This is a great machine to learn on and it is capable of making good espresso and espresso-based drinks in a home environment. Construction is typical for this price point.
Positive Product Points
This is, IMHO, a great looking machine at a reasonable price point. With the same internals of the other consumer Gaggias, it is capable of producing an excellent espresso and espresso-based drinks. It is very easy to use, simple to clean, very fast to heat up (minutes), and the full-size brass group and portafilter hold the heat very well once it is warmed up. Steaming power is quite good and the panariello wand produces good froth although no frothing aid can, on its own, produce the elusive microfroth.
Negative Product Points
The external materials are plastic and the fit and finish on my (admittedly refurbished) model, while OK, are not perfect (think Nissan compared to BMW). The lack of a 3-way solenoid can result in an 'oyster squirt' when removing the portafilter too quickly after a shot. Waiting a couple of seconds prevents this. Incidentally, never leave a spent puck in the PF when heating for steam or at least don't remove the PF with the spent puck after steaming temperature is reached--very messy indeed.
With its small boiler, this machine is not well suited to high production volumes. If I have to make more than 3 or 4 drinks in a row, I need to let the machine rest for a bit before finishing.
I bought my Evolution as a way to get into espresso. I've been a long-time lover of coffee and this hs turned into a quest for even better coffee experiences for about the last 16 years. After stumbling onto CoffeeGeek, I realized that my Krups "steam toy" was probably not the best way to experience espresso and, since I was living in South Texas at the time (nice place to visit but not the quality coffee capital of the world), my only option was to learn to make it myself. I decided to buy a Gaggia and a Solis Maestro plus to get started for a minimum outlay of cash. Of the base model Gaggias, I chose the chrome Evolution for it's looks.
I've had the machine now for about a year. The plastic is fine despite the heat of the brewing and the 'chrome' plastic face is surprisingly easy to clean and shows no signs of wear or scratching (both things I was worried about before the purchase) . Being self-taught, I can't say that this machine made me a master overnight but, within a couple of days, I could no longer stand the swill available from the coffee house chains. As I read more, I learned to make some excellent espresso with my Evolution. Given some good fresh coffee, I can quite dependably produce a rich and tasty shot with a thick head of crema complete with flecking.
The high powered heating element and small boiler brings the machine up to temperature very quickly and allows it to change to steaming temperature quickly as well. With the stock panariello wand, the froth produced was better than I got at the local 'coffee houses' but did not reach legendary microfoam status. I have since replaced this was a Silvia steam pipe to allow me to improve my frothing skills. It's like switching from an automatic transmission to a stick--there's nothing wrong with auto but it doesn't give you the same possibilities for fine control (or complete disaster). I don't drink frothy stuff very often and made the change for purely educational reasons so your mileage may vary.
Problems? Of course there are problems--this is a cheap espresso machine after all. I find that the machine cycles some of the brew water back to the reservoir while its idle. This may be limited to my machine but it eventually drains the boiler (over an hour or more). As a result, I have to run water through the machine before pulling a shot if its been idle for a while. It just takes about 10 seconds but it is an extra step. Some complain that the drip tray is too small. I have not found this to be the case but I use a shot glass to catch my flush water so very little gets into the tray. When steaming, it runs out of steam after about 12 oz. of milk. At this point, you need to re-fill the boiler before steaming any more. If you're making a lot of milky drinks, this may be a problem for you.
Bottom line? I have learned a lot from this machine and it meets my needs. I get good (and occasionally great) espressos, cappuccinos, americanos, etc. out of it and I can make drinks when family comes to visit (up to 3 or 4 in a batch). It looks great on the counter and has all the features of a more expensive machine except for production capacity and a metal case.
Am I happy I bought it? Yes, absolutely. It works great, it looks great, and I didn't need to risk a thousand dollars or more to find out if espresso was really something for me.
Do I feel the need to upgrade? Yes, but it's not a pressing need, this machine still has a lot to teach me.
Would I recommend it to another newbie? Yes, absolutely.
Is this the last machine I'll ever buy? Hell no, but that's another story.....
What can you say about eBay? Pretty straightforward. My purchase ended up being for a refurbished chrome unit with Aabree Coffee. It was shipped double-boxed and everything arrived in great shape.
Three Month Followup
It's been about 15 months now. It still performs very well and the Silvia wand (or my continued practice) has allowed me to create cup after cup of silky smooth microfroth. Having done a lot more entertaining recently, the small boiler is becoming a problem. For espresso, the re-fill and warm up time is fine for repeated shots. For the frothy stuff, the machine literally runs out of steam after a couple of drinks. You just have to run the pump for a bit to re-fill the boiler and wait for it to get to temperature but when you have several kids and adults waiting for your 'famous' microfroth hot cocoa, it can be a problem. Bottom line continues to be that this is a great machine for a home with 1-2 coffee drinkers and occasional company but not for a house that is regularly filled with visitors (unless the visitors drink primarily espressos or americanos).
One Year Followup
It's now been two years since I bought the machine. I've been using it for daily espresso for myself and milky drinks every weekend for family and friends. I've only really had one problem with it and that was a blown thermal fuse. It was pretty easy to replace and just cost a couple of dollars but it did force me to go without for a few days while I waited for the part.
Last summer, I bought a MACAP grinder (upgrade from a SMP) and it made a significant difference in the espresso. My advice--get a decent grinder regardless of what machine you buy.
A month ago, I bought an Anita for home (the Evolution is now in m y office). Having played with the Anita-MACAP combination, I realize that the Evolution-Maestro+ combination is something of a toy. The Anita can bring out a lot of flavors that the Evolution cannot and I've actually had to re-evaluate my favorite coffees with the new machine--I previously preferred straight Mocha coffees and I now understand what is meant by "too wild" with the new machine.
All told, I have no regrets. My Evolution produced the best espresso I'd ever had until I bought the Anita and it taught me a lot. It still serves yeoman's duty in my office and impresses everyone who tries coffee from this machine. It's substntially better than restaurant and chain cafe espresso (assuming your local offerings use superautos and/or seemingly untrained "baristi" the way mine do), it just doesn't produce the same quality as a prosumer machine. I'm going to stand by my overall Rating of 9 and my "would buy again" because it really is a good machine at a very reasonable price (i.e., the rating is relative to the price I paid, not an absolute figure relative to my Anita). If you aren't sure whether or not you'll ever "geek out" on espresso drinks, this is a good way to learn the basics and experience really good coffee.