I was very selective in choosing this model and it has met reasonable expectations.
I budgeted around $450 to upgrade to a "real" espresso machine for making real cappuccinos, two or three times a day, from my stainless steel boiler DeLonghi pump machine using preground espresso. Based on extensive reading on coffeegeek.com and alt.coffee, I realized that the only way to achieve my goal would be to invest in a high quality grinder, so $225 went for an open box Rancilio Rocky at aabree.com. For the remaining $$, options were highly limited.
Even years-old Silvias were beyond my budget, though I realized I could stretch to the $350 range for a bottom of the line Isomac (with notorious technical problems) or prototype, light L'elit. For less money (I bought mine open-box return for $240 shipped), however, Gaggia offers a commercial size heavy portafilter, a repairable structure with easily available parts, and a tried-and-true temperature stability system. In addition, my significant other has to leave for work at 7:00 a.m. so I wanted a machine that heats to temperature in as few minutes as possible. The Gaggia has met all my expectations. The portafilter is a thing of beauty (even if the chrome wore quickly on its interior). And the machine is ready to go in about ten minutes (during which even the portafilter heats well), and this, for me, cannot be underestimated. In addition, using freshly roasted beans (I have used Black Cat Blend and Malabar Gold), and the Golden Rule (my firm tamp and "8" on my Rocky, give or take a few clicks depending on the beans), I get caramel striped crema and delicious smooth espresso. I'm drinking the best coffee of my life, and I thank the coffee gods everyday. The steaming power on the Baby is significant, and produces just the right mix of steamed milk and microfoam to make two proper cappas (equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk). The steam wand swivels well enough, so you can bleed off water into the drip tray, or angle the wand toward the side of the machine.. There is not a lot of room underneath the wand for a large pitcher, but I have seen this problem on other brands, too. I have managed to put my Baby on the right side of my countertop, so that the steam wand is actually angled off the countertop, and so I can use as tall a pitcher or travel mug as I like. (The travel mug thing has worked out very well, since the steam heats up the mug as well as the milk, keeping my girlfriend's latte hot much, much longer.) The panarello wand works quite well, and is long enough to reach fairly deep into a pitcher or travel mug. This is VERY important if you prefer cappas or macchiatos to lattes. On my DeLonghi, I really didn't have much choice: the steam wand was fairly shallow so that one got more steamed milk than foam. With the long panarello wand, you can put just an inch of milk at the bottom of a pitcher or travel mug, and foam it easily to very top (leaving about an espresso's worth of milk at the bottom with the rest all microfoam: in other words, a cappa).
The documentation was also excellent, both in the written manual and the "Getting to Know Gaggia" cd with helpful Flash instructional movies.
Finally, as the months have worn on, I am increasingly happy with the 3-way solenoid valve. At first I was wondering if it was even working, since I didn't hear any sound. But now I can hear a little suction sound when I turn off the pump, and I must say I just get dry pucks. If you empty the puck right away, there will be a layer of water sitting on top of the puck, but that's evidence of the valve working, not the opposite. It's the residual water that wasn't "leaking" through. A crucial part of keeping a clean shower screen and portafilter is emptying the puck quickly, so coffee and residues are not baked into these parts as you raise everything to steaming temperature for milk preparation. As a neat freak, I loving having dry pucks because 1) I can fill up my knock box to the top without odor or mess, before emptying it, and 2) it makes the ritual of flushing the shower screen after each pull much quicker.
My goals were met at an irresistible price point, but it's apparent where the costs are saved.
