tell on the build quality issue, but my old manual Novitalia remains defiantly robust after nearly 10 years of service.
My other gripes are that I think the steam arm is a little under-powered taking a bit long to steam enough milk to 62 degrees C for two milk based drinks. I have also removed the 'froth enhancer' as I found it didn't seem to help enhance the froth that much, and it's quite fiddly to clean well. Overall though, the pluses of this machine (usability, simplicity, and good espresso) mean that I rarely, if ever, pull out the old manual Novitalia anymore. Once It was set up to my satisfaction, I've been very happy with it.
Her Majesty is a renowned Luddite and even she's converted - which means I am no longer making coffee for her or her mother, in my books this is worth several hundred dollars per annum.
I guess the long story short is that I would buy one of these again, and the few minor things I'd like changed on it really are that: minor quibbles on what is overall a very impressive machine.