The Gaggia "Baby" actually makes great espresso drinks with a little practice, even with my cheap grinder. I get the classic "mouse tails", and with some work, I can get very good results. I would expect much better, more consistent results with a better grinder. My last machine (pressurized PF) had cams, levers, and springs in the brew path, making it almost impossible to keep clean. The brew path of the "Baby" is very simple and all readily reached for cleaning. The machine is very "60's" in appearance---it almost cries out to be fire engine red with daisies painted on it. That said, the machine suffers from serious problems in almost every other detail:
-The quality of metal plating is inferior throughout. Despite only routine use and nonabrasive cleaning, the inside of my portafilter was down to bare brass in less than two weeks. Where did all that nickel-chrome go?
-The case of the machine is entirely made of unreinforced plastic. I can feel the pedestal flexing under the normal torque of seating the PF. The machine is too light to sit still on the counter, so this requires holding the upper part of the machine forcefully with one hand while twisting the PF into place. Otherwise, the pedestal might eventually start to crack under the stress.
-The group gasket is just not adequate. It is apparently a simplistic, flat design, and is too thin. It doesn’t provide enough “give” to accommodate easy seating of the PF. This increases the force required to properly seat the PF, and also makes the assembly very unforgiving. Add slightly too much coffee, seat it a little too softly, or get just a little coffee on the gasket area, and it will leak. It is also flat, unlike my previous machine which had a very generous gasket with a shoulder which sealed the sides of the group head to prevent contamination. The “Baby” invariably blows coffee grounds all the way up to the gasket, requiring a lot of cleaning during (see later) every use.
-The boiler gets hot enough during the brew cycle to make a fair amount of live steam. I’m not sure my thermostats are set right. The boiler gets so hot during the steam cycle that any coffee residue left on the screen or the sides of the group head will burn to char. This is very difficult to clean off, and smells horrible. The only solution I’ve found is to remove the PF after brewing my espresso and thoroughly clean the screen, group head, and gasket before I switch on the steamer---during every use. To say the least, this is serious inconvenience, and the espresso sits cooling on the counter while I’m trying to wipe everything clean.
-I’m not quite sure what the 3-way valve is doing for me. One description said that it would vent the pressure from the PF after brewing to prevent coffee from blowing up around the seat---obviously not. Another suggested purpose was to vent off water from the spent coffee after brewing to dry the “puck”---there is almost always a visible layer of water in my PF, which soaks through and drips as I remove it. I can get some improvement in this by venting off some of the live steam that forms during brewing. In fact, the only time that I can actually hear the valve venting into the catch tray is when I’m trying to steam milk, and need to conserve as much steam pressure as possible.
-My steaming capacity is steadily declining. When I first got the machine, I had to work at conserving my pressure to get good results with about 16 oz. of milk for a couple of double lattes. After 5 months, it will barely struggle through 8-10 oz. of milk! Instead of the occasional burble of steam and water at the end of the wand, I now have a steady bleed of live steam, even with the valve tightly closed.
-The front panel switches look and feel cheap, sometimes get stuck under the case when I try to toggle them. But that actually turns out to be sort of a good thing--- My main power switch has lost its “on” latch. When pressed, it only turns on the switch light, and nothing else. I have to wedge the switch face under the case edge to get the machine to stay on.
-The water filler funnel cover on this model is just a flat plate, like an old cistern lid. Dust infiltrates under this and gathers on the funnel surfaces. I leave my cleaning towel draped over the cover when not in use.
-The sizes of the water tank and the catch tray are both comedically inadequate. The tank is good for about 2-3 shots with priming, etc, before it has to be refilled. The catch tray requires frequent attention. To empty it, one must remove the valve outlet extension and put one's fingers into the liquid to grasp the handles.
-The cup surface over the catch tray (can't tell if this is stainless steel or plated) has a soft finish which is already seriously marred by scratches from cup bottoms.
Overall, absent the quality control and design problems, I might be able to recommend this machine if it cost about $100US less.
Update: The machine now dumps water back into the water tank in a steady stream during the brew cycle. A wild guess would be a failed pressure relief valve, which might explain the other problems better than my first set of conclusioins. At least it apparently failed open.