After using the Rancilio Silvia (see my review on the Silvia page) and the Solis SL90, I was about to give up - these machines were not consistent in any way, shape or form, did not make good coffee with good crema and were in NO WAY worth the money. My Silvia may have been a lemon, but I have no way of knowing for sure.
I had never heard ANYTHING significantly bad about the Starbucks Barista, so when I recently saw it go on sale for $100 off at Starbucks ($299 for stainless), I decided to give espresso one last try.
This machine is everything I had hoped a machine could be. I have the stainless, and it is heavy and well made. The design is lovely and looks great in my kitchen. The instructions say you don't even have to tamp the coffee, just pour it in, load and draw the coffee. I tried it both ways and did not notice any difference in the coffee - it was excellent either way! Hot, not just warm! Excellent crema as long as I used home roasted coffee - doesn't even have to be all that fresh to get good crema. I thought I would hate the crema enhancing portofilter, but it works very well, unlike the one on the Solis (the Solis pre-infuses first and gives ugly semi-crema). This design is way better. I tried the Starbucks decaf pods in it, and there wasn't much crema, but really prefer to use my own roasted coffee anyway.
Machine top heats well to warm cups.
Steam power is excellent - very dry and plenty of it. It's a little hard to position it just right for the best steaming because of the sharp bend in the wand, but with some practice, it is possible to do it. As noted (if I had a dream machine), I would prefer the steam wand be positioned differently as you can burn your left hand if you forget to move it out of the way before loading the portafilter.
Water tank is easy to fill, there is a trap door at the top that you open (it's a little stiff) OR you can remove the tank from the front to fill/clean. You must remove the 3 part tray to get the water tank out of the front, a little inconvenient, (but I was used to the one on the Solis which was unusually accessable) It's not the biggest water tank I have seen, but it is adequate for home use.
Cleanup - What cleanup?? I was used to tons of coffee stuck up in the groove around the brewhead in the other machines, but when I went to wipe it off after brewing, there was NOTHING there at all! With the other machines, I had to get many cups of hot water and slosh them up around the brewhead many times to get all the coffee/junk out. This has a larger filter basket, so I think that at least with a single, it just does not reach up far enough to hit the brewhead. Only wiping the steam wand afterwards is necessary to keep everything clean - seems like milk sticks to it much less than the other machines I have had too.
When you buy this, it feels as if it were made for real US consumers - the Silvia had a manual that was laughable and if you didn't know anything about espresso, you would have no clue about what to do. It was a horrible Italian-English translation and there was almost nothing there at all. The fit and finish was not to US standards at all. The Solis wasn't much better with it's ridiculous electronic water controls and cool coffee output. Conversely, the Starbucks manual AND VIDEO shows that they really do care that you understand what this is all about and they are very clear as to what you need to do. I like the fact that they bothered to make a video for you. I wish I had had that kind of info when I first got into espresso, it would have saved me a lot of headache. I was broken in on the Silvia with no help from anyone really, and even after mastering it as well as anyone could, it still gave sour, cool coffee, bad wet steam and inconsistent crema. Any machine after this would be an impovement, and when I got to this one, it was indeed a reward. It just plain works. The same good results each time. It is well-designed, well made, tested and very well documented. A machine for "real people". Hey, if you like finicky Italian sports cars so you can just "say you own one" (and can afford the headaches and money to maintain one), go buy a Silvia. If you believe the myth that the Swiss engineer & design EVERYTHING perfectly, go buy the Solis and see if you tear your hair out. If you just want really good espresso NOW and you don't want ANY hassles, buy the Starbucks Barista, you will not be sorry.
PS - I know some coffee purists have a problem with the "Starbucks company" for different reasons. Please know that they cannot be "all bad" if they market a quality machine like this, giving excellent customer service on it, & showing that they really do care about their customers. You don't have to like their coffee, but give their machine a chance.