Buy on sale, brew and foam your way to amazingly smooth and tasty cappuccinos and machiattos... this is very good machine!
Positive Product Points
Solid build overall. Looks good. Makes consistently excellent espresso with a good layer of stable crema. Heats up quickly. Two year warranty. Video tape instruction was very helpful and was better than the written instructions.
Negative Product Points
Pressurized portafilter causes grinds to end up a slurry rather than a firm puck making cleanup rather messy. Steam wand's shape is awkward so when foaming milk some part of the machine is always slightly in the way of the steam pitcher. Conflicting instructions between owner's manual and enclosed video tape instructions can be a bit confusing for those just starting out.
I purchased the graphite black model and it looks really good in my kitchen. I am pleased with the overall build quality... switches, knobs, etc. feel solid. The crema is thick and long lasting. Foaming milk takes some practice but there are excellent articles on this site about foaming/steaming milk that helped me get it right. The steam wand does not come out from the machine far enough to easily move the steam pitcher around so you will have to get used to the steam pitcher knocking against the machine around the tray/wand areas. Doesn't mean you can't steam or foam however. I've been able to get amazingly smooth, thick and rich foamed milk. I don't often drink espresso but rather espresso based drinks such as cappuccinos and machiattos. The thick microfoamed milk that I can get with this machine, when poured into the thick, rich crema it makes creates a very nice deep chocolate-like foam. Because nicely foamed milk has added sweetness and the crema is also sweet you may find as I did that you can reduce or eliminate using sugar in your drinks.
I've used 1%, 2%, 3%, soya and chocolate milk and found that foaming success is excellent but largely a matter of technique. Not having a frothing attachment, just the bare steaming wand makes getting froth on top trickier but results in better microfoam which I feel is more important. Chilling your milk and pitcher briefly in the freezer seems to help the foaming process. Read the articles on foaming milk available on this site and practice, practice, practice.
I found that filling the water holder a little awkward. The fill opening is at the top but if placed as mine is, under a cupboard then there isn't enough clearance to pour from my Britta filter. I have to pour water into a smaller container then pour into the machine. Pulling the water container out requires removing the drip tray, drawer, and another plastic tray that holds these pieces in place... then you can pull the water container forward... awkward but not tragic. The MAX level indicator on the front of the water container is level with the top of the back of the container... you don't see this from the front because the front of the container is higher than the back. So if you try to move the machine at all when the water level is at MAX then water will spill over the back of the container, soak the bottom of the machine and drip out through a hole under the drip tray onto the counter. Again, not tragic, but if you always have water sitting on the bottom of the machine under the drip tray then you may end up experiencing rusting after a while. I noticed that one of the other reviews mentioned having some rust after having the machine for several years.
This machine requires a lot of priming/purging to get used to. Some of that process is to heat up the brew group but anyway, you can move quickly through the whole process and brew and foam your way to some amazing cappucinos and machiattos once you're used to it all.
The original price on this machine is too high. I bought it on sale a Starbucks for $370 Canadian. The regular price is $130 more, or $500... too much. Sale price was good though. Any machines that I've seen that were cheaper looked and felt cheaper. To get a better machine would take a couple of hundred dollars more so despite any flaws or weaknesses this machine is tough to beat. The positives greatly out way the flaws and the flaws are really just minor annoyances anyway. This is a very good machine.
I gave the Cost vs. Value rating on this machine as 6 based on full price but on sale the rating would be at least an 8.
The pressurized portafilter creates a coffee grind slurry to dispose of instead of a hard puck. Annoying, but there are worse things in life to deal with. Some have purchased a replacement non-pressurized portafilter and basket from Saeco.
Thus far, I am very happy with this machine. If you want to make coffee mug sized drinks then remove the metal screen from the drip tray and place your mug in the bottom of the drip tray... with the screen removed you'll get the clearance you need for a mug.
Don't let complaints against the pressurized portafilter discourage you, this machine will make great espresso with excellent crema... you can live with the slushy puck. I'd rather have good espresso and a lousy puck than the other way around.
If you can find this on sale, then buy it and enjoy it. You won't go wrong with this purchase. Don't forget, it has a 2 year warranty.
Starbucks threw in a free 1lb. of coffee beans. The sales experience was fine... better than their beans. Starbucks has a sale twice a year I believe... November/December and sometime in the spring. Try haggling with the manager if you are buying in between sales.
Three Month Followup
Everything is working very well. The vibrations of the pump once vibrated off one of the acorn nuts that hold the brew head in place but it probably wasn't tightened enough at the factory. Put it back on, tightened all four nuts holding on the brew head and none have come off since.
The steam wand began to seriously leak but a call to Starbucks Customer Service line and I was talked through how to adjust it so that the leaking stopped. It requires taking off the top/back panel of the machine (6 philips screws) then using a small allen key (1.5 mm I believe) to loosen and adjust a plastic oblong donut-shaped thing (a "cam" actually) on the shaft of the steam knob... no more drips. The key to prevent dripping is to open the steam knob without putting pressure on it when it gets to the full-open stop position. Cranking it too hard when it comes to a stop in the full-open position will slowly move the cam out of position. Then the shaft doesn't fully seat inside the machine anymore and won't fully shut off the water to the steam wand. Then, no matter how hard you crank the knob in the shut-off position it will still drip. The purpose of the cam is to stop the knob from complete unscrewing and it also turns the pump on and off for the steam wand. The cam adjustment is very small but completely solves the dripping problem. Seeing inside the machine made me realize how easy it would be to repair problems as long as I can get the parts from Starbucks or perhaps Saeco.
The gasket for the portafilter basket to brewhead connection gets full of bean grinds very easily. A Q-Tip is a bit too thick to work around up there so I use a small piece of wet paper towel folded up to clean the grinds off the gasket. This will extend the life of the gasket, otherwise it will get worn out from the sandpaper action of the grinds. A little brush can get up there too but doesn't work as well as the wet paper towel.
Anyhow... this machine gives consistently great espresso and it's used several times a day, day after day, with no problems. So all in all... just majorly great brewing. I would still seriously recommend this machine.
One Year Followup
No problems once I found out why the steam wand drips and how to adjust it to stop. We use this machine everyday at least a couple of times and am still very happy with its performance. I would recommend this machine to anyone if it can be bought on sale. I'm not sure if it is available any longer as Starbucks seems to be stocking a slightly different model now. The new model looks very similar but the buttons are different and the steam wand has a plastic frothing thing on it now... not as nice looking at this unit.