FF! History: From all I've read, the Francis! Francis! machines have gone through two main "eras" previous to the recent split into third-generation "trio" and "professional" machines. The first generation machines were horrible by all accounts; then, major improvements were made (brass boilers, etc.) in a second generation of machines. That was my old X5, I guess. Second generation machines were capable of using either ESE pods (standard) or ground espresso coffee (using an extra accessory kit).
What's new: My new machine is the X1 Professional version, which is the latest generation of machines. If we call these third generation, or "3G" machines, we can say that FF! has divided all of its lines into "trio" machines, which can only use pods, and "professional" machines, which can only use ground coffee. And it's true. The shape of the basket and screen of my "3G pro" model absolutely does not accommodate pods. The screen is perfectly flat (not convex/concave) and there's no additional gasket or moulded angles to fit a pod. Another change for the 3G pro line that makes it different from the 2G with the ground coffee accessory package is that there's no longer that odd little plastic disk that you were supposed to leave on top of the ground coffee in the portafilter basket. With the new flat screen, there's no need for this. Thanks, FF!, for that. Also new for the 3G machines is the electronic brain that really sets it apart from the previous generation of FF! machines, or the X5 I had, anyway. More on the brain later.
Unpacking: The machine's packaging was very good. No great risk for damage, I'd say. It was easy to unpack and set up. I read the manual before I began using the machine. To me, the manual felt a bit incomplete, but then again, I may not be the average consumer. So, let's say it's an adequate guide and nothing more. The reservoir is exactly the same size and shape as my X5. The filter basket also seems to be exactly the same size as for my X5. The main difference for the 3G machine is that the little divider thingy that allows you to share a double shot between two cups is made of plastic. In the 2G ground coffee kit, it was metal, so I was sort of disappointed with that. In my package there was a 250g can of Illy coffee, a 7g scoop, a single shot basket insert, a double shot basket insert, a plastic tamper and a small, low black rubber/plastic knock-box* into which you can knock out about one puck of spent coffee. Also included was one dose of descaling solution and a bunch of small tablets that you can use to clean the screen and basket. They're supposed to fizz and take away greasy deposits -- we'll see about that! (* I now use the tiny rubber knock-box to lean the filter handle against when tamping. A far better use for it. Get a proper knock-box, I'd recommend.)
First time firing it up: The first thing I noticed when I turned the machine on was that it automatically filled the boiler. Ah -- it's the 3G's new brains at work. There was nothing about that in the manual, so it actually startled me when I flipped the switch. Next thing that happens is that the machine heats all the way up to steaming temperature, then cools gradually to brewing temperature, which is another new thing for the 3G machines, I think. A green light comes on and there's a beeping noise when the machine believes it's at the correct brewing temp. Time to brew!
Brewing: I went through the entire can of Illy coffee and never got a decent shot. A confession: I don't usually grind my own beans. I buy espresso-ground coffee. With my X5, I got best the result with Illy coffee. This didn't seem strange, since Francis! Francis! machines are sort of the "razor" to Illy's "blades", if you see what I mean. I never used Lavazza coffee in the past, since it easily "choked" the X5 with it's finer grind. After failing with Illy coffee, I tried with Lavazza and couldn't get actually the new X1 to choke at all. The shots were running far too fast, no matter how hard I tamped. Not a good start for brewing, but I think this is a function of the pump design, which seems brutally effective versus the X5's. Also note that this machine is much less drippy than my X5. Don't know why this is - I don't think it has a 3-way solenoid.
Tamper, tamping: After 4-5 days of failed shots, I went out and bought a metal tamper to replace the wimpy plastic one. The literature on the X1 says that it has a 56mm diameter basket. I wound up trying damn near every single tamper in the shop and discovered that I could fit anything from 56-58mm depending on the brand of tamper. I settled on a no-name metal tamper with a flat bottom. Since the dispersion screen is flat and the bottom of the filter basket is basically flat, and since the 2G's little plastic leave-in insert was flat on the bottom, I decided against a concave/convex tamper. The flat tamper seems to work just fine.
Coffee: I had my coffee place grind me some coffee to three different finenesses to help me try to find the X1's sweet spot. The finest grind from the shop seems to work the best. All of them worked better than the ground Illy or Lavazza coffee. The color of the crema was a lot darker than with my X5 (blonde crema) and darker than I'd been able to get with coarser grinds or wimpy plastic tamper. Not a God shot, perhaps, but delicious straight up without sugar. The shot took a lot longer than in earlier attempts -- bordering on ristretto. What a relief! You can actually make coffee with this machine!
Dosing: I'm not sure exactly what the deal with the X1 professional is, but so far I've had to be extremely careful with grind/dose/tamp balance. When you get it, then you're fine. Expect to have to have a grinder or go to a coffee shop with a good grinder in order to get consistently good results.
Electronic brains: Start the machine: it goes all the way up to steaming temperature, then slowly cools. Beeep! Green light on and it's ready to brew. Brew: Usually after the brewing, the green light stays on and it says it's ready to go again. Sometimes, however, when you're done brewing, the green light stays off. It warms back up again until the beeper goes off and the green light lights again. Steaming: flip the steam switch on and the machine heats up. While the steam switch is on, the brew switch is inactivated. While steaming, the pump will run intermittently to keep water in the boiler.
Frothing: I'm not much of a latte man, so I won't comment on the frothing other than to say it is a lot more pressure than my X5 had just before it died, but I couldn't honestly say I remember how it compares to when my X5 was new. My wife, who does the frothing in our house, seems satisfied.