Leave it to Francis! Francis! (FF!) to make sure their packaging is as unique looking as their products - those who have bought FF! espresso cups in the past will know what I'm talking about. The X3 box certainly is a bit different from other espresso machine boxes - it's very much like a jigsaw puzzle that more or less collapses as you open it up and remove the main machine.
Still, the box does a great job of keeping the X3 secure, and our test unit arrived completely unscathed. In the box you'll find a competent instruction manual, a funky looking portafilter designed for pods, a box of Illy ESE medium roast pods (I haven't opened those yet), warranty cards, and if purchased from Espresso People, the box also includes a box containing the grounds portafilter, two 57mm filter baskets, and a tamper, all at no extra charge.
My FF! X3 didn't have the grounds tamper in the box when I received it; however, Espresso People shipped it out to me using 2nd day shipping since it was an isolated packing error on their part.
The machine is undeniably a minor work of art. Some believe the X1 is more unique looking, but the X3 "Titanic" narrow footprint really grew on me. It also helps that one of my favourite actors, Robert DeNiro, had one on his counter in the movie Showtime (along with a chrome La Pavoni Europiccola). If I had to choose between the two machines, the X1 and the X3 based on looks alone, I would probably swing the X3 way, just because it's a bit less famous than the X1, but also because in my opinion, it looks better.
Espresso People shipped me the Inox brushed steel model, which, while very professional looking, is a bit of a PITA to keep fingerprints off of. This is the case with almost all steel clad machines I test, but if Thermos Nissan can come up with an excellent coating for their steel products, it'd be cool to see it one day on an espresso machine. Maybe temperatures prohibit applying a protective coating...
Back to the looks for a moment - The FF! website says that this machine is designed to be reminiscent of the bow of a ship or a 50s style diner, and they have certainly pulled this off - my first impression when doing my wide angle shots of the machine (where angles are exaggerated) was - wow, this is like the bow of a ship!
I gave the machine a once over. I liked the fit and finish - with one exception: taking the water reservoir out and putting it back is a bit of a pain, but I'll get to that later on in this first look. Everything else was golden with this machine. It's relatively heavy (remember - in espresso machines, heavy = good), the metal is worked exceedingly well, the six hex nuts on each side of the machine (only two are actually used to secure the top to the sides) are nice and flush with the body, and the buttons look excellent and feel good with a positive tactile feedback click when pressed/ The indicator lights are small, orange, and slightly hard to see under florescent lighting, but complement the look of the machine well.
Though the machine has a narrow footprint, the top holds more than six espresso cups - in fact, it holds six with ease, and space for a tamper.
I looked inside the machine, and was pleasantly surprised to see a brass boiler - the X1 model has a steel boiler. By the looks of it, it is maybe 100, 150ml in capacity, which is small but sufficient for this class of machine. The lines and grouphead are brass as well, and a Ukla pump supplies pressure to the machine.
The pod portafilter that shipped with the machine is, to say the least - funky mojo. It doesn't have any side walls, per se - it is wide open. This is an ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) certified machine, meaning it meets certain design characteristics dictated by the Italian body that oversees ESE. The grounds filter is more traditional, with a nice 57mm basket size, and a good, if thin, straightwall design that lets you cram in the grounds. The portafilter features a spring, so you don't have to worry about knocking the filter basket loose when knocking out spent grounds.
I was rarin' to get this thing fired up, but since my box was initially missing the grounds portafilter, I was forced to use the pod setup.
I did give the well-written manual a good read (you read the manual, right? Right? Don't email me if you have an issue with the machine and haven't read the manual first!), then proceeded to set the machine up for its first use.
Here's where I discovered one real flaw with the FF! X3: the water reservoir. It's nice, holds an okay amount of water, but putting it in the machine is an exercise for super tiny hands - something I don't own. The main problem revolves around the overflow / back pressure tube that you definitely want to feed into the reservoir - it's a short tube, extending maybe 3 inches below the inside of the machine, and because of the very tight fit of the reservoir, getting this short tube into the reservoir is a challenge. It also makes removing the reservoir difficult.
The longer feed tube is fine for putting into the reservoir, and there's enough "play" when you jimmy it in the machine that it isn't a problem. Hopefully FF! will fix this problem with the second tube.
I filled the reservoir, managed to get the bypass tube in, and turned the machine on. You have to manually prime the machine, but it's not a big deal - once turned on, you activate the brew switch and open up the steam wand valve - soon, water will start pouring out of the wand and the machine is set to go. About 3 minutes after turning it on, the boiler starts its first cycle.
| Nice brass grouphead - designed for double duty - inside red gasket is for pod shots - outside clear gasket is for the grounds portafilter. Click it! |
Given the amount of brass in the machine, and the fact that this was my first time using it, I wanted to run a fair amount of water through it to heat things up and initially season the machine. I ran a full reservoir of water through the machine, then prepped it for my first shot of espresso.
