This was my second machine after my original Krups steamer which did a very poor job so my commentary does some comparison to another Saeco manufactured machine, the Classico SS.
Fit and finish:
Overall, to me, the feel of the fit/finish, and quality of build of the Starbucks Barista is higher than the Saeco Classico SS. This is very surprising to me since they're both built by Saeco for seemingly the same market space. This even started at the packaging level. The Barista had little handles to remove the substantial surrounding white foam enclosure from the box while the Classico I struggled to get the box off. The Classico foam enclosure broke in several places due to being so thin while the Barista enclosure seemed to be more substantial around the machine and did not break. A consideration for those shipping.
The next part of construction which seemed beefier on the Barista is the portafilter. While not as substantial as those on Gaggia's, it is substantial and made the Saeco Classico's seem like a toy in comparison. In fact, I'd find the Classico's closer to the Krups and the Barista's closer to the Gaggia (but not quite, the Gaggia's are very beefy). Both portafilters have plastic spouts which I'm sure are frowned upon. The Barista's portafilter handle is also very nicely padded, which is a big plus.
Stying wise, the Barista wins hands down in my opinion for this level of machine. So to me it just has more "counter top" appeal.
Neither machine wins any points for the trays below the portafilter. While both have substantial drip trays, all of the pieces (drip tray, metal screen) just sit on the stainless platform and don't interlock or attach in any substantial manner. In this case, the Classico's is better since part of the stainless frame wraps around the front of the drip tray and on the Barista there is no front frame. For 300-400 dollar machines, this seems like poor design. The metal screen (where the cup sits) on the Barista is stainless and I think it is something cheaper on the Classico.
The drip surface area on the Barista was also substantially larger, maybe by 50% but the Classico's is deeper. The Barista's is shallower due to the small drawer below to keep the extra pod basket and taking some verticle space away.
The Barista also came with a tool to clean the area where the portafilter seals and also came with a tool to remove the brewing screen (where the water comes out into portafilter). The classico came with neither.
The Barista comes with substantial buttons and the Classico with rockers. I didn't see any benefit/detractor to the types of buttons but liked the buttons on the Barista just fine.
From a usability standpoint:
Starting with instructions, both were poor but the Classico's rated at the very bottom of my all time lousy instructions list..
For filling the machine with water, I liked the rear removable water holder on the Classico much better. It can be lifted straight out and the water pipe was easy to maneuver out of the way. On the Barista, the water reservour is not available out the back of the machine and is more like a "gaggia coffee" where the reservour can be removed out the front after removing the portafilter, drip screen and tray. But this is painful on the Barista and maneuvering the water pipe in this situation is difficult. So I'll only be removing it once in a while for cleaning.
To conveniently get water into the Barista, there's a small plastic hatch over a chute(maybe 3x3" and depth of several inches) on the top of the machine which you drop the water down into. The problem is that there's only a small 1/2 inch hole at the bottom of the chute which directs the water into the reservour below. I found in several instances that I was filling the chute too quickly and water would overflow down the back of the machine.. I found this process very clunky.
The Barista is very easy to control, buttons press easy enough not to push the machine around. I like the colored indicator on the "power" button which tells you it's in the on-position.
I like the ready light on the Barista since it's a positive indicator which seems natural to me. i.e. when the light is on, it's ready to brew or steam. On the Classico, it's a "not ready" light, which is confusing. I suspect the classico's indicator light was done for design convenience and is just in series with the heater coil (coil on-not ready light on).
The portafilter on the Barista is of the pressurized type and this one actually worked properly to give me a 23-25 second brew time for a double while on the Classico the portafilter, with the same grind, gave a 10-11 second brew time for a double. I suspected the portafilter pressure valve on the classico was bad and returned the machine for an exchange, but luckily they didn't have another so I purchased a Barista instead. Overall nothing special in loading the portafilter, and brewing.
I did like the fact that the portafiler was substantial and held heat well while filling, something I can not say about the Classico.
For steaming/foaming milk, the Barista has a standard wand with a single hole at the tip, all stainless while the Classico has some enhancing contraption which is plastic. I found the contraption did make foam easily but would not create the swirling motion or create the really fine microfoam (for me). On the other hand, the barista would create the swirling motion and create microfoam pretty easily. If I fill my jug 1/3 full of 2%, I can end up with almost entirely microfoam with the Barista, and I don't have much experience. On the other hand, the Barista is also less forgiving. If I get the tip in the wrong position, just momentarilly, I create big bubbles really fast. So I can see that experience and concentration play a big part in foaming consistently. This is where the foaming contraptions have some advantage, due to their design, they are more forgiving of technique but then they do not give the same excellent results. I'll take the Barista's hands down. Creating a Cappuccino with the microfoam is heavenly. When I'm done I want to show someone how beautiful my creation is..
The other usability point on the Barista is the height and usable length of the steaming wand. On the classico it is way too short and low to the table top requiring me to move the machine to the counters edge to get the pitcher under the wand. On the Barista it's perfect for the size pitcher I have.
My last usability point is a strike against both machines. Neither machine would allow a very tall cup under the portafilter. When making cappacinnos I like to put the shots right into a warmed cup/mug I'll create the drink in. When you use a shot glass and then pour into a cup/mug much of the crema sticks to the sides of the shot glass.
I found a work around on the Barista for this. I remove the stainless drip screen and let the cup sit right in the drip tray and I can get a pretty big mug to fit in there. I don't think this would be as easy on the Classico because of it's narrow/deep drip tray. In any case, it's not perfect and forces me to empty the drip tray mid stream, but it works.
Taste/look for result:
Both machines could produce shots which look like any I see on line. I got a good 1/4-1/2 inch of dark crema on top which I can spoon splenda on top of and in all cases it pretty much stays indefinately until I stir it down (splenda that is). I could also tell when the shot should end by the color change of the crema become blonder in the cup rather than just timing it.
Espresso taste for both machines was pretty poor(bitter) for pre-grinded starbucks espresso roast. When I grinded my own immedidately before brewing, the bitterness went down significantly to where I'd find it drinkable. Both machines produced milk drinks well with the foam from the Barista significantly smoother and finer. And the taste of the milk drinks has been heavenly.
I think I'm going to order some of the more suggested mail order beans.