The barista makes a convincing (if misleadingly so) cup of espresso from day one. With a little tinkering, it can shoot a very decent shot.
Negative Product Points
-It's hard to get the machine hot enough. This applies to both the heat of the steam wand and the heat of the steam coming out the grouphead. -The pressurized portafilter is an insult to the connoisseur.
I got this machine on a partner discount during the holidays. So I paid almost half the usual retail price. My "cost vs value" rating, therefore, is biased. Who can turn down a $150 espresso machine?
Perhaps the biggest problem with the barista is that it comes with a pressurized portafilter, which is designed to eliminate the need for tamping. The issue here is that if you use a fine grind and/or tamping in the quest for a satisfactorily long shot, the barista will stutter the coffee and produce espresso molasses. With a coarse, nearly tampless dose, you get reasonable duration (about 14-18 seconds) thanks to the pressurization, but the mouthfeel is loose (at best--at worst, it's watery) and the bean flavors fail to thoroughly integrate.
The good news: this can be corrected! I've followed the advice of fellow coffeegeeks and repeat it as follows:
1) De-pressurize the portafilter. Dissasemble to it and remove the plastic stuff inside. Use a nail or awl to slightly widen the opening in the valve of the removable plastic ring. 2) Always do a dry run without coffee in the portafilter to heat the components.
After you do this, the barista will give you a solid shot. Sure, the crema is modest, but a humble crema is better than an articifial crema.
As I mentioned, I got this on partner discount during the holidays. Buying a machine from starbucks is tough, since most partners don't know the merchandise. But their return policy is good and the company stands behind their products.