I bought this machine specifically to fulfill a distinct set of requirements:
(2) accept both ground coffee and E.S.E. pods without modification;
(3) very easy to use; and
(4) aesthetically attractive.
I bought this machine for those very early and very busy weekday mornings when I really want an espresso, but I do not have the time for the entire espresso ritual. For me, the value of this version of the F!F! line of machines is measured by its flexibility. I can make it as complex or as easy as I want. If I want to grind my own coffee, dose, tamp, and pull a shot...I can. If I want to throw in a pod, brew, and go...I can do that, too.
Remember, some of the F!F! machines are pod-only, so if you are really looking for a machine that accepts both, make sure you are buying a version that is in fact designed for both!
The F!F! X5 comes with two separate portafilters: one designed to be used with ground coffee, and another designed to be used with pods only. Both portafilters and five filter baskets come standard with your initial purchase of this machine. It's a great advantage that you don't have to decide ground vs. pod before you even purchase a machine!
The five filter baskets. Two of them are for the ground coffee portafilter and three of them are for the pod-only portafilter. The two for the ground coffee are single shot and double shot. The three filter baskets for the pods are differentiated by number of drip holes, and if you look very carefully on the inside rim they are numbered "1", 2"", and "3". They are intended to be used for a ristretto (1), normal (2), and lungo (3) style or pull using the pods only. All of the five filter baskets are conventional in design, meaning they are not "crema enhancing" or "pressurized" versions with only one tiny drip hole. For me, that is a definite positive point. If crema is what you are after, then good quality fresh coffee, properly ground and tamped will produce that result.
Aesthetically, the F!F! X5 is one of the best-looking machines on the market in the semi-automatic category. I understand that aesthetics are subjective, but play along with me here. If you're OK with bold straight lines and angles, you'll like the machine. If you want a curves consider the X3 machine for grounds and pods. The Francis!Francis! line of machines is a great alternative to the "box" look of the overwhelming majority of other semi-automatics. While, aesthetics are important to me in my decision making process, in the end, I definitely believe that form without function is useless. That is definitely not the case with the X5. It is a great espresso machine that happens to come in a beautiful package.
One related additional advantage is that you can actually choose from various colors: red, orange, yellow, light blue, dark blue, black, turquoise metallic, and aubergine metallic (fancy for eggplant...yeah, I actually had to look it up), and you can find a few more colors that were previously available, such as almond and fuschia.
The machine dimensions are approximately 11.5" H x 9" W x 10.5" D. My initial impression when I unpacked the machine and set it out on the counter was that it was a lot smaller than I had imagined it would be, but in the end, I did not want a very large machine taking up a lot of counter space in the kitchen. The machine is made of very sturdy and well machined metal that is powder-coated and weighs about 20 pounds.
Generally, the quality of the machine and its parts are first-rate! It is a good solid machine. The clock on the front face of the machine has a sweep second pointer and can be used to time your extraction, which is a lot nicer than having a separate timer for this, but it is so cheaply made! Mine actually arrived broken. It had been jostled somewhere in transport and each of the time hands became separated from the drive gear. So why put such a cheaply made plastic bezzled clock on an otherwise tank of a machine? The clock is a great idea and very helpful.
The water reservoir is clear plastic and slides discretely into the back of the machine. You have to deal with snaking the water feed line into the reservoir when you refill it, but most machines that are not plumbed into a water source have some similar issue. The edges of the reservoir are exposed at the rear sides of the X5 in such a way that a brief glance will tell you what the physical water level is.
The instructions that come with the machine are some of the best because they come in DVD form. If you have an aversion to "RTFM," just watch the video! The DVD especially is a high quality production and gives you all of the basic information that you really need to know to operate the machine easily and safely. Try interpreting some of the "hieroglyphics" that many other Italian made espresso machines come with for comparison. Moreover, the manuals and the DVD videos are plastered all over the Internet, so they are easy to find, even on YouTube! This machine is very easy to use, whether you use ground coffee or pods, so I definitely understand its mass appeal.
The passive heating system for the cup warming tray is not the greatest. It looks great, but it doesn't get the cups very warm. I would suggest that you draw hot water from the machine into a cup in order to warm it, which will also serve the important function of properly warming the group, empty filter basket, and portafilter.
The steam arm has a permanently fixed froth aid type tip. I know many people would prefer to have a conventional steam tip, but again, for my intent of pulling a quick shot, and occasionally pouring some hot milk and froth on top, it works great! If you need help making best use of the frothing tip, do a search for an article that discusses how to "surf the hole" with one of these types of tips. It may not be perfect for the aspiring latte artist, but honestly, surfing the hole and a little tap and swirl got me very good results!
The plastic tamper that this machine comes with is light years ahead of the plastic tamper that most other espresso machines come with. Why? Because it basically fits the filter basket! This is fantastic! If you are more than a casual espresso maker, you will probably end up purchasing an after-market metal tamper from a reputable company. The tamp is as important as the grind. The included plastic tamper will help you do an OK, but not excellent job, of tamping your coffee grinds. The filter size is advertised as 57mm, but it is always the safest bet to measure your own before ordering a new tamper on-line.
The tamper actually comes in two parts: the piston and the handle. On this tamper, the two-part design is absolutely intentional, not because the piston head is meant to be interchangeable for one of a different size, but rather, because you are supposed to use the tamper to tamp your coffee, then twist the handle slightly, thereby disengaging it from the piston, with the result of leaving the piston in the filter basket...because it doubles as a shower screen! Ugh! Fortunately, even Illy goes so far as to admit, that this "tamp then rotate the handle to leave the tamper piston in the filter basket so it serves as a shower screen"-method, is OPTIONAL! As Illy says, either method is acceptable. I have pulled shots with and without the tamper piston/shower screen left in the filter basket and there was no difference in shot quality either way.
This machine does not have a three-way solenoid valve to relieve water pressure from the filter basket and portafilter when you stop brewing...so, do NOT remove the portafilter handle immediately after pulling a shot using ground coffee! You will experience hot water, steam, and coffee grounds in a minor disaster known affectionately as a portafilter "sneeze." Just wait 30 seconds or a minute, then remove the handle.
It is common for the machine to drip a little out of the portafilter spouts after you have pulled your shot. It annoys me a little bit, but that is what the drip tray is there for.
Every time you get done using the steam function (read this as high temperature), close the steam valve, turn off the steam function, then use the coffee button to draw cool water into the boiler tank (1) to help keep internal temperatures under control and (2) to help the machine cool to an acceptable temperature in the event you want to pull additional espresso shots. This is probably the biggest rule to follow if you want to take care of your investment!
Overall, this is a fantastic machine. Its greatest quality is its flexibilty. It will allow an espresso neophyte to produce consistently acceptable results...and it also will allow a non-professional to grow as a home barista provided he or she also has a good quality burr-type grinder and a properly fitted and quality tamper.