While I admire Gaggia's unique boiler system, and I appreciate its quick heatup, it has two immediate shortcomings. First, I imagine it must be more fragile than a brass boiler. My Gaggia arrived, clearly mishandled by UPS, with not one but two cracks in the boiler. I had a factory repair [it came back like new], but I have read others have had the same problem. Second, while the steaming power is very good, the boiler engages about halfway through foaming a relatively small amount of milk in an 8 oz pitcher. I close the valve, wait about 30 seconds, and then finish the job. The results are spectacular, but I look forward to the day when I steam the milk for two cappas without having to wait for the boiler. The steam is admirably dry, though, which was not the case with my DeLonghi. As an addendum, the boiler sometimes engages halfway through a pull. I don't know if that's a bad thing. [I have since fixed this by learning to run a blank shot first, and then letting the boiler and engage and get ready again before drawing the espresso shot.]
Since I had to take the housing off to check on the boiler, I can tell you that the plastic housing is not that thick. I understand from reading around that the older model of the Baby (I bought mine January 2004) had a very thick housing: now the housing is a basic plastic, nothing to write home about. The buttons, as others have noted, have a very cheap feel to them, and are not seated very well. In short, this machine is no work of art and no discussion piece. I sacrificed that to save money. I have the black model, and I would reconsider that in the future. Perhaps the silver would look nicer. In addition, the documentation does not mention that the white coating on the drip tray is merely a piece of contact paper to protect the drip tray cover from scratches during shipment. I've seen others complain, as I have, when I found the white coating ugly and easily scratched. Fortunately, once I realized that it was just contact paper, I pulled one corner up, and then the whole thing peeled off in one pull. The resulting shiny stainless steel drip tray is beatiful and stain resistant. much nicer than the plastic drip tray covers I see on thousand dollar machines at Williams Sonoma.
The drip tray is a bit shallower than I would want: if you follow instructions and run a few seconds of water beforehand to prime the machine, and afterward to rinse the shower screen, the tray will fill up after 3 double shots. In addition the only way to lift it out is to submerse your fingers in the dirty water. This is a poor design. I keep a turkey baster handy in case it fills to capacity before I notice. I also keep a wide body mug around for priming and flushing.
I don't have a frame of reference for this with comparably high end machines, so take this with a grain of salt, but I feel I should point out that there is not a lot of leeway for varying the tamp once you find that perfect grind setting. I'd say I get that ideal shot about 60 percent of the time, with the other 40 percent a bit too fast or too slow. As you probably know, that makes a lot of difference to the flavor of the espresso, especially if you don't make milk drinks. My new tamper has improved things, though I still struggle with consistency especially using the single-size filter.
The included plastic tamper is the wrong size, and therefore virtually useless. It's like some weird provocation by including it, since it makes a proper temp impossible (not only do grinds pop up the sides, but it's hard not to get a sloped tamp). Definitely order a 58mm tamper when you order your machine. I have read that other brands also include a useless, wrongly sized tamper, so I now no longer hold this against Gaggia.
The Baby meets my goals -- fantastic espresso and true cappuccino, quick heatup, commercial portafilter group-- but not my dreams (espresso maker as artistic conversation piece, unlimited steaming power, deep drip tray which pulls out easily). I don't expect it to last forever, either. Would I buy it again? Given the same situation where I was limited by budget and I did the right thing and spent initially on a good grinder, then a Gaggia makes an excellent intermediate choice for a couple of years. Since I now view the Baby as a disposable item to be used for two years or so, rather than forever, I would buy the Baby again only if I could find an open box return under $250, but otherwise I'd probably forego the extras on it and buy a Carezza for $180 new or $160 open box, and immediately start the saving Fund for a Silvia purchase in a couple of years (though I'd like to learn more about how long Silvia takes to warm up). (UPDATED: After a couple of months, I don't know whether I could give up the dry pucks which result from the solenoid valve.)
