I used to own a coffee shop but sold it almost 2 years ago to get back into software. Recently, I've been missing my Americanos. I wanted to get an espresso machine without spending a lot of money because, even though I miss it, I don't drink a lot of coffee anymore. So I started watching eBay and found this up for auction. I read the other reviews on coffeegeek, put in my bid and got it for a song (the $35 includes shipping cost).
When I got the machine, the grinder I had was a cheapo burr grinder. Needless to say it wasn't up to the task. I found a deal on a Solis Maestro Plus from Green Beanery (keeping with the theme of not spending much - the catch was I had to buy a red one to get the deal). When it arrived everything was ready to go...
The machine warms up quickly. With the PF locked in place, it will be too warm to touch in about 10 minutes or so. You can turn the machine on, wake the kids up and get their cereal, and it will be ready to draw the first shot.
This is the first home use machine I've used, so all I really know about them is from reading reviews on coffeegeek (my last was at the coffee shop - a Pavoni Pub 1). It would seem to me that when I push the steam button, the thermostat should kick in and heat the block so I can have steam, right? With this machine, it's hit or miss. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap between the thermostat for espresso and the one for steam, so once it's heated to pull a shot, it actually has to cool for a bit before the steam thermostat kicks in. You can force this by running water through the steam valve or group head, but then you run out of water in the tiny little tank and end up having to fill it again (I think it's a 16 oz tank - the upside is it uses a spring-loaded plug so it has no hoses and is easy to remove and replace, at least until the sping wears out).
So, once you convince the thermostat to switch on for steam, and you purge the water from the steam wand, you can start steaming. With my machine, if I use 1/3 cup of milk, it warms it sufficiently to make it lukewarm (but not drinkable) and runs out of steam. Then you have to repeat the process of running water through the wand to get it to steam again (and subsequently refill the tank again). Usually the second round heats the milk sufficiently to use it for a latte (my wife likes lattes - I usually drink americanos so it's not a big issue for me).
After a couple of days of this, I went back on to eBay and found a stovetop milk steamer. It arrived yesterday and works like a charm.
so there's the downside, now on to the good stuff...
Once I had the right grind and tamp, I discovered that I could draw pretty consistent shots. The PF is cast aluminum, so it's not as heavy as a brass one, but it's still a good weight, and it's full sized and spring loaded, with a stainless steel basket. It has a pod holder which will probably just gather dust in the kitchen junk drawer.
As far as looks and build go, it looks just like the picture. Not ugly but not super stylish, either. The only visible "metal" is the fake aluminum facing and the PF. The drip tray is plastic and small (about 4 oz), but I only run two shots (for me and my wife) at once so it's not a big deal. It's definitely the second sturdiest chunk of plastic on the counter (after the grinder). I have pulled off the shower screen and, if I recall correctly, there is a 5-hole metal diffuser in the group head.
So, for $35, I've got my americanos again, and very good ones at that (well, $35 plus the cost of the grinder). I've seen that this is $69 at Target stores. If you're an espresso or americano drinker, then $69 is probably the cheapest you'll find a machine to do this - certainly one with a half-decent, non-pressurized portafilter.
Would I buy it again? At the price I paid, yes. I'm getting real espresso for less than a good moka pot would cost. At full retail price, I would be inclined to spend some more and go after a boiler machine so I could pull shots and steam milk in the same place, without needing my stovetop steamer.