I'd like to see a pro steam wand rather than the frothing attachment. Also, a larger boiler for temperature stability and multiple espressos.
I've had the Gaggia Classic machine for 10 years. It has been reliable and consistently makes great espresso. For machines in this price range (under $600) it is the best deal out there, even today. There is a good reason that this machine has changed little over time: it still can not be beat for the price.
It pulls very tasty espresso with fine crema, every time. It is a little picky about tamp and grind. All high-quality machines are, to allow the operator to maximize the results. Get a good grinder. Also get a real tamper. That plastic tamper that comes in the box should be thrown away. The Gaggia has a pro 58mm portafilter so any pro tamper will work perfectly. With the right grind and tamper, practice a little bit, time your shots, watch for the right color crema, and you are in the groove. Once you get the combination, the results will beat many espresso cafes that typically have average baristi and beans (Starbucks, Tullys). It will not likely be up to the quality of a Café Vivace or Zoka (winner of the National Barista Championship). You will need to move up to the next level machine for that.
If you want a simple machine that you can operate while asleep, the Starbucks Barista model will pull good espresso without any skill. But that machine will never pull great espresso due to its design.
It has plenty of steam power. The Gaggia will make true barista microfoam with ease with a little practice. Take off the frothing aid on the steam wand and just steam with the naked tip. Check out the frothing tutorials on this website.
The big competition against this machine is the Rancilio Silvia. The Silvia seems to be more popular among espresso fans, but I am not sure why. They are very similar machines. The Silvia has a larger boiler (12 oz vs 3.5 oz) so it may make multiple espressos better. The Silvia is an extra $100 so you decide.
The trick to the Gaggia Classic is to watch brewing temperatures. Let it warm up for at least 15 minutes with the portafilter in place. Espresso demands heat; the grouphead and portafilter need to be at brewing temperature or it will make the coffee sour. It has a lot of brass in them so it takes time. For a while I ran water through the grouphead to flush and clean it just before I did a shot. This was a mistake, because with only a 3.5oz boiler this would drop the water temperature as fresh water entered the boiler. Better to do a flush as it is warming up, then wait for the boiler to get up to full temperature. Pull the shot right after the light indicates. When the boiler gets up to full temperature the heating element shuts off. After this point the water temperature is going down. Hit it at the top of the cycle. This applies to all single boiler machines.
Another effect of the smaller boiler is that steaming for two drinks is about the maximum, then the pressure goes down. Before you can steam another you will need to turn off the steam switch for a minute which will automatically refill the boiler, wait another minute for it to heat to steam temp, and then start steaming some more. Again, if you want to make drinks one after another like a pro, then you should buy a machine in the next class up.
For the $400 current price this is the machine to have. If I was going to spend $500 for a Rancilio Silvia, I would pop the $600 for a Expobar Pulser. As a heat-exchanger machine it's a huge improvement for an additional $100.
Overall, this has been a fantastic investment. 10 years of use, wonderful espresso, and no problems. It paid for itself several times over. It taught me all about making espresso, so I decided to move up and bought an Isomac Millennium.
I chose, I paid, I walked out. I've had no questions, concerns, problems, repair, etc. so I'd have to say that's about as good as it gets.
Three Month Followup
Espresso machine prices have been moving around with the 50% decline in the value of the dollar relative to the Euro (as of Jan. 2005). In my initial review I said that I didn't think the Silvia was worth $100 more and that if I was going to spend $500 for the Silvia I'd rather jump to $600 and buy the Expobar. I need to revise that opinion.
The Expobar is now $879 so it's out of the running for this price class. Recently I've seen the Silvia for $435. I haven't used the Silvia but it has a strong following. For nearly even money I would suggest considering the Rancilio over the Gaggia because of its larger boiler. From what I've read this gives it a bit better temperature stability and longer steaming capacity (if you are doing more than two lattes). Both need to be temperature surfed to get good results. With prices fluctuating like they have there is no "best machine," just the "best machine for the money."