For my initial shots, I had some fairly old Bristot pods - they date back to July, 2002. I wasn't expecting much, and I'm glad I set my standards low - the shots were pitiful. It also seemed to me that, initially at least, the brewing temperatures were off.
One thing I liked a lot (and like in any espresso machine) is the ability to draw hot water off the boiler. In my opinion, every consumer espresso machine should have this ability. On the FF!, it's easy and intuitive - just press the brewing switch and open the steam wand knob - hot water will begin pouring out of the steam wand. It doesn't splash around either.
I didn't give the steaming ability a test in the first few days. This was another area where I didn't expect much. Maybe I would be surprised.
First Few Days with the X1
I wasn't having much luck with the pod portafilter and pod shots on this machine. I've had better pod shots from machines like the Solis SL-70 (not ESE certified like the X3, but better, nonetheless), and the Elektra Nivola (another ESE certified machine). I even tried some fresh pods, but no luck. The crema production was pitiful, and while I did undergo torture by tasting a few of the shots, I have yet to figure out if it was the pods, the machine, or a combination of the two. New, premium pods are on order for the Detailed Review.
In the meantime, the grounds portafilter arrived by mail. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much (is this getting to be a theme? My expectations?) - my pod performance on the X3 was pretty much on par with my experiences with the X1 machine a few years back. But I try to remain objective, dontcha know.
And here's where, uh, I eat my words a bit.
From my very first fresh ground shot, I was producing what I would call "acceptable" or better espresso shots with this machine. In fact, they seemed better shots than the $795 Nivola delivered me about 4 months ago.
I got kinda excited :)
So I experimented a bit, and pulled out my best beans, and moved the X3 up to the kitchen where the mother of all grinders sits: the Mazzer Mini (I was using a Solis Maestro grinder with the X3 prior to this).
Here is some really excellent news - the X3 can plow through a grind almost as fine as some of the $1200 and $1500 machines I have in the house - the Isomac Millennium and Pasquini Livia. I did have to crank it a tiny bit coarser in grind fineness, but not by much. Within a pound or two of testing, I was pulling some seriously tasty ristretto shots from the machine.
My years of experience with the Livia (my benchmark machine for all things espresso big and small) were consistently better by this point, but I was, to say the least highly encouraged by my early results with the X3.
Next, I tried steaming with the machine. Here's another negative for me, albeit a minor one given the target market for the X3 - it has a permanent froth aider built into the steaming wand. For newbies, this is fine and dandy, but I was discouraged by the inability to produce nice microfroth with the machine early on. Maybe there's a way to finesse the wand somewhat, but I won't find out until I do some serious steaming time with the machine.
Another reason why I don't like permanent froth aiders? It's a lot harder to clean them, especially inside.
As far as timings go with the machine, here's some early numbers.
Boiler cycling (when the boiler lamp goes on to the time it goes off while the machine has been on for at least 30 minutes): 38.6 seconds average over three observations. This is a long time for such a small boiler.
Heat up time to steam ready (tested as soon as a boiler cycle completed; no bleeding of the wand): 53.5 seconds. Not too shabby - I expected worse, considering the boiler cycle time.
Time to steam 7 oz of milk to 155F (tested after a 3 second "bleed" of the wand to clear out the top water from the boiler): 71.5 seconds. Slow, but not as bad as some much more expensive machines I've tried recently. Doing enough milk for one cappuccino, or about 5 ounces, is noticeably faster - about 50 seconds.
Early on I have to say I am impressed with this machine. Maybe it is because I had such low expectations going in... my experiences with its sister machine, the X1, were not good.
I think this machine is beautiful, and for many espresso newbies, seems almost perfect - you get a solid, heavy machine, a tiny footprint, amazing looks, great grounds brewing ability, a pod machine out of the box (pods. blech. But newbies will definitely like this option), okay steaming ability, and something that automatically upgrades any machine I test: instant hot water ability.
I would even say early on this is a machine that you can grow with a little bit. It won't outperform the convenience and consistency of a heat exchanger (HX machine), but that's not the target market for the Francis! Francis! X3. The target market is someone who wants a beautiful espresso machine that occupies a small footprint. The bonus for these folks is this - it can brew a pretty decent shot!
CoffeeGeek would once again like to thank EspressoPeople.com for supplying us with the Francis! Francis! X3 model for evaluation. This model retails for $399 at Espresso People, and other colours are available at $349.
And the other editors would like to remind you that Mark's ramblings above are part and parcel of the patented CoffeeGeek First Look ™ and as such, should never be taken as gospel. The sky could turn purple by the time we publish our Detailed Review on this machine, and anything and everything he has written is subject to change. The Detailed Review is CG's definitive say on any product, and the First Look? It's eye candy. It's fodder. It's a shallow attempt to introduce more content to the website! This is a First Look! Damnit!