Three Month Followup
I expected the Baby to perform less well over time, but it has exceeded my expectations by working as well after three months as on the first day, and it gets heavy use. I've also come to appreciate the water refill opening: a funnel shaped opening at the top, that is remarkably forgiving when splashing a bunch of water down it with your eyes half open early in the morning. Also, because the boiler is small and very hot, it's easy and quick to temp surf with some precision. I have found that if I hold in the boiler button for just two or three seconds, the temperature rises enough to avoid the "boiler comes on during a shot" syndrome. Also, while steam still fades while frothing a pitcher, just closing the steam valve for six or seven seconds, and then reopening it gives a splendid boiler-on surfing of the steam that gives plenty of steaming power. While I still find the drip tray shallow, I rather like the rubber solenoid valve cover design. Finally, I have found that with fresh roasted beans, and if one runs a blank shot first (which also heats up your cup), you get plenty of crema. I would say that the initial blank shot, plus the right grind and tamp and fresh beans, has increased my "proper shot" performance to about 90% from my initial 60 or 70%.
Another thing that has improved things, in my opinion, has been branching out from the Malabar Gold and Black Cat that I had perceived as being the most recommended on alt.coffee. I now use coffeereview.com to expand my horizons. I have found their blind reviews to be extremely useful. I got some Vito's espresso blend from Doma Coffee (which received a very high rating) and these are very good. I moved on to Rileys-coffee Decatur Street Blend and Decaf Espresso Blend and these have produced the best cappas of my life. I encourage everyone to branch out and try different beans until you find the one that really agrees with the kind of drink you're making and your palate. In all, I never expected the machine to be performing at top form after this much work. The small boiler, in my opinion, is a brilliant design: it allows for quick warmup and control, which, being a control freak, I rather like. I recently measured the water temperature at the brewhead and got a perfect 200 degrees, after a year of use. Impressive. I have very little on the negative side to say: 1) the single shot basket is useless (since it is so steeply curved that the only area that can hold grounds jams right up against the shower screen -- a problem not unique to Gaggia), so I now just fill the double shot basket half full and tamp a bit extra, or more often, do a double ristretto; and 2) I wish the buttons were a bit more solidly designed and lit up brighter. I sometimes accidentally leave the machine on, and in a bright kitchen, you won't necessarily notice the on button lit up. But these are truly minor annoyances, when one it's all about the quality of the espresso.
As to my initial conclusion that the Baby "is probably not a long term investment," I am now not so sure.
One Year Followup
It's been a full year, and I have upgraded the Rocky to a Mazzer, and have had an Expobar Office and an ECM Giotto side by side with the Gaggia at various points. For traditional cappas, my favorite drink, I find the Gaggia to produce espresso (for the cappas) on an equal par with the HX machines! I'm amazed at this. Still great temperature consistency after a lot of use. Also, I am still amazed at the Gaggia's ability to go from brewing to steaming so very quickly (in contrast to a Silvia) -- Gaggia does not get enough credit for this. That said, there are some downsides. First off, the Gaggia's froth wand cannot compete with the HX machines' straight 2-hole steaming. I never disassembled the Gaggia's wand to try it bare, however (as I was worried about ever putting it back together), but I would do so if I hadn't bought a new machine. For a Newbie, the Gaggia produces amazing steam and foam -- it makes impressive LOOKING cappas, but it really is not microfoam. The microfoam from the HX machines may not look very impressive, but it is sweet, not tasteless, and therefore I cannot go back to the Gaggia's quasi-panarello-wand foam. Another negative is that, like others, I have had the panel with the buttons get a loose contact in it, so that the machine often looks on (there's a light), but it's not actually engaged/heating up. The plastic panel with the buttons removes fairly easily and needs to be replaced in its entirety, since there is no way to get at the one loose contact. I think it's clear that Gaggia makes probably the best and most versatile entry level machines in the espresso world, and that their design and engineering are very much underrated. The quality of the components producing the espresso is extremely high and reliable. At the same time, they do cut corners on the parts that do not go into making espresso, such as buttons, and based on my reading of reviews, I think this is true as well on their lower end models. They have to skimp somewhere when the price goes lower. Would I do it all again, I would have gotten a refurb Classic instead of the Baby, as the Classic truly does have the best build quality, and I would have stripped the steam wand after a few months.