For $50 you can do no wrong.
Simple statement, with a complex explanation. The Melitta Cafe Express is not a machine that can complete with a Gaggia Classic or Rancilio Silvia - it simply isn't in their class. It is not a high volume machine, it is not built with any kind of super longevity (5+ years) in mind, nor is it built with the pure connoisseur in mind. At $1700, $200 or more (for the Saeco version of it), this machine is not worth the price. For the same price, you can buy better machine, used or new (esp. if Starbucks has a sale on their Barista machines). But for $50, nothing can touch it. (ed.note: at $140, it's a semi-deal, and worth checking out).
In the $50 class, there is nothing new, and very little used or refurbed. The Krups Novo Compact, another capable starter machine can be found occasionally for $50 could be considered a competitor, but I think the Melitta / Saeco unit is a better machine.
So why would I say for $50 you can do no wrong? Because at $50, this is an exceptional value. You're getting a good starter machine that does have some power, especially in the pump and frothing abilities (once you overcome the machine's small boiler size problems), and if you're just trying to get into espresso and cappuccino, this machine is definitely a good starting point. Pair it up with a good grinder, (Saeco M2002, $100; Bodum Antigua, $75; Solis 166, $125, Briel Java, $75) and $150 or less, you have a capable home setup that will impress the non-espresso drinker, wow the cappuccino lover, and provide the tools to build your own barista skills. Buy the aftermarket chrome and brass portafilter from Saeco (around $20 USD), and you'll overcome further limitations this machine has. And who knows, you may love the taste of the espresso it produces - this is a totally subjective thing after all.
Do I recommend buying one of these? I do, if you fit one of the following descriptions. This machine is ideal for
- the espresso newbie who is tired of paying for Starbucks drinks
- the espresso newbie who wants to build on their barista skills and drinks
- the cappuccino lover
- a person with budget considerations
- as a relatively inexpensive gift for one of the above.
If you are someone who has honed their espresso building skills, this machine will not replace a higher quality machine like a Gaggia Baby etc. But it might complement it, either as a second machine at the office, or the cottage, or down in the rec-room. It does have limitations, especially in steaming and brewing temps for long shots, but the quick recovery times make up for this somewhat.