Starbucks Barista, which is an Italian Saeco machine rebranded by Starbucks, is an excellent starter, with excellent build quality and consistency.
Positive Product Points
Well machined stainless steel body, sturdy construction and consistent reliability.
Negative Product Points
Single boiler, dripping frother, pressurized portafilter.
I have used this machine every day (4 shots per day), with limited exception, for three straight years. It is unusual to buy any product that is so reliable. The water in South Florida is very soft, and I have never had to descale the unit one time, and the taste is still superb. I have no other espresso machine to use as a frame of reference to compare quality, but the end result has been consistently balanced shots of espresso. The only problem I have had is the perforated cylinder that sprays water into the portafilter has a screw that is stripped and thus, it pops out from time to time. Other than that, it has no real drawbacks other than a lack of non-pressurized portafilter and the limitation of a single boiler. I have been waiting for this machine to break down so I could justify the purchase of a Silvia or Gaggia, but since it keeps making good shots, I'll have to relocate it to my office and then buy a new machine for home. I have recommended this machine to several friends that have decided to stop paying $4 every morning for a sub-standard latte at Starbucks. It pays for itself in 3-4 months.
I personally feel that two far more critical variables in making a good shot are consistent grind and fresh high quality beans.
Small-Batch Roasting: I started small-batch roasting beans three years ago and roast twice a week. A high quality bean, roasted freshly and degassed for 24 hours, will yield a far more complex shot, regardless of the espresso maker, than an old bean will in an Isomac!
Perfect Grind: I've heard that the Mini Mazzer is the ultimate grinder for the home espresso nut, but I didn't have the big bills to justify one, just yet. However, I bought a Rancilio Rocky Doserless grinder two years ago and saw a profound improvement in grind consistency, and thus, espresso flavor.
In summary, Starbucks Barista, which is an Italian Saeco machine rebranded by Starbucks, is an excellent starter, with excellent build quality and consistency.